Woad is a wonderful plant. It is the historic Northern European source for indigo, grown there for hundreds of years until other sources of indigo made their way westward from the far east. Woad doesn't have an much indigo in it as the Japanese and far eastern indigo plants but is a hardier grower in northern climes.
I have to tell you why I'm so thrilled to have woad growing here. Last spring I bought a ton of plant seeds, mostly mixed wildflower seeds that will grow happily here in Texas, but also dye plant seeds. Coreopsis, woad, madder, marigolds, purple basil, fennel - basically every seed I could get for a plant that gives color. I also had sunflower seeds I had bought intending to plant them for my goats. Goats love sunflowers. All parts of the plant - leaves, stems, seeds, flowers - are good for goats. You get the idea. I had lots of seed. The wildflower seed packets said that planting in fall is the best way to go. Well, I have never been known for my patience. It's all I can do to leave a dye bath overnight. I know the color is better that way but mostly I can't stand waiting that long. So here I had all these seeds and was supposed to wait for months? Not likely. Most of the seeds I scattered over my newly installed septic drain field. I thought this would go a long way in encouraging people not to drive on the drain field. No one is likely to drive through a beautiful field of flowers. The woad seeds I planted in one of our 7' diameter raised garden bins. The bins have always been intended for dye plants. They are behind the studio and I can stand inside and look at them. And watch my dye plants grow.
So the wildflowers seeds are out front on the drain field and the woad seeds are in a garden bin. This is May. Well, last summer was the hottest and driest one on record for decades. I started off watering daily as the temperature climes. As the drought got worse, I switched from watering the wildflowers and dye plants to watering the trees. Fortunately, all the trees made it but I had completely given up on my newly planted seeds. The drought ended with the winter rains. Lots of winter rain. And cold. Much colder than normal. Then more rain. This is a good cycle for most wildflowers but what about my woad?
I checked the drain field area and sure enough, I have wildflowers coming up. Texas Bluebonnets and lots of other things I can't recognize yet. I'm hopeful we will have lots of wildflowers later this spring. Then I checked the garden bins. Eureka! I have woad plants!
Woad is an enthusiastic re-seeder. It's considered a noxious weed in the western US where it can take over vast acreages in only a couple of seasons. Interestingly, if you let it go to seed, you don't get any indigo. The normal plan is to plant it early in the spring and harvest the leaves throughout the summer. Once the first frost comes, no more indigo. If you leave the plant to overwinter, in the spring it will bloom and produce prodigious seeds. For dyers it makes sense to let one plant go to seed for the next years crop but to pull out the rest so the woad won't take over your garden, or yard, or the county.
So the question is.... is my woad in its first year or in it's second? We will see. If it goes to seed, I've missed the indigo. If it doesn't, I'll be harvesting leaves this summer. I think I'll order more seeds and plant them next month. That way I'll have my own home grown indigo this summer. Cool!