Polish cochineal

Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica), also known as Polish carmine scales, is a scale insect formerly used to produce a crimson dye of the same name, colloquially known as “Saint John’s blood”. The larvae of P. polonica are sessile parasites living on the roots of various herbs—especially those of the perennial knawel—growing on the sandy soils of Central Europe and other parts of Eurasia. Before the development of aniline, alizarin, and other synthetic dyes, the insect was of great economic importance, although its use was in decline after the introduction of Mexican cochineal to Europe in the 16th century.

Ancient Slavs developed a method of obtaining red dye from the larvae of the Polish cochineal. Despite the labor-intensive process of harvesting the cochineal and a relatively modest yield, the dye continued to be a highly sought-after commodity and a popular alternative to kermes throughout the Middle Ages until it was superseded by Mexican cochineal in the 16th century.

Dye production

Perennial knawel, the chief host plant of the Polish cochineal
Similar to some other red dyes obtained from scale insects, the red coloring is derived from carminic acid with traces of kermesic acid. The Polish cochineal carminic acid content is approximately 0.6% of the insect’s dried body weight.[6] The insects were harvested shortly before the female larvae reached maturity, i.e. in late June, usually around Saint John the Baptist’s day (June 24), hence the dye’s folk name, Saint John’s blood. The harvesting process involved uprooting the host plant and picking the female larvae, averaging approximately ten insects from each plant.[7] In Poland, including present-day Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe, plantations were operated in order to deal with the high toll on the host plants.[1] The larvae were killed with boiling water or vinegar and dried in the sun or in an oven, ground, and dissolved in sourdough or in light rye beer called kvass[8] in order to remove fat. The extract could then be used for dyeing silk, wool, cotton, or linen.[8] The dyeing process requires roughly 3-4 oz of dye per pound (180-250 g per kilogram) of silk[7] and one pound of dye to color almost 20 pounds (50 g per kilogram) of wool.[8]


Polish military commander, Stefan Czarniecki (1599–1665), in a crimson costume typical of Polish magnates
Polish cochineal was widely traded in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 15th and 16th centuries, along with grain, timber, and salt, it was one of Poland’s chief exports, mainly to southern Germany and northern Italy as well as to France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and Armenia. In Poland, the cochineal trade was mostly monopolized by Jewish merchants, who bought the dye from peasants in Red Ruthenia and other regions of Poland and Lithuania. The merchants shipped the dye to major Polish cities such as Kraków, Gdańsk (Danzig), and Poznań. From there, the merchandise was exported to wholesalers in Breslau (Wrocław), Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Augsburg, Venice,[7] and other destinations. The Polish cochineal trade was a lucrative business for the intermediaries; according to Marcin of Urzędów (1595), one pound of Polish cochineal cost between four and five Venetian pounds. In terms of quantities, the trade reached its peak in the 1530s. In 1534, 1963 stones (about 30 metric tons) of the dye were sold in Poznań alone.

The advent of cheaper Mexican cochineal led to an abrupt slump in the Polish cochineal trade, and the 1540s saw a steep decline in quantities of the red dye exported from Poland. In 1547, Polish cochineal disappeared from the Poznań customs registry; a Volhynian clerk noted in 1566 that the dye no longer paid in Gdańsk. Perennial knawel plantations were replaced with cereal fields or pastures for raising cattle. Polish cochineal, which until then was mostly an export product, continued to be used locally by the peasants who collected it; it was employed not only for dyeing fabric but also as a vodka colorant, an ingredient in folk medicine, or even for decorative coloring of horses’ tails.

With the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, vast markets in Russia and Central Asia opened to Polish cochineal, which became an export product again—this time, to the East. In the 19th century, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, became the principal Polish cochineal trading center in Central Asia; from there the dye was shipped to Kashgar in Xinjiang, and Kabul and Herat in Afghanistan. It is possible that the Polish dye was used to manufacture some of the famous oriental rugs.


Reseda (mignonette) is a genus of fragrant herbaceous plants native to Europe, southwest Asia and North Africa, from the Canary Islands and Iberia east to northwest India. The genus includes herbaceous annual, biennial and perennial species 40–130 cm tall. The leaves form a basal rosette at ground level, and then spirally arranged up the stem; they can be entire, toothed or pinnate, and range from 1–15 cm long. The flowers are produced in a slender spike, each flower small (4–6 mm diameter), white, yellow, orange, or green, with four to six petals. The fruit is a small dry capsule containing several seeds.

Other common names include weld or dyer’s rocket (for R. luteola), and bastard rocket.
Mignonette flowers are extremely fragrant. It is grown for the sweet ambrosial scent of its flowers. It is used in flower arrangements, perfumes and potpourri. A Victorian favourite, it was commonly grown in pots and in window-boxes to scent the city air. It was used as a sedative and a treatment for bruises in Roman times. The volatile oil is used in perfumery. The yellow dye was obtained from the roots of R. luteola by the first millennium BC, and perhaps earlier than either woad or madder. Use of this dye came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century, when cheaper synthetic yellow dyes came into use.



Isatis tinctoria, also called woad (/ˈwoʊd/), dyer’s woad, or glastum, is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. It is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem. Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the leaves[2] of the plant. Woad is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia to eastern Siberia and Western Asia (per Hegi[3]) but is now also found in southeastern and Central Europe and western North America.

Since ancient times, woad was an important source of blue dye and was cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and Southern Europe. In medieval times there were important woad-growing regions in England, Germany and France. Towns such as Toulouse became prosperous from the woad trade. Woad was eventually replaced by the more colorfast Indigofera tinctoria and, in the early 20th century, both woad and Indigofera tinctoria were replaced by synthetic blue dyes. Woad has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. There has also been some revival of the use of woad for craft purposes.



Turmeric makes a poor fabric dye, as it is not very light fast, but is commonly used in Indian clothing, such as saris and Buddhist monks’s robes.[6] Turmeric (coded as E100 when used as a food additive)[25] is used to protect food products from sunlight. The oleoresin is used for oil-containing products. A curcumin and polysorbate solution or curcumin powder dissolved in alcohol is used for water-containing products. Over-coloring, such as in pickles, relishes, and mustard, is sometimes used to compensate for fading.

In combination with annatto (E160b), turmeric has been used to color cheeses, yogurt, dry mixes, salad dressings, winter butter, and margarine. Turmeric also is used to give a yellow color to some prepared mustards, canned chicken broths, and other foods (often as a much cheaper replacement for saffron).


Haematoxylum campechianum is a species of flowering tree in the legume family, Fabaceae, that is native to southern Mexico and northern Central America. The tree was of great economic importance from the 17th century to the 19th century, when it was commonly logged and exported to Europe for use in dyeing fabrics. The modern nation of Belize developed from 17th and 18th-century logging camps established by the English. The tree’s scientific name means “bloodwood” (haima being Greek for blood and xylon for wood).

Logwood was used for a long time as a natural source of dye. It remains an important source of haematoxylin, which is used in histology for staining. The bark and leaves are also used in various medical applications. In its time, logwood was considered a versatile dye, and was widely used on textiles and also for paper.

The extract was once used as a pH indicator. Brownish when neutral, it becomes yellow-reddish under acidic conditions and purple when alkaline. In a small demonstrative experiment, if two drops, one of concentrated ammonia and one of logwood extract, are placed close enough the NH3 vapours will change the color of the extract to a purple shade.

(blackwood, bloodwood tree, bluewood, campeachy tree, campeachy wood, campeche logwood, campeche wood, Jamaica wood, logwood or logwood tree)



Kermes is a red dye derived from the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect in the genus Kermes, primarily Kermes vermilio. The Kermes insects are native in the Mediterranean region and live on the sap of the Kermes oak. They were used as a red dye by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The kermes dye is a rich red. It has good colour fastness in silk and wool. It was much esteemed in the medieval era for dyeing silk and wool, particularly scarlet cloth. Post-medievally it was replaced by other red dyes, starting with cochineal.

Kermes dye is of ancient origin; jars of kermes have been found in a Neolithic cave-burial at Adaouste, northeast of Aix-en-Provence.

In the Middle Ages, rich crimson and scarlet silks dyed with kermes in the new silk-weaving centers of Italy and Sicily exceeded the legendary Tyrian purple “in status and desirability”. The dyestuff was called “grain” in all Western European languages because the desiccated eggs resembled fine grains of wheat or sand, and textiles dyed with kermes were described as dyed in the grain. Woollens were frequently dyed blue with woad before spinning and weaving, and then piece-dyed in kermes, producing a wide range colours from blacks and grays through browns, murreys, purples, and sanguines. By the 14th and early 15th century, brilliant full grain pure kermes scarlet was “by far the most esteemed, most regal” colour for luxury woollen textiles in the Low Countries, England, France, Spain and Italy.

Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Mexican cochineal, which produced a stronger dye and could thus be used in smaller quantities, replaced kermes dyes in general use in Europe.



Henna is a dye prepared from the plant Lawsonia inermis, also known as hina, the henna tree, the mignonette tree, and the Egyptian privet, the sole species of the genus Lawsonia.

Henna has been used since antiquity to dye skin, hair and fingernails, as well as fabrics including silk, wool and leather. Historically, henna was used in the Arabian Peninsula, Indian Subcontinent, near and Middle East, parts of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Carthage, other parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa.



Gamboge is a partially transparent deep saffron to mustard yellow pigment. It is used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes because the color is a deep tone of saffron, the traditional color used for the robes of Theravada Buddhist monks.

Gamboge is most often extracted by tapping resin from various species of evergreen trees of the family Clusiaceae (also known as Guttiferae). The tree most commonly used is the gamboge tree. The orange fruit of Garcinia gummi-gutta is also known as gamboge.

The trees must be at least ten years old before they are tapped. The resin is extracted by making spiral incisions in the bark, and by breaking off leaves and shoots and letting the milky yellow resinous gum drip out. The resulting latex is collected in hollow bamboo canes. After the resin is congealed, the bamboo is broken away and large rods of raw gamboge remain.


Maclura tinctoria

Maclura tinctoria, commonly known as old fustic or dyer’s mulberry, is a medium to large tree of the Neotropics, from Mexico to Argentina. It produces a yellow dye called fustic primarily known for coloring khaki fabric for U.S. military apparel during World War I.[citation needed] This dye contains the flavonoid morin.[3]

The leaves can be used to feed silk worms.

Old fustic is not to be confused with young fustic (Rhus cotinus) from southern Europe and Asia, which provides a more fugitive colour.

Fustic is a bright yellow dye that is very color-fast when used with mordants. It is frequently combined with other dyestuffs and various mordants to produce a range of yellow and greenish colors:

With woad or indigo: bright or Saxon greens
With bichromate of potash: old gold
With logwood and bichromate of potash: greenish yellows
With copper sulfate: olive greens
With ferrous sulfate: dark greens


Catechu is an extract of acacia trees used variously as a food additive, astringent, tannin, and dye. It is extracted from several species of Acacia, but especially Senegalia catechu (Acacia catechu), by boiling the wood in water and evaporating the resulting brew.

As an astringent it has been used since ancient times in Ayurvedic medicine as well as in breath-freshening spice mixtures—for example in France and Italy it is used in some licorice pastilles. It is also an important ingredient in South Asian cooking paan mixtures, such as ready-made paan masala and gutka.

The catechu mixture is high in natural vegetable tannins (which accounts for its astringent effect), and may be used for the tanning of animal hides. Early research by Sir Humphry Davy in the early 19th century first demonstrated the use of catechu in tanning over more expensive and traditional oak extracts.

Under the name cutch, it is a brown dye used for tanning and dyeing and for preserving fishing nets and sails. Cutch will dye wool, silk, and cotton a yellowish-brown. Cutch gives gray-browns with an iron mordant and olive-browns with a copper mordant.


Orcein, also archil, orchil, lacmus and C.I. Natural Red 28, are names for dyes extracted from several species of lichen, commonly known as “orchella weeds”, found in various parts of the world. A major source is the archil lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Orcinol is extracted from such lichens. It is then converted to orcein by ammonia and air. In traditional dye-making methods, urine was used as the ammonia source. If the conversion is carried out in the presence of potassium carbonate, calcium hydroxide, and calcium sulfate (in the form of potash, lime, and gypsum in traditional dye-making methods), the result is litmus, a more complex molecule.[1] The manufacture was described by Cocq in 1812 and in the UK in 1874. Edmund Roberts noted orchilla as a principal export of the Cape Verde islands, superior to the same kind of moss found in Italy or the Canary Islands, that in 1832 was yielding an annual revenue of $200,000.[4]:pp.14,15 Commercial archil is either a powder (called cudbear) or a paste. It is red in acidic pH and blue in alkaline pH.


The cochineal (/ˌkɒɪˈnl/ KOTCH-ih-NEEL/ˈkɒɪnl/ KOTCH-ih-neelDactylopius coccus) is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America as well as Mexico and the Southwest United States, this insect lives on cactiin the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti, collected by brushing them off the plants, and dried.[vague]

The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, typically 17-24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. Today, carmine is primarily used as a colorant in food and in lipstick (E120 or Natural Red 4).

The carmine dye was used in Central America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics and became an important export good during the colonial period. After synthetic pigments and dyes such as alizarin were invented in the late 19th century, natural-dye production gradually diminished. Health fears over artificial food additives, however, have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes, and the increased demand has made cultivation of the insect profitable again,[1] with Peru being the largest exporter. Some towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca are still working in handmade textiles using this cochineal.[2]

Other species in the genus Dactylopius can be used to produce “cochineal extract”, and are extremely difficult to distinguish from D. coccus, even for expert taxonomists; that scientific term from the binary nomenclature, and also the vernacular “cochineal insect”, are thus commonly used[vague] when one[specify] is actually (whether intentionally or casually, and whether or not with misleading effect) referring to other biological species. (The primary biological distinctions between species are minor differences in host plant preferences, along with very different geographic distributions.)

Cochineal use in histology: Carmine staining of a monogenean (parasitic worm)
Traditionally, cochineal was used for colouring fabrics. During the colonial period, with the introduction of sheep to Latin America, the use of cochineal increased, as it provided the most intense colour and it set more firmly on woolen garments than on clothes made of materials of pre-Hispanic origin such as cotton or agave and yucca fibers. In general, cochineal is more successful on protein-based animal fibres (including silk) than plant-based material. Once the European market discovered the qualities of this product, the demand for it increased dramatically. By the beginning of the 17th century, it was traded internationally.[7] Carmine became strong competition for other colourants such as madder root, kermes, Polish cochineal, Armenian cochineal, brazilwood, and Tyrian purple,[29] as they were used for dyeing the clothes of kings, nobles, and the clergy. For the past several centuries, it was the most important insect dye used in the production of hand-woven oriental rugs, almost completely displacing lac.[7] It was also used for painting, handicrafts, and tapestries.[9] Cochineal-coloured wool and cotton are important materials for Mexican folk art and crafts.[30][31]

Cochineal is used as a fabric and cosmetics dye and as a natural food colouring. It is also used in histology as a preparatory stain for the examination of tissues and carbohydrates.[32] In artists’ paints, it has been replaced by synthetic reds and is largely unavailable for purchase due to poor lightfastness. Natural carmine dye used in food and cosmetics can render the product unacceptable to vegetarian or vegan consumers. Many Muslims consider carmine-containing food forbidden (haraam) because the dye is extracted from insects and all insects except the locust are haraam in Islam.[33] Jews also avoid food containing this additive, though it is not treif, and some authorities allow its use because the insect is dried and reduced to powder.[34]

Cochineal is one of the few water-soluble colourants to resist degradation with time. It is one of the most light- and heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural organic colourants and is even more stable than many synthetic food colours.[35] The water-soluble form is used in alcoholic drinks with calcium carmine; the insoluble form is used in a wide variety of products. Together with ammonium carmine, they can be found in meat, sausages, processed poultry products (meat products cannot be coloured in the United States unless they are labeled as such), surimi, marinades, alcoholic drinks, bakery products and toppings, cookies, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatin desserts, juice beverages, varieties of cheddar cheese and other dairy products, sauces, and sweets.[35]

Carmine is considered safe enough for cosmetic use in the eye area.[36] A significant proportion of the insoluble carmine pigment produced is used in the cosmetics industry for hair- and skin-care products, lipsticks, face powders, rouges, and blushes.[35] A bright red dye and the stain carmine used in microbiology is often made from the carmine extract, too.[17] The pharmaceutical industry uses cochineal to colour pills and ointments.[22]


Brazilin is a red pigment obtained from the wood of the brazilwood family (Caesalpinia sp), and is also known as Natural Red 24. Brazilin has been used since at least the Middle Ages to dye fabric, and has been used to make paints and inks as well. The specific color produced by the pigment depends on its manner of preparation: in an acidic solution brazilin will appear yellow, but in an alkaline preparation it will appear red. Brazilin is closely related to the blue-black dye precursor hematoxylin, having one fewer hydroxyl group. Brazilein is an oxidized form of brazilin.

Many members of the genus Caesalpinia produce brazilin, including brazilwood (C. echinata) and sappanwood (C. sappan). The sappanwood is found in India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the latter being a major supplier of the wood to Europe during the early Middle Ages. Later, discovery of brazilwood in the new world led to its rise in popularity with the dye industry and eventually its over-exploitation. Brazilwood is now classified as an endangered species.


Bloodroot is a popular red natural dye used by Native American artists, especially among southeastern rivercane basketmakers. A break in the surface of the plant, especially the roots, reveals a reddish sap which can be used as a dye.

Black walnut


Black walnut drupes contain juglone (5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone), plumbagin (yellow quinone pigments), and tannin. According to Eastern Trees in the Petersen Guide series, black walnuts make a yellowish-brown dye, not brownish-black. The apparent confusion is easily explained by the fact that the liquid (dye) obtained from the inner husk becomes increasingly darker over time, as the outer skin darkens from light green to black. Extracts of the outer, soft part of the drupe are still used as a natural dye for handicrafts. The tannins present in walnuts act as a mordant, aiding in the dyeing process, and are usable as a dark ink or wood stain.

Armenian cochineal

The Armenian cochineal is a scale insect indigenous to the Ararat plain and Aras River valley in the Armenian Highlands. It was formerly used to produce an eponymous crimson carmine dyestuff known in Armenia as vordan karmir (Armenian for “worm’s red”) and historically in Persia as kirmiz.

The species is critically endangered within Armenia.

The Armenian cochineal scale insect, Porphyrophora hamelii, is in a different taxonomic family from the cochineal found in the Americas. Both insects produce red dyestuffs that are also commonly called cochineal.



Natural indigo is most commonly obtained from the Indigofera plant, native to the tropics, notably the Indian subcontinent. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as I. sumatrana). A variety of plants have provided indigo blue throughout history.

A common alternative used in the relatively colder subtropical locations such as Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan is Strobilanthes cusia.
Dyer’s knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum) was the most important blue dye in East Asia until the arrival of the Indigofera species from the south, which yield more dye.
In Central and South America, the species grown is anil.
In Europe woad containing the same dye was used for blue-dying. Several plants contain indigo, but low concentrations make them difficult to work with and the color is then more easily tainted by other dye substances, typically leading to a greenish tinge.

The precursor to indigo is indican, a colorless, water-soluble derivative of the amino acid tryptophan. Indican readily hydrolyzes to release β-D-glucose and indoxyl. Oxidation by exposure to air converts indoxyl to indigo. Indican was obtained from the processing of the plant’s leaves, which contain as much as 0.2–0.8% of this compound. The leaves were soaked in water and fermented to convert the glycoside indican present in the plant to the blue dye indigotin.[2] They precipitate from the fermented leaf solution was mixed with a strong base such as lye, pressed into cakes, dried, and powdered. The powder was then mixed with various other substances to produce different shades of blue and purple.

Several species, especially Indigofera tinctoria and Indigofera suffruticosa, are used to produce the dye indigo. Scraps of Indigo-dyed fabric likely dyed with plants from the genus Indigofera discovered at Huaca Prieta predate Egyptian indigo-dyed fabrics by more than 1,500 years.

The chemical aniline, from which many important dyes are derived, was first synthesized from Indigofera suffruticosa (syn. Indigofera anil, whence the name aniline).

In Indonesia, the Sundanese use Indigofera tinctoria (known locally as tarum or nila) as dye for batik. Marco Polo was the first to report on the preparation of indigo in India. Indigo was quite often used in European easel painting during the Middle Ages.

Tyrian purple

Natural sources also include mollusks: the Murex sea snails produce a mixture of indigo and dibromoindigo (red) which together produce a range of purple hues known as Tyrian purple. Light exposure during part of the dying process can convert the dibromoindigo into indigo resulting in blue hues known as royal blue or hyacinth purple.