Plants to Save the Planet

In his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Edward O. Wilson argues that the solution to the present planetary crisis is to dedicate half the surface of the Earth to wild nature.[1] The other half Earth would be used to meet human needs for food and everything else, including all our structures and materials. In a recent article in New Left Review Troy Vettese takes the half-earth idea as the basis of a scheme of Natural Geo-Engineering whereby reforestation would draw down sufficient carbon from the atmosphere to avert climate change.[2] In this article I present the case for a whole-Earth food forest. Food forests have triple potential: they can draw down carbon and meet all our basic needs at the same time, and they can also harbour nature, with every little bit of ground revived for us-in-nature contributing to the eventual whole.

The Plants For A Future (PFAF) database provides a great deal of information that whole-Earth food foresters will need in order to draw up planting schemes for combinations of useful species. Those who know the PFAF story will know that it was inspired by permaculture and Robert Hart’s Forest Garden.[3] In permaculture and PFAF circles will be found many people who would see the whole-Earth food forest as a realistic possibility, and some who are already working on it.[4] Those who are more sceptical should bear the Wilson/Vettese arguments in mind. Growing trees and other perennial plants, keeping the soil permanently covered and wild so that soil ecosystems revive, creating local climates and water and nutrient recycling, all require carbon from the atmosphere, whence the natural geo-engineering Vettese envisages, and the safeguarding of species and habitats Wilson is so passionate about.

Concern about climate change is rising, and hopes are dwindling that government policy and international agreements will address the complex of problems in time to avert disaster. Protests are becoming more determined and visible with campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion and the Children’s Climate Strikes inspired by the action of sixteen-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg. The weakness of such protests is that they assume that governments are responsible for and are capable of finding and implementing solutions, and that governments can be goaded into action by the public. However, governments have many other priorities and are subject to intensive lobbying by those with vested interests in business as usual, so that any pledges and targets they make are bound to be too little and too late – unless, of course, business as usual is challenged by customers changing their buying patterns. For some years there have been Local Food movements around the world which have grown big enough to have economic clout.[5] PFAF has been contributing to that movement for about twenty years by providing information on different species and enabling the sharing of experience of growing the plants in different situations. Progress towards whole-Earth food forestry extends that involvement into designs that are part of the solution to climate change.

Food Forestry at scale as a climate change initiative can be termed Carbon Farming or ‘farming practices that sequester carbon’. Eric Toensmeier mentions that general definition in his book The Carbon Farming Solution,[6] but his project is more fully explained by the subtitle: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. In his book Toensmeier identifies 700 plants which could be a critical part of the solution to climate problems and sets them out in a ‘Global Species Matrix’. In a collaborative response to Toensmeier’s work, PFAF has included details of all the 700 plants in our freely available plants database, with search terms appropriate to carbon farming as an aid to designers.

The PFAF database has details of over ten times as many plants as there are in the Global Species Matrix. The database has been built up over a long time, with new plants, more items of information and images, with an ongoing process of checking and research. There has been no overall practical purpose behind our huge collection besides providing a free online information service to people interested in useful plants. From website/database stats we know that accesses number in the millions each year. Amongst those users are many people who use the database on a regular basis, and even more who happen upon our site when searching for information about particular plants.

With whole Earth food forestry in mind, we would love to hear from users who have plots in which they are growing combinations of edible perennials. We would also love to hear from users who have experience of growing ‘food forest’ plants, because we are planning to add ‘food forest’ as a searchable term in the search facilities we offer on our home page https://pfaf.org , and on the page about ‘The Carbon Farming Solution’: https://pfaf.org/user/CarbonFarmingSolution.html .

To get in touch for this project, please email admin@pfaf.org or trustee Chris Marsh at chris_e_marsh@hotmail.com with ‘PFAF Food Forests’ in the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

This introduction to ‘Plants to Save the Planet’ will be followed by sections on various aspects of ideas and practice, including:

The potential for natural climate solutions including food forests and rewilding.
Transition to more locally based economy to include food growing and distribution.
How less food transport will save energy and reduce the need for packaging especially plastic.
Programme of knowledge sharing.
Outreach and education on how local is better now and for the future.
How to use locally produced food, especially vegan organic, cooking and preparation from scratch.
Triggers for action, ecological and social.
Individual action pending localisation: boycotts, protests, lobbying.
Tagorean philosophy: rural reconstruction, transforming local communities, ‘life in its completeness’, joy and creativity, ‘without the greed of profit’.
And more…

[1] Edward.O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life (New York: Liveright, 2016)

[2] Troy Vettese, ‘To Freeze the Thames: Natural Geo-Engineering and Biodiversity’, New Left Review, 111 (2018), 63-86 (p. 67).

[3] ‘About Us: Plants For A Future’, https://pfaf.org/user/AboutUs.aspx, ‘Robert Hart’s Forest Garden’, https://pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=93, Ken Fern, ‘What is Permaculture?’ in Plants For A Future: Edible & Useful Plants For A Healthier World (Clanfield, Hampshire: Permanent, 1997), pp. xi-xii.

[4] Featured Image is of Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm which, in William Horvath’s opinion, is one of the best examples of a permaculture food forest. (https://permacultureapprentice.com/permaculture-profiles/new-forest-farm-mark-shepard-100-acre-15-years-of-establishment/ )

[5] Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175-78.

[6] Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2016), p. 6.

New Book: EDIBLE SHRUBS: 70+ Top Shrubs from Plants For A Future

Increasing interest in food forests or woodland gardens reflects a growing awareness that permanent mixed plantings are inherently more sustainable than annual monocultures. They can safeguard and enrich soil ecosystems, enable plants to form mutually beneficial combinations, utilise layers both in the soil and above ground, and create benign microclimates which soften winds and recycle rain. Shrubs have an important role in food forests, occupying the highly productive layer between the canopy and the ground. Also, as perennial woody plants, shrubs help to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere, a vital function to help combat damaging climate change.

Edible Shrubs provides detailed information, attractively presented, on over 70 shrub species. They have been selected to provide a mix of different plant sizes and growing conditions. Most provide delicious and nutritious fruit, but many also have edible leaves, seeds, flowers, stems or roots, or they yield edible or useful oil. The information here is based on practical experience and observation, and from a wide range of reputable sources. For each entry, the descriptive text is augmented by summary information panels covering various attributes such as natural habitat, preferred soils, nutritional value, and potential uses within woodland garden designs.

We have included some more unusual species that may not be known to growers interested in a wider variety of food crops, or in more resilient designs for their plots. This book also has a quick reference table of the key characteristics of over 400 other perennials to help readers identify plants to meet specific requirements. Further details of all the plants described here are available from the PFAF Plants Database, which can be accessed free of charge at pfaf.org.

Visit to Elder Farm

On 23 July, Wendy, David and Chris went to Elder Farm near Wellington in Devon (https://www.elderfarm.co.uk/ ), as one of a series of visits for Plants For A Future. Elder Farm is a five and a half acre smallholding, one of three smallholdings on Greenham Reach, a 22 acre site which was the first to be bought by the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC). We approached this farm on a hot dry day in July after many weeks without rain, down a narrow winding lane, still lush and green and almost impenetrable despite the drought, before we came to the wide open vista of Greenham Reach, with lovely views over surrounding farmland and woodland.

ELC is a social enterprise founded in 2011 whose mission is ‘to provide affordable opportunities for ecological land-based businesses in England and Wales [and to] support rural regeneration by developing affordable sites for farming, forestry and other rural enterprises which are viable and ecologically beneficial’. (http://ecologicalland.coop/ ) The story is described by ELC director Shaun Chamberlin: https://transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/shaun-chamberlin-on-the-ecological-land-coop/ .)

Helen and Stuart Kearney took on a lease to Elder Farm three years ago. They have a background in permaculture, cooperatives, organic growing and outdoor education. Helen is a qualified medical herbalist with practices in two nearby towns. At Elder Farm they grow herbs to make into medicines, soap and other herbal products. The site is planned on permaculture principles, and as well as the medicinal herb-growing, includes vegetables and edible and cut flowers, orchard and native woodland and wilderness, each zone of the land replete with new wind-break hedges and with old copses and hedgerows around. There are polytunnels for growing in cooler weather, barns and caravans for accommodation and teaching space for volunteer helpers (WOOFers) and students from the UK and abroad. The goal is to reconnect people to sustainable growing methods, and to the amazing healing power of plants.

Helen was our main informant on this visit, but clearly both this couple are committed to a way of life that nurtures the land, allows them to live lightly on the earth, and promotes the nearly forgotten art of healing ourselves with herbal remedies from our native plants. For example, dandelion, elder, and nettle, all easily grown here, have tended to be imported into this country from Eastern Europe, to make herbal remedies, because of cheaper labour costs there. This kind of unnecessary transport of plants is one of the tragedies of contemporary farming and trading, and making a stand for a different way of growing and fulfilling our needs more locally is what this couple are about. Their passion and hard work has meant that after only three years from their arrival at Greenham Reach, they are making a significant part of their living from the herbs they grow, the medicines made on site, the herbal medicine practice and teaching that Helen does, using the site and its produce in the process.

When we arrived at Elder Farm, we were met by Helen and Stuart, and Charlie, their highly energetic chocolate Labrador retriever, and some delightful ducks and chickens.

First of all we were taken to the teaching area for tea and delicious courgette and chocolate cake.

Chris, Helen and Wendy enjoying cake in the teaching area

We heard about where Helen and Stuart have got to in the process of negotiations over planning permission from Mid Devon District Council to stay permanently and be allowed to build a house. They have been living in a permanent caravan which is not very comfortable. It is cold in winter and very hot in the summer we are having, although they have added insulation and a porch. ELC had initially provided the site with a large wooden barn, and with 4Kw solar power generation and storage batteries, all shared by the three tenants.

Three of the eight lead acid storage batteries

In January 2018 a 1Kw wind turbine was also installed, placed at the highest point of the site. The farm is completely off grid. A lot of power has been needed to pump water up from a borehole for irrigating vulnerable plants in this long heatwave.

A patch of very dry soil, an unusual sight at Elder Farm

Helen and Stuart have added other structures including three polytunnels and a greenhouse. Helen has a drying room for the herbs and a dispensary for making up tinctures and other preparations in a static caravan. We picked up more information as Helen gave us a tour of the site.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Hamamelis+virginiana ) is an important species for the medical herbalist and also has uses in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Most witch hazel used commercially comes from the US where it is grown in monoculture, clear felled and pulped. Helen graduated as a medical herbalist in 2012 which means she has the right to make her own medicines, and she has set up her own dispensary. As well as offering witch hazel as a treatment for patients in her clinic, Helen teaches its use and preparation in her courses, and is in discussions on a wholesale contract with other organic herb growers and traders. A hundred witch hazels have been planted at Elder Farm as part of a polyculture system. Witch hazel is a small deciduous shrub so it will form part of the understorey as the vegetation on the site matures.

The witch hazels are interplanted with willow.

The witch hazels will be coppiced after 4 to 8 years growth.

Helen talked of the UK’s amazing history of herbal medicines which has almost been lost. As noted above, plants easily grown here are currently imported from the EU. The challenge is to work out how to get a fair price for herbs dried and sold in the UK. There are now 30 organisations, including the Soil Association, Lush and Weleda, discussing the logistics of how to pool yields and use appropriate technology. It is hoped that the post-Brexit landscape is going to change in ways that are better for the environment. Helen attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January this year and was impressed by what Environment Secretary Michael Gove had to say, which was very positive and solution orientated. (https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/oxford-real-farming-conference-2018-the-times-they-are-a-changing/ )

According to the PFAF database entry, witch hazel is suitable for light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils, prefers well-drained soil, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils, can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade, prefers moist soil. Helen told us that Elder Farm site is on marginal agricultural land which is normally very wet. Previously it was planted with maize, and heavy machinery compacted the soil. The bogginess was not evident during our visit because the soil was parched from the long heatwave. In uncultivated areas we were shown areas of soft rush, an invasive weed, which they have to dig out to improve bio-diversity.

Helen discovered permaculture by attending a course in 1997 led by George Sobol, PFAF trustee, and Patsy Garrard. She went on to gain her Permaculture Diploma, supervised by Patsy, and it was from an advert in Permaculture Magazine that she heard about ELC. So Helen was aware that the standard permaculture remedy for waterlogged land is to build swales and ditches on the contours, but she chose a simpler solution. This was to plant lines of trees 25 metres apart aligned North to South across the slope, at right angles to the established hedge on the site boundary providing a windbreak against north winds. They were given several standard apple trees and have placed them at the north end of each row.

One of the N-S lines of trees with a standard apple at the northern end

We were very impressed by how much has been achieved in three years. Helen told us that they started planting in March 2015 and all trees were in by March 2016. All the trees were mulched with cardboard and wood chip, then mulched again each year. Some trees were acquired via a grant from the Woodland Trust, and Helen mentioned that their standard advice is to use herbicide to kill the grass around young trees, which they didn’t adopt.

We saw an area designated for a vegetable garden, with rosa rugosa planted to form walls around the garden. (https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Rosa+rugosa )

Part way round our tour we came to the site of the recently installed wind turbine.

The wind turbine at the highest point of the site

There has to be a circle of 20 metres kept clear around the turbine to discourage birds and bats from feeding there, as they might be killed by the blades. So far there have been no fatalities. The blades revolve to face the wind and Helen said that it’s been noticeable that the normal prevailing SW wind has been largely absent since it was put up – an indication of the climate ‘not being right’.

We next saw another tree planting parallel to the boundary hedge.

It was explained that the whole perimeter has to be accessible by any visitors so they can walk the site. The hedge was flail cut before they moved to the site. Now they use an Exmoor style hedgelaying, and use the trimmings as a dead hedge within the boundary. Trees of mixed species were planted inside that so that in time there will be a path between, a green lane. These trees have also been mulched twice. We saw eucalyptus with damage to the bark caused by deer. At that point, Charlie appeared chasing a small deer that had been asleep somewhere in the middle of the site. Helen told us that taking him around the site leaving his scent may deter the deer. We asked about rabbits and she said they are not a problem, except on one part of the site.

We passed an area of Zone 5 which is not managed, and where the rush is not removed.

Helen remarked that in biodynamic systems there is a 5% rule for land being left wild.

A patch of willow has been planted as one of the ways to make up for the site having no trees. This is an important step towards self reliance as they do use firewood for space heating.

Two lines of willow saplings next to the kitchen garden

Helen and Stuart are trying as many things as possible to provide resources they need on site. Willow is used elsewhere for windbreaks and decorative fencing, including a plaited willow screen for the current living accommodation on the left.

In another area of tree planting we saw a mixed species woodland

These three year old trees will grow to form a mixed woodland

English alders are doing well as they are wetland plants. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Alnus+glutinosa ) Birch is doing less well as it dislikes hot and dry conditions. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Betula+pendula ) There was also aspen in the mix. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Populus+tremula )

We next came to part of the site with beds and rows of individual species. There was a comfrey bed, a row of fennel, next to a row of marshmallow, a bed of skullcap, German camomile, thyme, hops, valerian, sweetcorn.

Fennel seeds have a medicinal use. The plants we saw were 2 years old.

Fennel dies down each year and regrows. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=foeniculum+vulgare )

Marshmallow is a valuable medicinal plant, with the flowers, leaves and roots having uses. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Althaea+officinalis ) Helen invited us to feel the leaves which are velvet soft. The plants are 2 years old, and after 3 years they will harvest the roots. Helen told us that marshmallow was over harvested by the Victorians.

Another important herb grown on the farm is skullcap which is sold to a business down the road. Skullcap lateriflora has a blue flower which is used as treatment for nervous disorders. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Scutellaria+lateriflora )

Lines of Scutellaria lateriflora next to the fennel

The bed has to be watered as it has been so dry. We were able to see the red Devon soil between the plants, which seems to have little humus, but Helen says is very fertile.

There was a bed of camomile, a well known herbal remedy. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Matricaria+recutita )

There was a row of valerian. (https://pfaf.org/USER/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Valeriana+officinalis )

We saw row of thyme planted through plastic. (https://pfaf.org/User/plant.aspx?LatinName=Thymus+vulgaris ).

Next we had a look into the polytunnels, one for food growing, another for propagation, another has a greenhouse inside it, which they call the Eden Project.

The greenhouse provides guaranteed heat and frost protection

In the polytunnels we saw many squashes, melons, chilies and globe artichokes.

Artichokes are beautiful as well as good to eat

Sweetcorn is used medicinally especially the silks. (https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Zea+mays )

Outside there were trays of pots, some of which are for plants sales.

Our final visit was to the drying room in a static caravan.

Calendula flowers being dried on gauze shelves

Then we were shown the dispensary with rows of bottles arranged alphabetically. Some with an Elder Farm label are tinctures Helen has made. Herbs such as camomile are steeped in 25% alcohol, have a long shelf life and are easily absorbed. They can also be mixed into a base cream.

We were interested in what Helen told us about her work as a medical herbalist. Her qualification is similar to a medical degree. She takes someone’s case history, writes a prescription, sometime for several different tinctures. We asked if patients are ever referred to her by orthodox practitioners. She said that GPs are not allowed to advise a patient to go to a medical herbalist, but they may suggest reading a leaflet. Helen once worked as a herbalist in the dermatology department of Whipps Cross Hospital in north London (a herbalist called Alex Laird works there). Herbs are unpatentable because they have so many active constituents, and therefore not attractive to big business.

We asked what sorts of conditions she treats. She said they are often chronic long term conditions, suffered by patients their doctors have given up on. She treats shingles with hypericum applied topically. Also raised blood pressure, the nervous system, low mood, anxiety, digestive problems. Herbal medicine used to be taught to medical students but no longer.

Helen gives talks to groups such as the WI and gardening clubs, reminding people how people once knew how to treat things like coughs and colds, in the ‘bad old days’ before the NHS, which is vitally important, particularly for antibiotics.

We came away from this visit heartened by Helen and Stuart’s vision and the realisation of it on the ground, in their way of living and the beautiful and abundant small-holding, despite drought. We also admired Helen’s determination to restore the use of herbal medicines to its rightful place as part of what we all use for common seasonal and many chronic ailments, as another way of helping ourselves to live healthier lives more closely connected to the plant life around us.

Wendy, Chris, Helen and Stuart (and Charlie) in front of the barn with solar panels and water storage tank

Visit to Wishtree

Visit to Wishtree Permaculture and Agroforestry Site, near Hatherleigh, Devon, June 19th 2018, by Wendy Stayte

Wishtree lies, hidden away, in the folds of fields and woods that make up this part of mid-Devon, Hatherleigh being the nearest small market town. Iain and Wenderlynn Bagnall, of Wishtree, have forged strong links with the community there through their teaching at the Pre-school centre, and involvement with the Incredible Edible movement (http://incredibleediblenetwork.org.uk/ ).

Awareness of the interconnectedness of all life is one of the foundations on which this young 5 acre project is growing, and every intervention, the cutting back of reeds that dominate the usually water-logged land, the creation of clearings in the dense plantation areas of young oaks, is done with sensitivity to its effects on the plants and animal living there, including themselves.

To me, visiting for the first time, with fellow Trustee of PFAF, Chris Marsh, who had been before with David Gearing,[1] what struck me most forcibly was the love and devotion of these stewards of this plot of land, the experimental attitude they hold to learning from the land itself, and from their own actions on it, and their own sensing of what the land needs and asks for.

We came at a time of unusual drought for this place, about 5 weeks without rain, so the ponds dug in many places were almost empty of water in their heavy clay basins, and sustaining the life of seedlings and young plants on a land dependent only on rain water and ground water had become a taxing task.

Acceptance of the challenges that changing weather patterns present, the challenge of competing needs of mice, birds, slugs and snails and humans for food, is a constant dance for these two as for all growers of food, and one undertaken here with apparent grace and good humour and tireless attention to detail.

As we walk around this lush green site in mid-summer, we see how much is used of what this site offers, without recourse to importing any materials from elsewhere eg. branches for making paths and small bridges, arches leading from one part to another, raised beds for growing vegetables, fences, mulch and compost. Human waste is composted for fertilising the land, lots of nitrogen-fixing plants have been added here and there, and, in both the wild and cultivated areas, abundance of life and growth met us on every side.

The naming of this site after the Wishtree that had been part of their marriage ceremony, holds within it the recognition of the mystery of life and growth, the acknowledgement of unseen forces at work of which we humans may only have inklings. I sensed that their recognition and appreciation of this was one of the sustaining underpinnings of this bold venture.

On a more earth-bound note, we were glad to hear from Iain and Wenderlynn that ‘outdoor learning’ is now an essential part of pre-school education, and that they are helping the local pre-school to meet this aim in ways that the children find enjoyable. We were also encouraged to hear that our current government, and local governments, are shifting their attitude to small growers being able to live on the sites that they cultivate. This is indeed a welcome and forward-thinking step in the move away from the destructive practices of large-scale agri-business to the more labour-intensive and nurturing practices of small permaculture and agroforestry sites such as this one. This encouraging news came from the ‘Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA) Planning for Smallholders’ meeting with the Conservative Rural Affairs Group on 6 February 2018 which Iain attended. The aim was for solid policy recommendations in the Tories’ draft of the 2018 Agriculture Bill. George Eustice was focused primarily on post-Brexit agricultural policy. The meeting aimed to demonstrate that new entrants into farming and forestry, many of whom are on smaller sites such as Wishtree, contribute a great deal to the economic and cultural resilience of rural economies.

Altogether, an inspiring and hopeful visit for me. Thank you, Ian and Wendelynn.

[1] See photo-essay from visit in October 2017: https://pfaf.org/plants/wishtree-agroforestry-permaculture-centre-pfaf-visit-4-october-2017/

Edible Perennials on a Small Scale – with Incredible Vegetables

Posted to PFAF blog on 19 June 2018, updated with new featured image 11 October 2018.

Many would agree that homegardening is going to be an important part of the solution to climate change. Eric Toensmeier has written about temperate as well as tropical homegardening traditions in China, where homegardens generate six times the income of farmland of the same size.[1] He goes on to write about the movement to develop homegardens which emerged in Australia in the 1970s, and in Western temperate and even boreal regions such as the United States, Canada, Europe, one of the driving forces behind this having been the permaculture movement. Toensmeier writes that permaculture-inspired homegardens have been successful not only in humid temperate and boreal regions but also in arid and semi-arid temperate (such as Nevada and Colorado in the United States), in Mediterranean climates, and arid tropics and subtropics (such as Jordan and Arizona).

Toensmeier sees great potential in homegardening in cold climates, but points to the lack of domestication of sufficient perennial crops besides fruits. The solution may be for homegardeners to follow the lead of Mandy Barber at Incredible Vegetables, where a wide variety of edible perennial crops are bring grown.

Plants For A Future (PFAF) arose out of research carried out by Ken and Addy Fern on their 28 acre site in Cornwall. For ten years the charity which maintains the online database has been based in Dawlish, in the home of Chris Marsh and David Gearing. We are not plants experts but over the years have grown a reasonable variety of the usual vegetables and fruit crops. But having recently visited several local projects focusing on edible perennials we decided we should get some practical experience of growing some of these more unusual crops. We decided to learn by creating a new area for edible perennials in our garden, and starting with plants and advice from Incredible Vegetables.

Our garden is on a one-in-five slope and we are ‘getting on a bit’ so we needed the area for our new bed to be terraced. More soil had to be brought in, and our first planting was of clover and phacelia seeds and potatoes, to make the soil ready for more permanent plantings next year.

We also had four Hablitzia Tamnoides perennial spinach plants which Mandy gave us last year to start us off. They grew splendidly then, but had to be moved into pots while the new plot was terraced. This year, planted in the new bed, they struggled but are now getting going. Mandy told us that after five years Hablitzias can get to be six feet high, and then you get a big yield, with the main harvest coming in April to June, before other fresh greens are available. We also had a Daubenton’s kale plant Mandy gave us and a ‘walking onion’ we bought after her talk to Teign Estuary Transition Group in March.

We have been discussing PFAF’s forthcoming book on Edible Shrubs with Mandy, and a year on from our first visit to Incredible Vegetables we have been back. We wanted to see the site again – like Ken Fern she calls it her ‘Field’ despite it being a gorgeously diverse garden and research site. We were curious to see which plants to be featured in Edible Shrubs are on her site, and how Mandy’s research project on Nine Star Broccoli is progressing. Also Mandy had promised us some more plants for our new perennials bed. We came away with four small Apios Americana or Hopniss, Indian potato, which she advised should be planted together in a large bottomless pot in soil with plenty of grit, and a tepee of canes for the plants to climb up; a Mashua, (Tropaeolum Tuberosum), which is related to garden nasturtiums; two Yacon and a Nine Star Perennial Broccoli.

We looked again at Maddy’s plot and she also showed us round the adjacent forest garden to see plants which will feature in the forthcoming book on Edible Shrubs. (The forest garden is maintained by Ruth and Alex, other members of the group of eight friends who jointly own the 5½ acre site)

 

In Mandy’s plot:

Chokeberry

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Aronia melanocarpa, Black Chokeberry’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Aronia+melanocarpa ]

Mandy received this plant as a gift from someone who was moving from their allotment, so it’s a rescue plant she’s had for one year.

Gooseberry in the fruit cage that’s full to overflowing with soft fruit plants.

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Ribes uva-crispa, Goodberry’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Ribes+uva-crispa ]

Thyme

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Thymus vulgaris, Common Thyme’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Thymus+vulgaris ]

In the forest garden:

Cherry Plum

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Prunus cerasifera, Cherry Plum’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Prunus+cerasifera ]

Cherry Plums were planted on one edge of the plot as windbreaks, they are six years old. They have been prolific fruiters, although we saw relatively few fruits developing this year, possibly due to the cold spring conditions.

Chilean guava

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Ugni molinae, Chilean guava’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Ugni+molinae ]

This produces fruit late in the year, which is small and sweet, tasting like bubblegum.

Fuchsia

(but the variety is unknown). It has edible berries.

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Fuchsia coccinea, Scarlet fuchsia’ https://www.pfaf.org/User/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Fuchsia+coccinea ]

Autumn Olive

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Eleagnus umbellata, Autumn Olive’ https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Elaeagnus+umbellata ]

First planted 2011-12, fruits later in the year. Martin Crawford advised on what to grow here, with these as windbreak plants; they are now very dense.

Sea Buckthorn

[In Edible Shrubs list: ‘Eleagnus rhamnoides, Sea Buckthorn’ https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Hippophae+rhamnoides ]

Male and female plants together. Fruit is good when made into smoothies. (Sagara from East Devon Forest Garden has huge plants.)

Ruth and Alex and friends plan to plant tree collards here in the forest garden to try a very mixed planting.

We mentioned edible shrubs mainly producing fruits, so their yields tend to be big harvests at particular times, then nothing. Mandy said fruiting can be spread by choosing species and varieties which fruit from early to late. They invite friends come to help pick for a share of the harvest. We agreed there is an issue with preserving the crop, refrigeration being a climate change and ozone layer problem (due to high energy use, and poor or absence of control of the damaging gases in refrigerants when appliances are scrapped), and jams etc. requiring lots of sugar or other sweeteners.

We were shown the extensive bed newly planted with Nine Star Broccolis, for the research project. These are protected by fine black enviromesh held up by pots on sticks, for protection against root fly and cabbage white, until end of September.

In between the plants there is crimson clover and the soil is dusted with granulated lime. The plants are individually labelled but there is also a separate plan. There are 225 plants, which is enough to form useful conclusions, although the advice is that ideally 1000s are needed for research. There are 12 types/sources, 20 of each type.

Other plants we saw in Mandy’s garden:

‘Salad Blue’ potatoes.

There was a bed newly planted with various squashes

interspersed with nasturtiums to attract pollinators, and help cover bare earth instead of planting into fabric. (The local cafés like edible flowers, borage, calendula, violas and nasturtiums.)

Around that area were tree collards from a kale expert in Norway. They have flowered but carried on growing.

At one end of the bed there were red sweetcorn with the squashes. Mandy may add beans, perhaps mashua in between later.

Tree collards, grown from cuttings taken in April.

Tigrilia, which has edible flowers and tubers.

Japanese Wineberry

Purple tree collard

French perpetual leek

Back home we prepared a section of our new bed to receive the plants we were given.

We cleared an area cutting down the clover and phacelia, which had grown very thickly. When the new terraced beds were created last winter the soil level needed to be raised. The imported material provided by the landscapers was newly created compost from a council-run facility, rather than regular topsoil. They mixed the new material with the existing soil by rotavating. At the time we thought this would produce a good result, but we have found that it is remained claggy and hard to plant into without a lot of manual preparation.

Anyway, as soon as the preparation was finished we planting the new arrivals, adding a light compost mix into the immediate growing area. The four Apios Americana needed special treatment. We cut the bottom out of a large plastic pot and set it in the ground, filled it short of the brim with compost including grit, then planted all four plants and put a pyramid of canes for them to grow up.

 

[1] Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution (White River Junction, Vermont, 2016), p. 44.

Why Perennials? The Carbon Farming Solution

A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security

Eric Toensmeier has kindly allowed us to add information from his book The Carbon Farming Solution to the website. Eric identified 700 plants that can be a critical part of the solution to climate problems. So far we have added 325 plants to the database and hopefully will have completed a further 375 by December 2018.  For more information visit the Carbon Farming Solutions page

Spreading the Food Forests Revolution with Edible Perennials

Plants For A Future and the Transition Movement

The Plants For A Future (PFAF) research project and the Transition Network (originally Transition Towns) both came from permaculture (‘permanent culture’ and ‘permanent agriculture’). Ken Fern, who created PFAF in 1989, explained in his book Plants For A Future that he discovered permaculture without realising it via a book about Forest Farming. He was seeking a better way to produce food than growing organic vegetables by hand, and found that permaculture – as ‘permanent agriculture’ – gave him ‘a method of plant management that tries to emulate the natural ecosystems of the planet, to work in harmony with nature’.[1] Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network in 2006, was a permaculture teacher concerned about climate change, who viewed The End of Suburbia, a disturbing American film about Peak Oil, and saw that crisis as an opportunity to rebuild local communities – ‘permanent culture’ – in order drastically to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, avert climate change, and restore ‘harmony with nature’.

There are many connections between Plants For A Future and Transition: both encourage and assist local self-reliance and sustainability. Another strand of support for these goals is the work we have been doing recently at PFAF to enhance and refine our database to include key plants identified in the work of Eric Toensmeier on edible forests, and by Paul Hawken on reafforestation to draw carbon down from the atmosphere.[2]

Plants For A Future and Incredible Vegetables

In 2017 two PFAF trustees, Wendy Stayte and Chris Marsh, began a research project involving making cooperative links with people in the South West growing unusual plants in innovative ways. They began with a visit to Incredible Vegetables near Ashburton, where they were shown around by Mandy Barber (www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk ). We made notes and took photographs, and published the resulting photo essay on the website at http://www.pfaf.org/user/Research.aspx?id=307. Trevor Pemberton, our database administrator came with us on a later visit to Incredible Vegetables that year. We all were thrilled and delighted by the gorgeously productive and beautiful site, and impressed by what Mandy had achieved, her knowledge, skills and love of edible plants, and her research projects directed at saving rare varieties of perennial brassicas. When we decided to bring out a new book in our series of guides, this one on Edible Shrubs, we asked Mandy if she would write a Foreword to the book and she agreed. Mandy and Chris met to discuss this and Mandy mentioned that she was going to give a talk to Teign Estuary Transition group (https://teigntransition.org.uk/ ). Chris is a member of Dawlish Transition group, and decided to go to this event and to make notes on the talk to write up later for the PFAF blog.

It is thought that the now familiar saying ‘Think globally, act locally’ originated with the sociologist and pioneer of town planning Patrick Geddes,[3] and was then adopted in 1969 by David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth. We have a good instance of that principle in the connection between the idea of addressing climate change by global reafforestation with practical local projects like Incredible Vegetables. Clearly Transition towards local self-reliance and sustainability must be acted upon, not just talked about and campaigned for, but where do we start? Very often we start with local food. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, has written about the local food movement worldwide, and how millions of these initiatives have arisen spontaneously, not requiring changes in government policy, legislation, regulation etc.[4] Local food is certainly important for Transition groups, many of which involve their members and others in the work of maintaining and harvesting in their community gardens, or in other activities such as local food markets, garden share schemes and seed swaps. Many groups also invite speakers to talk about food growing, as Teign Estuary Transition did when they arranged for Mandy Barber to talk about Incredible Vegetables.

Mandy Barber talks to Teign Estuary Transition about Perennial Vegetables

On 26 March 2018, as part of their programme for Earth Week, Teign Estuary Transition invited Mandy Barber of Incredible Vegetables  to give a talk on ‘Perennial Vegetables’. Chris Marsh, Trustee of Plants For A Future, and also a member of Dawlish Transition, joined a packed audience of gardening and local food enthusiasts at the Teignmouth Arts Action Group (TAAG) Centre. Mandy showed slides of how a patch of sheep pasture had been transformed into a thriving garden of perennial greens, flowers and roots, in a flowing and evolving design, all organic, no dig and wildlife friendly. Her talk was focused on her favourite 10 edible vegetables, which can provide spinach, broccoli and kale, roots and alliums for an all-year-round living larder. Afterwards people queued up to buy the plants Mandy had brought along.

Mandy began by telling us about her experimental growing space on a hill overlooking Ashburton, a small town on the edge of Dartmoor in south Devon. She is passionate about perennial vegetables, both researching and growing plants which continue for many years, some of them capable of surviving for a century or more. For eight years Mandy has co-owned this field with a group of like-minded friends, who pooled all the money they could raise to purchase the plot when it came up for sale. When they bought the field it was typical Dartmoor sheep pasture.

Mandy showed us slides of the field after one year, and then after two years, when it had been transformed into a polyculture. It was laid out in a design initially, but they don’t believe in growing in straight lines so there were few restrictions, except where there was a need to avoid planting annuals in the same area, as with potatoes. They planted flowers, vegetables and fruits in the same space, for the sake of beauty and diversity, to help prevent a build-up of pests, and to benefit wildlife. They have seen an increase in the butterfly count, and a big increase in diversity of species including pollinators. There is a rambling mix of flowers and vegetables, including many edible flowers which spread naturally around the site.

The site has been ‘no dig’ from the start.  They mulched over the original meadow grass with compost and cardboard in stages, and they found that it all rotted down over a year. Since then they have avoided turning the soil, and sow green manures, especially clover, on any bare soil, such as between newly planted brassica plants once they have grown big enough, i.e. 8-10 inches. They also sow phacelia, later chopping down the plants, either leaving the material where it was, or gather it up to put between plants, which protects the soil. Phacelia flowers in a couple of months, which the bees love.

Mandy then described her Top 10 edible perennials.

1. Hablitzia Tamnoides or Caucasian spinach

https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Hablitzia+tamnoides

Hablitzia Tamnoides is a herbaceous perennial climber from the Caucasus region with edible spinach type leaves. It has been grown in the manor houses of Scandinavia and in various botanical gardens in the UK and North America since the early 19th century as an ornamental plant. Although its edible properties have been known for a long time it wasn’t until Swedish author Lena Israelsson wrote about it in her book ‘The Kitchen Garden: Our Green Heritage’ and an article in permaculture magazine by author Stephen Barstow that interest in Hablitzia developed as a really useful edible plant for forest gardens.

Hablitzia grows rapidly between March and May and can reach up to 3m in height. The leaves provide a harvest of tender edible spinach from April to July. After producing flowers in the summer, it dies back and in late winter/early spring you see a crown of young shoots emerge which form the next year’s growth. As the plant matures the crown gets larger each year, with 250 shoots or more. Hablitzia is easy to grow from seed but it does need a period of cold to germinate. This can be done by sowing in the Autumn and leaving outside in a cold frame and they will naturally germinate in the spring or by putting them in the fridge for ten days. Mature plants can be split in Autumn by dividing the crown carefully with a sharp knife. Hablitzia will happily grow in a semi-shady spot and will climb up trellis, bean netting or wind its way through other plants for support. Stephen Barstow has subsequently written about Hablitzia in his extensive book ‘Around the World in 80 Plants’ and this has helped Hablitzia undergo somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. There now seems to be a bit of a craze for Hablitzias – or ‘habbies’ and there is even a Facebook group ‘Friends of Hablitzia Tamnoides’ where you can post pictures of your plants. As an edible it has a delicate taste and can used raw in salads, wilted like spinach, made into fritters and is a welcome spring treat. The early shoots can be eaten too.

2. Skirret.

https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Sium+sisarum

Skirret is a plant that produces a cluster of sweet tasting parsnip like roots. It was one of the main root vegetables grown in Europe before potatoes became really popular and had its heyday in the 16th and 17th century. They were used in many dishes adding sweetness at a time when sugar was rarely available. By the 19th Century Skirret barely gets a mention and falls out of favour. But now there is renewed interest in this vegetable, which, with a bit of attention and some breeding work could become a mainstay of the perennial vegetable garden.

Skirret can be grown as a perennial and plants can be left in the ground for 2 -3 years for the roots to mature. The crowns can be divided up and use some roots for eating and leaving some aside for propagating. The crown sections can be re-planted and also off-sets can be carefully pinched off the top of the plants in spring and potted up for rapid propagation. Skirret produces seed too, but for successful germination seeds need to be very fresh and require bottom heat from a propagator of 20 C for about a month, or up to seven weeks. They are erratic germinators! The foliage can reach over 2m tall and the flowers attract hover flies, so are both beneficial and attractive. In the autumn they self-seed but are not invasive. To prepare them you give them a good scrub and then use as any root vegetable. Delicious sautéed with herbs, or roasted, or as a sweet raw treat straight from the veg garden.

3. Nine Star Perennial Broccoli

https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Brassica+oleracea+botrytis+aparagoides

This plant was the first to stir Mandy’s interest in edible perennials, when she was looking for an easier way to grow food than the usual slog with annuals. Perennial vegetables have great advantages in being low maintenance, locking up more CO2, being more resilient to pests and the uncertainties of climate change. They will also thrive in the shady and marginal spots of your garden where no annual plant would dare to grow and they also have the ability to gather more nutrients and anti-oxidants spending many years in the ground. They quite often are at their best in early spring when there is not much else to harvest from annual plants. Planting perennials and annuals together can give you a year round harvest.

Perennial Nine Star Broccoli is an amazing hardy vegetable that produces a central large creamy white cauliflower type head with a myriad of sprouting side shoots from as early as February through to May. To keep the plants sprouting year after year you have to cut off all the florets for eating and any flowers that try to emerge so you don’t allow the plants to go to seed. The following spring you will get another crop of edible florets and for several years after that. Plants can grow up to a metre tall and wide so leave plenty of space between them. They will need staking once mature. Plants can go on producing for up to 5 years in some cases. The florets can be used in the same way as regular cauliflower or broccoli.

The plant was originally developed by Charles Curtis from Cambridgeshire who bred it (around 1928). Currently both seed and plants of this variety are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain as larger commercial growers no longer cultivate it. Compared to other brassicas, Nine Star produces a lot less seed so only small independent nurseries and growers continue to work with it. There are a handful of plant breeders dotted around the world who are currently trying to breed and improve the crop. The problem has been an ever shrinking pool of seed, which has led to a lack of genetic diversity. Mandy is working on a Nine Star field trial to see if she can produce vigorous crops with long lasting perennial habits.

4. Taunton Deane Kale also known as Cottagers Kale

https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Brassica+oleracea+ramosa

the latin name is (Brassica oleracea var Acephala) for Taunton Deane kale

There are many kinds of perennial kales, but Taunton Deane has to be the tastiest and most prolific of them all. It can grow for 5-9 years and the delicious leaves can pretty much be harvested all year round. On Mandy’s site there are plants which are monsters of green leaves growing up to 3-4 metres wide with big trunks. Because it only occasionally flowers it has been traditionally passed on by means of cuttings rather than seed. Once you have a mature plant you can propagate endlessly by taking stem cuttings. They will root easily within 3-4 weeks once popped into a pot of compost.

5. Purple Tree Collard

http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk/purple-tree-collards/purpletreecollard-sq/

This long lived perennial brassica which has been known to grow for up to 20 years and produces a head of dark purple edible leaves. Although cultivated widely in the states it seems to be an elusive plant in the UK. Mandy is taking cuttings with the aim of making a botanically safe collection to offer to other sites.

 

6. Chinese Artichoke

https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Stachys+affinis

Chinese Artichoke produces a prolific amount of delicious crunchy tubers and is valuable addition to the perennial vegetable garden because it offers a winter harvest from October through to March. Being very hardy, tubers can be left in the ground and just lifted when needed. It is a relative of the mint family and is virtually indestructible and very resistant to pests and diseases. It is good in a stir fry because it absorbs flavours, and is also good added to pickles.

7. Yacon or Peruvian Ground Apple

https://pfaf.org/plants/yacon-strawberry-smallanthus-sonchifolius/

This a South American plant closely related to Jerusalem artichoke and sunflower. It produces large edible storage tubers which are refreshingly juicy and taste somewhere between a pear and watermelon. The tubers become sweeter after harvest if left on a sunny window sill. It forms a cluster of rhizomes at the top which you can use to propagate new plants, taking up to 10-20 from the top of each. You can carefully divide these and pot them up and each rhizome section will produce a new plant. Yacon can be grown as an annual or perennial. In milder areas plants can be earthed up and over wintered and will form new foliage in the spring.

8. Mashua

https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Tropaeolum+tuberosum

Mashua is a South American plant and is a relative of Nasturtium and produces edible tubers, leaves and flowers. Tubers can be started off under cover and then planted out when all risk of frost passed. Alternatively you can plant the tubers direct end of May. The foliage will happily trail horizontally or will climb up any support you give it. Tubers start to form after the Autumn equinox and usually plants are lifted once the first hard frosts hit the top growth. Usually harvest October/November time. The flowers come late in the season and this is a sign that tubers are starting to form. Flowers have a delicate aniseed taste and can be added to salads. The nasturtium type leaves can be used as a spicy salad leaf through the growing season. Harvested tubers can be cooked by roasting with herbs and olive oil and have a turnip like flavour. Save some tubers for re-planting the following year.

9. Babington’s Leek

https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Allium+ampeloprasum+babingtonii

There are several alliums suitable for growing in small spaces. Babington leeks, Allium Ampeloprasum var Babingtonii, is one of the tastiest and easy to grow perennial vegetables. Named after Charles Cardale Babington, this wild and hardy perennial leek is a native sea shore plant and perennial ancestor to garden leeks. It is extremely low maintenance and ideal for polyculture spaces as it will thrive between other plants and can tolerate a range of soils and positions.

It can be grown by sowing bulbils, or by obtaining a mature bulb or plant. To harvest, simply cut the leeks at the base and leave the bulbs in the ground to re-grow. Harvesting time is usually March to June.

Babington leeks are so tasty that you will want to harvest them all, but if you want to increase your stock quickly you need to let some of them flower. The leeks will throw up a very tall stem around July time with very attractive purple flowers. These in turn go on to produce a head of bulbils, each bulbil producing a new leek. The head will naturally bend and plant itself or you can gather bulbils and separate them when the cases are papery and sow in a new spot. As the plants mature, they produce a very large underground bulb with a cluster of ‘mini bulbs’ or offsets which will form clumps of new growth above ground. You can lift and separate and move bulbs around when they are in their dormant stage.

You will find leeks popping up in strange places as bulbils sometimes get flung a distance, but it is exciting when that happens! It takes patience to establish a Babington colony, but well worth it and you will have them forever. The life cycle of the leeks is: Emerge in late Autumn/early winter, harvesting period March to June, flowers emerge July to August ( from plants that have not been cut for harvesting), Bulbils can be collected in August, plants die back by end of September. As each year passes the underground bulbs become larger.

Babington Leeks – flowers, stems, bulbs and bulbils are all edible. The leeks have a deep savoury taste and make the most delicious base for soups, are great in omelettes, or just simply sautéed in a pan. They have a garlicky hit too which just adds to their many culinary uses.

10. Walking Onion

https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Allium+cepa+proliferum

Walking onions can be used as a perennial spring onion, you can harvest the green tops for most of the year. The plants produce a cluster of aerial small onions which bend over and re-root themselves, hence the name ‘walking onion’. Over time it will gradually colonize a space. The aerial bulbs are also delicious and can be divided up and planted in a new spot too.

Mandy also mentioned a Citizen Science project which she suggested people might like to join in with. It has been launched by The Guild of Oca Breeders (http://ocabreeders.org/ ) The Guild of Oca Breeders (GOB) is a citizen science plant breeding club that aims to improve the Andean vegetable oca (Oxalis tuberosa) for cultivation in the Northern European growing environment. Oca is a high-altitude Andean tuber crop native to South America. It’s been grown occasionally in the UK for over 150 years but has yet to become a commercial success. The delicious tubers are short-day plants, which means they only start to form when summer ends and the nights grow longer. Unfortunately, this also leaves them vulnerable to cold and frost and gardeners are discouraged by poor crops. The mission of the Guild is to breed a variety of oca that responds much better to European variations in day length and climate. Anyone with horticultural experience can get involved with the project.

Mandy concluded by saying that edible perennials can supplement or be a big part of your diet. They help you plan for all year round produce, with many perennials coming in the ‘hungry gap’ from winter through to spring, complementing your growing system and providing a living larder.

Conclusion: Spreading the Food Forests Revolution

What is really exciting about what Mandy Barber is doing with her plants research and her talks is that she shows what is possible, what we can all do at however small a scale, to meet our most basic needs in a sustainable way, and to contribute to saving life on earth. It is also exciting that Plants For A Future has a role in this revolution, and we have a global reach through our website and database, and this blog.

[1] Ken Fern, Plants For A Future: Edible & Useful Plants For A Healthier World (Clanfield, Hants: Permanent Publications, 1997), pp. xi-xii.

[2] Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (London: Chelsea Green: 2016); Paul Hawken, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (London: Penguin, 2018); https://transitioncornwall.com/2015/12/21/paul-hawken-project-drawdown/

[3] Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution: A Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics (London: Ernest Benn, 1968 [1915[), p. 397.

[4] (World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175-78.)

Service Tree, Sorb Apple | Sorbus domestica

A delicious fruit for the autumn. Sorbus domestica is a deciduous tree growing to 15m (50ft) at a medium rate with a trunk up to 1m (3′ 4″) in diameter. On exposed sites it may only grow to be a shrub 2 – 3m (6–10ft) tall. Leaves are 15-25cm (6–10”) long, pinnate with 13 – 21 leaflets 3–6cm (1–2.5”) long and 1cm (0.4”) broad, with a bluntly acute apex, and a serrated margin on the outer half or two thirds of the leaflet. The flowers are 13–18mm (0.5–0.7”) in diameter, with five white petals. It flowers in late spring, and the seeds ripen in autumn. Sorbus domestica flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by insects. It is noted for attracting wildlife and can tolerate strong winds but not maritime exposure. A good planting habitat is the woodland garden canopy.

The fruit which can be eaten raw or cooked, but is usually bletted if it is going to be eaten raw. This involves storing the fruit in a cool dry place until it is almost but not quite going rotten. At this stage the fruit has a delicious taste, somewhat like a luscious tropical fruit. The fruit will often begin its bletting process whilst still on the tree, and we have eaten delicious fruits straight from the tree in mid autumn. The fruit can also be dried and used like prunes. The fruit is up to 3cm (1.2”) across.

Fresh juice from ripe fruit or a decoction made from the dried fruit act as an astringent for the intestinal tract. Externally, preparations are used for skin cleansing.  The bark is a source of tannin. Service tree wood is fine grained, very heavy, hard to split and used for furniture, screws, and wine presses.

Service trees succeed in most reasonably good soils in an open sunny position, tolerating light shade, though it fruits better in a sunny position. The service tree is occasionally cultivated for its edible fruit. There are 2 distinct forms, S. domestica pomifera. (Hayne.) Rehd. with apple shaped fruits (which ripen in autumn) and S. domestica pyriformis. (Hayne.) Rehd. with pear shaped fruits which ripen from late autumn. Plants are susceptible to fireblight and to canker (which is especially prevalent in areas with high rainfall. They grow best in the drier areas of Britain, which in general means the eastern half of the country.

The seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. If you have sufficient seed it can be sown in an outdoor seedbed. Stored seed germinates better if given 2 weeks warm then 14–16 weeks cold stratification, so sow it as early in the year as possible. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. Seedlings are very slow to put on top-growth for their first year or two, but they are busy building up a good root system. It is best to keep them in pots in a cold frame for their first winter and then plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring.

Service Tree, Sorb Apple

Sorbus domestica

Family:  Rosaceae

Known Hazards: The seeds probably contain hydrogen cyanide. This is the ingredient that gives almonds their characteristic flavour. Unless the seed is very bitter it should be perfectly safe in reasonable quantities. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.

Natural Habitats: Woods and bushy places.

Natural Range: Europe.

Hardiness Zones: USDA 6–10. PFAF 6. Not frost tender.

Type & Size: Medium sized deciduous tree growing to 15m (50ft)

Growth: Medium

Soil: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils. It prefers well-drained moist soil.
Soil pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils.
Light: It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade.

References: 1, 2, 3, 11, 45, 46, 61, 74, 78, 80, 98, 115, 188, 121, 132, 183, 188, 200, K
Edible Rating 5
Medicinal Rating 0
Other Uses: 2

Sorbus-domestica_EdibleTrees

Database entry: https://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Sorbus+domestica

Tropical | Cashew | Anacardium occidentale

A favourite nut growing on large evergreen trees, Cashew (Anacardium occidentale), grows up to 10-12m tall with a short and usually irregularly-shaped trunk. The dwarf version growing to 6m is preferred for commercial crops. It has spreading branches and a canopy that can spread up to 12 m. The leaves are arranged in an alternate pattern, pale green in colour but shiny, with fine veins, and are relatively large but narrows towards its base. It usually takes three years after planting before it starts production, and eight years before economic yield can begin. However, there are breeds like the dwarf cashew tree that takes only a year to start production and three years to attain economic harvest. This breed grows up to 6 m tall and is known to have been more profitable, with earlier maturity and higher yields, as compared to the traditional variety. The tree is known for its seed or nut which is widely consumed raw, roasted, as an ingredient, or processed into cashew cheese or cashew butter. The cashew apple, on the other hand, is processed into a fruit drink or distilled into liquor, and used for jams and candies. Cashew nut also produces edible oil but due to the high economic value of the nut itself, the oil is not commonly extracted. The young shoots and leaves are edible as well. As a medicinal plant, the leaves are used as a treatment for reducing fever, malaria, toothache, and gum problems. The bark is used to reduce blood sugar levels and to detoxify snake bites. Cashew syrup is used as relief from coughs and colds. Cashew apple juice is believed to be an effective treatment for syphilis, cholera and kidney problems. The sap or bark extract is used as a contraceptive. Further, the gum is used to treat leprosy and fungal conditions. The tree grows well in poor sandy soil conditions. It is a tropical plant that must be grown in a frost-free environment. It is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds due to its fragrant flowers. It can be propagated through stem cuttings or seed sowing.

Edible portion: Nut, Leaves, Fruit pulp, Flavouring, Vegetable, Seeds, Oil. Fruit – raw or cooked. Juicy and refreshing, though they are a bit acidic and often have an astringency. They are also somewhat fibrous. They can be dried or sliced with other fruits. The fruit can also be lightly cooked to get rid of their astringency. A refreshing juice can be extracted from the fruit. Red fruits are considered to be superior to yellow fruits. The apple is used to make spirits. The fruit is about 3cm long. Seed – must be cooked before being removed from its shell. Slightly sweet with a pleasant, bland flavour. Eaten on their own, salted and used in a wide range of confections. They can also be used as the basis of savoury protein-rich meat-alternative dishes. Caution should be employed when harvesting the seed – see notes above on toxicity. An edible oil is obtained from the seed but, due to the high value of the seed, the oil is not usually extracted. Young leaves and shoots – raw in salads or cooked. Eaten in S.E. Asia, but too astringent for most tastes. They are picked during the rainy season and eaten fresh with hot and spicy dishes.

Medicinal Uses. The leaves are febrifuge. They are used in West Africa in the treatment of malaria. In India and Africa, the leaves are used to treat a toothache and gum problems. The leaves can be harvested at any time and dried for later use. The bark is astringent, rubefacient and vesicant. Research has shown that it is also hypoglycemic, having the ability to reduce blood sugar levels. The bark is used in Ayurvedic medicine to detoxify snake bites. The bark is harvested as required and used fresh or dried. Leaf and bark infusions are used in the treatment of a toothache and sore gums, while the bark and leaf extracts and fruit juice are taken internally to treat diarrhoea. The fruit is anti-scorbutic, astringent and diuretic. Cashew syrup is a good remedy for coughs and colds. Cashew apple juice is said to be effective for the treatment of syphilis and is also used in the treatment of cholera and kidney troubles. The fresh, acrid juice inside the shell is vesicant. It has been used for removing warts as well as for treating ringworm, leprosy and corns, and is applied to the soles of the feet to cure cracks in the skin. It is toxic to many disease-causing organisms, such as Staphylococcus bacteria. The sap, or bark extract, is considered to be contraceptive. The gum is bactericidal, fungicidal and kills worms and protozoa. It is applied externally in the treatment of leprosy, and for corns and fungal conditions. An infusion of the root is an excellent purgative.

Other uses rating: Medium (3/5). Backyard Tree, Courtyard, Large Planter; xerophytic. Agroforestry Uses: Because it grows well on poor sandy soils and near the coast, it has sometimes planted for erosion control. It has been intercropped with cowpea, groundnuts and horsegram in India. In Andra Pradesh and Orissa in India, casuarina and coconut constitute a popular crop combination. Plants are often used as a support for growing cultivated vanilla. Other Uses The fruits contain 45 – 47% oil which has high heat resistance. It is an excellent lubricant and is also used in varnishes, inks, termite proofing wood, insulating coatings etc. The bark contains an acrid sap of thick brown resin, which becomes black on exposure to air. This is used as indelible ink in marking and printing linens and cotton. The resin is also used as a varnish, a preservative for fishnets and a flux for solder metals. The stem yields an amber-coloured gum, which is partly soluble in water, the main portion swelling into a jellylike mass. This gum is used as an adhesive (for woodwork panels, plywood, bookbinding), partly because it has insecticidal properties. It is also used in inks, dyes and varnishes. The acrid sap of the bark contains 3-5% tannin and is employed in the tanning industry. One of the components of the bark gum acts as a vesicant and has insect repellent properties. The toxic, acrid oil in the shell has high polymerising and friction-reducing properties and is used as a waterproofing agent and preservative. It can be used for treating fishing nets, woodwork etc. to repel termites. The oil in the shell can also be added to paraffin to make it more useful in controlling mosquito larvae. It has been used in the manufacture of plastics, and in the production of certain sorts of paints such as are used for ship’s keels, cement surfaces and where corrosive influences preclude the use of ordinary paint. Distilled and polymerised, the oil is also used in insulating varnishes and the manufacture of typewriter rolls, oil- and acid-proof cement and tiles, friction-modifying material for brake linings, as a component of space-rocket lubricants, inks, etc. The reddish-brown wood is light in weight, reasonably hard, but is subject to termite attack. It is sometimes used for construction and general carpentry. It is usually of unsuitable dimensions for construction. Pulp from the wood is used to fabricate corrugated and hardboard boxes. The wood makes an excellent charcoal and fuel. The residue of the shell is often used as fuel in cashew nut shell liquid extraction plants.

A plant for lowland tropical and subtropical areas, succeeding at elevations up to 1,000 metres. Cashew grows well in hot, semi-arid, frost-free climates, fruiting well with annual precipitation of 500 – 900mm. It occurs in warm and humid climates with an annual rainfall of 1,000 – 3,500 mm. Trees prefer a pronounced dry season of 3 – 4 months. Plants are not tolerant of frost, preferring a minimum temperature no lower than 18c. Plants produce their best crops when grown not too far from the coast. Cashews can also be grown satisfactorily in semi-arid areas but can show erratic production as a result of relatively small variations in rainfall. An easily grown plant requiring very little attention once established, it succeeds in soils that are too poor to support other crops. Cashew trees prefer well-drained sandy soil and a position in full sun. The species can bear heavy, waterlogged clay soils or saline soils but with feeble growth. Brackish soils near seashores and inundated or swampy soils are not suited. Cashew tolerates a pH in the range 4.5 – 6.5. Established plants are drought resistant. Tolerant of maritime exposure. Early growth is usually rapid, with young trees sometimes flowering when only 18 months old. Although slow-growing, it can commence bearing when only 4 – 5 years old. Trees are fast growing. Trees have a productive life span of 30 – 40 years, typically beginning to bear in their third or fourth year and, under favourable conditions, attaining maximum production in around seven years. There are many named forms. The root system of a mature tree, when grown from seed, consists of a very prominent taproot and a well-developed and extensive network of lateral and sinker roots. Plant spacing should be over 40 ft. (12m).

Seed is traditionally sown in situ, germination usually taking place in 8 – 10 days. 100% germination has been reported for seed that has been stored four months in open conditions; this drops to 50% after ten months and zero after 14 months. Plants produce a long tap root and do not always transplant very well. Cuttings of ripe wood at the end of the growing season. Layering.

Anacardium occidentale

Cashew, Caju
Family: Anacardiaceae
USDA hardiness: 9-12
Known Hazards: The shell of the nut contains an acrid juice that acts as a potent vesicant. The active ingredient is cardole, and it is poisonous in the same way as poison ivy (Toxicodendron spp.). Very irritant to the skin, causing severe blistering. It is destroyed by heat, so roasting the seed while in its shell renders it completely safe.(Handling plant may cause skin irritation or allergic reaction )

Habitats: Arid thickets in stony, sandy soils at elevations around 600 metres. Sand dunes near the sea.
Range: S. America – Brazil.
Evergreen Tree growing to 12 m (39ft) by 20 m (65ft) at a slow rate.
Edibility Rating: 5
Other Uses: 3
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating: 3
Care: Tender, Moist Soil, Full sun
Soil: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, prefers well-drained soil and can grow in nutritionally poor soil. It prefers moist soil and can tolerate drought.
pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils.
Light: It cannot grow in the shade.
The plant can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure.

Carbon farming Solutions: Agroforestry Services: Living fence; Global Crop; Industrial Crop: Oil; Management: Standard; Other Systems: Homegarden; Staple Crop: Protein-oil.

Database entry: https://www.pfaf.org/USER/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Anacardium+occidentale

Edible Weeds | Urtica dioica | Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle is a fantastic underused weed with excellent edible, medicinal and other uses. The Young leaves are cooked as a potherb and added to soups etc. They can also be dried for winter use. Nettles are a very valuable addition to the diet, they are a very nutritious food that is easily digested and high in minerals (especially iron) and vitamins (especially A and C). Only use young leaves (see the notes below on toxicity) and wear stout gloves when harvesting them to prevent being stung. Cooking the leaves, or thoroughly drying them, neutralizes the sting, rendering the leaf safe to eat. The young shoots, harvested in the spring when 15 – 20cm long complete with the underground stem are very nice. Old leaves can be laxative. The plants are harvested commercially for extraction of the chlorophyll, which is used as a green colouring agent (E140) in foods and medicines. A tea is made from the dried leaves, it is warming on a winters day. A bland flavour, it can be added as a tonic to China tea. The juice of the leaves, or a decoction of the herb, can be used as a rennet substitute in curdling plant milks. Nettle beer is brewed from the young shoots. We’ve heard leaves can also make an excellent pesto!

Nettles have a long history of use in the home as a herbal remedy and nutritious addition to the diet. A tea made from the leaves has traditionally been used as a cleansing tonic and blood purifier so the plant is often used in the treatment of hay fever, arthritis, anaemia etc. The whole plant is antiasthmatic, antidandruff, astringent, depurative, diuretic, galactogogue, haemostatic, hypoglycaemic and a stimulating tonic. An infusion of the plant is very valuable in stemming internal bleeding, it is also used to treat anaemia, excessive menstruation, haemorrhoids, arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, especially eczema. Externally, the plant is used to treat skin complaints, arthritic pain, gout, sciatica, neuralgia, haemorrhoids, hair problems etc. The fresh leaves of nettles have been rubbed or beaten onto the skin in the treatment of rheumatism etc. This practice, called urtification, causes intense irritation to the skin as it is stung by the nettles. It is believed that this treatment works in two ways. Firstly, it acts as a counter-irritant, bringing more blood to the area to help remove the toxins that cause rheumatism. Secondly, the formic acid from the nettles is believed to have a beneficial effect upon the rheumatic joints. For medicinal purposes, the plant is best harvested in May or June as it is coming into flower and dried for later use. This species merits further study for possible uses against kidney and urinary system ailments. The juice of the nettle can be used as an antidote to stings from the leaves and an infusion of the fresh leaves is healing and soothing as a lotion for burns. The root has been shown to have a beneficial effect upon enlarged prostate glands. A homeopathic remedy is made from the leaves. It is used in the treatment of rheumatic gout, nettle rash and chickenpox, externally is applied to bruises. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Urtica dioica Stinging Nettle for rheumatic ailments (internal use of leaf), irrigation therapy, for inflammatory disease of the lower urinary tract and prevention of kidney ‘gravel’ formation, urination difficulty from benign prostatic hyperplasia (root) (see for critics of commission E).

Other Uses include: Biomass; Compost; Dye; Fibre; Hair; Liquid feed; Oil; Repellent; Waterproofing. A strong flax-like fibre is obtained from the stems. Used for making string and cloth, it also makes a good quality paper. It is harvested as the plant begins to die down in early autumn and is retted before the fibres are extracted. The fibre is produced in less abundance than from flax (Linun usitatissimum) and is also more difficult to extract. The plant matter left over after the fibres have been extracted are a good source of biomass and have been used in the manufacture of sugar, starch, protein and ethyl alcohol. An oil obtained from the seeds is used as an illuminant. An essential ingredient of ‘QR’ herbal compost activator. This is a dried and powdered mixture of several herbs that can be added to a compost heap in order to speed up bacterial activity and thus shorten the time needed to make the compost. The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap and they can be soaked for 7 – 21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed. The growing plant increases the essential oil content of other nearby plants, thus making them more resistant to insect pests. Although many different species of insects feed on nettles, flies are repelled by the plant so a bunch of freshly cut stems has been used as a repellent in food cupboards. The juice of the plant, or a decoction formed by boiling the herb in a strong solution of salt, will curdle milks and thus acts as a rennet substitute. This same juice, if rubbed into small seams of leaky wooden tubs, will coagulate and make the tub watertight again. A hair wash is made from the infused leaves and this is used as a tonic and antidandruff treatment. A beautiful and permanent green dye is obtained from a decoction of the leaves and stems. A yellow dye is obtained from the root when boiled with alum.

Cultivation details. Prefers a soil rich in phosphates and nitrogen. Plants must be grown in a deep rich soil if good quality fibre is required. Nettles are one of the most undervalued of economic plants. They have a wide range of uses, for food, medicines, fibres etc and are also a very important plant for wildlife. There are at least 30 species of insects that feed on it and the caterpillars of several lepidoptera species are dependant upon it for food. Especially when growing in rich soils, the plant can spread vigorously and is very difficult to eradicate. It is said that cutting the plant down three times a year for three years will kill it. It is a good companion plant to grow in the orchard and amongst soft fruit. So long as it is not allowed to totally over-run the plants, it seems to improve the health of soft fruit that grows nearby and also to protect the fruit from birds, but it makes harvesting very difficult. Dioecious. Male and female plants must be grown if seed is required.

Propagation. Not necessary for most of us but nettles can be grown from seed – sow spring in a cold frame, only just covering the seed. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle, and plant them out in the summer. Division succeeds at almost any time in the growing season. Very easy, plant them straight out into their permanent positions.

Stinging Nettle, California nettle

Urtica dioica – L.

Family: Urticaceae

USDA hardiness: 3-10

Known Hazards: The leaves of the plants have stinging hairs, causing irritation to the skin. This action is neutralized by heat or by thorough drying, so the cooked leaves are perfectly safe and nutritious. However, only young leaves should be used because older leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths which act as an irritant to the kidneys. Possible interference with allopathic drugs for diabetes mellitus, hypertension. Central nervous system depression drugs (e.g. morphine, alcohol) may also interact with nettle. Avoid during pregnancy .

Habitats: Waste ground, hedgerows, woods etc, preferring a rich soil and avoiding acid soils.

Range :Temperate regions throughout the world, including Britain. The plant has become naturalized at higher elevations in the Tropics.

Edibility Rating: 5

Other Uses: 4

Weed Potential:  Yes

Medicinal Rating: 5

Habitats: Woodland Garden Sunny Edge; Dappled Shade; Shady Edge; Meadow; Hedgerow

Carbon farming Solutions: Industrial Crop: Fiber; Management: Hay; Regional Crop; Staple Crop: Protein.

Database entry https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Urtica+dioica