In search of natural dyes in South Carolina

Indigo plant, gone to seed in the Heritage Garden of the Discovery Center at  Hilton Head, South Carolina:

















I had the pleasure of visiting Savannah and Charleston for a few weeks this last while, as well as some of the Sea Islands off the coast of these gorgeous and artistically inspiring cities. On Hilton Head, near Savannah, I saw (for the first time) indigo growing. I had no idea it grew so tall!

Indigo was once a valuable cash crop in this area, thanks to the skills and knowledge of captured and enslaved Africans who worked on plantations that might also produce rice and cotton (and of course, thanks to the pioneering plant breeding by Eliza Lucas Pinckney whose slaves grew and processed her indigo for export in the eighteenth century). Indigo and rice were harvested at different times of the year, thus ensuring plantation owners a full year of slaves’ labour. It was said that slaves that worked the indigo were the hardest-worked of all.  After their white masters fled before invading Union troops during the Civil War, freed slaves took over land, dividing it and planting it  for their own survival. For many years their Sea Islands culture and creolized language, known as “Gullah”,  developed apart from that of the mainland for there were no bridges to the islands until the 1950’s. But the Gullah knowledge of indigo largely died out,  since the dye was not much used for their own purposes.  I did try to find information about the Gullah use of other natural dyes but at the Penn Center, a museum and center of Gullah culture on St. Helena Isand, almost nothing is reported. Dr. Emory Campbell, former Director of the Penn Center, and now a Gullah culture interperter and guide, told us much research is still  needed on local and traditional plants and dyes. 

More in the next post about dye plant prospects  from S.C.

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