Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Juniperus communis

"Its tenderly mysterious beauty of colouring...as delicately subtle in its own way as that of cloud or mist, or haze in warm, wet woodland...a suspicion of warm colour in the shadowy hollows and a blue-grey bloom of the tenderest quality imaginable on the outer masses of foliage."
~Gertrude Jekyll

In between travelling and spending time with family over the Thanksgiving weekend, I managed to slip away for a walk in search of junipers and their berries (Juniperus communis).

I found them growing in abundance. Junipers are exceedingly hardy, tolerating and even thriving in the harshest conditions from drought, arid deserts to subarctic tundra. They need very little soil and prefer a high mineral environment. Look for them in open, sunny areas with thin, rocky soil, exposed caprock, the sides of mountains. They grow very slowly, are long-lived and can appear in all forms from a ground-hugging shrub to a 30ft tree. They are often planted as ornamentals in gardens and city landscapes.

Junipers belong to the Cupressaceae family which includes cypresses and redwoods. It is the only conifer family that occurs all over the world on all continents, except Antarctica and the common juniper is the only tree species to occur naturally in Asia, Europe and North America.

Ancient civilisations used the aromatic, rot resistant wood in their temples and palaces, coffins and clothes chests.

Many cultures hold juniper as sacred and there are numerous folklore tales surrounding the tree. It is thought that the juniper stands as a watch to other dimensions acting as an intermediary between the human and spirit world.

These juvenile leaves are light green above,
and silvery, blueish below. (Please excuse my elderberry stained thumbnail!)

The female berries are actually tiny cones, whose scales have fused together. They take 18 months to 3 years to ripen and they don't all ripen at the same time so you will find both green, unripe and blue-purple to black ripe berries on the same bush.

Juniper has long been used as a culinary herb and in herbal medicine. Many people know that it is juniper that gives gin its unique flavour. The berries, leaves and twigs are often used to flavour meats, especially game meat. Juniper berries are a classic addition to sauerkraut.

In herbal medicine the berries are used as a diuretic and antiseptic for urinary and bladder infections, and kidney complaints. (The resins and volatile oils can be somewhat hard on the kidneys, so use with caution where there is kidney disease or weakness).

Juniper berries remove uric acid from the system which is helpful for people suffering from gout. (And no, this isn't an affliction that only old, rich men got back in the oldy-days. A friend my age, has excruciating attacks of gout in his toes. He says its the most painful thing he's ever experienced. And my Oma has occasional bouts of it.)

Juniper berries are somewhat bitter and chewing a few before a meal will stimulate the flow of bile and digestive juices to help properly break down food. They will relieve gas, bloating and belly discomfort. The berries are warming, so are particularly good for people who tend to be cold, with sluggish digestion. Think Kapha types if you know your Ayurveda.

A decocted tea or steam inhalation will help with congested lungs and coughs.

The external use of juniper oil will soothe sore muscles and arthritic pain.

Because the berries ripen at different times, they can be harvested throughout the year, although the flavour will change depending on the season. The berries that I harvested at the beginning of October were deliciously sweet and hardly bitter at all. The berries can be eaten fresh, tinctured and dried, after which they will turn a much deeper purple, almost black colour.

Take a look around the next time you're outside. Chances are, there's a juniper growing nearby that you can get to know!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Secondary Metabolites and Allelopathic Plant Interactions

This is one of my homework assignments for my permaculture course. It might be dry reading for some, but I am utterly fascinated by how plants communicate, and allelopathic interactions specifically. As an interesting aside, I learned that it is the secondary metabolites in plants that are used as medicine. Some of the sources I read stated that secondary metabolites basically serve no purpose and are simply byproducts of primary metabolism. Secondary metabolites are only just beginning to be understood, but I think it's very clear that they serve incredibly important functions in the ecosystem.

Update: allelopathy is now spelled correctly! :)
Black walnut tree protecting itself from grapevines that have completely overtaken the neighbouring tree.

'Every plant is a chemical factory for complex substances which exceeds any human capability. In their poisons, antibiotic agents, prickles and foul tastes, they developed defences against attack long before human stockades and pesticides.'
~Anthony Huxley, Green Inheritance, 1984

Plants secrete compounds to accomplish a number of ecological functions. For example, plant roots make nutrients in the soil available to the plant by secreting acids, which release cations bound by humus. Scent glands release volatile oils into the air sending out complex, chemical messages to many different species. Gibberellins are biochemical plant hormones that regulate developmental processes, such as germination, flowering and fruiting. These gibberellin hormones are some of the primary metabolites found in plants.

Primary metabolites are essential, organic compounds found in all plants, that are directly involved in growth, development, and reproduction. They are needed for basic cell metabolism. The main primary metabolites are carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and nucleic acids.

Less well understood are the secondary metabolites. Secondary metabolites are compounds that are not directly involved in plant growth and development. They are less widely distributed, more specialized and accumulate in smaller amounts than primary metabolites. They tend to be formed at different stages of growth, serving a wide range of ecological functions that are unique to plant families. The main secondary metabolites are alkaloids, terpenoids and phenols. These compounds play roles in attracting pollinators and beneficial insects, adapting to environmental stress and mounting defenses against pathogens, predators and competitors.

Secondary metabolites are also involved in plant to plant communication, within and between species. When the secondary metabolites of one plant has a chemical effect on another, this is referred to as allelopathy. Allelopathy can positively or negatively influence growth, behavior, reproduction, and survival of associated species, although many of the allelochemicals very often have negative effects on neighbouring plants, by secreting substances that are toxic to the competing plant. Signs that a plant is suffering from allelotoxins include leaf wilting and yellowing or death of part or all of the plant. Allelochemcials are found, variously in flowers, leaves, leaf litter and mulch, stems, bark, roots, and the soil surrounding the roots. These chemicals may biodegrade over time or persist in the soil.

The Tree-Of-Heaven, or Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) is known to exhibit allelotoxic effects, as well as hackberry, spotted knapweed, sorghum, chick peas, eucalyptus, sugar maple, southern waxmyrtle, American sycamore, cottonwood, black cherry, red oak, black locust, sassafrass, and American elm. Perhaps the best known allelopathic plant is the black walnut (Juglans nigra). All parts release the chemical juglone, which inhibits the growth of many species of plants, as well as its own offspring. In Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes, “A number of daughter chemicals are produced throughout the plant in the roots, stems, nut, and leaves. These are fungicides; they inhibit the growth of root mycorrhiza of any seedling nut that dares to grow within the leaf canopy of the tree... In the suburban garden, black walnuts should be planted the greatest distance away from the vegetable garden to a maximum of 40 feet (12m). The roots, as they grow in size, produce greater amounts of juglone, which will affect the growth of all the Solanacea family... the Ericaceae, or the heath family, blackberries, and members of the red pine family.” (p. 85-86)

Knowledge and experience of the role that allelopathy plays in the growth and survival of certain plants can be of great benefit, particularly in the realm of permaculture. In a polyculture or guild system, knowing which plants release chemicals toxic to other plants can avert disaster. Alternatively, it may be possible to use allelopathy to one's advantage in the form of organic weed control. A deeper understanding of how plants use allelopathy can lead to some fascinating connections and opportunities.
Toby Hemenway discusses these possibilities in Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture:

“Since hackberries seem to thrive beneath walnut trees, the shrub's growth is evidently not squelched by juglone. Like walnuts, hackberries secrete a competition-suppressing substance; an intriguing harmony vibrates between these two allelopathic birds-of-a-feather. The toxins from the two species seem to complement each other. Juglone, though stunting the growth of many plants, doesn't have much effect on grass, whereas hackberry's toxins inhibit grasses and other shallow-rooted plants.
Here is a subtle interweaving that leaves a highly specialized niche. What rare combination of qualities results in plants that can grow amidst walnuts and hackberries, unscathed by this broad spectrum of toxicity?” p. 194-195

The study of allelopathy is still in its infancy. Identifying allelopathic activity is complex and requires experimentation and the close observation of nature, plant growth and interactions. However, understanding what allelopathy is, how it works and which plants exhibit it, can open up exciting opportunities to the organic gardener, permaculturist and plant enthusiast alike.

The Global Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger
Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Giving Thanks

Not much posting around here these days I know. It's quiet on the blog because I've been busy with other things. After an introductory weekend in the spring, I signed up for my permaculture design course with the Permaculture Institute of Eastern Ontario (PIEO) and I'm right in the thick of it, with cool homework assignments and a group design project.

I'm taking time to observe a spot in nature, gathering information and making connections about what I notice. I'm learning about plant communication, specifically, secondary metabolites and alleopathy. I have to map out a piece of property and draw a contour line.

I'm so excited for our design project. We'll be creating a design for a small section of the Just Food Community Food and Urban Agriculture hub project!

Aside from that I've been making homemade dried apple rings with some delicious local apples from the organic farmer's market.

The ADG and I are still working in the garden, harvesting and preparing for winter. I successfully grew and harvested sweet potatoes this year. We ended up with about 40lbs of tomatoes. Tons of potatoes. Sweet, fresh corn. Black Spanish radishes. Kale. Chard. Lots of fresh herbs and much more. In a few weeks I'll dig up my medicinal roots. Dandelion roots for coffee: yay! There's work enough in the garden until the ground freezes.

But all this will have to wait for a few more days, as I'm heading out of town this afternoon to spend time with family for the Thanksgiving weekend. My mom and I will have a day together in the backyard working in her garden. I'm making elderberry syrup with my dad and stepmom, from the berries he harvested and froze a while back. I'll visit my Oma and Opa too, in the gorgeous Muskokas, and if I can find some time to sneak away, I'll look for juniper berries on the bushes that grow out of the cracks of pink granite.

And when I sit down for the holiday meal, my heart will be full of all the things I'm grateful for.

Wishing the same for you!