Part 1 – Stockholm Recipe 113

Dyeing in purple with herbs.

Take and put the wool in the juice of henbane and lupins.
The juice should be brought to boiling in water, which thereby becomes sour. This is the preliminary mordant. Then take the fruit clusters of rhamus, put water in a kettle and boil. Put the wool in and it will become a good purple. Lift the wool out, rinse it with water from a forge, let it dry in the sun and it will be purple of the first quality.

This seemed more like a recipe for a magic potion than a dye for purple. No quantities, no explanation of what the ‘juice’ was to contain. Was this the pressed leaves and stems? Pressed seeds? Just boiled in a container and drained?  

First impressions were that I was not not convinced it would yield a viable, substantive dye. Personal experience and scientific fact has revealed that most dyes obtained from, particularly red, berries are fugitive and do not last due to the anthocyanins they contain.  They usually wash out or fade to grey very quickly.  There was only one way to find out so I posed myself the following questions:

Question 1

What effect does the juice of henbane and lupins have in making an effective mordant on wool, cotton and linen? There must have been a reason for including these ingredients in the recipe so what are the ‘active’ ingredients in these two plants and can they be substituted?  

Henbane Hyoscyami folium is not readily available in the UK so I planned to grow it myself after sourcing some seeds.  It can take up to six weeks to germinate and local climatic conditions at the time were such that my seeds did not germinate at all. This led me to research the chemical makeup of the plant that may, or may not, act as a form of mordant or which might react with any substances in the lupins to produce a mordant.  

I had no access to either freshly grown or a dried form of the plant. What other plant could I substitute for it?

Some common names for henbane include: stinking nightshade, devil’s eye, foetid nightshade, henbell (Anglo Saxon), hog bean, poison tobacco and quite a few others. 

The main chemical constituents seem to be tropane alkaloids and flavonol glycosides. Egyptian henbane apparently contains more of these alkaloids.

The closest I could get to tropane containing plants in the UK were anything from the Nightshade family.  Some of which grow quite freely in hedgerows and rough patches of ground but contain a very wide variety of plants, including tomatoes.  My time for collection of any samples of these was growing short as Autumn was fast approaching and things were starting to die off and wither. All I could find was some common nightshade growing in the garden. None of the other ingredients were ready at the same time so I decided to pick all parts of the plant and dry them for use later. 

Now for the lupins.

After reading Growing Edible Lupins,  and in particular this sentence, 

“Lupins have been grown for consumption since the Egyptian times and were also grown by the Romans”

it occurred to me that perhaps a different variety of lupin than the one grown for horticultural purposes in the UK might be called for.  A thorough search produced Lupinus albus  (white lupins) as the edible kind of lupin that may have grown in the region the recipes were from. It was quite easy to obtain the seed. They germinated well and produced both flowers and seeds/beans.  They looked quite different from the horticultural kind with paler flowers and large white/cream beans. As these were harvested some weeks before the experiments were carried out, all parts of the plants were collected and dried for later use as I wasn’t sure what parts I would need.

Question 2. 

Does the fruit of Rhamus give a purple dye that is light and colourfast?  Berries normally do not give a ‘true’ dye that will last.  They are fugitive and fade quickly. Does the juice of henbane and lupin make this dye fast? 

All searches for ‘Rhamus’ returned an anomaly and a possible error in either the translation, spelling or meaning of the papyri? It seems that Rhamnus is of the Buckthorn family of plants and any amount of searching for the stated rhamus proved unfulfilled.  Perhaps this was a different berry altogether as ‘clusters’ give the impression of more than one fruit together, like a cluster of grapes?  I had to go with what I could obtain so I used Buckthorn berries but had to use dried for this recipe as I had no access to fresh at the time. This meant I had no control over when the berries were collected.  It is possible that fruits collected when ripe would yield a different colour to green unripe fruits.

Question 3. 

What effect does iron water have as an after bath? Iron can be used as a mordant and a colour modifier so does rinsing in iron water make this dye fast or does it shift the colour? I had no ‘water from a forge’ so I used what I had to hand which was water that had been sitting in an iron pot for several weeks.


I tested the recipe on a small 5gm hank of wool.  A natural white handspun chosen  with reference to Egyptian Journal of Sheep & Goat Sciences, Vol. 14, No. 1, P: 39 52, April 2019 , to see if I could match the type of wool available to the dyers of the time. A perfect match was not possible so I decided on a rare breed of Whitefaced Woodland classed as a medium wool. This is a white wool but there is the possibility that a grey or even a moorit colour could have been used in the original recipe. I also used a sample of commercially prepared woollen cloth.

I took the previously dried lupin and nightshade plant material and soaked it for 48 hours in water.  I hoped that a long soaking would help any active ingredients transfer to the water. No details of quantities or time values were given by the recipe.  The lupin mix was then heated and brought to boiling as described and left for approximately an hour before adding the whetted fibre to the pot.

Fig 1. The lupin and Nightshade mix before boiling.

The wool samples were left in the ‘preliminary mordant’ overnight.  The following day I crushed the rhamnus berries in order to obtain maximum surface area, then added them to a stainless steel pot at 100% weight of fibre (WOF) and heated them.  At this stage the recipe states ‘put the wool in and it will become a good purple’.  As you can see from Fig 2, The water was more of a golden yellow.

Fig 2. The rhamnus berry dye bath

The wool was left in the dye bath to cool, removed and rinsed in the iron water.  The samples were then dried and subjected to a light-fast test for 21 days.


No purple colour was recorded from my mix of rhamnus berries with lupin and nightshade mordant.  The final colour can be seen in Fig 3. a beautiful shade of mustard/yellow.  Although this colour was obtained from berries, it would appear from the light test (Fig. 4) that it will not fade very quickly.  I could not see why lupins and henbane were used as a mordant and could find scant  reference to why they would work.  

Using the dried Rhamnus (buckthorn) berries, there was no colour change of any significance after rinsing in iron water. The colour remained bright and did not shift towards a darker or duller shade. However, with the Prunus laurocerasus, the colour immediately shifted to grey which is what I would have expected with a fugitive purple dye; and it was not light-fast and faded quickly. See Figs 5, 6 and 7.

Fig 3. Final results of the buckthorn dye bath with undyed wool for comparison. 
Lightfast test: I could not discern any fading from the light-fast sample test after 21 days in a West facing window.

Fig 4. Sample was covered horizontally with the bottom half being covered to exclude light. I could discern no fading on the exposed top half of the sample.
Results from the Persian Berries

So, what happened?

After a little further research and with reference to 

Comparison of Chemical Composition and Protein Digestibility, Carotenoids, Tanins and Alkaloids Content of Wild Lupinus Varieties Flour

It is possible that a larger quantity of the lupin fibre/juice would yield sufficient tannins to help fix the dyestuff.  In my experiments both with Rhamnus( buckthorn) berries and the purple yielding Prunus laurocerasus (see Discussion below), I could find no benefit in this mordant process compared to the use of alum or no mordant at all.

Does the fruit of Rhamus give a purple dye that is light and colourfast? This is difficult to answer with regard to the dyestuff I used.  My dried berries yielded only yellow. Buckthorn bark usually gives a yellow/orange colour so I would assume the berries would give the same and contain different chemical compounds to those of elusive rhamus.  It is possible that if the berries are picked fresh and at their ripest they will contain more anthocyanins/red colour, plus more juice. However, it is my conclusion that the berries in the original recipe are of a different kind to those I used. 

It is clear that the berries are key to this recipe and perhaps the meaning or the original word has been lost to time.

As a comparison and before using the buckthorn I did some earlier experiments using wool, cotton and linen samples with some Prunus laurocerasus, although a totally different species of berry, they were very ripe and plump and RED and yielded a lot of purple colour. A taste that experiment can be seen in  “Woad is me and Dyeing with Herbs”.  

These berries may have been closer in colour to those required by the recipe, however, the results were not colourfast either with or without the lupin mordant.  As this was for a ‘fake’ purple I’m sure this would not have bothered the original dyers who would have welcomed the repeat trade. 
Previous experiment with Prunus laurocerasus
The preliminary colour achieved was very promising, Fig 5. and included the elusive purple.  However, it soon changed to grey when adding the iron wash, Fig 6.  

Fig 5Dye results with Prunus laurocerasus before iron rinse.

Fig 6. After the iron rinse .
 The colour immediately shifted to grey which is what I would have expected with a fugitive purple dye; and it was not light-fast and faded quickly.

Going forward, it would be worth repeating this experiment with fresh, ripe, rhamnus berries/buckthorn berries and obtaining fresh henbane and lupin plants in a sufficient quantity to obtain enough ‘juice’ to make a strong mordant bath.  Maybe the juice required was obtained directly from the plants by squeezing rather than soaking in water?  If the lupins known by the recipe writers were a source of food they would have had an abundance of plant material to use. Would this make a difference to the final colour?  And the search continues to find the elusive Rhamus fruit clusters!

Part 2 Recipe 132