Dyes, saints, and honey: the modern use of the logwood tree in Quisqueya

Dyes, saints, and honey: the modern use of the logwood tree in Quisqueya

The Nomadic Pigment Lab cultivates pigment and dye exchanges with artists from around the world. The authors visited Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, this fall to investigate the cultural meaning of the logwood tree.

A transparent glass tool sits on an oval puddle of dark purple dye.
Muller and logwood paint. Photo by Karla Claudio-Betancourt.
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When you extract colour from a plant you get to know its personality. The extracted colour—which is a phytochemical or a plant chemical—reveals its medicinal properties through the power of suggestion. Like the warmth of the sun, turmeric root’s yellow curcumin lowers inflammation and heats arthritic joints. The logwood tree’s red hematoxylin reduces anemia like a botanical blood transfusion. The integration of science and intuition, chemistry and poetry, is perhaps one of many reasons humans can be drawn to and fascinated by natural pigments and dyes.

Painting in two halves: at the top, a forest of budding trees, at the bottom patterned brushstrokes of reddish brown and dark brown shapes.
Eliazar Ortiz, Paisaje Campeche (2022). Lake pigments made with logwood, indigo pigment, ochre oil paint, copey tar and pencil over canvas, 35.5cm x 41cm.

In search of science-art connections, the Nomadic Pigment Lab visited Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in September.  Santo Domingo is home to the National Botanical Garden and the Modelo Market, a public marketplace where you can buy medicinal plants, produce, and crafts. The heartwood from logwood trees (Haematoxylum campechanium) produces purple, red, green, blue, and black tones with different chemical modifiers. It was used as a dye and pigment by the Mayans and Aztecs in Central America and later overharvested by European colonizers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The blacks and purples produced by logwood became a symbol of the British royalty and elite up until the creation of synthetic dyes in 1856. The cultivation of this leguminous tree eventually spread to the Caribbean and has grown in Quisqueya (the original Taíno name for the island including the Dominican Republic and Haiti) ever since.

Three photographs: on the left, the rough bark of a logwood tree, in the centre, a full image of the logwood tree next to a footpath, on the right, the small round leaves of the logwood tree.
Logwood trees in the National Botanical Garden of Santo Domingo. Photo by Emil Morales Pérez.

Royal past, sweet present

We arrive Monday morning at the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo, the city awake and roaring with its usual chaos of motorbikes, buses, more motorbikes and cars. Oscar Montero, a 26-year-old taxonomist and field botanist, meets us at the Botany Department and shows us the many logwood trees that grow nearby. The logwood trees here are old and tall, twisted and intertwined with each other. A single tree looks like many trees braided together, almost like a long and muscular torso. We share with Oscar our interest in making dyes and pigments with logwood and other plants. “Nature is perfect,” he says, as he reflects on the diversity and combinations of colours found in flowers. “I always use as an example the Solanaceae family, the Solanum genus, which combines intense orange with light purple in flowers. I think about the Lakers basketball team and their uniforms.” He laughs at his comparison. “Fashion should look more to plants for advice.”

Two photos: On the left, a man stands by a logwood tree being interviewed by a videographer and sound recordist. On the right, these three people walk down a gravel path continuing to talk.
Interview with field and taxonomy botanist Oscar Montero. Photo by Emil Morales Pérez.

            After our walk we visit the Herbarium where Oscar introduces us to Teodoro Clase, the 64-year-old Director of the Botany Department and Herbarium. According to Clase, the most important commercial use of logwood is for honey production. “That’s why people nowadays take care of the logwood groves they find in the wild. It creates the best honey in the country. Those who work with it say it has a very light color.” Teodoro is accompanied by his assistant Elizabeth Séptimo, who adds that Dominican women use the wood to dye gray hairs. Elizabeth, who is 36, is currently researching on the magical use of local plants. “There’s not much written about it. People like these topics because when you combine science with spirituality, it creates a boom!” she says laughing.  

Two photos: On the left, a dark skinned woman sits at a table in an office setting. On the right, the same woman holds up a preserved branch of a logwood tree that has catalogue markings attached to it.
Botanist and Herbarium Collection Supervisor Elizabeth Séptimo at the Herbarium. Photo by Karla Claudio-Betancourt.

Santa Marta The Almighty and her purple bath

The next day at the Modelo Market we continue exploring what logwood and its dyes mean to local Dominicans. The market, Mercado Modelo, is located a few minutes walking from the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo (the historic central district). We visit the apothecary of Porfirio “Yiyo” Díaz, who’s been in the business of magical plants and spiritual work for 30 years. “I’ve kept this job because you don’t need to face the violence of the streets. When you work for someone else it’s very different from when you work for yourself. I like it more.” We buy some logwood from him, and he shares one of many recipes for hair dyeing: logwood chips, a leather shoe sole for “tying” (the tannins in leather make the colour more semi-permanent), and rue branches (Ruta graveolens) for protection against maldeojo or envy (given how the dye gives a beautiful colour and sheen to hair).

A large modern building with the word "Mercado" across the front. Its paint is peeling and there are a few small kiosks attached to its exterior.
Modelo Market in Santo Domingo. Photo by Emil Morales Pérez.
Three photos: On the left, a portrait of a man with a greying goatee who stands in front of shelves of small bottles. In the centre, a hand holds a dark red bundle of bark. On the right, a bottle of purple liquid with a label featuring an illustration of Santa Marta.
Porfirio “Yiyo” Díaz at his Apothecary. Photo by Emil Morales Pérez.

A wall of shelves at the back of the kiosk is stacked with many coloured bottles. Yiyo explains they contain magical baths to attract money, love and protection—each corresponds to a different colour. One bottle holds a bright purple liquid, the label depicting a Black woman with big hair, a seductive gaze, and a large yellow snake resting on her shoulders: Santa Marta la Dominadora, or St. Martha the Almighty. Santa Marta is part of the pantheon of saints that are included in the branch of Dominican voodoo called Veintiún Divisiones (21 Divisions). Each saint has a corresponding colour and Santa Marta’s colour is purple—the same colour created by logwood.

Many objects set out like an altar: bark, a bottle of dye, pigment pucks, a statue of Santa Marta, a candle, etc.
Altar to Santa Marta la Dominadora.
Photo by Karla Claudio-Betancourt.
Three collages on a purple backdrop: on the left the shape of flowers and bees under a waxing moon. In the centre, Santa Marta holding a snake under a full moon. On the right, a honey dipper with honey dripping off under a waning moon.
Karla Claudio-Betancourt, Santa Marta la Dominadora y su baño violeta (2022). Watercolors made with logwood, zinc oxide, marigold and eucalyptus + iron pigments, banana paper on watercolor paper.

Yiyo has no explanation for the correlation between Santa Marta and the colour purple, so we are left to wonder. We know that purple has been historically used by feminist movements throughout the world, for example, British feminists at the beginning of the twentieth century or today by the Colectiva Feminista en Construcctión in Puerto Rico, to name just a few. Although her feminism is not explicit, in a country plagued by misogyny and Catholicism, the image and cult of Santa Marta leaves us somewhat perplexed: a woman empowered in her sexuality that simultaneously promises fidelity and money to her worshippers. My collaborator, visual artist Eliazar Ortiz explains, “Although it may seem that men give the orders, this is a very matriarchal society.”

A painting of two headless female forms holding hands. Above their necks are fern shapes, and below their feet there's a snake in tall grass.
Eliazar Ortiz, Guáyiga Marassá (in process, 2022). Lake pigment made with logwood, ochre oil paint, indigo pigment over paper, 46cm x 61cm.

Hair zone

Logwood hair dyeing process with stylist Aura Rojas. Photo by Emil Morales Pérez.

            Aura Rojas, a 22-year-old hair stylist in training, says that she was only eight years old when she saw Santa Marta “mount” or possess her aunt. “Her hair came undone and for a moment it looked like her nails were longer,” she explains. Aura grew up in San Juan de la Maguana where many practice Santería (a Yoruban belief system), Palo monte (a second African diasporic religion),and voodoo. She moved to Santo Domingo when she was 18 and worked four years in a hair salon that uses dyes like indigo, hibiscus, henna, and logwood for hair dyeing. We interview her Saturday morning while she helps us dye Eliazar’s beard; we want to experiment with the hair dye ourselves. Aura thinks that people today use natural dyes because they prefer them to chemical dyes that involve ammonia and peroxide. She has an afro and explains that she recently “transitioned” into natural hair. We ask her how she felt when she decided to make the change: “I was very young, maybe 15. I had an affinity for natural hair already. I was in a relationship and my partner’s mother was very racist. That rejection made me stick more to my essence, to who I was. From that moment on it became my passion.”

An illustration of two people with line patterns on their face and complex hairstyles.
Eliazar Ortiz, Campeche Lanmou (2022). Ink and lake pigment made with logwood, frottage with lilly, majagüilla and hibiscus petals, red ochre and annato oil paint, jagua ink on paper, 46cm x 61cm.

Who is logwood?

            At the end of every interview, we ask, If logwood was a person, how would you describe their personality, vocation, and appearance?  “Logwood is a symbol of hope because it brings us back to our ancestral practices,” says 57-year-old farmer and activist Juana Ferrer. Juana is part of CONAMUCA, The National Confederation of Women Farmers, whose headquarters are located south of the capital in the San Cristobal district. CONAMUCA facilitates political education for women farmers with an emphasis on agroecological practices that reject the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides.  Juana took us to Diosdirá (God Will Say), a rural town in San Cristobal where logwood grows wild. “I think it’s also important to cultivate a tree like logwood because it aligns with CONAMUCA’s values of using natural resources in a sustainable way. I believe our ancestors looked younger because they used plants like logwood in their beauty rituals.” Juana introduces us to Ana Julia Castillo, a 28-year old student who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. Ana’s been hearing about logwood from a young age. “I remember my mom used coffee or logwood to dye her hair. She would add cinnamon sticks and cook it down until it became a very thick liquid. If you have brown hair, it’ll dye it black. If your hair is more blonde, it will create more of a reddish tone. Gray hairs will also end up being more red and not completely black.”

Each person’s response to the question who is logwood seems to be an exercise in self-reflection: the qualities they perceive in the plant are those which they hold themselves or aspire to obtain. Their testimonies demonstrate the intrinsic link between human behaviour and our surrounding landscapes and the beings that inhabit them. Using both reasoning and intuition to understand plants—how they benefit our bodies and how they spark our imagination—will surely deepen our empathy and connection with them.

Filed Under: Photo & Video

Written and illustrated by

Karla Claudio-Betancourt is a visual artist living in Santurce, Puerto Rico working primarily with illustration, natural paints, text and video. Her creative practice is guided by ethnobotanical investigation, oral history and regenerative practices connected to land and food sovereignty.

with Illustrations by

Héctor Eliazar Ortiz (Santo Domingo, 1981) has undertaken degrees in Engineering Studies (UNPHU) and Photography (EAF, Buenos Aires). They first exhibited their work by participating in the underground artistic movements of Buenos Aires through feminist and LGBTQI collectives.

Photographs by

Emil Morales Pérez (Mayagüez, 1986) is a computer scientist from the West coast of Puerto Rico who builds computer codes while also constructing more tangible objects like bamboo structures and other bio-engineering projects.

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