Yellow flowers brighten the hedgerows of Port Townsend. Oregon grape is in bloom! In a couple of months the flowers will mature into berries. Keep an eye out for when they do.
The clusters of ripe berries are tempting. With a name like Oregon grape you would think they would be sweet—but only pop them in your mouth if you want an adventure in flavors. I do so I do. Taste is an interesting subject, if you need everything super sweet you miss out on life’s bitter and pungent flavors. Our culture seems to thrive on sweet, fatty, or salty flavors. Cultivate a healthy palate for the more obscure and you immediately eat healthier foods. I relish bitter and pungent herbs. Tinker Cavallero has made jam with the pectin-rich berries and says it is delicious with a little sweetner.
One of my favorite things about Oregon grape is the bright yellow root hidden beneath the root bark. This berberine-rich root is used medicinally and as a dye plant. When I used to be a landscape gardener I would come across the roots as I was weeding or adding compost to the soil. It spreads by suckers—not as fast as raspberries, but enough to form thickets over time. When I found the roots spreading into other plants, I pulled them out and clipped off a section about four inches long to chew on—like chewing on licorice roots. I enjoy the bitter and earthy flavor.
The roots have medicinal qualities that are best preserved in alcohol-based tinctures. Berberine is an alkaloid similar to the alkaloid hydrastine found in Golden Seal. Both chemicals provide antibiotic and antifungal properties. Oregon grape is also good for the liver, and is anti-inflammatory.
Permaculture gardeners can use this plant for creating wild habitat and hedgerows at the outer edge of their property. It is a great choice for bank stabilization. Purchasing the plant at a nursery can be expensive, especially if you buy varieties like Mahonia ‘compacta’ (The nursery trade has not caught up with the name change, but native plant societies refer to it by its new name Berberis aquifolium,) It grows so easily from seed that you can find the plant from mail order nurseries that specialize in bare root bundles of conservation plants. Order them in late winter.
A friend of mine wrote to let me know of a nopal recipe contest in Hostotipaquillo. Most people who have been to the Southwest know this is the fleshy pad or leaf of the prickly pear, Opuntia cactus. It is a common vegetable in Mexico. I’ve mostly eaten it in salads or with scrambled eggs called nopalitos. The taste reminds me of string beans with a little bit of lemon juice. People can be very creative with it and prepare it boiled, grilled, fried, or mixed into sauces.
What makes nopal so special from a nutrition perspective is that by eating it we can prevent diabetes.
Scientists have figured out some really cool insights to how this works. The prickly pear cactus plant adapts to its dry environment by slowing down water loss with its slimy extracellular mucilage. According to Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Why Some Like it Hot, “the gooey globs of soluble fiber holds water longer and stronger than the moisture held within photosynthesizing cells.” He goes on to explain the mechanism of how this works. He then talks about how nopal works in the human digestive tract.
“ The very mucilage and pectin that slow down the digestion and absorption of sugars in our guts are produced by prickly pears to slow water loss during times of drought. And prickly pear, it turns out, has been among the most effective slow-release foods in helping diabetes-prone native people slow the rise in their blood glucose levels after a sugar-rich meal.”
You can see how to prepare and cook nopal by watching Dr. Tierona Low Dog, director of fellowship at Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, on Dr. Weil’s site
It has a full-body flavor like black tea without the tannins. Iron-rich, nettle tea also makes a wonderful addition to any vegetarian soup stock.Why do nettles sting? The fragile, hollow hairs are filled with histamine and acetylcholine. Touch them and the contents spill out. Harvest them with gloves or even heavy plastic bags. In my younger days, I was so enthusiastic to pick this plant that a few times I did it with bare fingers! The tips of my thumb and forefinger remained numb for days. I have since learned if the urge to harvest is irresistible I can pinch the young plant below the soil surface to avoid getting stung.
Don’t pick nettles near agricultural fields grown with chemicals because the plants can accumulate the nitrates and heavy metals. The woods around Port Townsend are full of this wickedly wonderful plant.
Nettle helps alkalinize the blood, and is high in all kinds of minerals.
The most nutritious way to consume it is juiced. Try freezing the juice in ice cube trays and storing in bags.
Harvest leafy stems up until flowering in summer.
Drying Nettles: Remove the dried stems and store the leaves. While the leaves no longer sting, the rough hairs can still scratch.
We built the pile one layer at a time, like a huge sandwich: Alternating dry material with green material, then a layer of soil. Another way to look at it is layering nitrogen-rich material with carbon-dense matter and then another layer of soil and or compost. We made the pile large enough to create an insular mass for the microbes to thrive. In the tropics 3 foot by 3 foot by 3 foot works. In temperate climates increase that to four-foot all around.
After lunch we came inside to review the soil food web and the basics of making compost.
If you explore a forest floor below the leaf litter, you find humus, the result of an entire soil food web. Compost is a way to speed up the process by providing the decomposers—soil bacteria, fungi and invertebrates with all the nutrients they need. We work with microbes when we make bread, yogurt, or sauerkraut. Compost is messier and larger but is similar in that we are creating an environment for microbes to thrive and directing their behavior to produce a product we want.
The building blocks of compost are nitrogen-rich material for strong bodies, carbon-rich material for organisms to energetically reproduce, air so the pile stays aerobic and doesn’t go putrid, water to hydrate to microbes, and soil or aged compost to inoculate the pile with organisms.
Compost enhances the garden in so many ways:
It reintroduces soil microbes to soils that have been damaged by chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
It improves the soil ecosystem and encourages beneficial microorganisms that protect plants from pathogens while soil fungi bind with and filter out toxins.
Compost prevents soil erosion by improving soil structure. Soil rich in organic matter is more porous; it allows air and water to move and be held, it has good tilth.
“Feed the soil and the soil feeds the plants,” is a famous Alan Chadwick quote I learned years ago. Compost feeds soil microbes that in turn release enzymes and hormones that promote healthy plant growth. Decomposing organic matter releases nutrients. The dead bodies of microbes act as slow-release fertilizer, providing nutrients over time.