Prota 3: Dyes and tannins/Colorants et tanins
Tent. fl. abyss. 1: 120 (1847).
Impatiens prainiana Gilg (1909).
Balsamine (En). Balsamine (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Impatiens tinctoria is found in south-eastern Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, western and southern Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo, southern Tanzania and northern Malawi. It is cultivated worldwide as an ornamental.
In Ethiopia women chop or mash the inside of the tubers of Impatiens tinctoria (‘ensolella’) into a paste to dye the palms and nails of the hands and feet a dark reddish colour. It is considered a beauty treatment similar to that of henna and it helps to control fungal infections and it toughens the skin. The tubers are also used to dye cloth. The juice of pounded roots is one of the ingredients for a red ink. Medicinally, a root decoction is drunk against abdominal pains and as a purgative. The stem is chewed to treat mouth and throat diseases. Horses and mules graze the plant. Impatiens tinctoria is cultivated for its striking flowers as an indoor and outdoor ornamental in tropical and temperate regions.
The flowers and leaves of another species, Impatiens balsamina L. (garden balsam, native of India and parts of mainland South-East Asia but widely cultivated as an ornamental, also in Africa) are used to prepare a red dye to colour the nails and are used as a substitute for henna because they contain the same dyeing agents lawsone and derivatives, as well as anthocyans and flavonoids such as kaempferol, quercetin and a rhamnocitrin glycoside. Although the dye components of Impatiens tinctoria and many other species (e.g. Impatiens rothii Hook.f.), also used to dye the skin red, have not been thoroughly investigated, they all contain naphtoquinone derivates close to lawsone and might be used as substitutes for henna. Medicinally, lawsone shows antifungal activity and is active against fungi causing ringworm, athlete’s foot (tinea pedis).
Erect, glabrous, perennial herb up to 2 m tall, with a succulent hollow stem and a large tuberous rootstock up to 30 cm × 10 cm. Leaves arranged spirally, simple; stipules absent; petiole up to 9 cm long, sometimes bearing glands near the top; blade oblong-lanceolate to broadly ovate, 7–32 cm × 2.5–10 cm, base cuneate, apex usually acuminate, margins crenate to serrate, lateral veins in 7–14 pairs. Inflorescence an axillary 3–9-flowered raceme; peduncle up to 30 cm long. Flowers bisexual, zygomorphic, 5-merous, fragrant, white but lower petals often spotted pink or purple near base; pedicel up to 4 cm long; lateral sepals 4, ovate or oblong, 6–10 mm × 4–7 mm, lower sepal funnel-shaped, gradually constricted into a 3–13 cm long filiform spur; dorsal petal hood-like, 17–22 mm × 10–14 mm, crested dorsally, lateral petals 4, united in pairs, upper one of each pair small, 6–15 mm × 2–5 mm, lower one large, 16–50 mm × 16–46 mm; stamens 5, connate in a ring; ovary superior, 5-celled, style very short. Fruit a cylindrical, 5-valved, fleshy, explosively dehiscent capsule up to 4 cm long, many-seeded. Seeds ovoid, glabrous.
Impatiens is a large genus comprising more than 1000 species, and occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia and Central America, as well as in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, but it is absent in South America and Australia. In Africa more than 100 species occur. Impatiens tinctoria is variable; it has been subdivided into 5 subspecies, mainly based on differences in leaf, flower and spur size.
In Ethiopia, the tubers of Impatiens rothii (‘girshirit’) are also used for a dark reddish dye.
Impatiens tinctoria usually occurs in damp, shady localities, in upland rain forest, forest fringes and gullies, along streams and on shady banks, usually at 700–3600 m altitude.
Although Impatiens tinctoria is cultivated for its tubers in Ethiopia (southern Tigray), no cultivation details are known. As an ornamental, it is easily propagated by cuttings, and can be grown indoor in pots and outside, provided it is protected against frost. Red spider mite and aphids can be problematic pests.
For dyeing the skin, tubers are washed and sometimes peeled, chopped and left steeping for at least 12 hours. Then they are heated, mashed and the paste is applied to palms and nails of hands only (for young girls) or to hands and feet (adult women). It can also be put in leaves, wrapped and tied around the hands and feet for 6–8 hours to get a more lasting dye. To dye cloth, salt and oil are added to the dye bath where chopped tubers are boiling before plunging the cloth. A red ink is obtained by mixing the juices of the tubers of Impatiens tinctoria (‘ensolella’), Impatiens rothii (‘girshirit’) and Rubia cordifolia L. (‘minchier’), and the bark of Osyris quadripartita Salzm. ex Decne. (‘keret’), then letting the liquid mixture thicken in the sun.
Genetic resources and breeding
Impatiens tinctoria is widespread in Africa and does not seem to be in danger of genetic erosion. Nevertheless, because of its great diversity, collection of germplasm is strongly recommended.
As a dye, Impatiens tinctoria most probably will remain only of local importance in Ethiopia. Its importance as an easy-to-grow, fragrant, large ornamental will remain considerable.
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Correct citation of this article:
Jansen, P.C.M., 2005. Impatiens tinctoria A.Rich. In: Jansen, P.C.M. & Cardon, D. (Editors). PROTA 3: Dyes and tannins/Colorants et tanins. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.