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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rogers

Indigo


You probably know that INDIGO is a blue dye, but that’s probably all you know.

Dye made from indigo is thousands of years old—the Egyptians grew indigo, but I’m mostly interested in it because indigo was one of the five cash crops that the British promoted in colonial America. And it was the first cash crop grown at True Blue Plantation. It’s interesting to note that the plantation’s name is a play on indigo.

During colonial times Indigo grew best in South Carolina, although I’ve seen it growing a few miles from Latta Plantation near Charlotte, NC. It grows rogue alongside backroads, but it is so nondescript, that you might not see it even if you are looking for it.

The variety of indigo that planters turned to Indigofera tinctoria, a plant that looks rather like a stalk of bamboo with long, limp branches covered with leaves. It’s considered to be a bush, but in the right climate, it can grow ten-feel tall. It has dark red flowers attached to a pointed cone similar to a lupine. A lupine is a perennial, however; Indigofera tinctoria is an annual.

Indigo is easy to grow—I’ve done it. I used seeds I bought at Charles Towne Landing Historic Site, in Charleston, and all I did was to cast them and cover them with soil. My indigo crop got almost eight-feet tall before the frost got them.

Indigo was easy to grow, but a nightmare to process: Three times a year, three-foot stalks were lopped off the top of the plant and stuffed into wooden vats like the one in the famous I Love Lucy skit in the 1950s.

The stalks were then covered with a mixture of water and URINE.

If you do the math, most of the urine probably came from cows, but it came from the Quarter and the big house, too. Urine was urine, although urine from pregnant females was said to be the best.

During plantation times, urine was often bottled and saved. That’s because urine turns into ammonia after three weeks, and ammonia is used for everything.

It took hundreds of gallons of urine to fill the indigo vats and it stunk to high heaven. After seven days, the indigo stalks turned to mush and released the dye from its leaves. If it was drained off too early, the resulting dye would have a purplish cast; if the indigo man waited too long, the dye would be too dark.

Once it was ready, the dye was drained from the vat and either poured into casks to remain as liquid dye, or syphoned off into large wooden trays where it was allowed to dry in the sun. As it dried, its color intensifies and once completely dry, it looked like cobalt-blue chalkboard chalk.

Indigo changed the entire economy of colonial South Carolina thanks to a young horticultural genius named Eliza Lucas. Eliza spent three years learning to grow and process indigo. Eliza could have made a fortune had she kept her research to herself, but she freely shared her findings with her fellow planters.

More about Eliza soon.

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