Madder is an evergreen plant native to the Old World. This plant has historically been used as a source of animal fodder, but it was commercially important for its red root, which was used to manufacture a dye known as madder or rose madder. The color varied from a medium to intense red with a rosy tint. It was one of the first dyes to be duplicated synthetically, in the form of alizarin crimson in the 1860s.
People have been using madder for centuries. Archaeological evidence shows that the Egyptians used it as a textile dye, and that it may also have been used in cosmetics. The color also appeared in Ancient Greece and Rome. It was one of the most wide-spread red dyes in use in Europe, leading people to compare people's lips to madder in verse, since the color was so commonly known.
Madder can be used on cotton, leather, wool, and silk. A mordant must be used in order to fix the dye, however, or it will run. Mordants bind with dyes to turn them insoluble, ensuring that they will bind to the material being dyed, but they do not prevent fade and eventual washout. In the case of this dye, alum was a commonly used mordant.
In addition to being used as a textile dye, madder was also employed in some traditional herbals, in the belief that it could be used to treat intestinal complaints and jaundice. The stem, flowers, roots, and seeds were all used in medical tinctures and preparations which could be swallowed or applied topically, depending on the formula. Many people thought the plant was good for the skin, especially in women, perhaps because it would have left a faint red blush behind after application.
Like other natural dyes, madder can be extremely inconsistent. Depending on how the roots are grown and handled, the color can vary, and even when a mordant is used, it is often not colorfast. As a result, most people prefer to use the synthetic form today when they want to create the distinctive rose hue of madder. However, natural pigment is still available in specialty dye shops, for people who like to experiment with traditional dyes, and enterprising crafters can also make their own dye, assuming they can find wild plants or those under cultivation, which can be a bit of a challenge.