As a producer of natural beauty products I mainly use plant extracts to infuse colour, rather than the artificial pigments and dyes found in most conventional products. I use natural colours because not only are they much safer for all skin types but because they produce the loveliest natural tones that anyone could ask for. I’m truly baffled why most soap makers would prefer to use commercial pigments when nature’s rainbow of colours is growing right outside our back doors.
In cold-process soap I can achieve pinks with Madder root, blue with Woad, yellow from Goldenrod and Calendula, caramel from Honey, beige with Peppermint and purple with Alkanet. Most of these plants grow in my garden at home but the last in the list, Alkanet, has been one of the most difficult for me to get a hold of. I literally had to scour the internet for a month before I found a lead on some seeds.
The first stop to trying to find Alkanet was in speaking to the folks at Wild Colours. This is where my current batch of Alkanet root came from and I thought to ring and see if they’d be able to sell me some seeds. It turns out that the lady who runs the business has been after some seeds herself for some time. They’re extremely difficult to find and it’s nigh on impossible to actually speak to the growers of commercially farmed Alkanet in southern France. Our email conversation ended with me letting her know that I’ll pass on some seeds to her if I’m able to find any.
After that I called every major seed distributor in the UK but they could only source Common Alkanet – this plant looks similar to Dyers Alkanet and can even be used in dyeing but it doesn’t have Alkanna Tinctoria’s deep purple colour. After those calls I occasionally went onto Google to see if I’d have any luck and I was at the point of giving up when I came across an old post for a dyers workshop run by a Ms. D in the USA. The post mentioned that she grew her own dye plants and that Alkanet was to be used in her course. Emailing her right then and there I came to find out that she does indeed grow Alkanet and that she’d be more than happy to send me some seeds.
A small packet arrived for me at the end of May and I immediately set to sowing them in a tray filled with multipurpose compost. Ms. D let me know that the seeds have about a 20% germination rate and that they are grown in conditions similar to their cousin, Borage. I was relieved by this news since I have tons of borage sprouting like weeds in my allotment. If it had been any more difficult to grow I think I’d have been a bit more nervous about sowing the seeds. It really took some intense detective work to find them in the first place and it would be such a let-down if they didn’t take. I did read online that Alkanet needs quite warm conditions to grow so I’m planning on planting them on both in the conservatory as well as into a cold-frame.
Fortunately I had a really positive germination rate and out of the thirty seeds I started with, thirteen of them sprouted. That’s nearly half of them that made it! Since then I’ve let them grow on in the seed tray until they put out two true leaves before planting them up into individual modules. If you look in the image above you’ll see that the Alkanet seedlings are planted in every other module – I’ve done this because I know how much lateral space that borage takes up and am predicting that Alkanet will be the same. I hope not to confuse you but I did plug in some extra Thai Basil seedlings into some of the empty modules between the Alkanet – I hate weeding out perfectly good little plants so popped them in there to give them at least a chance.
The dried roots are a deep reddish-purple in colour and for soap-making you infuse oils with the roots in order to extract the colour; At the moment I have a large glass of olive oil sitting in my kitchen window doing this very thing. The tinted oil can then be added to the rest of your oils when you’re ready to make a batch of soap. I currently use Alkanet colouring in my natural Lavender soap but am also experimenting with using it with other natural colours to get both deeper purples and warm lavenders.
Dyer’s Alkanet has also been used in coloring food such as the Indian dish Rogan Josh and in tinting inferior Port wine to make it look a higher quality. However the main use for Alkanet these days is in the natural dyeing of wool and cloth. The colours achieved can range from a soft lavender to rich purple to even reds and greys. I’ve read that it’s all dependent on technique and I’ll be sure to ask my textile artist friend a bit more about it. The above image of the lavender coloured cloth and wool comes from a natural dyeing discussion board and the colour was produced by soaking the Alkanet root in rubbing alcohol. I find it interesting how the wool seems to have soaked up more colour than the silk.
My Alkanet seedlings are still small but I have high hopes for them. One of my goals is to grow all of my own cosmetic botanicals and Alkanet always seemed to be the one that I might not be able to have. Without small producers such as Ms. D I’m sure I might never have had the opportunity to grow this plant or hopefully being able to pass seeds on to others next year. It seems to me that we have to increasingly rely on our gardener friends and neighbours across the world to preserve and share lesser known and traditional plants. All I can say is thank goodness we’ve got the internet to connect us and help in the sharing.