Rescuing the Reputation of Maligned and Misunderstood Plants

By Tom Ward, November, 2012, Little Wolf Gulch, Siskiyou Mountains, Southern Oregon, Turtle Island

There has been plenty of controversy in seed saving, land restoration and Permaculture circles about “invasive weeds” and what to do. Some have pointed out the inherent racism in judging species and some have blamed the plant newcomers for the decline of ecosystems and fondly remembered landscapes (“nostalgia guilds”).

Often a recently arrived plant will have an eco-spasm. For example Mediterranean Desert Parsley, Torilis arvensis (we call it Velcro Burr for its affinity for socks) are to be found on disturbed soils. There are lots of ways that industrial extraction of bio-life and minerals has caused disturbance. Thus if we are disturbed to find our socks full of Velcro Burr, we have some conceptual ecosystem tools to talk about this and get some therapy.

Ecological Implication implies that native long time resident species have a lot of commensalites: the plants, animals, insects, fungi, etc. that have relations to each other. Oregon White Oak has been around so long that we can pick up pieces of petrified wood millions of years old on parts of the Old Cascade Mountains. This sacred tree is important to both west coast indigenous folks and to the Druids of southern Europe. She holds a reservoir of fungal associates and is very competent at recovery from hot fires by sprouting from the roots. The mycorrhizal fungi can help many other perennial species recover by helping their surviving or carried-in seeds germinate and thrive. She is also the usual habitat of many bird, butterflies and acorn gatherers. The list of associates goes on and on.

We also have Global Levelers. These are species of life that have recently been widely distributed by global trade. The Asian Ash Borer in the eastern North American forests is wreaking havoc. We lost the American Chestnut almost a century ago to an imported blight. Sometimes, desperate land managers have compounded the situation by bringing in another species that is supposed to limit the target species but then ends up attacking other natives.

Many plant species considered invasive on the west coast are from the Mediterranean basin. Perhaps seventy percent of the now resident species in California are such. Many of these plants came here with stories of their herbal usefulness and thus are potentially valuable for food and medicine. We can selectively harvest road sides and clear cuts (where unsprayed) while we engage in regenerative practices using the whole complexity and making useful small adjustments with perfect timing.
I am suggesting that as we move our thinking and vocabulary away from industrial agriculture and forestry and towards horticulture and Permaculture, we consider rescuing plant reputations. I myself have felt misunderstood from time to time in my adventurous life. Haven’t we all? At least we can ask for reassessment.

RHUS AND TOXICODENDRON SPECIES

As a child, raised in the woods of South Glens Falls, New York, there were some plants that we were warned about. They all came with stories, however.
The first rumor of trouble was with Toxicodendron radicans, Poison Ivy. There even was a rock and roll song in the fifties that celebrated (!) this sneaky bringer of rashes and pustules. Now living in Ecotopia (some call it Cascadia) I have come to appreciate the maligned genus Toxicodendron. We have the similar Rhus trilobata, Skunk Bush, delicious to wildcrafters and carrying an excellent reputation for basketry. It grows on the Klamath River and I have found a patch on Pompadour Butte near Ashland. Lithia Park in Ashland has a specimen or two.

We have Toxicodendron diversilobum, Poison Oak, here as well and it is difficult to distinguish from Poison Ivy as I have seen both looking like the other on both coasts. I prefer to call it Lacquer Bush. The berries are persistent over winter and a favorite of the Hermit Thrush who is a friendly bird at Little Wolf Gulch. The bush, sometimes a vine growing up trees, often grows where the soils or vegetation have been disturbed and proves useful as a protective nurse for the return of forest trees. Once the forest regenerates the bush is shaded out. Often the largest vines and small trees of Lacquer Bush are remnants of previous ecological conditions and thus they tell us stories.

Another wonderful thing about Lacquer Bush is the black shiny color that can be found on pottery and bows or arrows decorated by various indigenous tribes. This is gathered by looking for broken roots on fresh flood cuts or landslides and collecting the oozing root sap. The lacquer you may be familiar with on jewelry boxes is from the Lacquer Tree, Rhus japonica. The bark slashers who collect the sap are rumored to have short lives. The indigenous tribes used ceremonial imbibing of Lacquer Bush tea to build immunity. I prefer goats’ milk or homeopathics. The industrial sap gatherers are swimming in Rhusinol and the craft decorators only use the lacquer occasionally.

RUBUS SPECIES

Here in Cascadia we have thickets of Brambles that take over pastures, fence lines, industrial forestry sites and gardens. This has presented a lot of opportunity for picking Blackberries. The story I heard has Luther Burbank selecting the most vigorous varieties of an Asian Rubus discolor and an European Rubus lacinatus to sell to small farmers up and down the west coast. Turned out that these brambles were too good. They quickly, with some bird seed-dispersal assistance, took over a lot of farmland and roadsides.

Is this good or bad? No judgment please! We are here on a rescue mission. So the way to benefit from brambles is to incorporate them in our horticulture. Tending the wild with perfect timing depends on a lot of observation. One learns as much as possible about the whole life cycle of all the plants and associates in the local guild we hope to partner with.

Brambles such as the two mentioned have arching wands that tip layer when they touch down forming new roots from the new leaf buds on the tip. This green soft (not yet woody and prickly) apical meristem happens to be nutritious and delicious with proper treatment. I recommend sautéing with butter or simmering in a white sauce. The lactic sauce reduces the astringency of the green tips. When we cut off the tips of the arching canes we “force” the cane to develop side branches that become fruit spurs. So by controlling the leap-frog canes trick we get more juicy berries.

If you want to establish a new hedgerow without building a fence, you can stretch a wire over the line of the proposed hedge and birds will perch and poop out seeds. Of course this will now include Lacquer Bush and other species. What do you want from as little work as possible anyways? A good hedge has many plant species and lots of cover for small animals and birds.

Brambles as a genus (Rubus sps.) have analogous medicinal characteristics and we can generally substitute the leaf of one for another in our Raspberry Leaf teas and baths. The root bark of Blackberries is known to stop diarrhea. We all know that the berries of almost all Brambles are wonderful.

CENTAUREA SPECIES

This genus is complex; it includes C. solstitialis, Yellow Star Thistle, and the Knapweeds. Some are annual and some are perennial. All are from Eurasia. These days when most small farms appear to be pet horse parking lots I get a lot of “what do we do about Star Thistle” questions. Horses, uniquely, get a swollen throat if Star Thistle is all that is left on heavily compacted pastures. Of course, in this essay we are going to learn to appreciate Centaurea sps.

Star Thistle honey is excellent and since it blooms in mid to late summer it is often one of the few plants providing nectar flow. If we want to keep pollinators around to help our gardens we will want to provide late nectar flow in the summer and fall. The candidates are few and they all appear to be in the Asteraceae family. Michelmas Daisy, Maxmillian Sunflowers and Star Thistle are a few examples.

The farm manual Morrison’s Feeds lists Yellow Star Thistle as a pelletized feed that stores well and is equivalent to Alfalfa! Where one finds the thistle one often finds that the soil is fertile but compacted: over plowed or over grazed. So it is an indicator plant. Many of the species in this genus have complex molecular components that could be useful for extraction and medicine making but the research has not been completed. Pharmaceutical companies seem to prefer exotic species that they can patent rather than common weeds as their substrates. Thus the herbology of local plants is the peoples’ medicine.

To reduce Star Thistle once it has communicated with us we have a lot of work to do. First, do not plow. The seed load on the surface of the soil can be extensive and one does not want to bury that seed load or the thistle will be re-emerging for a long time. As the seed leaves are the first thing to show in the late winter one has the opportunity to suppress the germination by foliar feeding with manure tea which burns the sensitive new emergence. At the same time one can spread the seeds of the proper grasses and forbs to compete, as this thistle actually does not like a lot of competition. Doesn’t like proper irrigation either. The best way to reduce this seed load is by open burning in mid-winter after some rain but before the seed heads have all shattered. This takes some skill and experience and the neighbors are likely to be wary.

CEANOTHUS SPECIES

This is a very valuable genus consisting of woody nitrogen fixers with many shapes and leaf types. Various species can be ground hugging or small trees, evergreen or deciduous and they grow from sea level to high mountains. The west coast of North America, perhaps because of active geological change, is the home of many nitrogen fixing shrubs, trees, lichens and plants.

Buckbrush, C. cuneatus, has divicarate branching that has the effect of thorns. It is also called “Tick Brush” as it grows in dry lands and takes over grasslands degraded by grazing; walking through Buckbrush thickets is difficult and one does often end up with ticks after one crashes through. Ranchers blame the Buckbrush for taking over “their” grasslands. Nature is only trying to do some repair.

When ranchers remove Buckbrush they find that they can grow dryland grains for a couple of years on the fertilization that nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root nodules provide. A better horticulture of Buckbrush is to include it in tree planting, wind breaks and hedgerows and then every few years when it has grown big and brushy, one can prune it back severely and the roots will temporarily die back releasing nitrogen to their neighbors.

Buckbrush is also a good spring nectar flow and has a red root bark that is useful in immune stimulant tinctures. Redroot is also gathered from other species of the genus. The re-growth after coppicing with browsing, fire or pruning is also useful in basketry, says the literature. I have made excellent charcoal from the old growth trunks that I am removing to restore oak/pine savannahs.

Deerbrush, C. integerrimus, has a Wintergreen tasting stem bark and twig. I have been dreaming of a Siskiyou soda that uses several barks from the brushlands. Deerbrush also is not thorny and has a large blossom cluster that is useful for a soap or shampoo when bruised in water. This is my favorite backcountry perfumed saponin.

URTICA SPECIES

Jepson’s Manual of the Plants of California shows three species of Nettles. All three are considered to be introduced from Europe but are “naturalized” here now. This is a bit confusing as it leaves open the possibility that Nettles are actually circum-boreal, found all around the northern hemisphere. No way to find a conclusion and no need either. Lots of folks consider Nettles to be a pest but herbalists and wildcrafters find them to be very special.

Stinging Nettle, U. dioca, is the most robust species. The other two species have non stinging hairs on lower leaves and stems. The sting is an acid inside the hollow hairs that act like injection needles when touched or brushed. Clever harvesters learn to pick with bare fingers by sweeping up the stems and laying down the hairs. As soon as the plant is dried, steamed or boiled the acid breaks down and cannot sting.

The young plant is very nutritious. Some folks cannot imagine eating Nettles after having been stung by them but proper handling and cooking delivers a delicious green vegetable. When the plant grows above knee height stone cells (sclerenchyma) form in the leaf tissues and the grittiness becomes unpalatable. The leaves and flowers are then collected and dried for teas and baths. After the plant matures, the dried stems yield a fiber that is better than Flax. The oldest linens in museums are Nettle linens and there are folk tales celebrating its wonders. The root system is perennial and has the reputation of curdling milk for rennet-less cheese making.

My experience is that unless Nettles are growing on rich bottomland muck soils they can be over harvested and the whole patch declines. Careful horticulture is recommended. Nettles are also considered to be indicator plants and show where to plant orchards. Nettles are nitrogen accumulators, not nitrogen fixers. The protein content of the leaves is very high, perhaps the highest in any vegetable.

CONCLUSION

The best way to make friends with any apparent foe is to get to know them better. That way we gather compassion and connection. Many maligned plants are actually very useful or important in their place and relations. Without a cultural practice of nature appreciation and knowledge gathering, humans can be fearful of the enthusiasms of rampancy. Nature does not on principle favor one species over another; she is more interested in relationships. We can learn from her to not see problems as insurmountable. It seems, rather, that we are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.