Woad is native to south-eastern Europe or to the grasslands of south-western Russia. In prehistory it spread throughout Europe and was used by ancient Britons as body paint used by warriors going into battle. As the woad plant has antiseptic properties this may have been why the tribes wore it – to heal battle wounds. In films the Picts are shown wearing woad- think about the film “Braveheart”- the Scots wore woad. However, the tribe of the Iceni whose one-time queen was Boudicca, used woad as body paint in East Anglia in Britain. This would explain why Julius Caesar wrote in his history books that British tribes (not Scots) used woad as body paint which he noted during his campaign of 55 BC. Woad may have been prolific in Britain then, but may have been over-harvested for use as body paint and dye by our ancestors.
Colour of woad dye
  Woad is also known as Dyer’s woad as it was used to dye textiles blue. In Asia indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) was used for this purpose (the two plants are not related). In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I issued a “Proclamation against the sowing of woade” (14th October 1585) because a lot of arable land was being turned over to woad production at a time when there was a shortage of food in Britain. With the introduction of synthetic dyes woad cultivation virtually ceased in Europe. However there has been a resurgence of interest in the plant and in 2004 the European Sustainable Production of Indigo (SPINDIGO) and it is once again being cultivated in Toulouse, France and around Norfolk in East Anglia UK.
  Woad was also used as a blue ink by the monks who illuminated the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 7th or 8th century AD. Blue inks made with woad are also being manufactured once again.
  In Britain woad has been found in an Iron Age pit at Dragonby in South Humberside, dating back to the first century AD. Woad has been used as a shape-shifter and to investigate past lives in magic and shamanic rituals through the ages.
  The Anglo-Saxon name for this plant was wad, which shows how the word came to be woad; and wad has been incorporated into place names, presumably showing where woad was cultivated or where it grew wild in the distant past. Such names are Wadland Furlong in Warwickshire (my favourite of these names), Wadborough in Worcestershire and Wadden in Dorset and Surrey but this list is not complete by any means.
  Writing in the 16th century the herbalist John Gerard has this to say about the plant:-  
 “Garden Woad is dry but not sharp, Wild Woad is drier and sharper and biting. The decoction made of Woad is good for hardness of the spleen, also good for wounds and ulcers to those of strong constitution and those accustomed to much physical labour and coarse fare. It is used as a dye, profitable to some, hurtful to many.”
  Culpeper, writing a century later concurs, but also says that woad is beneficial when used in ointments for ulcers, and to staunch bleeding. Because of these old herbalists it was accepted for centuries in the western world that woad should not be taken internally. However times have changed and we now know that woad leaves are edible if they have been soaked for a very long time in water to remove some of their astringency and bitterness. (It isn’t worth your while bothering – it takes too long and you may not like the taste.)
  Woad is a Brassica and so related to cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and broccoli. Research has shown that woad is rich in the compound glucobrassicin and has 20 times more of it than is found in broccoli. Foods rich in glucosinolates are known to have a beneficial effect on smoking-related lung cancers, and glucobrassicin in particular has shown itself to have anti-tumour properties being especially effective against breast cancer. This substance is released by woad when its leaves are damaged, so it is easier to obtain from this source than from broccoli. (University of Bologna research published 2006 and reported by the BBC.) This also kills pests which try to eat the leaves - it’s a good defence mechanism.
  Earlier research, published in the Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 7 (6) 2000 states that the root and leaves have anti-microbial actions although exactly what is responsible for these is still not known. Extracts from the Chinese woad plant root have anti-microbial, antiviral and antiparasitic actions. The indole compounds found in the Brassica plants have anti-cancer effects, and tryptanthrin in the European woad root has anti-inflammatory properties.
  Woad is therefore a useful plant for our health and has properties the older Western herbalists could not have dreamed about!
Woad seeds
  The first year’s leaves look like those of spinach and it is these that are harvested for their dye. The plant flowers between June and August and the black tongue-shaped seeds ripen between August and the end of September. Oil can be extracted from these and used to make soap. The seeds produce an olive-coloured dye too.
  It would appear to be a good thing that woad is making a comeback.


  1. This is a fascinating blog, I am so glad I stumbled over it searching for information about samphire. I'm surprised to learn that woad has other uses, I've only ever read about its use as bodypaint and dye.

  2. I wonder if a mixture of woad could be used as a safe alternative to pesticides?

  3. I'm growing some woad so thank you, most interesting.

  4. PS dying is not dyeing, I hope :) :

  5. Thank you so much for providing a wealth of information on this herb.

  6. Roots are used for dye