Indigo: The Little Plant That Could

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We recently talked about various strains of indigo but the variety of indigo we grow at Sea Island Indigo is Indigofera Sufruticosa.

Why this variety of all the hundreds of blue producing plants, you ask? It's an interesting story.

When the Spanish invaded the New World in 16th century Central America, they began using a blue dye the Mayans, Aztecs and Incans had been using for centuries. The dye rivaled a hue created by indigo from India which was being imported to Europe by the Dutch and Portuguese. That blue dye was I. Sufruticosa and the Spanish, realizing it would provide economic competition with their rivals soon began exporting it to Europe from Guatemala. They called it Anil, from which the term “aniline dyes” or Guatemalan Indigo comes.

Dr. David Rembert, Jr, of the University of South Carolina, did extensive research in the 1970's and 80's of the historic indigo commerce in South Carolina. During his research, Dr. Rembert traveled to Kew Gardens in England to review their extensive historical specimen collection hoping to find the indigo of South Carolina's history.

In Dr. Rembert's writings he mentions this: “Langman (1964) includes a note in her work concerning the existence of a book by Juan de Dios del Cid written in 1741 (the only copy is in Chile). She reports that this book contains a description of the methods of dye preparation from indigo plants. These plants are referred to as “Anil” in the 1741 work, and it has been suggested that the book itself was printed with ink made from indigo. Castaneda (1965), in Flora del Centro de Bolivar (without reference to cultivation or ethnology) lists I. Sufruticosa as the only native indigo there.”

I find that fascinating and hope to visit Chile one day to see that book.

I don't want to bore you with dates and wars and economic history, but basically, whenever a colony (that includes the whole Eastern Seaboard of North America through the Gulf Coast) was established, one of the first experiments tried was to see what plants of economic importance would grow. Indigo was one of those plants.

The English didn't have much luck and neither did the Dutch. The French had greater success in the Gulf Coast region and the Spanish had tremendous success in Central America but all had success in the Caribbean Islands and soon began exporting indigo grown there back to Europe. The English decided the islands they occupied would do better raising sugar cane and coffee and shifted the emphasis of indigo to the North American colonies, specifically the Carolina colonies.

In 1671, Charlestowne, (now Charleston) was established and indigo was grown here, but not with great success and there's no record of the variety or varieties grown. In 1689, French Huguenot families moved into the St. James Parish of Charleston and began raising indigo and it's speculated that they grew both varieties introduced by the English. It's also interesting to note that some of the French Huguenots had come from the woad growing regions of France and had experience with woad processing and dyeing.

Indigo cultivation in the Charleston area continued into the early part of the 18th century but not until the economic conditions were right and the inquisitive and talented mind of a young girl named Eliza Lucas caused indigo cultivation to become profitable for the colonies. In fact, thanks to Eliza, on the eve of the American Revolution, indigo accounted for 35% of the total exports of South Carolina and over 1,000,000 pounds of indigo extract was being shipped yearly out of the port of Charleston to England.

More on Eliza next...

Experience Sea Island Indigo first hand here on our September retreat!