Sunday, 26 April 2020

Bloody Bean Trees - Part 1: Asia

Adenanthera pavonina pods, open and showing the glossy scarlet seeds.
Photo: © G P Lewis from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?

I have been distracted by a large project that I put aside in 2014 and am working on that for the next few months. Hopefully, I will return to the Dragon's Blood series, tidy these three up and complete the ones about the famous Dragon's Blood trees.

This is the next article in my series on dragon's blood and other bloodwoods. The first article was a hotchpotch of the more obscure varieties from various unusual plant families. Because there was less information it was easier to finish than the last ones will be. There will be three articles on the bloody bean trees, on those from Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Future articles will cover the dragon's blood from Croton, Daemonorops and Dracaena. The article on Croton is going to be a list of the various plants with a few details on each, not exhaustive monographs on each plant. The articles on Daemonorops and Dracaena will be more in-depth, as there is a lot of information on those rattans and trees.

Asian Caesalpinioideae
Adenanthera pavonina
Brazilwood, Biancaea sappan
Holi Festival
Sappan in dyes and paintings
Taste test
Lazy Sappan dye
Asian Faboideae
Butea monosperma

The plant family Leguminosae is also known as the Fabaceae. Kew's Plant List has Leguminosae as the accepted name and ignores Fabaceae entirely. Some other large families also have two names generally used by some botanists. Kew accepts Apiaceae over Umbelliferae for the carrots and parsleys. They also prefer to use the name Compositae rather than Asteraceae for the daisies and sunflowers.

The name Leguminosae is often said to come from the fruit being a characteristic legume or pod. The English word legume comes from the Latin legumen, which was used of the pea and bean plants, not their pods. The pod was called a siliqua.

The name Fabaceae came from the genus Faba, which no longer exists. The most famous was the common broad bean now called Vicia faba. The Latin name for the broad bean was faba. The Roman bean was probably smaller and harder than modern varieties, more like the modern Egyptian ful or British field-bean. The Roman surname Fabius was from the broad bean, as those named Cicero were from chick-peas, Piso from peas and Lentulus from lentils. This might seem odd until you consider how important these foods were as reliable sources of protein. These massively-rich Roman families got their start towards wealth from dealing in these beans.

The Leguminosae is often called the pea and bean family but it is huge and contains many more important plants than just the edible peas and beans. It would take a few paragraphs just to list the economically important products of the family. The Leguminosae is one of the largest plant families and it contains a massive variety of types of plants from tall trees to tiny herbs.

According to the Plant List there are over 24,000 accepted species in the family Leguminosae, divided between 946 genera. There are over 16,000 species that Kew have not yet got around to assessing, they may be synonyms of already accepted species or they may be separate species that need to be added to the total. The only families of comparable size are the orchid family Orchidaceae and the sunflower family Compositae.

The trade in rosewood timber from Pterocarpus and Dalbergia trees is now the biggest illegal trade in natural products. Trees of these genera are found across large areas of South America, Africa and Asia. There are many species of both Pterocarpus and Dalbergia that are classified as vulnerable or endangered according to the IUCN Red List. The demand is mainly from China and Japan for the timber. The Chinese Emperor and aristocracy had valued timber from these two genera for furniture and building construction for at least a thousand years. Different species are pirated from the wild in America, Africa and Asia.

The tree that produces the famous rosewood essential oil is not related. Rosewood oil is produced in Brazil from Aniba rosaeodora, from the Lauraceae (laurel and avocado family). The Brazilian rosewood is also highly endangered due to over-exploitation for use in perfumery.

Asian Caesalpinioideae

The huge subfamily called the Caesalpinioideae contains carob, mimosa and acacia, among thousands of others of well-known plants.

Adenanthera pavonina

The rectangle is 2.45cm x 6.1cm (under an inch by 2.4 inches)

Adenanthera pavonina is known in India as Red Sandalwood, Coral-wood, in Hindi: रक्तचंदन Rakt chandan (red or blood sandalwood), बड़ी गुम्ची Badi gumchi, in Marathi: थोरला गुंज Thorla goonj, in Tamil: Ani kundamani, Manjadi and many, many more. It is a large tree with many small, fragrant, yellow flowers.

Often called Circassian seed, Circassian pea, Circassian bean or Circassian bead in English. There does not appear to be any connection with the region of Circassia in the Caucasus. The tree is certainly not native there. Circassian women were reputed to be very beautiful during the Ottoman Empire. It had been suggested by some authors that the tree was regarded as equally pretty.

It is more likely that the name is derived from the Circars (or Sirkars) and Northern Circars which were divisions of the east coast of India under the Moghul and British Empires respectively. There were also the Circar Mountains, a little inland of the coast.

In 1814 a botanist wrote that the tree was called Circassian pea-tree in Jamaica. This is the earliest mention I could find of this name. Considering that the same paragraph contains the name Grand Anther as a translation of Adenanthera (which should have been Gland Anther, from the ancient Greek ἀδήν, aden meaning gland), it might be this author or his informants who first confused the Circars and Circassia. I can find no real mentions of the word Circarsian. The exceptions are transliteration by automatic character recognition programs that had difficulty with eccentric old printing and one poem written in Oirish dialect.

plant nursery catalogue has a Mimosa formosa as a Circassian bean-tree in 1827. Mimosa formosa (meaning "pretty Mimosa") does not appear to exist as a plant name outside commercial plant catalogues of that time. The name Circassian something for Adenanthera pavonina appears to have been well-established by 1830.

The tree was introduced to Jamaica in 1802 by James Wiles¹, head of the Botanic Gardens at Liguanea, now a suburb of Kingston. It is probable that he received seed from William Roxburgh, though I can find no direct evidence of that. William Roxburgh had spent 16 years at Samalkot (or Samulcotta) station from 1776 to 1792.  Now called Samalkota or Samarlakota, at that time it was in the Northern Circars and is now in East Godavari, Andhra Pradesh. Roxburgh wrote in his Flora Indica (the illustrated version can be found sometimes functioning on the Kew Botanic Gardens website) that Adenanthera pavonina was "Found in various forests over most parts of India." Roxburgh had established an experimental botanic garden at Samalkota as well as collecting specimens from the surrounding areas.

Throughout his time in India, Roxburgh also provided living specimens and seed of novel and interesting plants to many contacts around the world for experimental agriculture and ornamental use. Christopher Smith was a gardener and plant-collector who had accompanied Wiles on an expedition and then went to work for Roxburgh in India. Smith then collected many plants from India and south-east Asia that were sent to Kew and Jamaica. Unfortunately the lists of plants transported have not survived, This has confused some botanists who have described new species of plants in the Americas, only to later find they were introduced from India.

The occurrence of the tree in the Circars is mentioned specifically in this description of Adenanthera pavonina from 1870.

Another name used in the West Indies is jumbie bead. Jumbie is a spelling variation of zombie. The same name is given to the bright red beans of Erythrina trees, used as good-luck charms. Presumably the beads made from the beans deter zombies.

Adenanthera pavonina flower spike.
Cherthala, Kerala, India. Renjusplace from Wikipedia
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The specific name pavonina means "of peacocks", giving it yet another English name in peacock tree. Unfortunately, the plant does not have large shimmering iridescent blue and green eye patterns. The name has been suggested to be a reference to the fancied resemblance of the stamens to tiny peacocks or the blue-green and green colours of the abundant round leaflets held rather gracefully like fans on long leaf-stalks. The truth is, the name was transferred from a far more spectacular relative.

In 1678, the Polish botanist Jacob Breyne published a description of a plant he called Frutex Pavoninus (Peacock Shrub, it only gets to three metres or ten feet tall) or Crista Pavonis (Peacock Crest)This true and original peacock flower is now known as Caesalpinia pulcherrima. The specific name pulcherrima means beautiful in Latin. Breyne had an example from Ambon Island (then unhappily under the Dutch East India Company, now unhappily part of Indonesia). This plant originated in Central America but was distributed across most of the tropics before botanists knew much about it. Breyne described the reason for the name:
Not mentioning the extraordinary stamens, very stately out of the centre of the flower, erupting in the form of the headcrest of a proud peacock, which likeness caused the name Peacock Crests, the flowers of the shrub are esteemed to the maximum here, introduced by the Chinese. 
In the original Latin:
Taceo Stamina eximia, è floris umbilico admodùm pomposè, formâ superbientis pavonis cristæ erumpentia, quorum similitudinis causâ nomen Cristæ pavoninæ, floribus Fruticis hujus æstimatissimis, â Sinensibus inditum. 
The Chinese appreciation for this flower is shown in their name for Caesalpinia pulcherrimajīn fèng huā (金凤花). This can be translated as gold phoenix flower, though the fènghuáng bird is quite different in origin and mythology from the phoenix. One author identified the origin of the fènghuáng as the Crested Argus (Rheinardia ocellata).

Jacob's son followed in his footsteps as a botanist. In 1739, Johann Philipp Breyne had Adenanthera pavonina as just one of nine² very different plants under the general name Crista Pavonis³. Caesalpinia pulcherrima was also known as the flower fence⁴ in Jamaica, as it produces its spectacular flowers continuously throughout the year. Adenanthera pavonina was called the false or bastard flower fence. It does seem that Adenanthera pavonina got its name from being related to the more spectacular Caesalpinia pulcherrima. Perhaps it should have been called Adenanthera pseudopavonina.

The Peacock Flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima
showing the long stamens that gave it its name.
Mexico Jalisco Field Trip 2018
Richard Moore © RBG Kew

The native range of Adenanthera pavonina appears to be from India and Sri Lanka through all the countries of Asia south and east of India, the Maldives, the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea and north-east Australia.The wood is not aromatic like the more famous sandalwood. The powdered red wood has been used as an antiseptic paste in India and for dyeing cotton. The seeds and leaves have also been used in medicine.

In 1874, The Forest Flora of North-west and Central India had the following description:
Heartwood hard and durable, when fresh-cut of a beautiful coral-red colour, and sometimes marked with stripes of a darker shade ; after exposure it turns purple, resembling Rosewood ;                   
The bright, shiny red seeds have been used as beads, counters in board games, in rosaries, for eating and for other ornamental uses. The seeds were used to weigh gold and jewels because the weight of the individual seeds were thought to be quite consistent. I bought a packet of 12 seeds from Chiltern Seeds just to test this.
Distribution of weights of Adenanthera pavonina seeds from a sample of 12

So the weight of gold that balances four seeds could be from 0.88g to 1.20g. At the price of gold when I wrote this, that would be between £34.44 and £46.97. Perhaps some varieties of Adenanthera have more regular-sized seeds. The hard, glossy seed coat would make tampering with the seed quite difficult. Though where money is involved it seems someone will always find a way to commit fraud.

The virulently poisonous seed of the गुंज gunj or rosary pea Abrus precatorius (Faboideae, Fabaceae) was another bean used as a weight in India, Burma and south-east Asia. The seed is also glossy and usually red with a small patch of black. It was regarded as half the weight of Adenanthera pavonina seed. Both were the basis for a whole system of weights in India, Thailand and Malaya. In Burma the big rwe or ruay was the weight of a Adenanthera pavonina seed and the small rwe was Abrus precatorius. A Burmese (beanpod?) was the weight of six or eight Abrus seeds. The seeds of Abrus have traditionally been used for necklaces and other jewelry and occasionally, like the castor oil bean seeds, cause panicked recalls of such products. Modern trading standards in the UK have a low tolerance for selling items where a single seed that weighs a tenth of a gramme might kill you.

Another tree in the Caesalpinioideae, though in a different clade and not closely related, is the carob Ceratonia siliqua. The carob seed was used in the Mediterranean as a weight for gems. The smallest weight in the ancient Roman system was called the siliqua, named from the carob which was called siliqua Graeca, the Greek pod. The Roman siliqua is thought to have been about 0.19 grammes. The Greek name κεράτια keratia meant "carob fruit". The word carat comes from that Greek name through Arabic قيراط qirat. The carat is said to have been, originally, a weight of about four grains, 0.259 grammes. Different varieties of carob have distinctly different sizes of seed. I have observed this from my own experience of eating carob pods but it has also been studied and published by scientists.

The Adenanthera seed was also said to have been approximately four grains, which tallies with the weights I measured. The modern carat used in the diamond trade is the metric carat, weighing precisely 0.2 grammes.

The seed is sometimes called the Red Lucky Bean. For more information on this and the hollowed out seeds filled with a dozen or more tiny ivory elephants I recommend reading this page by Wayne Armstrong. In China the beans are seen as a symbol of love.

Adenanthera pavonina has often been confused with Pterocarpus santalinus which I describe later on this page. Both have been called Red Sandalwood.                                                           

Necklace of Adenanthera pavonina seeds. Thailand, donated 2005.
Photo: Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?

Brazilwood, Biancaea sappan

Biancaea sappan (previously Caesalpinia sappan) was known in Europe as pau brasil, bresil, brasilium, verzi, verzino, sappanwood or brazilwood. The spiny tree is a native of Assam in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia. The tree prefers hilly areas with chalky or clay soils but does not like it too wet.

Textiles from archaeological contexts have shown that sappanwood was used as a dye since at least the 1st century BC in Turkestan.

Biancaea sappan flowers, cropped from original. 
© Vijayanrajapuram from Wikicommons 

Indian texts mentioned sappanwood from the 6th century AD onwards. One of the Sanskrit names for the tree was raktaka, which means "bloody". The first medicinal book to mention sappanwood in China was the Tang Materia Medica, dated 659 AD. The Chinese name is 苏木 (sū mù) which means Sumatra wood. The wood was originally imported from Sumatra, now in western Indonesia. In later years the tree was cultivated in China. Herbalists now regard the best quality sū mù as coming from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The powdered wood is used to invigorate the blood and against pain from fractures and sprains. It is used widely in Asia as a medicine, especially for blood-related problems. The red pigment is very water-soluble and the wood powder is usually boiled in water to use as a medicine.

It has been reported that the Islamic Mapilla (Moplah) of the Malabar coast of India (now the coast of the states of Kerala and Karnataka) would plant a number of seeds at the birth of a daughter. As the tree is ready to be harvested at 14-15 years of age, the valuable wood would serve as the daughter's dowry. Each tree would yield about 80 kg (176 pounds) of red heartwood. For those too lucky or modern to know, a dowry is a gift given by the bride's family to the new husband or his family, as if the lady were not valuable enough.

Variations on the name sappan, sapan or sapang are used throughout India and southeast Asia. The OED has Malay sapaŋ of South Indian origin possibly coming to Europe via the Dutch in the 17th century. In Southern India Tamil has cappaṅki (சப்பங்கி) and Malayalam has cappaṅṅaṁ (ചപ്പങ്ങം). Tagalog in the Philippines has sappang.

Japan imported sappanwood for colouring silks for the Imperial court from the 8th century AD (Nara Period) to the present day. Sappan red silks were essential for the 10th century juni-hitoe, a colourful, elaborate kimono with at least 12 layers worn by noble ladies. They would probably have had the cloth re-dyed regularly to keep it bright. Instructions for a heated dye bath included rice vinegar and camellia ash as mordants to make the dye fast to the silk. Camellia grown on acidic soils will absorb quite substantial amounts of aluminium. The rice vinegar turns aluminium salts from the ash into aluminium acetate. Aluminium acetate is often used by modern hobbyists as a mordant for sappan and other plant dyes.

As the Japanese value traditional crafts, sappanwood is still used in Japan for dyeing. Japanese handkerchief/towels are available to buy dyed with sappanwood.

Incense container in the shape of a flower with ‘treasure flower’ (hōsōge) design. Sappan wood and black persimmon wood, dyed and inlaid with tin. Made by: Osaka Hiromichi (大坂弘道), 2005.

The Jewish merchant Berākhōt ben Joseph Lebdi (also known as Abu 'l-Barakāt) travelled to India and sold his cargo there. He returned to Fustat, the capital of Egypt, in 1132 with a mixed cargo including brazilwood, cloth, lac and spikenard. The trade route of the Jewish merchants extended from India in the East to Morocco and Spain in the West.

Sometime in the 1130s a present was sent by another Jewish merchant called Maḍmūn ben Ḥasan in Aden to Abraham ben Yijū in India. The gift included two large boxes of brazilwood (baqqamīya) containing sugar and two more containing raisins. Another gift was sent from Aden by the merchant Joseph ben Abraham to Abraham Ben Yijū in India, including three boxes of brazilwood containing sugar, raisins and soap. A year or so later Joseph sent another gift including a large brazilwood box filled with white sugar.

In 1199 a letter was sent to Egypt by a trader in Aden, now in the Yemen. He reported the forced conversion of the Jews of Aden to Islam. Some who refused were beheaded. The survivors were forced to pay a special tax and the duties on various commodities were increased. Among those commodities were four varieties of baqqam, brazilwood. As well as "medium quality", "end pieces" and "long variety" there was one called "Good Āmiri". The name 'l-mry ('l being the Arabic word for "the") almost certainly meant that it was from Lamuri or Lambry, a Hindu kingdom on Sumatra that lasted until the 16th century.  In Venice 150 years later in 1349 there was a variety called verzi meri, with a later variant spelling of verzi ameri.

The red wood was imported into Europe from Asia and used in mediæval times as a dye, red paint and ink pigment. The dye is not coloured at first but is developed by oxidation in the same manner as indigo or woad. The wood looks red because the surface is oxidised. Lake pigments for making paints were made by mixing the dye with alum and chalk.

The first known written uses in Europe for the word brazil seem to be from 1085 as bersil, 1128 as berssilbrexilibrassily, 1151 as brasilien and 1198 as braxilis.

In Sienna in 1277-1282 the name was berzi. In Florence in 1278-1279 and Sienna in 1301-1303 (both in Tuscany) the name was verzino. In Orvieto in Umbria in 1312 the name was verçino.  In a 14th century Tuscan edition of Marco Polo's travels it was berci. At Pisa in Tuscany in 1321 a cloth could be described as berciliato, dyed with sappanwood. At Florence in 1340 the wood was called verzino.

A Venetian letter of 1393 details prices for several varieties of verzino. We read in the Morosini Codex that a Venetian ship was wrecked on its return to Venice from Alexandria in Egypt in 1407. The cargo included verzi, brazilwood, some of which was rescued from the wreck.

I have seen references to verzino being recorded earlier but they are not upheld by the reference given supposedly supporting them in Ancient And Medieval Dyes by William Leggett from 1944. I have left out some other early mentions that seem a bit confused or that have insufficient information to check.

These early forms of the name have led to the speculation that the word verzino comes from the Arabic ورس - wars or waras. Waras was the name of three other dye plants used in Arabia. The first was from Flemingia grahamiana, a small shrub in the bean family that is cultivated in the Yemen. The dye is made from globules of a secretion separated from the surface of the seedpods. The second was from the leaves of an Indian species of Memecylon, a shrub or small tree in the Melastomataceae, a family only widely known for the spectacular houseplants Tibouchina and Medinilla. The name waras had also been used of the saffron Crocus sativus, which was far too expensive for most people to use as a dye for cloth. All three of these dyes called waras actually produce cloth with a golden-yellow colour rather than the pink, red or purple of cloth dyed with sappanwood.

There was a perfectly good Arabic trade name for sappanwood - baqqam بَقّمْ. This name was used in most references to sappan in mediæval Arabic. The name is also used in Hindi - बाकम, bakam.

Sappanwood was used to fake the very expensive purple dye أرجوان urjuwan, which I suppose could be corrupted to verzino.

One of several names in Sanskrit for Biancaea sappan was bharyavriksha (भार्यावृक्ष - wife-tree). As with all useful plants in India there are a multitude of names for this tree in many languages.

There is a name specifically for the sappan dye rather than the raw wood in Telugu and Tamil in southern India and Sri Lanka - vurthingi. In Telugu that is వృత్తాంగి - Vr̥ttāṅgi and the wood is called వర్తంగిచెక్క - Vartaṅgicekka, with cekka meaning wood. It is just my opinion but verzino seems more likely to me to have come from a language from a country that produced and traded in sappanwood rather than the word being made up by Europeans.

I have a theory entirely unsupported by any evidence that there could have been another name for the brazilwood tree in Southern India. Something like abirasal, meaning "the tree that provides the coloured powder for Holi festival". It is easy to see the possible transformation of abirasal to brasil. This name would have to have been forgotten entirely in India sometime during the last 900 years. See the next chapter of this article for more on abira.

We don't know exactly where the sappanwood was coming from before the Portuguese bullied their way into the trade but the names of the varieties sold in 14th century Venice and Florence might give a clue. One of the higher quality sappanwoods was verzino cholonbino or verzino colombino. This appears to have come from the Indian city of Kollam (previously known as Quilon or Coulão) now in Kerala, 160 km (100 miles) from the southernmost tip of India. Kollam was an important port in mediæval times and is still one of the largest ports in India, known as the Cashew Capital of the World. The major language in Kollam is Malayalam but Tamil is the second most common language, as the state of Tamil Nadu is only 55 km (35 miles) away.

It has been suggested that the word brasil in Spanish and Portuguese might be influenced by the Portuguese word brasa - a burning coal. The word is also used to mean a thing on fire or flaming ardour, anger, anxiety and passion. A red colour like a burning coal with black stripes is described as brasino.

The word for a burning piece of charcoal in Florence in 1305 was brascia. Early Italian had many spelling variations even in Florence. In Dante's Inferno in 1321 we read that Hell's demon boatman Charon had occhi di bragia - eyes like burning coals. In the 17th century in Italy both berzillo and berzino as well as verzino (and verzinare - to dye with sappan) were still used. At that time berze was used of the red marks left on the skin from whipping.

The first use of the word brazil that we know of in written English was in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written sometime shortly before 1400. The context implies it was used as a cosmetic in the same way as rouge. In the epilogue of the Nun's Priest's Tale the OED has the quote as:
His colour for to dyghen
With brasile [-il, -ill] ne with greyn of Portyngale
Grain of Portugal was one of the varieties of kermes, the red dye obtained from a scale insect parasitic on Mediterranean oaks. Kermes was similar to cochineal, which I mentioned in my article on the origin of cocktails. In this 1491 edition the quote is on the second line on the page to the left:
He needed not to dye his colour
With brasyl nor with grain of Portugal.
In the original English:
Him nedith nat his coloure for to dyen
With brasyl ne with grayn of portyngale

Holi Festival

Women starting to play Holi. Unknown artist.
Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, 1788.
Note the defensive use of headscarves.

The famous Holi Festival or Festival of Colours is a joyous and raucous love, fertility and harvest celebration held across India in Spring. There are, of course, many different names and traditions in the different parts of India. It has been enjoyed since time immemorial. The first mention of Holi may be the Spring festival in the play Malavikagnimitram by Sanskrit scholar Kālidāsa, who is thought to have lived in the fourth or fifth centuries AD, or it may not.

The famous throwing of coloured powders and water are not the only features of Holi, it starts the evening before with bonfires. In Hindi होली holi means "bonfire". Particular trees are favoured as firewood for the bonfires, representing either the evil princess demon Holika or her saintly nephew Prahlad who was not burned in the fire that killed his aunt. It was complicated.

In the north of India the tree used is almost always semal (सेमल, kapok or silk-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba now in the mallow family, Malvaceae). The huge deep-red flowers give the tree the name rakta semal, the blood-red kapok. Around Udaipur campaigners are trying to prevent the use of the semal for the Holi bonfire and also planting seedlings to ensure the survival of the tree. The impressively useful and ornamental semal is used for boat-building, medicine, edible oil (also used for soap and lamps) and cotton-like fibre from the seed pods (used for insulation in fridges and sound-proofing). The plant has many other mythical associations including Yama, the god of death.

The coloured powders thrown at the festival are called ábir, abira or abeer (अबीर in Hindi), gulal (गुलाल in Hindi) or phág in Bengali. Often now made from synthetic pigments of many different colours, there are serious health concerns about large quantities of cheap but unsafe pigments being sold. Skin and eye reactions are especially common. The coloured powders were originally made from sappan, red sandalwood and other natural red materials from woods and flowers. Perhaps including the large pink-red flowers of the semal. Most of those plant-derived colours were credited as being beneficial to the skin.

Some sources state that a mixture of sappanwood powder and the aromatic zedoary root were used as ábir. The colour could be extended by using the pigment to dye other powders, including bright but irritating minerals like talc and mica. One extender often used was singhara nut flour, from the seed of Trapa natans, a fully aquatic floating relative of purple loosestrife, in the Lythraceae.

The red flowers of Butea monosperma have also been used as a source of the coloured powders but more often the orange waters thrown and squirted during the Holi festival. See far below for a little more information on the plant.

The first mention of Holi in English was in a letter from 1622 among the files of the English East India Company. The writer is listing the excessive spending of Company funds by a Mr Robert Hughes at Agra. One of the items is "Eighteen rup[ees] at once given in pane to certayne banyans at the feast of Wholy."

Pane would be what we now call paan. Paan are chewable areca nut confections with many ingredients, all wrapped in betel leaf. Paan contains arecoline, an alkaloid that is derived from vitamin B3 but has some of the effects of nicotine. Paan is quite addictive, perhaps carcinogenic and still popular. Banyan was the name for members of the Hindu merchant caste. In his letter defending his spending, Hughes does not mention the gift to the Banyans. Hughes was dead within the year, though the cause is not mentioned.

Silver vessel for coloured water with 8 pichkari syringes for playing Holi.
Made in Delhi between 1800 and 1870. Unknown artist.
Height: 19 cm (7½ inches), Width: 17 cm (6¾ inches).
Quite dainty compared to the vessels and pichkari shown in many paintings.

In 1808 some British visitors to Daulat Rao Sindhia, Maharaja (great king) of Gwalior were invited to attend the Holi festivities. The events are recorded by Thomas Duer Broughton in Letters from a Mahratta Camp. The attendees were provided with trays of abeer powder, fragile balls of abeer designed to burst on impact, vases of yellow water and a large silver syringe (pichkari).
It is contrary to the etiquette of the Durbar for anybody to throw at the Muha Raj : he had however been told that we had declared our resolutions to pelt everyone who pelted us, and good-humouredly replied, "with all his heart ; he was ready for us, and would try which could pelt best." We soon found, however, that we had not the slightest chance with him ; for, besides a cloth which his attendants held up before his face he had in a few minutes the pipe of a large fire-engine put into his hands, filled with yellow water, and worked by half a dozen men ; and with this he played about him with such effect, that in a short time there was not a man in the whole tent who had a dry suit on his back. Sometimes he directed it against those who sat near him with such force, that it was not an easy matter to keep one's seat. All opposition to this formidable engine was futile ; whole shovelfuls of abeer were cast about, and instantly followed by a shower of yellow water : and thus we were alternately powdered and drenched, till the floor on which we sat was covered some inches in depth with a kind of pink and orange-coloured mud. Figure to yourself successive groups of dancing girls, bedecked with gold and silver lace ; their tawdry trappings stained with patches of abeer, and dripping, like so many Naiads, with orange-coloured water ; now chaunting the Hohlee songs with all the airs of a practised libertinism, and now shrinking with affected screams beneath a fresh shower from the Muha Raj's engine : the discord of drums, trumpets, fiddles, and cymbals, sounding as if only to drown the other noises that arose around them ; the triumph of those who successfully threw the abeer, and the clamours of others who suffered their attacks ; the loud shouts of laughter and applause which burst on all sides from the joyous crowd : figure to yourself, if you can, such an assemblage of extraordinary objects ; then paint them all in two glowing tints of pink and yellow, and you will have formed some conception of a scene which absolutely beggars any description.
In Udaipur at the Holi celebration in 1878, even the young Sajjan Singh, Maharana (great king) of Mewar would be pelted with balls of pigment and enthusiastically return the barrage.

Many media outlets run the story every year as the photos and videos can look very spectacular. Here is the Guardian's photo story for 2019.

short BBC video on the Holi festival.


Sappan in dyes and paintings

Sappan-hout (Sappanwood)
Herbarium Amboinense Vol. 4 (1743) by Georg Eberhard Rumpf.
From the Internet Archive

Although the new dye-woods from the Americas took the majority of the trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, sappanwood was still imported to Europe in massive quantities. In December 1662 a Dutch East India Company fleet of 9 ships left Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia). They carried an incredibly varied cargo including silks, other textiles and finished clothes, a huge amount of saltpetre (for making gunpowder), sugar, diamonds, pearls, copper, ambergris (whale vomit used in perfumes), nutmegs, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, camphor, tea, indigo and 724,941 livres (Dutch pond, about 9% heavier than British pounds) of sappanwood from Siam. They also had 200 pieces of red wood of Dindigh. If Dindigh is modern Dindigul in Tamil Nadu then this could have been sappanwoodred sandalwoodrose wood (all mentioned in this article you are reading) or some other less famous red wood.

Another fleet left Batavia on the 24th of December 1664 with 11 ships. They carried some of the same trade goods but also musk, rubies, diverse sorts of porcelain, oudh wood (used in perfumes), lac, "earth-oil" and 393,241 livres of sappanwood. This fleet also carried 53,245 livres of Caliatour wood, said by the OED to be a dye-wood from south-east India. Named for a town on the Coromandel coast, Caliatour wood was identified by some as red sandalwood.

Courtesan Watching Two Kamuro Make a Snow Dog by Suzuki Harunobu c. 1767-8
As reproduced in Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints
The Japanese print above is an early example of nishiki-e (brocade pictures), a full-colour ukiyo-e print. These woodblock prints employed a wide range of plant-based and mineral pigments to give a spectrum of subtle nuances in shade and hue.

The exact identification of the sappanwood pigment is difficult because of the close chemical and botanical similarity between sappanwood and the other red dye-woods that were available from America, Africa and Asia. Perhaps we can assume that a combination of familiarity, tradition and convenience would have favoured the use of sappanwood itself, traded directly from India, Sri Lanka and Sumatra.

For red and orange alone the most common pigments were turmeric root, gamboge gum resin (Garcinia species, Clusiaceae - the mangosteen family), safflower petals (Carthamus tinctorius, a thistly member of the daisy family, Compositae), madder roots (Rubia species, related to cleavers and coffee, Rubiaceae), red lead (lead (II,IV) oxide), red ochre (impure haematite) and orpiment (arsenic sulphide).

Sappanwood reds, known as suo, are found less frequently than these most common pigments. They were still found in 6% of the early simple beni-e and urushi-e prints and 26% of the more sophisticated nishiki-e. Sappan was found in the picture above in the red timber construction in the top right and the ribbons on the clothing. The orange leaves on the robes of the children are a mix of a yellow flavonoid plant pigment of uncertain origin with both sappanwood and safflower reds.

The sappanwood colour has obviously survived better than some of the other colours in the print. The brown on the robes was originally purple from blue dayflower (Commelina communis, from the tradescantia family, Commelinaceae) petals and red safflower petals. The green of the bamboo has survived the centuries well, being composed of the mineral yellow orpiment and the vibrant, deep blue plant pigment indigo - both very stable.

More detail can be found in Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints by Michele Derrick, Joan Wright and Richard Newman Arnoldia (2017) 74:3 17pp. Arnoldia is an open-access little journal from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.


Taste test

Sappan wood of herbal quality for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine can be bought for $13.50 for 500g plus post and packing. That particular brand is guaranteed to be without post-harvest treatment and tested for contamination and adulteration. Ordering from Oregon can take two weeks unless you pay for express post. I paid a little more for an unknown brand being sold in the UK as there would be no fuss with Customs and I would get it quicker. The powdered wood is also still sold for use by dyers.

Many herbalists, like many gardeners, are very conservative about 
updating the botanical names of their plants.

I tried 0.6 grammes of the su mu extract mixed with 150 ml of boiling water. After five minutes to allow for it to fully dissolve I added the same amount of cold water. The tea was pinkish-orange. The taste was mildly astringent, spicy/woody and quite pleasant. Not strong but the taste was persistent, I could still taste it ten minutes after finishing the drink.

That dose would technically be equivalent to 3 grammes of the original wood. However, the doses given in the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica by Dan Bensky, et al of 3-9 grammes are generally for boiling quite lumpy pieces of herb in water, so do not efficiently extract all of the medicinal compounds in the wood.

Left to right: alkaline, neutral and acidic solutions of sappanwood extract.
The alkaline solution had about 200mg of potassium bicarbonate. 
The neutral solution was just in tap water. 
The acidic solution had about 200mg of malic acid.

A tiny amount of iron in the solution will turn the brazilin pigment into a black complex. The formation of insoluble lakes with iron is the reason that Chinese herbals advise that the use of iron vessels for preparing the decoctions should be avoided. The colour-change from iron contamination would be dramatically obvious. Aluminium, chrome and copper would also be bad for the brazilin.

Lazy Sappan dye

At no time during this process did I leave anything to get cold. As soon as the cloth was squeezed it was back in something hot. Each part of the process should be done so that they follow on without interruption.

Two 25cm squares of organic unbleached, uncoloured cotton denim. Hemmed roughly with loose threads from the edge of the cloth.

Washed in warm water with a little shower gel and rinsed very well.

The next stage is scouring. Both pieces boiled together with 6 litres of water and 17 grammes of soda ash in a large stainless steel pan. Kept at a light simmer for 2 hours. This saponified the oils in the cloth to make soap, making a slight froth when I mixed it thoroughly (with a stainless steel ladle).

While this was simmering I made a mordant solution to fix the dye to the cloth. I had zinc oxide in the house and some own brand distilled malt vinegar from Morrisons, so I made zinc acetate. They don't sell that vinegar now, though the Sarsons looks exactly the same. I weighed 400 milligrammes of zinc oxide and put it in a one litre Pyrex borosilicate measuring jug. I added 800ml of water and enough vinegar to almost dissolve all of the zinc oxide. There was a tiny amount of solid left in the bottom of the jug and the pH appeared to be neutral. I added another 100mg of zinc oxide and stirred thoroughly just to make sure. I decanted the liquid from the remaining unreacted zinc oxide into another pre-warmed Pyrex jug and made it up to one litre with boiled water. This probably contained about 800mg of zinc acetate, equivalent to about 280mg of elemental zinc.

The cloth was rinsed enthusiastically until the water was no longer horribly alkaline to universal indicator paper. It still had a hint of blue but I was tired of rinsing by then.

One swatch of cloth was left in the rinsing water and the other squeezed dry. This square of denim was then popped in the zinc acetate solution and squeezed and mixed about with a stainless steel potato masher. This was left for about 24 hours.

Emptied two capsules of ferrous bisglycinate iron supplement to 1 litre of hot water in a preserving jar. As the capsules contain the equivalent of 20mg of elemental iron, this should be about 146mg of the molecule ferrous bisglycinate. Shaken vigorously for 2 minutes. Allowed to settle for 10 minutes. Liquid decanted, jar rinsed to get rid of the insoluble parts of the powder, liquid returned to jar. The other cloth squeezed dry and added to jar. Sealed and shaken, left for a day. This went black immediately.

This was the previous try with far too much zinc acetate in the
mordant solution and less liquid so it did not move around easily.
It was very pale after rinsing.

The cloth looks better before you rinse it all out and dry it.

Cloths hung to dry on a plastic-coated clothes horse.

Natural denim dyed with sappan on a zinc acetate mordant.
This is a good representation of the colour. Aluminium acetate would produce a brighter red.

Natural denim dyed with sappan on an iron bisglycinate mordant.
Best described as a violet-grey.

It should be noted that modern city air is often polluted enough to fade sappan-dyed cloth rapidly.

The last entry in the article on Bloody Beans for the Americas will be for Paubrasilia echinata, the closely-related South American tree that took the name brazilwood from Biancaea sappan and then gave its name to the country of Brazil. Both species contain the same chemical responsible for their colour - brazilein. That might be the reason I spent a little too much time looking into the origins of the local and trade names of Biancaea sappan. We do not know where the name of the country Brazil originated.

Asian Faboideae


Dalbergia odorifera and Dalbergia tonkinensis are the most sought after hóng mù (红木 - redwood) in China. An illegal 10cm (4 inch) cube of heartwood would have cost £1,200 to £1,600 respectively in 2013.

Chinese armchair from the 17th Century. 
Made from huáng huā lí, Dalbergia odorifera.

Chinese Wardrobe from the 16th Century. 
Made from huáng huā lí, Dalbergia odorifera.

Dalbergia odorifera when used as a medicine is called jiàng xiāng huáng tán (降香黄檀 - sinking fragrance yellow sandalwood). As a timber it is called huáng huā lí (黄花梨 - yellow flower pear). It was used for Chinese Imperial furniture since the Ming dynasty.

Dalbergia sissoo and Dalbergia latifolia timber may have been exported from northwest India even earlier. Dalbergia wood has been found in Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the ancient Indian cities of the Indus Valley. Bronze daggers with Dalbergia-wood handles from 2000 BC have been found at Tell Abraq, now in the north-east of the United Arab Emirates. That wood may have been from a locally native variety. Some scholars believe sissoo was the wood mentioned as used for doors, roof beams and furniture in Assyrian royal palaces from the 9th century to the 7th century BC and in Persian accounts of the 5th century BC, used for building the palace of Darius the Great at Susa. 

The Palace of Darius at Susa, clearly requiring long and strong roof-beams.
From History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria, Vol IX by Gaston Maspero
(The Grolier Society, London, 1904)

In India Dalbergia sissoo is called sissoo (सीसू in Marathi), shisham (शीशम in Hindi) or tali (टाली in Punjabi).  The bark and leaves are used in traditional Indian medicine. Dalbergia sissoo can tolerate high levels of lead in the soil and can accumulate up to 2.4 grammes of lead per kilogramme of root.

Dalbergia latifolia is the black shisham (काला शीशम kala-shisham).

Part of some furniture? Dalbergia latifolia wood.
Photo: Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?


Pterocarpus indicus was said to provide a kind of dragon's blood as well as the excellent flame-red wood being coveted by the wealthy of both India and China. It was found across Southeastern Asia from India to Papua New Guinea and Thailand to southern China.

Some prized Indian kino came from Pterocarpus marsupium, which could be up to 75% tannic acid. The tree grew on mountains in Sri Lanka and Andhra Pradesh  and Odisha on the eastern coast of India. The name for this tree in Urdu is dam al akhwain, the same as for the resin of the Dracaena dragon's blood in Arabic - دم الأخوين (damu al'akhawayn) meaning the "blood of the brothers". When the trunk is injured it bleeds a red gummy substance. This is used as a medicine, as are the flowers, leaves and powdered wood. The Kannada people made cups of the wood which, when water was left in them overnight, would produce a medicine for diabetes.

The Hindi names include vijayasar (विजयसार) and bijasal (बीजासाल). The name bijasal is used in several other Indian languages and also as the trade name for the wood. William Roxburgh wrote in 1798 that the wood is "a yellowish, orange-colour, very hard and and durable, but, at the same time, not very heavy".

Pterocarpus marsupium wood makes rather a nice reading desk. 
Bought in Benares (Varanasi), India in 1850 for six pence.
Photo: Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?


In Victorian Britain another medicinal colouring compound was made from "Red Sandalwood", the powdered wood of Pterocarpus santalinus from the southeastern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The wood was said to be dark red with black grains. The wood was used medicinally in India for eye problems, haemorrhages, scabies and for purifying the skin. It was said by Linnaeus to provide "a kind of dragon's blood".

An illegal 10cm (4 inch) cube of heartwood would have cost £358 in 2013. In China this is one of the timbers commonly called zǐ tán (紫檀 - purple sandalwood). Also used in incense mixtures for hawana and puja rituals in India. The wood is regarded as particularly suitable for drums, like other red woods it has little damping effect on the sound.

Carved Pterocarpus indicus wood from Madras, India in1886. 
Photo: Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY?

Pterocarpus santalinus should not be confused with Adenanthera pavonina, another "red sandalwood" in English. Adenanthera is in a different subfamily, the Caesalpinioideae, see the entry at the start of this article. The red wood is used as a dye as a forehead marking for Brahmins and commonly substituted for Pterocarpus santalinus. In Hindi these are called the blood-red sandalwood, rakt-chandan.


Butea monosperma

Another Indian kino is Butea monosperma (previously Butea frondosa). The dark red gum is called Bengal kino, with many local names. In Bengali it is called পলাশ palash and in Hindi ढाक dhak or टेसू tesu. It is one of many flowers called rakta pushpa (blood-red flower for sacred offerings). The gum is called kamarkas in Hindi and has been used in food. In 1795 William Roxburgh obderved that:
From natural fissures, and wounds made in the bark of this tree, during the hot season, there issues a most beautiful red juice, which soon hardens into a ruby-coloured, brittle, astringent gum ; but it soon loses its beautiful colour if exposed to the air.
As well as producing kino it is also used as a host for lac scale insects which produce a different red dye.

The spectacular but unscented orange-red flowers cover the tree. The flowers were used to make orange-coloured water for Holi. They were also used as a yellow dye for cotton cloth. Roxburgh experimented with making a bright yellow water-colour paint from the infusion of the flowers mixed with alum and dried.

The flowers, bark, seeds and gum are still used in Ayurvedic herbalism. The closely-related Butea superba provides a similar red gum and the flowers give a similar yellow colour.

Butea monosperma flowers © Vinayaraj from Wikicommons  


¹ James Wiles was born in Holywell in South Lincolnshire. The son of a gardener, he learned the trade. His first employer was a friend of Joseph Banks and recommended Wiles to Banks. Wiles travelled as First Gardener with Captain Bligh on his second mission to bring breadfruit to the British West Indies. The first expedition had been aboard the infamous HMS Bounty and had failed due to the mutiny of the greater part of the crew and Fletcher Christian. The second expedition successfully delivered the live breadfruit trees and other plants to Jamaica in 1793. Hinton East, the intended recipient, had died before their arrival so Wiles stayed to tend to the trees. Wiles was helped in growing the breadfruit on Jamaica by a Tahitian called Pappo. Bligh continued on to Britain with the Second Gardener Christopher Smith to deliver some leftovers from the South Pacific and newly collected Jamaican plants. This cargo was the largest single shipment of plants yet received at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

² The complete list in Breyne's book has the related plants from the pea family that we now know as Caesalpinia pulcherrima (as Tsetti mandaru), Biancaea sappan (as Sappan, see above), Paubrasilia echinata (as Ibiripitanga, see the third part of this series, as it grows in the Americas), Caesalpinia mimosoides (as Kal-todda vaddi), Caesalpinia bonducella (as Inimboy), Caesalpinia crista (as Kaka mullu), Caesalpinia axillaris (an unresolved species according to Kew, as Bankaretti) and Pongamia pinnata (as Pongam or Minari).

³ In 1705, Maria Sibylla Merian published a painting of Caesalpinia pulcherrima. She had painted the plant while in Surinam in South America and called it flos pavonina (peacock flower). I included two paintings by Maria Sibylla Merian in my article about the Red Admiral butterfly.

Or Barbadoes Flower Fence, presumably in Barbados.

Chapter divider from Rheede's Hortus Indicus Malabaricus Vol. III