Towards a Sustainable Yellow Dye

Heading out from the Kampung Raja to record the Hau Molo population. August 2018

The recipe used for making a yellow-brown natural dye for traditional batiks in central Java is known as soga. Soga has three many components: Peltophorum pterocarpum bark (jambal in Javanese), Ceriops tagal bark (tinggi) and Maclura cochinchinensis heartwood (tegeran). Jambal, known as Yellow Flamboyant in English, is common. Tinggi is a mangrove species, and like all mangroves in Indonesia is suffering from declining habitats. Tegeran, or Cockspur Thorn, is a slow-growing forest vine that takes many decades to reach the 8-10 cm diameter that starts to develop a yellow dye-bearing heartwood.

In Timor, Cockspur Thorn is called Hau Molo, literally “yellow wood”. Almost all harvestable vines were cut and sold to traders for the batik industry by 2000, and the only place where there are still a significant number of mature vines is on the lands protected by the strict customary land use rules of the village of Boti.

In August last year, we travelled with ethnobotanist Tony Cunningham and worked with Boti’s customary leader Namah Benu, to document the land’s Hau Molo population and develop a management plan for its sustainable use*. Harvesting the old plants, or even branches of the old plants, would not work, as replacement growth is so slow. The question became, how do we encourage planting of a species that might only be harvestable as a dye source by the current farmers’ grandchildren?

This collaborative work between Threads of Life, Tony Cunningham (Murdoch University) and the Timor Tengah Selatan Forest Management Office is being funded by the Australian government (

Measuring how far a vine is from the tree it is climbing. August 2018

Measuring the base diameter of an old Hau Molo specimen. August 2018

Hiking the hills and valleys, we measured the GPS location, base diameter, and height of each plant we found, as well as noting the species of and distance to the tree it was climbing in. Most vines were next to fruit-bearing trees, where birds go to eat and often defecate, which showed that Hau Molo seeds are distributed by birds. Note the large spines from which the species gets its English name, and that we had to carefully avoid while working!

We found a healthy number of old mature vines, and many young plants that had sprouted either from exposed roots or seeds, but very few vines of intermediate age. The cause of this was the unintended consequence of introducing cattle to replace water buffalo in the 1960s and 70s. Where the buffalo would never stray far from water, and helped keep waterways open, cattle roam everywhere and eat or trample everything. Although the number of livestock people could keep increased dramatically, the state of the Hau Molo population mirrors the resultant poor health of local forest ecosystem.

Cattle roam freely across the landscape. August 2018

Chris Koenunu (left) and Putu Danayasa showing us the Hau Molo cuttings in the forestry department nursery in Soe, Timor. November 2018

Tony’s wide botanical experience saw in these challenges the opportunity for a solution. Mau Molo is in the same family as osage (Maclura Pomifera), a North American plant that yields an orange dye, and was used as a living fence because of its fearsome spines. Also Maclura species are in the Moraceae family, which generally sprout well from cuttings. Could Hau Molo (Maclura cochinchinensis) cuttings be planted within existing but damaged fence lines to help control the ranging of cattle? If so, it would have a short term value to farmers that might encourage them to plant it. Based on this question Threads of Life, Tony Cunningham, and Chris Koenunu who is a scientist at the Timor Tengah Selatan Forest Management Office in Soe near Boti, are working to test propagation practices.

Chris’s cuttings from August last year (note the painted tops to stop moisture evaporation) were planted along a fence line during the rainy season at the end of 2018. The success of this work led to Namah Benu supporting an expanded trial this year.

Hau Molo cuttings planted next to a fence line. March 2019

The new Hau Molo nursery in Boti. September 2019

Although it is still the middle of the dry season in Timor, there is a prohibition in Boti against cutting trees after the end of September. This is a tradition that helps natural propagation by stopping trees being cut during their fruiting season. For the Hau Molo work it means taking cuttings now and having them watered until the rains begin. Last week Wayan and Willy from Threads of Life and Chris from the forestry department went to Boti and started 137 cuttings. They are now in a shade-cloth covered nursery next to Namah Benu’s house with his clear commitment to water them weekly until the monsoon starts.