A pigment garden at Cortijada Los Gázquez – finding native plants

I have just had my first visit to La Cortijada Los Gázquez, an arts project situated in the Sierra María Los Vélez in the province of Almería, Andalucía, Spain. It is run by Simon and Donna Beckman, who have succeeded in renovating an abandoned traditional farmhouse, making it completely off the grid, using solar and wind power. A major part of the plans for Los Gázquez includes investigating, and hopefully reinstating, the old water catchment system on the farm, as a part of  ‘Sistemas Efímeros’ – a collaborative project that brings together the expertise of disciplines such as landscape historians, geologists, botanists through artist-lead works that will augment the perception of the natural value of arid landscapes.

I will be developing a dye and pigment garden on one of the terraces of the water catchment system. The climate of these mountains is very harsh, being not only very hot and dry during summer but also very cold, frequently well below zero during the winter. However, old folk who remember the farm before it was abandoned in the sixties remember tomatoes being grown on the terraces of the water catchment system, and that the ‘balsa’ (the reservoir) was always full of water. Since the water catchment system is not yet fully functional and the well and ‘balsa’ are currently dry, I will be basing the garden on native plants that grow wild in Sierra María Los Vélez and which are therefore already adapted to the dry conditions.  Simon has suggested the first terrace immediately under the ‘balsa’ as the location since there are signs that it does have some moisture in the soil and that the terracing of the catchment system are still functioning to a certain extent. There is a white poplar tree, a classic sign of water, which has self seeded and is thriving in the tracks of one of the ‘acequias’ (irrigation ditch) leading from the ‘balsa’. Under the shade of the poplar there are also the shoots of a couple of fig trees sprouting from an ancient root.

I will be developing a dye and pigment garden on one of the terraces of the water catchment system. The climate of these mountains is very harsh, being not only very hot and dry during summer but also very cold, frequently well below zero during the winter. However, old folk who remember the farm before it was abandoned in the sixties remember tomatoes being grown on the terraces of the water catchment system, and that the ‘balsa’ (the reservoir) was always full of water. Since the water catchment system is not yet fully functional and the well and ‘balsa’ are currently dry, I will be basing the garden on native plants that grow wild in Sierra María Los Vélez and which are therefore already adapted to the dry conditions.  Simon has suggested the first terrace immediately under the ‘balsa’ as the location since there are signs that it does have some moisture in the soil and that the terracing of the catchment system are still functioning to a certain extent. There is a white poplar tree, a classic sign of water, which has self seeded and is thriving in the tracks of one of the ‘acequias’ (irrigation ditch) leading from the ‘balsa’. Under the shade of the poplar there are also the shoots of a couple of fig trees sprouting from an ancient root.

The proposed site for the pigment garden, with the poplar tree at the far side.

The proposed site for the pigment garden, with the poplar tree at the far side.

Despite the promising indications of the poplar tree, it will safest, and indeed more interesting, to investigate to local plants adapted for the climate. The main purpose of this first visit was to identify the possible native plants which may make good dyes and pigments. The local botanical gardens were a fantastic resource, and I managed to identify a number of good candidates for the garden.

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina)

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina)

A definite for the garden is wild madder (Rubia peregrina) which grows wild in the area. It is similar to the historically cultivated dye plant, madder (Rubia tinctoria) except it has more robust, spiny leaves and seems better built for the dry conditions. Like madder, its roots will yield a red colour – one of its Spanish common names is tinta huevos, which means ‘dye eggs’.

A member of the bedstraw family (Galium)

A member of the bedstraw family (Galium)

Tangled in with the wild madder, I also found a member of the bedstraw family, Galium aparine, I believe. It is also a member of Rubiaceae, and its roots will also yield a red colour.

Yellow is generally the easiest colour to come by in the plant kingdom, with many plants to chose from. However, it is worth being discerning when choosing your yellow dye plants and is yellow is always the most fugitive colour and it worth picking plants that produce more lightfast dyes. Looking to history allows us to see which plants come to be valued the most as the best yellows.

Espino de tintes (Rhamnus saxatilis)

Espino de tintes (Rhamnus saxatilis)

This thorny bush is typical of the mountains of los Vélez. The berries of Rhamnus saxatilis were extensively used for dyeing and for making yellow and green pigments in the past. The unripe berries make a yellow colour and were used in recipes for the dutch ‘Schiet’ yellow, while the ripe berries were used for the famous green water colour pigment ‘sap green’. In English the berries are called Persian berries or Avignon berries, alluding to the types of terrain where these spiny bushes grow. In Spanish it is called ‘Espino de Tintes’ – the thorn of colours.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius)

Broom (Cytisus scoparius)

Another plentiful plant on the mountains is broom. The flowers can be used to make a yellow. I am not sure of the lightfastness of this yellow, although it does have a history of use as a dye for wool. However, since this plant is a legume it should have nitrogen-fixing properties and will hopefully be beneficial to the soil and thus the other plants in the garden.

A knapweed native to the area (Centaura dracunculifolia)

A knapweed native to the area (Centaura dracunculifolia)

Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea)

Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea)

I noticed some remaining knapweed flowers around the proposed site, although most of them had been burned to a crisp by the sun. Apparently they are abundant in May to June. Brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea) grows extensively in europe, but I discovered in the botanical gardens that there is also a knapweed particular to this region of Spain (Centaurea dracunculifolia). I have found references to brown knapweed containing the flavonoid luteolin, which is a good lightfast dye contained in weld (Reseda luteola), which has been cultivated extensively throughout history for its yellow dye. It is also present as a pigment in the dark green background of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Since this wildflower grows quickly and may contain make a good lightfast yellow I think it would be a good addition to the garden and the slower growing Espino de Tintes and Broom.

Finally – what about blue? Blue is one of the rarest and most difficult colours to obtain in nature. There do not appear to be any native colours which will make a good lightfast blue. One possibility is ‘Raíz Colorá’ – meaning ‘coloured root’ (Echium flavum). It is a type of bugloss, member of the family Boraginaceae. I am not certain that this plant can make a blue but other plants in the Boraginaceae family have a dye in their roots which will turn red in acidic conditions and blue in alkali. The Spanish name of Raíz Colorá certainly suggests that the roots produce dye. However, the buglosses do not make very lightfast or reliable pigments and do not have a big history of use in painting, although its behaviour with regard to ph sensitivity is similar to turnsole, which was used in medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Raíz colorá (Echium flavum)

Raíz colorá (Echium flavum)

While I think it is worth with experimenting with Raíz colorá in the garden, we should also try cultivating some woad (Isatis tinctoria). While this plant is not native to the area the are several pointers that suggest it may thrive, or at least survive,  in the garden. Firstly, it is native to the desert and steppe zones of the Caucasus and has a long tap root, so it is clearly adapted to dry conditions. It can also survive frost since I know from experience that it can be grown in Sweden. It was cultivated by the Moors around Granada in the times of Al Andalus, and wild woad has been spotted growing in the nearby Sierra Nevada. Finally, there is a wild mustard growing abundantly in the area which is clearly a close relative to woad. If this wild mustard can thrive, hopefully woad can too.

Having identified our candidates for the garden, the next stage will the collection of seeds and cuttings, designing the layout and the actual hard labour of turning the soil…