Botanical Solutions

Imagine that you are a Roman foot soldier battling barbarians on the northern frontier. Your army just won the day’s battle, but your arm has been pierced by an enemy’s blade, and the wound continues to bleed. As you regroup with your legion, you stumble across a patch of blooming , fern-like wildflowers. You recognize them from the wisedom of your mother who told you the name of these wildflowers: “Achillea” – the flower of Achilles.

You grab a bundle of the flowers, and pick a bundle of leaves. You chew the flowers into a poultice, while you stuff the leafy stems into the bleeding wound in your arms. You spit the poultice out of your mouth, and apply it to the top of the wound. Then, you wrap your wounded arm in leather, and know that you will live to fight another day.

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So, let’s fast forward our imaginations to the modern day.

You are a lawyer. On your way to the office, you wade through commuter traffic and fight to find a parking spot within walking distance of your office. On the way to the office, you must walk under construction scaffolding, and unbeknownst to you, six stories up, a construction worker spills hot coffee on himself, and knocks a piece of rebar down. You are admiring the landscaping across the street when the rebar hits your arm, causing a bleeding wound. Of course, being that you are a lawyer, this starts to get way more complicated. Suffice to say, the ambulance crew cleans your wound with all manner of chemical compounds, and before you know it, you are stitched up and back on your feet, ready to go to war with the construction contractor.

And since we’re using our imaginations, wouldn’t it be ironic if the flowering plants that the lawyer was looking at in the landscaping were Achillea (Yarrow) in full bloom?

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Why “Botanical Solutions?”

Yarrow (Achillea) is a good example. The first story illustrates how a Roman soldier might have used yarrow for medical purposes in the battlefield. Today, science has provided the tools to better understand the meaning behind the historical references and mythological symbols of plants like Achillea/ Yarrow. (link)

Modern science has been able to show that the chemical metabolites of Yarrow contain specific astringent, anti-inflammatory, and pain-reducing qualities (for more on this, review the link above). An important difference between the two introductory stories is the expression of knowledge related to the chemical properties of Yarrow. In the first story, the Roman soldier possessed knowledge of the “medical” properties of yarrow. In the second story, we had to extend our imagination further to suggest that yarrow was even present in the scenario, but not recognized, and not utilized for its “medical” properties.

This is all conjecture. The point is, often, a solution to a problem is right at our feet. The question becomes, do we possess the knowledge required to see it?

Why do so many people go hungry when the earth sustains so much food?

Why do medicines get more expensive while the medicinal plants go unrecognized? Why are family farms struggling?

How does one grow their own food? How can you tell if a wild plant is edible? How can you tell if a plant is poisonous? How do you kill weeds? What weeds are edible? What are metabolites? How can I screen the view from my neighbor’s window, attract butterflies and humming birds, have flowers all year long, and still have a garden with foraging deer? How about in the shade?

A Marine that I worked with once told me that there are a thousand ways to solve any problem. Good advice from a good man. I live under the presumption (admittedly, one of many) that plants are the biological foundation of all higher life forms . So I follow this to arguably the best pragmatic conclusion that any given problem has a botanical solution.

And there you have it. Plant Fix- Botanical Solutions.

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Plant-Speak

When a plant needs something it is lacking, it will often provide signs in the foliage. Understanding these signs will help the gardener solve garden problems more effectively. The following are a few signs to look for:

1- droopy leaves, wilting- this is an indication that the plant needs water. Check the soil below the surface. The deeper you check, the better you can gage the quality of the soil. If the soil is dry, water deeply. Sometimes, the leaves might act droopy even though the soil is wet. If too much water is the problem, after some time, the droopy leaves will turn dark colors and die. If an excess of water is the problem, dry the soil out by not watering it. Repot the plant if necessary.

-it should also be noted that sometimes, during the peak afternoon heat of the summer, many plants will droop their leaves to avoid sun scald and conserve water. A general rule of thumb is that if the leaves are perky in the morning, they don’t need water, but if they droop in the morning, this is sign that they are thirsty.

2- discolored leaves- depending on the color, this could mean many things.

If the leaves are the color:
-Brown- pick a leaf off the stem and bend it between your fingers. If it is crunchy and crumbles, the leaf is too dry, and so is the plant. If the leaf bends and flexes between your fingers but doesn’t crumble, then this is a sign that the plant has too much water, and the roots are beginning to drown. Always check the soil after the leaf crumble test to confirm conclusion.

-Yellow- this could mean a few different things. Often, this means that the plant needs to be fertilized, and the remedy is nitrogen, and micronutrients like iron, calcium, and magnesium. If the plant continues to shed yellow leaves through the seasons, year after year, and starts to look sickly, this could mean that a pH imbalance in the soil is responsible. This could mean that your soil is either too acidic, or too basic (or alkaline, the most common problem in Texas), and important nutrients for the plant are being locked away in the dirt. If your soil is too alkaline, then amend the soil around the plant heavily with compost, pine bark mulch, and/or coco-fiber. Spray liquid seaweed often, and/or spread epsom salts or horticultural sulphur in the cool months. If you soil is too acidic, add lime, ashes, or other basic soil amendments. These steps should help correct the problematic yellow of the leaves.

-yellow could also be an indication of a fungal infection. To check for this, examine the leaf for circular raised bumps. They might appear to have tiny bubbles on top. This is a good indication that a fungus is at work causing the leaf to die. See “Gardening 101” to resolve basic fungal problems.

– white- if the leaves have a coating of white on them, examine it closely with your thumb. If it is a powdery substance, the plant has powdery mildew, and any organic fungicide will do. (see “Gardening 101“) If, on the other hand, the white seems to be an infestation of insects (there are many kinds, like scale and whitefly), then cut the bad stems off the plants and spray with an organic insecticide (more on this later).

-purple- the leaves of many plants will turn purple in the fall, and this is normal. Most of the time, these leaves will fall off for the deciduous plants, while other more “evergreen” varieties will keep their purple leaves all winter. The purple is the result of a shift in the production of certain chemicals at the onset of colder weather and diminishing periods of sunlight. However, if during the peak of the growing season, and a plant’s leaves turn uncharacteristically purple, this could be an indication of some kind of cultivation stress.

-unnaturally multi-colored , “sickly”- this could be an indication of a kind of cultivation stress, like drought, or a problem with fertilizer concentration. More importantly, it could be an indication that the plant has contracted a virus. If this is the case, look for unusual sap or “weeping”, look for leaf “burn”. If you are unsure, call a specialist to very this. If it is a virus, then parts of the plant will die off, eventually taking the whole plant with it. It is best to remove an infected specimen, throw it away, and heavily compost the soil is was growing in. It would be best to not plant the same kind of plant as the infected one in the same spot.

3- If the leaves appear burned on the edges- this could mean heat or drought stress. The solution is to water the plant deeply, and it will usually recover. If the leaf burn occurred after fertilization, then this is probably a nitrogen burn. Hopefully, the plant can be saved by deeply watering the soil to dilute the nitrogen before it burns the entire plant. Sometimes, a leaf burn is the result of a viral infection. If this is the case, look for excess sap, “weeping”, discolored leaves, and dead stems. Consult a specialist if you are unsure.

4- unnatural spots on the leaves- this could be a fungal leaf spot. Look for raised bumps like bubbles on the surface of the spot (a magnifying glass comes in handy). Treat this with an organic fungicide, and try to correct any cultivation issues that might lead to fungal leaf spot. (see “Gardening 101“)

5- holes in the leaf- insect and predator damage. Small, tiny holes or spots can be aphids, or “rasping” insect damage. Big chunks of leaf cut from the edges is typical of grasshopper damage. Smaller caterpillars will eat away at the interior parts of the leaf, while snails, slugs, and large caterpillars can eat entire leaves in a brief amount of time. A general natural or organic insecticide/ repellant will help take care of this, such as neem oil, spinosad, cedar oil, garlic, or pyrethrum. For caterpillars use spinosad or BT. Grasshoppers are are difficult to treat for. For such things, sometimes it is best to think outside of the box and hang a bird feeder in the area, and let the birds take care of the grasshoppers.

6- webbing in the leaf (look for it in the above picture)- spider mites. A strong jet of water targeted on the webbing followed by the application of neem oil or a general organic insecticide should help control spider mites.

Well, this is a good start, at least. There is always more to talk about. Check back for more tips in the future.

Ethnobotany and the Secret Life of Plants: Episode 1

Many times over the course of my work, I have been asked about my interest in gardening and botany in general. Depending on the situation, I generally provide one of two answers.

The common answer is casual. “I liked gardening and wanted to learn more.”

But the second answer, the real answer, is the one that I save for clients that I have worked with often. I became interested in plants because, as an anthropology major, I was interested in the way people of various cultures around the world use plants. Through the course of my studies I came to find that plants are a fundamental element of human society, and each culture has its own manner by which it interacts with the botanical world. And so, my academic focus shifted from anthropology to ethnobotany (via Mesoamerica, more on this later).

Ethnobotany is basically the scientific study of how people around the world use plants: plants as tools, as construction materials, and fibers, plants as color dyes for works of art and textiles, plants as food, and plants as medicine. The Harvard botanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes is considered by many to be the founder of modern ethnobotany. Now, every science has it’s intellectual hero. Physics has Newton, Einstein, Planck. Chemistry has Robert Boyle. Music has Mozart. Ethnobotany has Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, and it was he that lifted the curtain on the secret life of plants. Unfortunately, only a few were paying attention.

Richard Evans Schultes is among the greatest academic geniuses of the natural world that only a few know about. Too bad too. His work is fantastic. He was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be. He was charting ethnographic work before ethnographers knew what they were doing. He roamed the jungles of South America looking for isolated tribal people so that he might understand the plants they use. He took really good notes, and helped shaped the scientific classification of many previously unknown but important plants. Greater than all of that, he helped influence the way chemistry and pharmacology utilize plant metabolites for medical production. And did I mention that he was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be?

After studying the work of R.E. Schultes, I became a fan. The anthropologist in me had dreams of traveling to remote parts of the Amazon to enter an indigenous culture and study their gardening methods. But, the blessed life that I live has not yet allowed this flight of intellectual fancy. So, the pragmatist in me has settled for gardening at home, and learning from the garden in the manner of a native living in the Amazon. The problem is, I live in Texas, and the soil and climate are much different. (In fact, they are almost opposites).

I have tried to grow many different plants. Many have died, but many more seem to live. I have learned that each plant has a specific window of requirements that it needs to live well. For some it’s more water, for others, it’s a lower soil pH. Every plant wants to grow in its own ideal climate, so the trick in gardening is changing the gardening environment to match the plants ideal growing conditions. And if one pays attention, the plant will show signs that tell the gardener what it needs. (more on this later).

One of the rewards of the garden is that it is a learning environment that can open up new possibilities for enhancing life. Gardens can provide food, and they can add spice to food. They can provide medicines, and can inspire new medical treatments. They can provide new color dyes to add to a painting, and create new forms of fuel. They can provide a habitat for wildlife, and they can create a peaceful place to relax and enjoy life.

This is why I garden. This is why I work, and why I learn, and desire to help others do the same. This is the long answer to the question of, “how did you get into gardening?” Sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “because I like gardening.” This is most certainly true, but please understand that plants have more to offer us than we can completely understand. For everything we currently know about plants as a collective culture, there remains much more that we do not know, simply because we haven’t acquired the proper knowledge. In other words, gardening and learning about plants offer a broad potential for expanding the way we use them, and enjoy our environment.

And, as the work of Dr. Richard Evans Schultes illustrates, plants have secrets. Guarded secrets, but important ones none-the-less (more on this later).

Gardening 101

Plants give us food, oxygen, medicine, industrial tools, flowers, and a sense of beauty, purpose, peace, and serenity. If you have ever felt sad when a plant died, or curious to know the name of that perennial ground cover that smells like mint, (it’s probably Mint), or if you are addicted to Farmville, or if you have ever put seeds in the ground just to see what happens, then…

CONGRATULATIONS!!! You are a gardener! Here is your trowel and shears, and now, get busy, because this world needs more gardeners!

Is it really that simple? Yes… and no. Yes in that all gardening requires is that one want to do it. But no, because, there is a steep learning curve, and as of yet, no one knows exactly where the curve ends. In gardening, there is more that remains unknown than known. So don’t be daunted by the challenge of what you do not know. This challenge will never really go away, because the more you learn, the more you will see how much more learning needs to be done. The most important thing is that one wants to garden. The second most important thing is that one know a few gardening short-cuts. 

We live in a generation fortunate enough to have the internet at our disposal, and this tool can provide almost instant access to just about any aspect of knowledge in humanity’s cosmos. So, if you have questions about something, look for an answer somewhere in the internet, place’s like DavesGarden.com or aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/. Apply some scrutiny to the details because the internet doesn’t always tell the truth (although I don’t know many gardeners that lie about gardening). 

Of course, you could always talk to a fellow gardener or visit local nurseries to ask for help. Gardeners are often eager to help. And you can build a substantial gardening reference library by visiting discount or used book stores. No need to get another diploma. You have your trowel and shears, and you want to do it. Now, you need a garden.

Most plants require four fundamental elements: Sun, Soil, Water,and Air. Most garden problems and garden failures stem from a problem with one or more of these four elements. So, when it comes to the garden environment, pay close attention to these four things.

1- Sun- how much Sun does the area get? A full day? Half a day? Is it morning sun only, or afternoon only? Is it filtered light? Deep shade? You may not want to put a plant with big floppy round leaves in all day sun, unless it has an ample supply of water. This is because the leaf surface will lose water faster and could potentially burn out during a summer heat wave. Likewise, a plant with long slender leaves may not grow well under deep shade. The smaller leaf surface is less efficient at collecting light in shaded areas. So, study the way the sunlight moves through a potential garden site as this will help you narrow down the choices of plants, and even limit any potential gardening failures, and this is always good for the gardening self-esteem. 

2- Soil- It is common to hear the word “competition” bantered about as the driving force of progress. This is something Darwin’s infamous Theory, Ayn Rand, and the Free Market economy have in common (rim shot please, no?). But gardeners understand that cooperation is the real driving force of success. The evidence is in the dirt. A good soil is itself a living ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, organic (carbon-based) matter, water, air, and roots. A good soil involves all of these pieces working together to make good soil, and when one or more pieces cease to function properly, the soil begins to “die”. The best way to maintain a good soil is with compost, because this is how plants and animals take care of the forest when no human is there to mess things up. Compost is the dead organic material in various stages of decomposition that releases nutrients into the soil so the plants can grow. 

If you don’t have a compost pile, I highly suggest making one. In the meantime, you can buy compost at most gardening centers with a vested interest in helping other gardeners. To make a compost pile, simply collect dried leaves, pulled weeds, and vegetable kitchen scraps and place them in a pile with other dirt, ash from the fireplace, and shredded newspapers. One can dress this up with wood or metal fencing, or if you don’t mind your compost looking like a grave, leave it open. Be proud, enjoy it for what it is: life through cooperation. Rotate it every once in a while, and add some water if it gets dusty. Wait 6-12 months, and then apply to spent soil or areas of erosion. The trees will like it too. The thing to remember is to keep your soil alive, and it will return the favor by keeping you and your garden in a healthy sate of mind.

3- Water- Plants like water, but they don’t like too much water. The best way to water plants is to follow the lead of nature. Water deeply, and allow the soil to dry somewhat. By doing this, you are allowing air to follow behind the water as it falls deeper into the ground. The roots of the plants will follow the water into the soil too, and over time, a deeper, stronger root system will develope. If you water by hand, focus the water toward the base of the plant and especially the soil around it, and avoid spraying the leaves too much. Consistently damp leaves can lead to fungal problems which can spread rapidly, so when the leaves do get wet, encourage them to dry as much as possible. Too little water can kill a plant, but so can too much water, and often, over watering will kill the plant faster. 

I like to wait until the plant tells me it needs water before I provide a deep watering. The plant will tell me this by drooping it’s leaves. If the leaves start to shrivel, then the plant has reached the next stage in its thirst, and water should be applied as soon as possible. Often, a plant will adapt to drought by allowing leaves to turn brown and fall off. When this happens, the plant has reached extreme-stage water conservation mode, and will thus quickly turn ugly in order to save itself. Often they will recover soon after they receive the next deep watering. 

If you find that your favorite plant has died, and the soil is wet, and come to think of it, you gave it enough water, odds are, it died because you drowned it. Don’t take it personally, we’ve all done it. Just add that check to your scorecard of learned experiences, and move forward, because even though plants like water, they also like…

4- Air- Plants need to breath, both through the leaves and the roots. This is why over-watering can be so detrimental to the health of the plant. In addition to slowing down the movement of air across the plant, an excess of water in the soil (and air) can cause all kinds of fungal problems like root rot, powdery mildew, and leaf spot. So, in addition to sunlight, soil, and water, pay attention to the air. Water deeply and less frequently. Trim or prune your plants to optimize growth and airflow across the plant. Alter sprinkler heads so that more water is focused toward the ground and less into the air. Thin out dense leaves so that they can dry out faster. Often, this will reduce fungal and insect infestations, while allowing the presence of air and beneficial insects to help maintain balance. 

There will be a test next week, and a paper due next friday. No, not really, but using a notebook or journal to document what you do in the garden is highly advantageous. You will appreciate this more over time. 

Now, you have your trowel, shears, some handy short cuts, and the will to do it (and hopefully a notebook). So what are you waiting for? Thanks for being a gardener, and don’t give up, because gardening is a gift that quite possibly has no end.

Herb Garden 1

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Damianita and Lavender (pictured). I have these at the front of my herb garden. These plants are not totally edible, per se, although there are exotic food recipes that might call for their limited use. These plants are semi-woody herbs with fragrant leaves that are often used in potpourri, or medicinal oils. They make fine additions to the herb garden because they are low maintenance and evergreen (in warm climates), and their blooms attract pollinators.

Herbs are plants that have useful leaves and flowers, either as food, spices, or for other non-edible uses like incense, potpourri, or medicines. Herb Gardens are one of the easiest gardens to have, as most herbs don’t require a lot of attention. The key with most herbs is that they like sun. So find a sunny spot in the yard (or plant a pot on a sunny porch), and think about what kinds of things you like to cook. Also, consider what kinds of teas you like, because what you determine from this should reflect in your herb selection.

If you like to cook spaghetti, then plant thyme, oregano (or Mexican oregano), and plant a bay laurel (mine grows in a container in part shade and does very well). This way, when you cook spaghetti, you can have fresh herbs at your disposal, and these make everything taste better.

If you like to cook Mexican food, then you are going to have a large herb garden (and this is even better than a regular one). Be sure to plant cilantro, mexican oregano, thyme, epazote, mint, sage, chives, and mexican tarragon.

If you like to grill, plant rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, bananas, hoja santa, and any other herb you might experiment with. Remember, most of these plants will thrive on minimal care and some water (except the hoja santa), so don’t be afraid to be adventurous. Herbs are also inexpensive, so the return on investment is through the roof.

If you like to drink teas, plant lemon balm, lemon verbena, and/ or lemon grass. Don’t forget about mint and basil. And if you really want to go all out, find a Camellia sinensis plant, and grow your own green tea. It is not as hard as you might think.

If you like scented plants like Lavender, Damianita, Wormwood, and Sage, then add them to the herb garden. And with all seed-bearing herbs, save the seeds, and give them away to friends and family.