Nature Bulletin No. 203 October 24, 1981
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt . of Conservation
One of the delights of autumn is, to walk through the woodlands and
feast your eyes upon their coloring. For thousands of years, men have
labored to satisfy this instinctive love of color by making beautiful
things with dyes, stains and paints. Until the middle of the last
century, when it was discovered that aniline dyes could be made from
coal tar, most dyes were obtained from natural substances in plants or
animals. Shades of red were eagerly sought.
There were many reds, as we discover when trying to describe the
colors of the sumacs, maples and oaks. In a dictionary we find that
scarlet is a yellowish-red: vermilion includes several lively brilliant
reds; cherry is a bright n hue maroon is a dull color varying from
reddish-blue to reddish-yellow carmine is a rich crimson and crimson
is any one of several hues from pure red to bluish red. Most biologists
refer to Robert Ridgeway's "Color Standards and Color
Nomenclature," with its 1,115 named colors accurately defined.
In Asia and Europe, the ancient craftsmen understood the secrets of
making several shades of red dye. One of the finest and most ancient
was "kermes, ' and source of our word "crimson" and the Arabic name
for a wingless insect living on certain species of European live oaks.
These insects were scratched from the twigs with the fingernails and
produced a powerful permanent scarlet dye believed to be that obtained
from the Phoenicians by the Hebrews to dye the curtains of their
Another was the Tyrian or Imperial Purple used only for the robes of
the Roman emperors and chief magistrates. It was tremendously
expensive, being obtained from two species of shellfish by an
extremely difficult and smelly process. It produced shades of violet,
true purple, and a crimson so deep that it appeared almost black in
One of the cheapest red dyes was "madder": a loud "red-flannel" or
"Turkey" red obtained from the roots of plants related to our common
weed, the bedstraw .
The discovery of America brought new dye materials to the Old
World, such a fustic -- a yellow dye from the wood of a tree in the
West Indies and South America -- and cochineal. When Cortez and
his conquistadors entered the Mexican capital, with its great market
place, they found bales of finely-woven cotton and of delicate yarns
spun from rabbit fur, dyed a thrilling carmine. Included in the tribute
paid by each conquered state to Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs,
were many bags each containing millions of the dried bodies of a tiny
red insect -- the cochineal bug that lives in colonies among tattered
white tents of silk and wax spun on the pads of the prickly-pear cactus.
Killed in ovens, then dried in the sun, these produced the "silver
cochineal' from which the finest dye was made, but it was more than a
century before Europeans discovered the only chemical, tin oxide, that
would deposit the pigment on wool or other fiber so that it would not
wash off. Eventually the bugs were imported and grown in Spain,
Italy, North Africa and other countries where the cactus can be grown.
They are still grown in Mexico and India to furnish the permanent
brilliant carmine for foods. drinks, cosmetics and artists' colors.
Cochineal, like corn on the cob, has no counterpart.
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Update: June 2012