Saturday, September 3, 2016

Featured Plant: Bayberry

Bayberry at Island Beach State Park

Here's a nice surprise, I thought. I was leading a class through a young woodland at Duke Farms, reading the history of the forest by looking at the plants. We were surrounded by pin oaks and red cedars. Shrubs were scattered beneath the trees. A nearby deerberry was laden with sour fruit. And we were looking at a shrub with lustrous leaves, slightly toothed and aromatic.

I handed out a leaf for everyone to smell. It had highlights of citrus and a rich undertone of bay. As it should: this was bayberry (Morella pensylvanica*), a native shrub with a doubly apt name: it resembles the culinary bay in its aromatics, and it is often found near the shore -- the "bay", if you will.

While the "bay" in its name may be well-explained, "berry" requires a bit more imagination. The fruit is a small drupe with a single seed, covered in a gritty grey wax. The wax is utilized for its aromatic qualities and rendered into bayberry candles. It also is the source of an unusual wildlife partnership.

Rutgers professor Ted Stiles and colleague Allan Place studied the yellow-rumped warbler[1], a bird species that can readily be observed feeding on bayberry in late summer into winter. While most animal species find saturated long-chain fatty acids -- bayberry wax, for one -- to be fairly indigestible, they documented that these warblers readily digest it, with greater than 80% assimilation efficiency. Because this food is available primarily to yellow-rumped warblers, and bayberry fruit tends to persist into the winter, the warbler is able to overwinter well north of other warbler species.

Because of its low, tufted form and glossy leaves, bayberry makes a good landscaping shrub and a great hedge. We recently planted a few near our driveway, which Rachel jokingly dubbed "the poor man's Rhododendrons". Funny, the bayberries do have a rounded form and an almost evergreen waxy leaf, and they're a heck of a lot faster growing and easier to keep alive than rhododendrons.

Bayberry seems to tolerate almost all conditions -- dry, wet, saline -- and it's deer resistant. I've found it growing in abundance in sandy coastal soils, but also peppered into moist clay meadows in the Sourland. As a nitrogen fixer (in association with Frankia bacteria), bayberry has an advantage in poor, leached, depleted, and other difficult soils.

So bayberry is a tough customer -- except for one factor. It is not very shade tolerant, and once the canopy closes in, bayberry winks out, mission accomplished.

As the class and I considered the bayberry in the woods, we looked at the surrounding pin oaks. Soon this woodland would coalesce and the bayberry would be shaded out. It was an indicator of what had gone before -- an open scrub with scattered shrubs, herbs, and grasses, and one of the last clues we needed in confirming that landscape's history.

*Note the name change. Until recently, this species and its congeners were known under the genus Myrica. Which I happened to like better, but oh well.

[1] Place, Allen R., and Stiles, Edmund W. "Living Off the Wax of the Land". The Auk 109(2), 1992

Bayberry, surrounded by fall color, Plainsborough, NJ

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Featured Plant: Woodland Sunflower

Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus)

We walk through glades of chestnut oak, huckleberry, and lowbush blueberry... searching. The acidic gneiss ridgeline has its own charm, but we have our eyes out for something different, a little pocket of mineral-rich rock among the heaths and oaks.

The trees are wide-spaced and thrawn, contorted by wind and claw-rooted in the glacial gravels. Then, a hint. The airy panicles of woodland brome, in a charismatic mass under pignut hickory.

Following our botanist instincts, we walk towards the brome into a glade where shallow soils clad a richer rock. Hoary mountain mint is flowering in shades of cool gray lavender, and beside it rises the woodland sunflower...

Woodland sunflower is a perennial, a relative of the annual sunflower we cultivate for seeds and for its large golden face. It favors areas of open woods and sun over stony, well-drained soils. In New Jersey, its favored sites include electrical utility corridors and steep-banked roadsides throughout the northern Highlands, as well as woodland glades.

It sports numerous large (1.5" - 3") blooms over strongly vertical stems. Its rough leaves are sessile, without leaf-stems, and this character as well as its habitat separates it from the other perennial sunflowers in our flora. It is prone to growing in colonies connected by underground rhizomes. The effect is stalwart, geometrical, and radiant.

Its broad, open flowers are well-suited to generalist pollinators, but also support a half dozen specialist pollinators of sunflowers. Its most conspicuous wildlife relationship is with goldfinches. They are energetic harvesters of the oily achenes (seeds), which ripen while the golden ray flowers persist on each bloom. Thus the bright golden hues of the finches become a camouflage of sorts, though the birds are far too exuberant to be considered cryptic.

In the naturalistic garden and restoration, woodland sunflower is well-suited to partially shaded edges over average to dry soils. It needs space, given its spreading nature, but will enhance its modest plot with years of sunny golden blooms, bees, and birds.

Some suitable companion species for building a rich glade plant community include upland boneset (Eupatorium sessilifolium), hoary mountain mint (Pyncnanthemum incanum), late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Carolina rose (Rosa carolina), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and hairy woodland brome (Bromus pubescens).

Sunday, January 31, 2016


Building with stones at the river

Beren and I are sitting at a table at the Crayola Factory, making stuff with modeling clay. At a table near us, a young boy is crying. I don't recall knowing why. He looks sincerely upset.

His parents are next to him. Dad, up on his seat, has a head like a worn pencil eraser -- a football type with a developing potbelly. Mom is beside Dad. Dad starts counting from three down. "If you don't stop crying, we're leaving!

"3...    2...    1..."

The kid sucks it all in and stops crying. His emotions have been successfully suppressed.

Is this fathering? It makes my blood boil to see it.

As fathers, we often have little support, context, or skill. Our image of parenting frequently comes from our own parents, either in conformity or reaction to their style. 

To be a good father nurtures the child, but it also nurtures the adult. Like all deep relationships, the boundaries we police between our self and others open. The opportunity for transformation is there.

We need good fathering, not just because we need to save children from being emotionally stunted future adults, but because we need men (fathers) to develop emotionally as well too. Oh boy do we need that.

Here are my thoughts on fathering, without caveats or disclaimers.

1. Trust your child

My son Beren is five. He uses saws, knives, hammers, shovels, clamps, scissors, clippers, and loppers. Why? Because I trust Beren and have given him each tool to use, as soon as he was physically capable of wielding it. In this way, my son has authority over his own safety. If he makes mistakes, he will learn from them. Rather than endangering him, this has nurtured a sense of carefulness and responsibility in him. I'd be afraid to hand a saw to a child whose parents have always told them "be careful, don't touch that!".

2. Lead without rules

I see three types of parenting out there:

-The authoritarian sets rules and then bullies the child into adhering to them through yelling, punishment, and physical intimidation. Though they may believe themselves to "firm" or "strict", they are in constant conflict with their child.

Comment: If the child is bound by rules, they will not be able to directly experience the moral foundations of those rules. They'll do things because "that's the rules", not because their experience and heart guides them. When rules break down (they will) the child will not be able to judge complex situations and act in an ethical way.

-The nag is always telling their child "You need to share...", "Say please", "OK, I'm going to count to ten and then it's time to go". They are insecure and unwilling to exercise direct authority, and they're also obsessed with what other adults are thinking at all times, hence the admonitions to share and use courteous language whether or not the child is old enough to developmentally prepared to understand.

Comment: If the child is nagged into sharing, saying hello, saying please, they will do so in a rote manner and not because of empathy or an emotional connection with others. Also, nagging is subject to being ignored -- and rightfully so. Grow a sack, and save your authority for when it's really needed instead of spilling it out willy-nilly.

-The space case is staring at their gadget or thinking about their stocks or doing whatever but is fundamentally unable to parent.

Comment: Why did you have children?

So, what roles can a father take other than those caricatured above? One of a father's roles is to allow and encourage their child to have experiences while he provides backup -- safety if needed, love when something goes wrong.

If there is something that could be learned from a situation gone awry, don't ruin it by turning red in the face and acting like it's the apocalypse. Or by nagging the situation to death. Or by withdrawing. Listen, talk it over. Deal with it. Role play using imaginary characters if need be to elucidate a story or interpret an experience.

There's this sense that "bad" behavior comes from "bad" children. Fathers need to know that "bad" behavior is often an honest reaction to a bad situation, environment... or bad parenting. Read the symptoms and think about what the underlying cause is. Also, a lot of bad behavior can be solved with a snack, drink of water, or with good attention like sitting together and reading a book.

It's lazy to get angry, blow up, then withdraw. I do it sometimes, but it sure doesn't feel right.

3. Model Behavior and Knowledge

People are mimetic learners. We mirror astonishingly complex movements and behaviors. By doing, we shape our cognitive bodies in such a way that the pattern can be enacted again. Similarly, we learn "facts" through stories and puzzles, because the mind travels along the narrative or solves problems and facts are thus imbued with meaning.

Fathers need to avoid downloading facts to their children. They need to get creative about knowledge. Live it, move it, use it. Don't teach geometry, go build a fucking shed.

4. Show love

People are animals. We have bodies. We respond to love that is expressed through closeness, hugs, and touch. Withhold these from a child and you will create two emotional robots - yourself and your child.

5. Support Mom

If Mom is really mothering, her job is harder than yours. No matter what kind of high-roller 70 hour a week wage slavery you've chosen. Stop patting yourself on the back for making money -- an abstraction -- and start supporting Mom who's making an emotionally whole young person... or trying.

6. Trust Nature

I'll try to keep this short.

-Breastmilk is the only appropriate food for babies and nurtures young children both physically and emotionally. Substitute engineered chemicals and your child will be less healthy, less smart, and less emotionally whole. Sorry, it's just the cold hard truth.

-Move! 50% of our human cognition is devoted to complex movement. If a child is forced to sit all day while "learning", 50% of their brain is not being engaged. This half of the brain is not some distinct hemisphere that can be shut off. The brain is literally understimulated by 50%.

-The natural world is much more complex than our built environments, comprised of right angle geometry, circles, and homogeneous materials. New construction is the worst - at least urban environments have filth and decay for complexity. A child's movement and awareness will be much more complex in a natural environment. Note that the more anthropogenically degraded an outdoor environment is -- the more it has been plowed, graded, mowed, and sprayed -- the less complex it is and the less it will benefit your child.

Also, screens are two-dimensional and engage just one sense. Don't let a computer or TV replace you.

7. Be funny

Humor can diffuse some of the worst snits and arguments, moving us from our stubborn positioning and landing us someplace else. Laughter literally shakes stress out of the body and scientific studies attest to its healing value and contribution to longevity.

Being funny is not about corny dad jokes. Being funny is about indulging in the absurd, saying shit you're not supposed to say, and loosening the shackles for a moment. Jokes are funny because they go places we wouldn't otherwise go and they turn things upside down. A useful skill and one you need to model for your child.

8. Be the defender

The civilizing project that began with agriculture's modifications to the natural environment is reaching its apogee. We are currently upgrading from a system that modifies physical reality in fairly coarse ways to one in which the fundamentals of reality are reconfigured through genetic and chemical intervention.

If your child won't conform to the current social norms for domesticated humans, you will be pressured to alter them chemically, soon genetically. Trust your child, not the system. If you let down your child, no one else will be there to defend them against being violated in this way.

Even if your child is not threatened with drugging or genetic alteration, people will attempt to force your child into Procrustean molds from day one. Incessant psychological pressures destroy the animal instincts, heart feeling, and unforced wisdom of our young.

We live at a time when all of the fundamentals of our human animal selves are prohibited in public. Which of these basics can you spontaneously (even if discreetly) perform in a public space: sleeping, nakedness, fire, sex, urination, foraging, hunting, digging, dancing? None, at least not without approbation and in some cases arrest. A lot of people don't even let themselves sneeze but blast it back into their sinuses and brain out of shame.

Children are trained that every single bodily function that is native to their animal selves is circumscribed, and they begin to distrust their bodies and instincts. The shaming persists until they are finally willing to submit to existing in a sunless box under dropped ceilings and fluorescent lighting, strapped to a chair, downloading and processing data.

As a father, you have two choices. You can be the domesticator, beating all the rest to the punch by introducing shame every time your child wants to run naked and free.

Or you can be the animal father, the rooted man who feels, moves, and defies. You can be the defender, supporting the fundamental wholesomeness of our animal selves before the bastards start to grind your child down.

Let me know

What do you think? Does any of this resonate? Can we men support each other and up our skills? Do we have the courage to deal with emotions?

Be in touch.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Family Business

Rachel and Beren working in the nursery
My wife Rachel and I work together, parent together, keep our home together. Sometimes, a few hours before our bedtime, I'll look over at her and say "Good morning." Maybe it's the first time we've really looked at each other all day.

It gets pretty busy.

Our family business is Wild Ridge Plants, LLC. We describe the business to each other as having three "legs" (the table metaphor): native plant nursery, ecological consulting, and education.

Starting Out

Rachel and I started the business together in 2012, when I quit my shitty non-profit job.  Our son Beren was a year old. I was pretty young and had fears we wouldn't be able to pay the rent and I would let down my son as a provider. I decided to take a part-time job, and Rachel and I worked two days a week each at conservation organizations to pay the bills as we started the business.

By our third year, we were on solid financial footing. In our fourth season (the year this is written) we quit our part-time gigs to focus wholly on the business. It felt good -- and was much needed.

Differentiating Roles

When we started the business, Rachel was concerned that this was too much my brainchild and she would be a bit player. I tend to be the brash, forward-thinking one. Rachel takes ideas and molds them slowly inside until they are gems -- pure, honest, solid, and luminous.

We had some struggles in the early years with equality, who does the glory work, who does the paperwork, etc. It's typical for women to end up behind the scenes organizing their husband's shit while he hustles.

I think we've each cultivated our roles now and the equality issues have faded. Once Rachel quit her part-time job (about six months after I quit mine), she took on fully the role of nursery manager. Rachel decides the fate of all the plants in there, does the retail sales, and does much of the physical labor of running the nursery. My primary role with the nursery is seed collecting, propagation, and building infrastructure.

I do all the botanical survey work and much of the ecological restoration consulting. I've put in a lot of dirt time, microscope time, and book time honing my botany skills. I'm also pretty comfortable with clients.

Rachel takes the lead on social networking and marketing and arranging the education work we do. We split fairly equally leading the hikes, presenting talks, teaching at conferences and so on. Rachel is also in charge of the financial record-keeping, but this year we've invested in software in an effort to have more of a shared platform we can both contribute to.

Differentiating our roles has helped reduce what we call "too much democracy" -- two smart headstrong people both trying to plan and implement a single project. Consensus-building (arguing) can take up way too much time. I think mutual respect and trust pretty much demand that we not always "help" (hah!) each other out.


So far, so good. But there's a third person in this dynamic. Our son Beren, now five, is fiery, active, inquisitive, and likes to be treated as an adult. We encourage sovereignty and his arriving at norms and behaviors through the ramifications of his own actions.

That hardly means he is left to his own devices, however. For the first four years or so, he demanded almost constant attention from at least one parent. And... how to say this? He deserved it. He's an awesome kid, a real shining light, and a huge part of my heart walks with him wherever he goes.

Since our family business is largely at home, on the farm, there's lots of opportunity for flexibility in the schedule. No boss (except the immortal to-do list) to call if someone's sick or if it's a sunny day and we want to take a hike or sunbathe in the field.

That means lots of dynamic farm immersion for Beren but very little escape from parenting for two busy adults. I could elaborate here but in the interest of brevity I'll summarize thus: I often feel torn between the guilt of ignoring my son or the stress of neglecting the business.

And because we parent as equals, I feel guilty if Rachel sets down her work to go play Legos or blocks or do an art project with Beren.

We get lots of family time together but sometimes it feels very fragmented.

It's only very recently that I've even begun considering my own needs and persona again, outside of the context of the business or parenting. I actually went to a concert in Philadelphia a few months ago one night. That was a big deal.

Luckily, Beren shines at farm work when there's something on his level or we have the patience to support his working on something that would probably be faster done by just an adult. Some jobs that he's really good at: he hauls firewood tirelessly, he'll immerse in any cleaning or organizing called for (brushing snow off the truck, sorting the suitcase-sized socket set, sweeping the kitchen), and he loves using clippers to trim or remove woody plants. There are a fair amount of tasks that actually go much faster because he's helping us.

Beren has also picked up a lot of field botany and can do things like identify box elder seedlings because the stem is glaucous and recognize fallen tuliptree branches on the ground despite the absence of leaves, buds, or bark (figure that one out!)  He recognizes and consumes numerous wild edible plants and can find medicine if need be also.


Rachel and I stress out differently. She will worry about "everyday" things that are out of conformity  -- things breaking, bills unpaid, responsibilities undone. I can be more Zen about those, but get hit episodically with really intense situation-based stress.

Mainly I mention this because, when you have a family business, those stresses don't go away when you come home from work. Very often, the person lying across from you in bed is also the person you're waiting on to fix the broken thing or find a solution for the unpaid bill. Romantic.

Between parenting together, working together, living together, and sleeping together... we put in a lot of time on each other's needs. We're starting to explore the idea that one person shouldn't be the sole provider of all needs for another. But in our atomized, fragmented modern social world... some major pieces of what traditionally would have constituted community (interdependence, proximity) are missing. So we have each other and we make the best of it, and luckily we're extremely well-matched or we'd have divorced long ago.

Business Ethics

We started our business because we're deeply connected to the plant world. We see it as our role to help restore the connection of people to plants through the many facets of what we do as teachers, growers, and practitioners. A good gig for us is one that furthers that mission, and we'll get more excited about that than about how much something pays.

Rachel and I have had many discussions about the scale of our business, and we repeatedly come back to the desire to limit our business to what we can manage with our own hands, backs, and minds.

That means the work we do has to pay a living wage. What do I mean? No underpaid subalterns or exploited interns. Our own sweat and blood goes into the work, and the work has to support our modest but real life.

I'll sometimes hire consulting botanists to work with me on field jobs. They generally get the same hourly wage I do, and never get lowballed.

We've avoided investors, loans, and credit from the start. We began the business with $2,000 and built it from there. The one caveat is our home and vehicle, which belong to us as people (not to the business) and are financed through conventional instruments.

Our products may cost more than those produced by an industrial-scale nursery with low-wage workers. As a trade-off to our customers, we are ironclad about the quality and health of our plants, and we grow our plants without synthetic chemicals. Personally I'd rather pay more for something that is going to live and thrive than for a plant that is dead on arrival.

We also specialize. We grow things too tough, too esoteric, or too unknown for other native plant nurseries in the area to mess with. My skills as a field botanist are integral to us finding, correctly identifying, and developing new species.

We're at the point where we could probably expand to employees, more land, buildings on credit, and so on. But for now, we're dedicated to the challenge of being a sustainable family business, in both the ecological and personal sense of the word.

Beren and I chewing on black birch sticks in the woods somewhere

Friday, November 20, 2015

Native Permaculture Plants

 Ten Eclectic Selections for the Northeastern USA

As a field botanist and native plant grower, I come to permaculture from a side road. With the flora ever foremost in my thinking, I see permaculture as a way to renew exhausted human landscapes with beauty, complexity, and diversity using plants as the fundamental building blocks.

The selections below are of northeastern American native plant species that I feel are especially worth consideration for perennial agriculture. Some of them are underknown, if you will, or less than fully described: the list is unorthodox. I have skipped some well-known natives, such as pawpaw, serviceberry, persimmon and ramps, though they make it onto my lists consistently for any permaculture-inflected project we work on, as consultants or growers.

There is a certain amount of consistency in habitat requirements among the plants on the list. The plant selections below are species which appreciate mesic soils, perhaps with a bit of richness in the form of organic matter and a fairly circumneutral pH. That is, they do well in the soils that most farmers and gardeners strive for already, by adding composts and amendments and building soil tilth. The one possible exception, black huckleberry, is an acidophile in the wild, but with a fair range under cultivation.

There is a spectrum of variation among the plants below, but generally they thrive along edges and are tolerant of some degree of shade, as well as a fair amount of sun. They fit well into the "mid-successional" or periodically disturbed sere, which seems most fruitful (literally) for perennial agriculture.

These are all species I've used, some occasionally, some intensively, in both permaculture designs and in the kitchen. All are species I grow or have grown in our native plant nursery, Wild Ridge Plants. Where I have a gap in experience, or questions, I will try to be transparent about it in the descriptions. I welcome comments and corrections!

Common milkweed

 Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

A prolific perennial vegetable with a wide harvest window

Common milkweed is a widespread species of fields and edges, roadsides, and other semi-feral habitats. It thrives in the rich and altered soils of former agricultural fields, and appears to have a high requirement for soil fertility and sun.

Milkweed is an aggressive spreader and is competitive in disturbed and urban settings, such as feral floodplains and abandoned lots. Given its high food values, this is not necessarily a negative. It is also a superlative insect nectary and the host plant for a number of specialist invertebrates, including the monarch butterfly.

While formerly maligned for its supposed toxicity, it is becoming apparent that milkweed is a pre-eminent perennial vegetable with minimal toxicity concerns. I'll point the curious in the direction of Sam Thayer's The Forager's Harvest for a thorough treatment of misconceptions regarding the toxicity of this plant, as well as for recommendations regarding safe preparation.

Milkweed offers three edible parts spread throughout much of the growing season, as well as the possibility of "cut and come again" harvesting of shoots. These edible parts are:

1. The "asparagus" phase: harvesting of pliable shoots in spring, and soft new growth (shoots and leaves) until buds appear.

2. The "broccoli" phase: Unopened flower buds, plus young leaves and soft stem growth

3. The "okra" stage: The young seedpod with soft, white, somewhat undifferentiated inner parts (before seeds harden and silk becomes stringy)

The flavor of each phase is excellent, and the plant can be prepared in many ways, from lacto-fermented flowerbud pickles to curried fried seedpods.

Black huckleberry in flower

 Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)

Blueberry's forgotten kin

Black huckleberry is a low ericaceous shrub, two to three feet high, bearing crops of delicious, blueberry-like fruit on slender woody stems. Like other heaths (such as blueberries, wintergreen, and mountain laurel) it thrives in acidic soil. It is tolerant of a pH as high as 6.5. A signature for its habitat preferences could probably be simply expressed as "oak woodland".  Where upland oaks dominate, especially on thinner, more acidic, or more highly drained soils, huckleberry is likely to be found (or thrive).

Black huckleberry is colonial, spreading by underground stolons. It is deer resistant and long-lived. It fruits more consistently and abundantly given higher light levels, but can fruit in moderate shade.

I include black huckleberry because it is virtually unknown compared to its native kin, lowbush and highbush blueberries. To me, huckleberry's flavor is on a par with, or superior to both. However, it is simply not available to purchase as food.

A caveat about black huckleberry is that it is a slow grower, and stocked by few nurseries. However, given the ubiquity of appropriate habitat and the prospect of a delicious, novel (to many) native fruit, it is worth innovating with.

A naturally-occurring ground cover in front of a stone wall
Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)

An edible shade-tolerant groundcover and bee nectary

Virginia waterleaf is an herbaceous groundcover, found in rich, moist soils, frequently in association with stream corridors and canopy trees such as sugar maple and American linden, which offer a rich leaf litter. It flowers in May and is a superb nectar resource for native bumblebees.

Its tender, new foliage (in spring, and again in early fall) is edible as a cooked green. It has a good flavor raw but the light hairiness of the leaves is irritating uncooked. I like to prepare it braised in a skillet with olive oil and wild alliums, as well as other seasonal greens such as garlic mustard, tall coneflower, dandelion, amaranth and lambs-quarters.

As a shade-tolerant, moderately spreading groundcover nectary with edible foliage and ornamental appeal, Virginia waterleaf deserves more attention from permaculture farmers (and wildflower gardeners).

Wood nettle in a shady mountain cove

Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)

A nutritious staple green

Wood nettle is a tall, colonial herb of rich, deep soils, such as those found along rivers and streams, and in rich mountain coves. It resembles its relative, stinging nettle, in its stinging hairs, but has larger leaves arranged alternately (as opposed to oppositely) along the stem.

Wood nettle complements stinging nettle well, in that it arises later in the growing season (emerging after most spring frosts) and offers tender shoots and foliage after stinging nettle has become coarse. Also, its larger leaves are more tender and more savory as well. I have assumed that its nutritional content is on a par with stinging nettle (which is well-known for its nutritional value and high protein level), but lack data to substantiate this. Presuming this to be the case, wood nettle can also be used to create herbal tea for people and compost tea for plants, with a similar effect to stinging nettles.

Nettles broadly speaking are also fiber plants and wood nettle can be used to create cordage.

Wood nettle can be established along partly shaded edges, especially given the presence of some soil moisture, or naturalized along waterways and swales. 

Bee balm at our nursery
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

A native spice and herbal polychrest

Bee balm is a stunning crimson wildflower in the mint family. Its native habitat is along the margins of flowing water, such as in light gaps along forested streams. It can be found associating with such species as Joe Pye weed, spicebush, wild yam root, cardinal flower, primarily concentrated along the Appalachian mountain chain.

Bee balm has edible flowers and foliage. The flowers are a delicacy, with an aroma of rose, citrus, and oregano and the sweetness of nectar. The long crimson tubular corollas are accessed by and attract hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies.

The foliage has a significant oregano/thyme quality, but with its own character, deep and almost musky. It makes a fine culinary spice, and an herbal tea with carminative and nervine qualities (great for someone with an upset stomach due to anxiety, for example). We use the herb for tea on a regular basis throughout the growing season, and my young son grazes on the flowers frequently during their bloom time, from June-August.

This plant is well known as an ornamental but neglected as a native spice, tea plant, and medicinal. It is one of the plants on our land the use of which approaches a sacrament.

Giant Solomon's Seal

 Giant Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)

A shoot vegetable with a promising root

Giant Solomon's seal is a tetraploid version of the (here in New Jersey) more common smooth Solomon's seal. While the latter is usually a short herb of dry oak uplands, Giant Solomon's seal is an impressive-statured herb that I've seen growing along the banks of the Delaware River and in limey soil on a roadside near Pohatcong Creek. Otherwise, I know it only as a garden species.

Giant Solomon's seal has a tall, arcing stem, with alternately ranked, somewhat clasping leaves. Early in the season, before the leaves have unfurled, it makes a delicious shoot vegetable, a lot like asparagus but without the "aspara-piss" finish. It grows and spreads prolifically from a large white knuckly rhizome showing old bud scars (the "seals" of its name). Both shoots and rhizome pieces can be sustainably harvested while maintaining an expanding clone of the plant.

The rhizome is white, sweet, starchy, and nutritive. I've prepared it, thinly sliced, like roast potatoes. It was pretty good, but could use the sensitivity of a good chef to really make it shine.

We often use the tinctured rhizome (a tasty tincture in vodka) for joint (esp. knee) and back problems, a usage that follows Matthew Wood and Jim McDonald. It is very effective. Other traditional herbal uses abound.

Great Solomon's seal thrives in a rich, organic garden soil. It is quite shade tolerant but we've also cultivated it in full sun in a moist, clay soil.

Broadleaf Mountain Mint with numerous bumblebees

 Broadleaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

A native mint for broad usage

Broadleaf Mountain Mint is a meadow wildflower which I know from two powerline corridors in Hunterdon County, NJ. Its habitat preferences seem to be for moist, fertile soils, and sources corroborate the "moist woods and meadows" preference. Like others in its genus, I assume it is fairly plastic in its habitat requirements. Of all the fine Pycnanthemum species, I chose this one because it appears  to have a higher degree of shade tolerance than some of the more narrow-leaved species. In drier uplands, I would substitute Pycnanthemum incanum. However, the comments below pertain to the whole genus in varying degrees.

Mountain mint is a superlative pollinator species, attracting beneficial insects such as small wasps, flies, skippers and bees with its sequentially blooming lobed flowers. because the small flowers are clustered, and the upper bracts have a "frosted" look, the plant has ornamental characteristics as well. It is a spreading species like most in its family, but no more so than many common native meadow perennials such as asters, goldenrods, etc.

The strong, fresh, cooling mint flavor can be used in beverages, as well as medicinally and as an insect repellent. We use mountain mint's anti-microbial volatile oils in an herbal steam for sinus congestion.

Blackcap raspberry in fruit

 Blackcap Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

A wild raspberry with a twist

Blackcap raspberry is a common and widely distributed species of field edges and open, disturbed woodlands. Blackcaps resemble their well-known kin, red raspberries, in many ways. Their flavor is subtly different from the latter, but on a par. Blackcap raspberry can extend raspberry season, offer a unique color variant for market farmers, and offer some genetic diversity and resilience for the berry farmer used to relying on domesticated cultivars of red raspberry.

The fruits of wild individuals are almost uniformly exceptionally tasty (unlike blackberries, for example), and wild-type canes usually fruit quite prolifically in part sun.

Tall coneflower

 Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

A hardy spring green from a colonial wildflower

Tall coneflower is an impressive statured denizen of marshy floodplains and sunny stream edges. It shares its habitat with Joe Pye weed and other charismatic flowers of wild waterways. Its attractive deflexed petals surround a tall, rigid, multi-hued "cone" of fertile disc flowers. It is a robust spreader and will readily form a high-yielding colony.

Flowering stems arise from a basal rosette of deeply cut (laciniate) leaves, hence another of its names, cutleaf coneflower. The basal rosette arises very early in spring, and provides edible greens (cooked) at a time when even dandelions are quiescent. The plants are known as "sochan" to the Cherokee, and are prepared by briefly boiling and then frying in oil with seasoning. I have usually bypassed the boiling, and like to braise them in a skillet in bacon grease or olive oil. It may be that boiling is important, however -- the indigenous people would know food preparation intricacies best. They combine well in this fashion with other spring greens. Its high mineral content compares favorably to kale.

Tall coneflower produces small achenes similar to sunflower seeds. These are very attractive to seed-eating birds, especially goldfinches, and can be used to support these and other beneficial wildlife in multifunctional perennial agriculture.

Wild columbine

 Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

A sweet surprise to share with the wild

Wild columbine is a short herbaceous wildflower with stunning crimson and yellow flowers, in bloom April-June. In the wild, it grows in partially shaded habitats with limited competition. It is most frequently found along ridgelines, rock outcroppings, and bluffs, almost exclusively on geological substrates with a circumneutral or basic pH, such as limestone and other calcareous or mafic rocks. In New Jersey, I've seen it on diabase, limestone, and on some of the calcareous shales. Its seeds are gravity dispersed and seem to require exposed soil to germinate.

Columbine's primary functions within permaculture design are two-fold. First, its flowers are both edible and stunning, with a sugary nectar reward at the end of its long corolla tubes. This might be regarded merely as a treat, perhaps a flaw for some market-oriented growers. However, exquisite beauty and sweetness are a winning combination... Second, it is a primary species for attracting and maintaining ruby-throated hummingbirds as beneficial wildlife in the permaculture landscape.

Columbine is not likely to thrive within a thicket better suited to aggressive forbs like mints and composites. Instead, it can be used along gravelly edges, stone walls, and in periodically disturbed areas where competition is lesser. It does well in the shade of an open woodland. Columbine may be a species that performs a transitional role, as an open understory planting fills in with fruiting shrubs, for example.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Arrivals

Angelica atropurpurea

 A warm spring rain falls overnight. The next morning, humid air and still-moist leaves impel me towards our propagation frames.  Lifting the lid off of one, I examine each of the seed flats within, looking for fresh germination. Sometimes it takes some squinting -- picking out tiny green seedlings arising from the rich organic mix.

I greet familiar seedlings - wild bergamot, tall coneflower, steeplebush - with relief that they will accompany us through another season. I feel a bit of parental guilt as I pass them over with some quick niceties (without really looking, you know). I'm wondering which new species - plants we've never worked on before - have come up.

In the next propagation frame, I notice that purplestem angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) is germinating, the long seedling leaves still with a papery cap-- remnants of the seed exterior.

For the last few years, I was a bit... obsessed with purplestem angelica. A giant of a riverbank flower I had never seen before, with blooms in a compound umbel that radiates in all directions like a firework just exploding. I searched in probable natural areas but came up with nothing.

Then last year, I spotted some while driving over a bridge. The angelicas were thriving along the bank adjacent to an abandoned paper mill, crumbling, toxic, rusting.  Of all places! A gate barred the driveway and included a phone number for access...

My call was received by a friendly woman with a southern accent who, to my surprise, seemed to understand my wish to photograph the plants in flower and come back later to collect seeds. It was a strange scene when I got there, signing in at a little security trailer and walking the old footbridge across the river to the abandoned paper mill.

Adding new species to our repertoire -- and perhaps our catalog -- is full of excitement and challenge. Finding the plant in the wild, abundant enough to collect seed. Guessing at when to sow, how deep to sow, how many. Observing germination, if and when it happens (some species take two or three years, with some even more recalcitrant). There's botany, plant ecology, and lots of tender parenting involved.

These species are not domesticated. They don't come up the way the oats-and-peas cover crop does, or like the tomatoes we start on the windowsill. Perhaps some of these wild species have never been intentionally grown before. Some prove pleasantly easy, despite stringent habitat requirements in the wild, like miterwort and foamflower. Others have a host of complications, like our constantly in-demand black huckleberry, and we just muddle through producing as many as we can.

Some other seedling highlights this year so far? Allegheny serviceberry. Pearly everlasting. Mapleleaf viburnum. Turk's cap lily. Downy goldenrod. Hearts-a-burstin'. Closed bottle gentian. Oh, and rockcap fern, if gametophytes count...

I can't promise any will join our catalog, but I'm looking forward to trying, learning, and some adventures along the way.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Our Children's Book, The Puddle Garden -- an Update of Sorts

Our children's book about native plants... The Puddle Garden

This morning, Beren and Rachel went off to a kid-and-parent art class, and I stood over the kitchen sink for several hours.

First, doing the dishes to clear space. Then, cleaning seeds by the dozen and hundred.

Pawpaw, persimmon, nannyberry, hawthorn and others besides.

I thought about the delicious fruits each seed had originated in, as I scrubbed and scraped away rotten pulp. Fruits whose history has been intertwined with ours for thousands of years...

These fruit trees provided food, medicine, and companions for us, while we dispersed and gardened with each, spreading them from camp to camp, from river valley to high wold.

In conservation, we've been striving to set nature aside and protect it from the malevolence of the worst of our human tendencies. It's an admirable, heartfelt, and deeply critical project.

Yet in building a shield to protect nature ("virgin", "pristine", "unspoiled") we've also heightened our own alienation. "Take only photographs, leave only footprints" treats us as unwelcome visitors whose animal interactions with the wild world are no longer ethical.

I believe that we need more than a visual interaction, more than a scientific interaction, with the natural world. Like all the other animals, we can play a positive role in furthering the abundance and diversity of our living planet. We can use our unusual and much-vaunted skills and technologies in service of the wild world of which we are a part.

Alienation from nature expresses itself everywhere -- weedwackers, mowers, herbicide -- but also consumer mania and McMansions. We feel like aliens on our own planet when we don't know the names and uses of the plants or the songs of the birds. We fill the void with plastic simulations of our animal needs.

So what about those pawpaws and persimmons? Elderberries and wild bergamot? By going out and eating wild foods, we form a bridge with another species. We are who we eat, and our senses revel in the (literal) incorporation of another life into our own, in the joining of spirits and purpose. Alienation is dissipated, if only for a moment.

Why is this important? Because our animal senses and our old ways have an important role to play in conservation. Because conservation is as much about transforming culture as it is about science-based decision making.

We need to forge a new culture that incorporates native plants into our everyday lives and builds new interdependencies with the herbs, fruits, woods, and medicines of our ecological place.

Of all our skill sets and technologies as human beings, gardening is one of the most important. It bridges alienation by making us caretakers and partners with plants as we touch them, spread them, reproduce them. It is one of the few unbroken traditional skills we have maintained, from which to build the craft of ecological restoration.

Ecological restoration -- the academic way of expressing our re-emergence as an animal that contributes to the health of the wild world around us.

The Puddle Garden is a simple story... a lonely child creates a garden and brings new friends into his life.

But it's more. Bear Cub takes a virtually lifeless landscape (the lawn) and replaces it with one full of life (the puddle garden). He replaces one cultural norm with a new cultural norm, built around diversity, abundance, and wildness.

The Puddle Garden is a starting point for young children to become gardeners, to begin the great work of our time -- healing our human landscapes and embracing our animal relationships with the planet we live on.

We've made our Kickstarter goal for this project and exceeded it. Only a day and a half remains in the campaign. The next step for The Puddle Garden is broadening -- our reach, our ambition, our field of friends. The support we need from you now is different from the monetary support we asked for in the beginning. Now we need your help generating ideas, spreading the word, and building the relationships that will help this story to get out there and be a fundamental part of as many children's lives as we can reach. Thank you in advance for continuing to work with us, and for your heartfelt support.