Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles 

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A Little Beauty

EsplanadeThe esplanade, the former hell strip, is now a thing of beauty, and this small beauty is good for my soul. I finally finished mulching between all of these hardy perennial plants with cardboard and wood chips. The plants are thriving. The tall Heliopsis is in bright yellow full bloom right now, and the purple hued Spiderwort flowers open each morning. (The Siberian Irises have already completed their flowering.)Esplanada flowers

Thursday, our first daylily blossomed, and there are more to come. In these days of cruelty to children and destruction of so much that we hold dear, I believe it helps to refresh our spirits with the beauty of the earth. Beauty is strength for the struggle.Daylily #1

Decolonization Lessons from Plants

Bittersweet around a tree trunk

 Bittersweet vining around a tree trunk.

After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.

Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree.  It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow. Bittersweet embedded in tree trunk

And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing.  And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.

Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.

So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.

Plantain

Plantain

Transplanting the Mulberry Tree

One of the principles of permaculture is to observe, and then adapt.  So last year, we had planted a mulberry tree in a particular spot, but it was not doing very well, not getting enough sun. (I got fooled by the fact that it is called an understory tree–but our tall trees are at the south of our property, and this one was getting shaded by them.) So with some advice from Mihku, Margy and I found a new spot, on the other side of the back yard, and carefully measured the ten foot radius a mature tree might need. It feels like a great spot for the tree, especially since one of our goals for the tree is as a gift to the birds who might otherwise eat up our future cherries, blueberries, and peaches. This spot is next to the undeveloped land next to our yard.

Myke sorting through dirt

Sifting through soil. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

But the whole project has taken days to finish!  First, we had to deal with the ever present bittersweet whose roots run through our soil from the undeveloped edges all around.  Asian bittersweet is an incredibly invasive plant that can spread by any roots, or by its seeds.  At this time of year, there are hundreds of small plants popping up out of the grass.  Margy has been the primary bittersweet warrior for our land, going round the undeveloped edges and cutting vines and freeing trees that have been almost strangled by them.  (Some were already lost.) We don’t want to use any poison, so it’s a constant process of depriving the roots of active vines, and pulling up any new shoots. (Someday, I might reflect on the parallels between invasive plants and colonization. I certainly have been thinking about it this week.)

Bittersweet roots (tiny ones)

                                                  Bittersweet roots.

In any case, because of the bittersweet, we couldn’t just dig a hole and plant the tree–we had to dig a much bigger hole, and pull out several huge orange roots. Then we had to sift through all the soil that we’d taken from the hole, to remove any tiny orange roots. I have been doing this for so many hours that when I close my eyes I still see tiny orange bittersweet roots. I think I could identify them by feel in the dark as well. Here is what they look like when they are tiny:

For most of our yard, I’ve tried to use a no-till sheet mulching/lasagna gardening method. This is done by layering a mix of brown and green organic matter on top of the soil. So even though we had to dig a huge hole for the mulberry tree, I used the sheet mulching method as I began to fill it.  The soil was pretty barren and sandy below the top few inches, so adding organic matter would help to enrich it.  I used layers of soil, compost, dried grass, seaweed, coffee chaff, and included the broken up grasses from the sod I’d removed from the top.  Here is the hole after some layers had already been added.

Mulberry transplanting hole

The hole beginning to be filled with layers.

Myke layering the mulberry bed

Raking in another layer of soil. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

For the past week, I’ve put in a few hours each day alternately sifting soil from around the edges of the hole, adding the soil to the hole, or adding other layers of compost, dried grass, or seaweed. Margy took turns sifting soil as well. Some days it seemed like it would never be completed.

Finally, today, the last soil was sifted, and the hole was transformed into a mound. I dug a smaller hole in the center of it, and gently moved the small tree, still in dormancy from the winter.  (Last year it didn’t wake up until the end of June, so we were trying to finish before it woke up.) I tucked it in with water and more soil and more water.

Mulberry transplant

Mulberry tree transplanted!

To finish it off, I covered the mound with thick layers of newspaper (to prevent weed growth), and then wood chip mulch.  We were expecting rain in the afternoon today, and tomorrow.  It’s good weather for a big move. I offered a blessing to encourage the small tree to prosper in its new sunnier location, near the crabapple tree and the blueberry bushes. May it be so!

Myke adding wood chips to mulberry

Adding wood chips to mound. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

“Friends of the Indian”

Chives after rain

Chives after the rain

Permaculture teaches us to observe the patterns in nature, and I thought of patterns when I saw this circle of chives after the last rain storm. Plants are so beautiful, especially when they bloom. Especially when they form a circle after rain.

Everything is green now. I go outside and do what I can in the garden. Inside, I finished watching the Ken Burns series The West. One of its stories has really stayed on my mind–the story of a well-meaning white woman who tried to help, but ended up causing harm to Native peoples. I think about how often that pattern has repeated itself in the last 150 years. And I wonder, how do we keep from repeating it again?

Alice Fletcher was a white upper-class feminist, one of those women that we lesbians of my generation have been so thrilled to discover–because she lived and worked with her romantic companion, Jane Gay.  Born in 1838, she went to “the best schools” and was active in the feminist and suffrage groups of New York city. Eventually she found a mentor, the director of the Peabody Museum, to study anthropology and archeology.  In 1881 she lived with and studied the Omaha Indians of Nebraska. She appreciated the culture and became close to many people there, even adopting a son, Francis La Flesche, who himself became a professional ethnologist.  She and he published a multitude of articles and books about Indigenous culture and music.

But she also came to the conclusion that Indian people needed to be brought into the mainstream life of America culture. According to PBS,

Containment had been the goal of federal Indian policy throughout much of the nineteenth century, but in 1883 a group of white church leaders, social reformers and government officials met at Mohonk Lake, New York, to chart a new, more humane course of action. Calling themselves “Friends of the Indian,” they proposed to remold Native Americans into mainstream citizens and to begin this process by re-educating the youngest generation at special Indian schools.

Alice Fletcher devoted herself to pressuring the government for the allotment policy: the breakup of tribal landholdings into individual holdings. “Friends of the Indians” thought it would be good for Native peoples to become more like their white neighbors, to farm, to own their own land individually, rather than collectively.

In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired her to make a survey of all Indian lands for their suitability for allotment. The same year she was hired to manage the allotment of the Omahas’ lands. After the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which provided for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations, she managed the allotment of the Nez Percé’s remaining lands.

But allotment failed drastically in so many ways.  First of all, it failed to honor the choices of Indigenous peoples–most of them did not want allotments but were forced into it. And ultimately, it robbed Native nations of millions of acres of their land, and undermined their cultural sovereignty as nations.

Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal under the New Deal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. The outright sale of “surplus” lands — parts of reservations left over after allotments had been assigned — and the subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian estate from about 150 million acres before the Dawes Act to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and to 48 million by 1934. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was “either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living.”

Alice Fletcher thought she was a friend, helping, doing something good for Native peoples.  But her help caused harm.  No wonder Indigenous people are cautious about those of us who might show up eager to “help.”  Patterns.  And how do we know that what we think of as help might later be revealed to have caused harm?  Let’s ponder that question for a while.

Sea Kale blooming

The perennial sea kale in bloom smells like honey.

Civil War Addendum

I want to add this update to my earlier post about my German Missouri immigrant ancestors connection to the Civil War.  In checking out my notes from another family source, I see that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler came to Cole County, Missouri, via New Orleans, arriving in New Orleans on January 13, 1840, ten years earlier than another source had suggested.  His three brothers came to this country in 1850.  One of them, his brother Anton, served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He enlisted in October 1862 and served as a private in Company D, 42nd Regiment, Missouri Infantry.  He was discharged in December, 1864.  While he was on duty in October 1864, six miles from Jefferson City, he was captured by General Sterling Price’s command and held prisoner by the Confederates at Fort Scott, Kansas, until December of 1864.  He came back to St. Thomas, Missouri in much weakened health, and later applied for a pension related to that health condition, but was denied it.

Missouri Germans in the Civil War

I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War.  While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.”  I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.

In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war.  Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states.  When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.

[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]

This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go.  Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.

But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state?  Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out.  There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union.  They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality.  According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,

[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”

Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union.  According to another article by Patrick Young,

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

Thomas HeislerWhen I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors.  One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]

But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land.  From the same article:

Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.

So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.