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Just What is Indigo?

Just what is indigo? Most of us start out thinking we know, but do we?

The term indigo is, of course, used as the name of a color. To me, it's a deep navy blue with an ever-so-slightly greenish cast. But this is the description of the color called ai (藍) in Japanese. When indigo appears as one of the seven colors of the rainbow in the West, it exhibits a slightly reddish cast.

Just What is Indigo?

Indigofera tinctoria – “true” indigo from India

Next, most of us would list it as a plant. But, which plant? Perhaps Indigofera tinctoria, commonly called true indigo? This is the one associated with the blues of India. It grows as a shrub and is in the legume family of plants along with beans and wisteria. It likes a tropical climate. The basic material we extract from the leaves to create blue is called indican.

Just What is Indigo?

Indigofera suffruticosa from the Americas

However, indican is found in many other plants and in many other parts of the world, such as Indigofera suffruticosa. Even though it is commonly called Guatemalan indigo, this plant is native to most of the tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas, including the Southern United States and all the way down to the northern reaches of Argentina.

Just What is Indigo?

Indigofera bracteolata – West Africa

Indigofera bracteolata grows well in the moist savannah lands of West Africa and thrives in sandy soil.

Just What is Indigo?

Isatis tinctoria – woad, covering Europe and the Middle East

Just What is Indigo?

Marsdenia tinctoria – covering Southeast Asia

Woad, Isatis tinctoria, is another common source of indican. It's native to the steppe and desert areas of the Middle East and Central Asia, and is related to mustard and cabbage. It's the plant associated with the blues of Britain, going all the way back to the Celts.

Marsdenia tinctoria is commonly found in subtropical regions including Nepal, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia. It's a winding shrub or vine that can grow up to fifteen feet long. It is related to a plant called dogbane.

Just What is Indigo?

Persicaria tinctoria – tadeai, or Japanese (buckwheat) indigo

And in Japan there is tadeai (蓼藍, Persicaria tinctoria – also known as Polygonum tinctorium) or Japanese indigo. It's an annual that grows up to about three feet in height and does well in temperate climates. It's classed with buckwheat.

However, even in Japan there are more plants than just tadeai that contain indican.

Just What is Indigo?

There is yama-ai (山藍, Mercurialis leiocarpa) – a slender perennial that hugs the ground.  Ryuukyuu-ai (琉球,藍 Strobilanthes cusia) has leaves as large as a person’s hand. It is in the acanthus family and has been a long-time favorite source of blue for collectors of Okinawan textiles.

Mercurialis leiocarpa – Japanese yama-ai

Just What is Indigo?

And of course, there is synthetic indigo. It made its first real commercial appearance at the tail end of the 19th century (1897) and quickly replaced the more laboriously produced natural sources.

The actual core colorant of all of these sources, including the synthetic, are chemically identical. Slight visual variations can be appreciated among the numerous natural sources brought about by differing impurities in the plants or unique extraction techniques employed.

Strobilanthes cusia – Ryuukyuu-ai, Okinawan indigo

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