My watch list  



Woad flowers
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Brassicales
Family: Brassicaceae
Genus: Isatis
Species: I. tinctoria
Binomial name
Isatis tinctoria

Woad (or glastum) is the common name of the flowering plant Isatis tinctoria in the family Brassicaceae. It is commonly called dyer's woad. It is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem. Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the plant. Woad is pronounced /ˈwoʊd/, to rhyme with road.

Woad is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to eastern Siberia and Western Asia (Hegi), but is now found in southeastern and some parts of Central Europe as well. It has been cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and southern Europe, since ancient times.


History of woad cultivation

In Europe, woad was the only source for blue dye available until the end of the 16th century when trade routes began bringing indigo from the far east.

The first archaeological finds of woad seeds date to the Neolithic and have been found in the French cave of l'Audoste, Bouches du Rhone (France). In the Iron Age settlement of the Heuneburg, Germany, impressions of the seeds have been found on pottery. The Hallstatt burials of Hochdorf and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with woad.[citation needed]

Julius Caesar tells us (in de Bello Gallico) that the Britanni used to mark their bodies with vitrum; this has often been assumed to mean that they painted or tattooed themselves with woad. However vitrum does not translate to "woad", but probably more likely refers to a type of blue-green glass which was common at the time.[1] The Picts may have gotten their name (Latin Picti which means painted folk or possibly tattooed folk) from their practice of going into battle naked except for body paint or tattoos. (This has been commemorated in the humorous (modern) British song The Woad Ode.) However, more recent research has cast serious doubt on the assumption that woad was the material the Picts used for body decoration. Contemporary experiments with woad have proven that it does not work well at all as either a body paint or tattoo pigment. Highly astringent, when used for tattooing or placed in wounds woad produces quite a bit of scar tissue and, once healed, no blue is left behind. The common use of dung as an ingredient in traditional woad dye preparations also make it unlikely to have been suitable for application to wounds.[1]

In Viking age levels at York, a dye shop with remains of both woad and madder dating from the 10th century have been excavated. In Medieval times, centres of woad–cultivation lay in Lincolnshire and Somerset in England, Gascogne, Normandy, the Somme, Toulouse and Britanny in France, Jülich, the Erfurt area in Thuringia in Germany and Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy. The citizens of the five Thuringian woad-towns of Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza had their own charters. In Erfurt, the woad-traders gave the funds to found the University of Erfurt. Traditional fabric is still printed with woad in Thuringia, Saxony and Lusatia today: it is known as Blaudruck (literally, 'blue dyeing').

Medieval uses of the dye were not limited to textiles. For example, the illustrator of the Lindisfarne Gospels used a woad-based pigment for blue paint.

Woad and indigo

  The blue pigment in woad is the same as in indigo dye, but it is less concentrated. With the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of indigo were imported. Laws were passed in some parts of Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade. Indigo was proclaimed to rot the yarns as well. "In 1577 the German government officially prohibited the use of indigo, denouncing it as that pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil's dye." [2] "... a recess of the Diet held in 1577 prohibited the use of 'the newly-invented, deceitful, eating and corrosive dye called the devil's dye.' This prohibition was repeated in 1594 and again in 1603."[3] With the development of a chemical process to synthesize the pigment, both the woad and natural indigo industries collapsed in the first years of the twentieth century. The last commercial harvest of woad until recent times occurred in 1932, in Lincolnshire, Britain.

In Germany, there are attempts to use woad to protect wood against decay without dangerous chemicals. Production is also increasing again in the UK for use in inks, particularly for inkjet printers, and dyes, as woad is biodegradable and safe in the environment, unlike many synthetic inks. Isatis tinctoria is viewed as an invasive species in parts of the United States.

Woad and health

Recently, scientists have discovered woad might be used to prevent cancer, having more than 20 times the amount of glucobrassicin contained in broccoli.[4] Young leaves when damaged can produce more glucobrassicin, up to 65 times as much.[5]

Indigowoad Root is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat mumps, painful swollen throat, infectious hepatitis, headache, and fever.


  1. ^ a b Ní Dhoireann, Kym (2004) "The Problem of the Woad". Accessed 2007-06-02
  2. ^ Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Volume 17, No. 100, April, 1876.
  3. ^ D G Schreber, Historische, physische und economische Beschreibung des Waidtes, 1752, the appendix; Thorpe JF and Ingold CK, 1923, Synthetic colouring matters - vat colours (London: Longmans, Green), p. 23
  4. ^ "War paint plant 'tackles cancer'". BBC online, 13 August 2006. Accessed 2007-06-02
  5. ^ "Celts' warpaint may be weapon to beat cancer". The Telegraph,14 August, 2006. Accessed 2007-06-02
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Woad". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE