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Natural Reds
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 tabernacle .

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 most light.

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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