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 

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

Breathe Beauty

This spring, I go from “hard work in the garden” days, to “collapse on the couch” days. With so little sun and so much rain, I feel an urgency on those good days to do as much as possible.  Monday, for example, I was able to inoculate the orchard with Wine Cap mushroom spawn.  That involved shoveling and hauling lots of wood chips from the pile, via a wheelbarrow, over to the trees, laying layers of wood chips in patches near each of the four trees, then spreading the spawn, then more wood chips on top.  (This is on top of old wood chips that are already around the trees.) I also put some compost in patches that I had missed last week.  I also planted chamomile and sunchokes that I had received in trade at the Plant Swap on Saturday.

Then, after, while I am taking a hot Epson salt bath for my aching muscles, I imagine that I will blog about it the next day–but I just haven’t have the energy for much more than Netflix for two days after any garden work days.  So I haven’t blogged about the Fedco tree sale, or about repurposing the garden bed behind the garage for three new blueberry plants, or about spreading seaweed mulch near the trees, or adding compost, or planting kale and more peas.  I haven’t blogged about any of it.

Meanwhile, between the work and the collapse, it is easy to miss the ephemeral beauty of it all.  The other day, I noticed I was missing something. I stopped to sit on the deck, and then walked around the yard, not working. I just looked at bushes and flowers and ferns, paying attention to what was there, appreciating the miracle of plants and their growth.

Violets

These violets came up on their own in a crack in the pavement near the bulkhead.

Fiddleheads coming back!

I thought the fiddlehead fern I planted last year had died, but here they are coming up again near the big old pine tree.

Golden Seal coming up

And here is the golden seal that I planted last year, also coming back after seeming death!

I finally sat down again on the deck, and after I had been there awhile, the hummingbirds boldly flew in to drink from our feeders.

It is hard for me to have so little energy this spring.  I wish I could do much more in the garden, and not be so exhausted every time afterwards.  I guess this is my new reality, this balancing act. But I am reminding myself to appreciate the beauty around me, to notice the color purple on the patio (as Alice Walker might say), to be grateful, and quiet enough for the birds to fly around taking no notice of my presence. To breathe slowly enough for shadows of joy to sneak in.

Hummer shadow

Plants and their wisdom

Sea Kale emerging

Sea Kale emerging in my garden, April 3rd.

This morning, I have been reading Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman. It is a marvelous book on so many levels–history lesson, gardening guide, liberation manual–and it feels a privilege to learn so much from a work that is actually focused toward Black farmers and gardeners. I knew so little about the skills of enslaved Africans who brought with them to these lands African plants and knowledge of growing them.  I knew so little about the work of George Washington Carver who was one of the first to study and promote regenerative land practices.  I know so little about multiple plants and their habits and their gifts for us.  Get this book!  

But then, after reveling in reading all morning, I find myself opening to multiple layers of deep grief underneath the joy of reading the book.  Grief for the African peoples who were stolen from their land and enslaved.  Grief for these Turtle Island lands, whose balanced ecosystems and soils were so depleted by the cutting of forests, and the plowing under of the soil, as well as by the war waged on their people.  And grief for myself and my communities–that we have lost our connection to the ecosystems, we have lost our connection to the wisdoms, we have lost our connection to the plants.

I get overwhelmed with the abundant knowledge in the book, and I remember this feeling in other wonderful books I have read, the feeling that I have no hope of learning everything I need to learn, in the limited years left to me on this planet.  I get the feeling that I have no hope of regaining access to the collective wisdom that has been cut off in so many ways.  And I realize that this too is part of colonization.

My East Frisian ancestors were some of those who plowed over the fertile prairies back in the 19th century.  Grief.  But at least they knew how to grow their own food, and provide for their families from their land.  I read online recently that in the last two generations, most Americans have lost the capacity to do that.  More grief.  I don’t know how to do that.  And I can’t envision getting to that ability before I die.  Plus, it is not really something we can learn from books.

In Farming While Black, I was reading about herbs and their healing properties, and there were too many to take in–even though it was a limited list of the herbs they grow and find to use in their community.  I feel lucky if I can learn about two or three herbs in a season.  All of us should have been learning the herbs since the early days of childhood wandering in the woods.  The plants are our elders, our guides, the wise beings who know how to feed us and heal us and care for us.  This separation from the plants is also a part of colonization.

One answer to my dilemma is about community.  No one is meant to have all the knowledge on their own.  It is okay that I can’t learn it all on my own.  But I feel grief too for the fragmentation of communities that has kept us from sharing this learning and wisdom with each other.  And I feel grateful for each person who has shared their knowledge of plants with me.  I feel grateful for organizations like the Resilience Hub, who bring people together to share so much wisdom of soil and plants and ecosystems.

But for this moment, I want to honor the pain of colonization, honor the pain of what has been lost, honor the pain of so many threads of connection that were torn apart and destroyed, never to be rewoven.  It is a long journey to healing.

Winter Kale

winter kaleI just have to say it once more:  kale is amazing! I picked this kale yesterday morning, leaves frozen on the stalk, snow on the ground.  I had already picked most of the kale–just leaving a few tiny leaves that didn’t seem big enough for anything.  But they must have grown a little in the meager sunlight and freezing snowy weather we’ve been having the last two weeks of November.  I don’t know how they do it, but that is why they are so amazing.  The plant just isn’t willing to succumb to the freeze/thaw weather that has killed off most of the other plants.  So when I was walking through the winter orchard, I found several small frozen leaves, broke them off, and cooked them up for breakfast–they taste great!

Kale in snow

The Fox

Path over the brookToday I set out on my usual walk around the neighborhood. When I got to the newly paved way that leads over Capisic Brook toward the new Rowe school, I saw a fox cross over at the other end, and slip into the path into the woods (before I could catch them in a photo). So I felt invited to walk that path along the brook as well.  I couldn’t see the fox anymore, but I could hear squirrels doing their alarm chatters, and guessed they might be warning others about the fox.

I hadn’t walked that path for at least a week, and along the way, I noticed that someone had been upgrading the trail, with logs positioned on the edges, and a gravel/sand mix spread out over the trail.Brook Trail Upgrades That made me smile. I like to see the evidence of other people caring for the trail.

It is a beautiful sunny day today and I was enjoying the trees and the shifting colors in the leaves.  We’ve learned to speak about the weather in our Wabanaki Language class.  “It’s sunny” would be “Kisuhswiw.” The word for sun is kisuhs.  It’s pronounced starting with a hard “g” sound, and a “z” sound for the first “s.”

On my walk I was thinking about Findhorn, the community in Scotland that was founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. The three had been living in a caravan park, with few material resources, so Peter started a small garden. During her meditation, Dorothy began receiving instructions from the spirits of the plants, showing how best to grow them.  The plants thrived, and became so huge that they attracted international attention.  I was thinking about the possibilities for communion between myself and the plant beings.  Even as I attempt to learn about gardening, the plants are actually my best teachers. Yet, in our materialistic society, it is easy to doubt or forget that communication.

When I reached the river of rocks, I wondered if the path workers would have built a new bridge over the drainage area, but it was the same.  Then, further down the slope, I saw the fox! I think they were eating an old dead squirrel.  This time I was able to take a few photos, before they decided to move on with their day.  I felt blessed. Anytime a wild shy creature lets you spy them, you know it is a blessing. May you also be blessed today!Fox