What Does Sustainable Seaweed Harvest Look Like?

Seaweed Harvest Mendocino Coast

My post on nori harvest two years ago was vague because I was hesitant to encourage more people to get out there and possibly damage the environment.

As individuals we have responsibilities not to over-harvest, but like many issues the large-scale commercial operations and loss of habitat are the real culprits. If that is the case, why should we care? I think we cultivate an attitude of respect that reverberates throughout our lives and to all we contact.

What can we do to both protect the marine ecosystems and provide nutritious edible seaweed for our families?

Listen to wildcrafters who are committed to ethical harvest standards:

  • How much to harvest in one area,
  • The importance of pollution-free waters because some seaweeds accumulate metals and become contaminated by sewage, agricultural, industrial, and  radioactive wastes.
  • Protect the plant’s viability by cutting rather than pulling or raking.
  • Cutting distance from the anchor point to allow for regeneration.

Respect the state and local regulations. In Washington state, for example:

  • a license is required,
  • 10 lbs wet-weight limit,
  • specifications for harvest techniques for kelp, bull kelp, and nori


Ryan Drum, a wildcrafter and biochemist from Waldron Island has a healthy perspective. Learn from a master herbalist On June 15th on Orcas Island. http://www.ryandrum.com/index.htm#workshops

Commercial Harvesting of Wild Seaweed

Sustainable seaweed harvest has been in the news a lot lately from Scientific American to the Huffington Post. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/help-for-kelp-seaweed-slashers-see-harvesting-cuts-coming/

Industrial processing converts seaweed into the raw materials carrageen and alginate, basic components that act as gels and glue in everything from ice cream to paints and cosmetics. Global consumption is roughly 21 million metric tons a year.

More than 95 % of global seaweed production is from farmed operations. But before the last remaining wild stands are dragged and vacuumed, the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization recognized for eco-labeling will set standards by January 2015. Europe countries bordering the north Atlantic are also establishing their own criteria.

Upcoming brief blog posts will include more seaweed fun facts. Steven Foster, an herbalist concerned with ethical wildcrafting recently posted this: Fair-wild Standard


Seaweed Fun Facts: Nori (Porphyra)

Nori cell walls lack cellulose, but are protein-rich—humans are able to digest it, unlike most kelp.

This seaweed is only 1-cell thick! That’s why it is pliable and perfect for making sushi rolls. Gently tug on the raw plant.

Harvest at low tide in April and May. Always use scissors or sharp knife to harvest. Leave the holdfast so the nori will regrow and produce reproductive structures.

A great travel and backpack food because it is so nutrient-dense: high in protein, Vitamin A, B-6 and C, along with many minerals.

Japanese have been cultivating it for 300 years. Nori does not naturally dry into flat sheets! Traditional techniques are similar to paper-making.

Toasting nori makes it taste better and improves the texture: Hold store-bought sheets over a kitchen burner until edges start to curl and the sheet feels stiff.

Wildcrafted Nori: Harvest, dry, store until ready, then lightly toss with olive oil, place on sheet pan and bake for a few minutes until crisp and shiny.

Natural history: Technically a red algae, although the color varies widely.

Life Cycle: Porphyra undergoes 3 life forms to complete the reproductive cycle.

Intertidal Zone Habitat: Mid to high intertidal zone.Intertidal Zone2 Note the black band.

Permaculture Shrub Goumi

A friend of mine has moved to a beautiful old craftsman style-cottage in Port Townsend with a landscape full of edible plants. The other day a fragrant scent greeted me as I opened the gate. I turned down the side brick path before knocking on the door.

Was it coming from the flowering shrub with an abundance of pale-yellow tubular flowers? The shrub was humming with bees and other pollinators. What was it? The bronze colored scale on the tender stems made me think of Elaeagnus, the genus including Autumn Olive and Silverberry. But so many flowers! Compare the photo to the botanical illustration of the species below.

Late April 2014
Late April 2014

Elaeagnus multiflora

Knowing this was an edible landscape, my mind flashed to an unusual deciduous shrub I knew from a garden I once tended in the late 1990’s. What was the name-goji? No, but something like that. The scarlet berries dangled from stems tantalizing me. In late summer I popped them in my mouth to savor the astringent sweet-tart flavors. The longer they were left unpicked the sweeter they became, that is if the birds didn’t get them first.

But the shrub I remembered was never wreathed in blossoms. The flowers were sparse. The shrub was growing on the edge of the garden next to blueberries, rhubarb, and Abronia. The client had gotten the plants from One Green World Nursery. I remember reading their catalog that promoted Mountain Ash, Sea Buckhorn, and other ornamentals that plant breeders in Russia and and Ukraine had been selecting for larger, more delicious fruits. The Oregon nursery owners had gone on plant expeditions to bring back edible crops.


  • Soil: flexible, variable pH
  • Water needs: drought tolerant once established
  • Pest: disease and pest resistant. Protect trunks from girdling by rodent
  • Height: 6 to 9 feet
  • Foliage: deciduous silvery green
  • USDA hardiness: Zones 5-9
  • Medicinal: Lycopenes help prevent heart disease.
  • Propagation: Species by seed from ripe seed. Varieties by softwood cuttings with a heel in July/ August or hardwood cuttings from current year’s growth or and layering.
  • Cultivars: Sweet Scarlet™, Ukranian variety self-fertile but best when cross-pollinated with Red Gem™. Note trademark means plants are patented and cannot be propagated for commercial production!

Elaeagnus multiflora, an Asian native has been cultivated in the US for many years. LH Bailey, one of my horticultural heroes discusses it in The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture in 1927. It is native to Japan where it is known as natsugumi. There it grows into a small tree. Other edible Japanese natives in the genus include Aki-gumi, E. umbellate, known here as Autumn Olive. The fruits of this shrub are high in lycopene, so goumi may be too. Unlike Autumn Olive goumi is not invasive.

Nawashiro-gumi, E. pungens.

But this shrub was not a random seedling, but a named variety, grown from cuttings, I’m sure of it. Plant breeders have bred it to produce more flowers. Compare the photo of my friend’s plant with this botanical illustration:

Landscape and Permaculture Use

This drought tolerant, deer-proof and pest-free shrub offers a special bonus; nitrogen fixing. Elaeagnus form symbiotic relationships with bacteria called actinomycetes that form nodules on the shrub roots and fix nitrogen from the air. This characteristic is found in some plants that are the first to colonize disturbed sites. These pioneer plants can grow in poor soils and enrich the soil.

Taking a cue from nature, the permaculture design approach uses Elaeagnus as an early succession plant. Consider planting it in a windbreak of tough plants in poor soil and five years later remove some replacing them with plants that require more fertile soil.

Potential Crop Production

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are exploring the potential for a commercial market for goumi. Planted in organic systems it can be grown like other hedgerow fruit crops like gooseberry, elderberry, serviceberry, and cornelian cherry. Plant them 4 feet apart and prune into multi trunk shrubs that are allowed to branch about two feet high and maintain at five or to six feet, so it can be mechanically harvested.

Goumi berries

Kraut-chi: Fermented hybrid

Kraut-chi 2

Preserving homegrown food is becoming a regular practice for many gardeners and as they delve into fermentation they want reassurance that preparing and serving fermented vegetables will not harm their family. Across the planet, traditional people have developed the art of managing microbes to age their food without refrigeration or canning. Europeans ferment sauerkraut and olives; Indians ferment cucumbers and make chutney, while Indonesians ferment soybeans as tempeh. Koreans value kimchi, their fermented vegetable preparation so much, they recognize it as the national dish. Twenty five-years experience making sauerkraut gave me the confidence to explore making kraut-chi the old fashioned way, without airlocks or European crocks. Besides that, I have been collaborating with microbes in compost-making for even longer; including studying the science and teaching others composting. By understanding a bit of the microbial ecology within a crock of fermented vegetables, gardeners can ferment with confidence.

In fact, fermented foods offer health-enhancing properties that go beyond preservation. Fermented foods can be one of the cornerstones of a healthy diet. New research indicates the microorganisms in our intestines play a far greater role in our overall health than previously recognized, almost functioning as an organ within an organ. Humans have co-evolved with a trillion microorganisms that effectively breakdown and convert much of what we eat. Fermented foods contain some of the same microbes, replenishing and nurturing our intestinal flora. The process of fermentation can increase the availability of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds. These organisms adapt to changes much faster than the human body does. Microbes can mutate and move DNA around so quickly that the way they function has been compared to using DNA as tools to perform a myriad of biochemical tasks. Our highly refined western diet contains industrial foods that encourage a different intestinal population according to Dr. Daphne Miller. Cutting edge research suggests the loss of the beneficial microorganisms may add to problems of chronic low-grade inflammation, one of the roots of so many health issues today. So I wasn’t surprised to read a blog post on the UN site www.ourworld.unu.edu by Jyoti Prakash Tamang, of the Sikkim Central University, India, Benefits of Traditional Fermented Foods, “Korea’s famous accompaniment, kimchi, may take the prize for most benefits however, reportedly helping to prevent constipation and colon cancer and reduce serum cholesterol, as well as possessing anti-stress effects and the ability to ameliorate depression, osteoarthritis, liver disease, obesity and atherosclerosis.”

Kimchi, and an American variation called kraut-chi can be made at home to spice up any meal while strengthening our intestinal flora with probiotics, or live microorganisms. Fermenting without the use of a culture or starter, kimchi introduces us to the mysteries of inviting beneficial microbial populations to take up residence in a crock of homegrown vegetables and later in our digestive tract.  The beauty of this simple fermentation is like so many things in life: what it needs to thrive is right there if we can recognize it.

There are hundreds of recipes for Korea’s national dish, based on seasonal vegetables. A museum in Seoul is devoted to its history and promoting kimchi’s benefits to an urban population rapidly moving toward fast food.

Many are made with a spicy paste that includes oyster sauce and anchovy paste that contribute to the powerful pungent odor. These combined with garlic, chile pepper and ginger produce a potent condiment. Traditionally, the earthenware fermenting jars called onggi are stored outdoors and buried in the ground to regulate the fermentation temperature during winter.  Wealthy urban South Koreans and Korean-Americans have begun using high-tech kimchi refrigerators that can be set for temperatures to ripen kimchi. For those who can’t afford this new appliance, a compact fridge located in another room to contain odors, is common.

Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, “the fermentation bible according to Newsweek,” coined the phrase kruat chi a modified version of fermented vegetables without the anchovy or oyster sauce. Twenty five-years experience making sauerkraut gave me the confidence to explore making kraut-chi the old fashioned way. Besides that, I have been collaborating with microbes in compost-making for even longer; including studying the science and teaching others the practice.

Cabbage has a naturally occurring dormant microflora, or community of microbes that will consume the sugars in cabbage juice once the conditions are right. By managing the environment through adjusting moisture and temperature and adding salt, the process of fermentation encourages certain lactic acid-producing bacteria or LAB. The process ensures that plant juices and water displace oxygen in the fermenting vegetables creating an anaerobic medium. The salt raises the pH discouraging surface molds and organisms other than LABs and the salt also slows the ferment, enhancing the flavor.  Regulating the temperature modulates the succession of microbes that inhabit the batch of kimchi and allows the ferment to progress slowly.

The procedure in brief:  Be sure to start with fresh vegetables, not those beginning to decay. Chop the cabbage leaves to cut their cell walls and release the juice and carbohydrates, and add salt to increases the drawing action. Rub and crush the salt into the cabbage to be more effective. After adding the remaining chopped carrots and onions or other chopped vegetables, garlic, ginger, hot peppers and other ingredients, mix well. Scoop the mixture into a 5-gal ceramic crock, stopping to tamp down every two inches of vegetable mixture to press out air during packing. Moisten a fresh cotton dish towel with water and lay it over the chopped vegetables. Select a flat plate that fits snuggly into the crock, place it on the towel and weigh it down with a clean large stone If there is not enough liquid to keep the vegetables submerged after a couple of hours, add a little water. In warm weather the ferment accelerates, so rinse the cloth. Change the cloth if benign white yeast forms on the surface. The process can take eight weeks.

There are as many ways to make fermented vegetables, as there are people. Each item has variables from the container and the choice of vegetables to be fermented to the amount of salt to use, the season of the year, where and how long to age it.

Why go to all this trouble for putting up vegetables for winter when you could freeze or can them?   In fact, fermented foods offer health-enhancing properties that go beyond preservation. To the uninitiated, fermenting vegetables in the home can smell like rot. The various smells released during the process are indicators of the stage of maturity and —in the rare instance—can warn us if the wrong populations are growing, much like the odors of a properly decomposing compost pile can reveal much to an experienced practitioner. Odors of sweat or cheese are normal. Even a rotten egg odor, released by hydrogen sulfur releasing bacteria, only indicates more aging is required.

Preserving homegrown food is becoming a regular practice for many gardeners and as they delve into fermentation they want reassurance that preparing and serving fermented vegetables will not harm their family. Fred Breidt, a microbiologist with the USDA is qualified to discuss this. “My research program is focused on the safety and microbial ecology of fermented and acidified vegetable products.” In a paper on cucumber fermentation brine he wrote,  “Lactic acid bacteria are highly efficient killers of other bacteria, and they do a marvelous job. This is why vegetable fermentations pretty much always works.  It’s been working for thousands of years.  It’s one of the oldest technologies known to man and it always works, and the reason is these lactic acid bacteria are very good at what they do, and we take advantage of that as a technology.” According to www.foodsaftynews.com Breidt said there are no known cases of people getting ill from properly fermented products. Next time you plan your vegetable garden make sure to include more cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic and hot pepper!

Table: Troubleshooting Fermentation Variables
Desirable Texture:Crunchy Desirable Color: Vegetable color slightly fades unless masked by pigment from red cabbage or beets Desirable Odor:Earthy, Ripe Swiss Cheese
Too soft or mushy. Ambient temperature too high Dark:Exposed to air, dried outOr, stored too long, or iron in the water, or began with damaged cabbage Ripe Swiss Cheese: indicates lactic acid producing bacteria LAB at work
Too soft or mushy. Uneven mixing of salt Pink: Yeast produce pink pigmented carotenoidsPerhaps uneven salt distribution Rotten egg odor indicates hydrogen sulfur reducing bacteria at work. Just wait another week. LABs should dominate
Too soft or mushyAir pockets from not packing the crock firmly White film on surface: yeast, check for yeast smell. Occurs when cabbage not submerged. Scrape it off, not a problem. Potential odor during first 10 days while bubbling may include Sweat or flatulence – Propionic acidSweaty locker room – Isovaleric acid or methyl butanoic acid
Discard batch if Slimy or fluffy mold Discard batch if colorful mold is growing.Discard pink Discard putrid (smell of decomposing proteins or decaying flesh)
Taste after 4 weeks: Can become more tangy and tart, almost carbonated unless masked by ginger and hot peppers. Keep fermenting for total of 2 months

The legacy and future of seeds

Holding a handful of cabbage seeds, tiny round objects, seemingly as inert as pebbles, I marvel that they can burst into life and produce food crops. The metaphor of seeds has been part of sacred texts from the Bible to Buddhist teachings: “We nourish the seeds of contentment and weed out the seedlings of greed and aversion,” and “we reap what we sow.”

In 1998 I worked with Abundant Life Seed Foundation, in Port Townsend, Washington, a nonprofit organization that preserved, grew, and sold open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. (Open-pollinated seeds are stable varieties that breed true from seed, allowed to freely pollinate with others in field conditions.) We received packets of homegrown seeds along with pleas to protect and maintain them because the senders no longer could continue and wanted to ensure that their heritage would be passed on. The stories were often poignant, about ancestors who brought the seeds from the old country. The most memorable story for me was of a man with tomato seeds from former Czechoslovakia. The seeds he shared were an extra-early heirloom called Stupice that produces a prolific crop even in cool conditions. Tinker Cavallero, a Port Townsend gardener working at Abundant Life grew out and saved the first of those seeds in the late 1970s. This is the one   tomato I always grow. Forty years later Stupice is recognized around the US as a reliable producer, even in our cool maritime climate.

We need vegetable crop varieties that can produce under adverse conditions. We need vegetables that can grow in all different climatic regions. That is one of the beauties of biodiversity. That is what we save when we take time to grow open-pollinated vegetables, save their seeds, and share them. That is part of our 10,000-year heritage as seed savers. As a gardener for almost 40 years, I am greatly concerned that seeds are under attack, specifically the freedom for people around the planet to grow food crops and save the seeds handed down for generations. Justice begins with seeds.

The consolidation of seed companies in the hands of a few major corporations threatens the biodiversity of seeds available to home gardeners and farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity worldwide was lost between 1900 and 2000. Now as I learn more, the legal ramifications of genetically engineered patents are equally ominous. Pollen from the agricultural fields of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops has already inadvertently contaminated neighboring fields and those neighboring farmers, some of whom practice seed-saving have been sued by the patent holder, Monsanto.

What exactly are genetically modified organisms and how much does the scientific community know about them? I did a little research to find out how genetic engineering works.  The University of Nebraska has an animated explanation: http://cropwatch.unl.edu/web/biotechnology/makinggmo

A gene gun is the name for the machine that shoots foreign bodies or vectors, that is, bacteria or cells from taxonomically unrelated organisms into the genes of plant cells in petri dishes. The vector transfers new sequences of genetic material (DNA) into the cell. There are so many genes in plants; wheat has 80,000 while grapes have 40,000 genes. As you saw if you checked out the animation at University of Nebraska, shooting the cells and actually hitting the nucleus is a bit hit-or-miss. When a gene is inserted into a chromosome it is called an event. Although researchers have been working long and hard to add useful DNA to fulfill the promise of drought tolerant food crops and greater yields, they have a long way to go. The whole technology is still pretty young. I have to digress a little here, please bear with me. The most objective statement I’ve read is from Dr. David Suzuki, Canadian molecular geneticist and author of Genethics: the Ethics of Engineering Life. Suzuki argues that the research is still developing.

“When a biotechnologist can clip out or synthesize a specific sequence of DNA, insert it at a precisely specified position in a host genome and obtain the predicted expression of the inserted DNA with no other complications, then we can say that it is a “mature” discipline.”

Suzuki taught at the University of British Columbia and is best known as the host of a CBC television program The Nature of Things, viewed in over forty countries. He goes on to explain that a review of biotech publications still presents a large number and wide variety of new research that suggests that the discipline is not ready to leave the lab and move into the marketplace.

“The problem with biotechnology as it’s presented today is that those pushing its benefits stand to gain enormously from it. While I believe their sincerity, they obviously start from a faith in the benefits and our ability to “manage” the GE organisms and products safely. But we’ve learned from experience with the tobacco, nuclear, petrochemical, automobile and pharmaceutical industries and military establishments that vested interest alone shapes a spokesperson’s perspective and precludes an ability to examine criticisms or concerns in an open fashion.”

Around the world scientists agree that genetic engineering (GE) is different from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be completed for all genetically engineered crops. The US is the only country among its trading partners that disagrees. In our country the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is up to the companies to determine safety of any GMO. For the last twenty years these crops have been classified as generally accepted as safe, or GRAS.

Joy Phillips, a good friend of mine, is passionate about seed preservation in her region, the state of Tasmania. This island is 150 miles south of mainland Australia. On a recent trip to the US, she collected vegetable seeds that would grow well in Tasmania and took workshops to refine her skills and increase her knowledge base. Organic Seed Alliance was high on her list of places to visit. She invited me to attend the Third Annual Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. We went in mid-September. There I listened to world-renowned seed saver and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, www.navdanya.org/  and Andrew Kimbrell, environmental lawyer and founder of Center for Food Safety www.centerforfoodsafety.org speak about the threats of GMO crops. They referred to the technique as cell invasion technology.

Andrew Kimbrell said,

“By removing the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, the biotech industry has created an astounding number of organisms that are not produced by nature and have never been seen on the plate. These include potatoes with bacteria genes, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes, corn with bacteria genes, and thousands of other altered and engineered plants, animals and insects. At an alarming rate, these creations are now being patented and released into our environment and our food supply.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva, the world-renowned Indian environmental activist is one of my heroes because she manages to hold the balance of a rational, articulate speaker while wearing a sari and beaming at people. Gandhi is her model. She fights for change in agriculture, specifically in biodiversity, bioethics, and genetic engineering.

Shiva has argued that there is no one gene for drought tolerance, as Monsanto has promised. The ability to withstand drought is spread over a number of genes. She argues also that no GMO has increased yields. Using conventional hybrid breeding techniques to backcross the GMO seed with existing hybrid seed for five or six generations may result in higher yielding crops. (Hybrids are produced by cross-pollinating two distinct inbred parents. Difficult but not impossible to save seeds from.) Using more petroleum fertilizer increases yields, but at a cost to the soil ecosystem, and increasing climate change. What RoundUp Ready GMO crops have been bred for is to withstand more herbicides, so farmers don’t have to till the soil thus preventing erosion. But the use of this herbicide causes toxic runoff that gets in the water system and is toxic to the farm workers. The entire system costs the farmers more money.

Andrew Kimbrell told the audience at Heirloom Expo that 64 million acres in the US now have superweeds—weeds that are resistant to RoundUp. So if Monsanto has its way, the next step in the war on weeds will be the creation of new GMOs. This next generation could be crops engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and Diacamba.

Shiva also told us that one of the problems is that Monsanto is working with a primitive assumption that genes are fixed entities. Unintentional changes may have occurred. Genes do not behave individually, unlike how they are manipulated in laboratories. They are part of interacting networks. No one knows the repercussions.

Her keynote speech at Heirloom Expo was a rousing talk, peppered with statistics and slogans. The crowd kept cheering. She denounced Monsanto for creating a monoculture of the mind. “They only know how to create war, their technology doesn’t enhance life.” She said, “Monsanto’s goal is to make saving seed illegal so they can control the food.” While her statements may seem extreme, this woman has been at the table with these corporations since the mid-1980s in India and at the UN discussing biosafety. She holds advisory positions for governments of Spain, Italy, India, and Bhutan and has been awarded prizes from twenty countries around the world.

Agrarian communities around the world are organizing to protect their seeds. 64 countries around the world label GMOs. A famous quote attributed to Henry Kissinger states, “[Those] who control the food supply controls the people.”  Vandana Shiva extended that to “ The way to control the food is to control the seeds.”

She declares we need a paradigm shift:The Law of the Seed: Seed is the source of life and the first link in the food chain. Control over seed means control over our lives, our food and, our freedom.Maybe this is why countries in the global south and nations across Europe are talking about food sovereignty. One way we all can participate in food sovereignty is to support local agriculture. Another is to recognize the value of open-pollinated seeds.

Tomorrow’s Heirloom Crops: Vegetable trials for OSA breeding program

On Friday I helped Tinker Cavallero collect research data on broccoli variety trials for Organic Seed Alliance (OSA). Farmers and researchers across the northern US states are testing open-pollinated varieties that are selected to thrive with organic systems rather than relying on standard hybrid seeds dependent on industrial farming systems.  Organic markets call for crops with superior flavor and high nutrition that can thrive with low-input fertility under pressure from pests and weed completion.

For the last four years Tinker has been a field manager collaborating with local farmers, overseeing interns, and running the trials. Her work involves examining plants for key traits and recording the data as part of a wider effort called Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). She works closely with OSA staff scientists as they engage with farmers in an innovative participatory plant-breeding program.

NOVIC Broccoli Field Trials at Red Dog Farm, Chimacum Washington
NOVIC Broccoli Field Trials at Red Dog Farm, Chimacum Washington

When most of us think of open-pollinated (OP) seed we think of heirlooms, or classic vegetable varieties that have been passed down for generations, contributing to biodiversity and our shared cultural history. You may be familiar with or even may be a member of Seed Savers Exchange, an organization of gardeners and farmers that preserves and distributes seed of endangered food crops. Saving seed is a matter of maintaining the genetic character of a crop, however the variety trial program I worked with on Friday concerns breeding new types of seed.

Until recently, almost all commercial, vegetable-crop breeding was geared to hybrid seed used for conventional production that relies on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Multinational companies that sell hybrid seeds often funded the research. Since hybrids result from crossing two separate parent lines, they will not produce viable seed that has the same traits of either parent.

These hybrids are called F1 meaning they are the first generation after a cross. Seed breeding is a time consuming and not always profitable endeavor. Because only a few giant agrochemical companies own most seed they choose what is available.

Based on the named crop varieties that are no longer available, the UN’s FAO estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost.

Now demands are finally changing and the market for organic, open-pollinated seed is expanding.  Ten years ago, when Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) began, organic plant breeding programs were almost unheard of. Now, the organization has nurtured an alliance among the scientific community.  The USDA-funded NOVIC project is a collaboration including OSA, several universities, and many farmers working together to breed organic seed. The NOVIC website explains why the group is breeding broccoli and describes the plan.

Dr. John Navazio, senior scientist at Organic Seed Alliance says the organization is breeding “heirlooms of tomorrow.” For organic market gardeners and truck farmers, this means vegetables that produce well under variable field conditions, including climate change. Farmers can save the open pollinated seed and regrow it every year. Also, organic food certifiers now require farmers to make a strong effort to use organic seed.

Tinker has been monitoring organic broccoli varieties on several farms here on the Olympic Peninsula. Friday we examined field trials at two Chimacum farms, Red Dog and Finn River.  She told me that these trials were offspring from plants created by crossing six F1 hybrids and 17 Oregon State University inbred selections, followed by several more generations and populations selected by farmer breeders. It is amazing to think about how much time and consideration is needed to create a new variety!

Ready to harvest
Ready to harvest

Thirteen broccoli varieties are being tested for their ability to withstand summer heat and for ease of harvest. The new OSU selections had matured about 10 days earlier and had already been harvested and rated by the time I visited the trial plots.

On Friday, Tinker collected some of the last data for this year’s trial. The varieties that were now mature were the original hybrids: Arcadia, Belstar, Bay Farm, Marathon, and Windsor. First we walked through each trial plot and counted the number of broccoli plants that were immature, prime, (or ripe), and overripe. We measured and recorded a number of criteria including head size, head height, and canopy height. The last two will be used for selecting taller plants that require less bending for hand harvesting. An exerted head—one that rises above the foliage—reduces the need for trimming while harvesting.

Trimming ease refers to the number of leaves that must be removed from a six-inch stem. Tinker confidently determined this as she harvested each of the five samples per plot. As we moved back and forth in the plots we noted disease and insect pest damage. One goal for the breeding program is to select plants that are more resistant to pest problems. We determined regrowth potential by checking for bud development in the leaf nodes. Market gardeners can harvest another, smaller crop by cutting these side shoots.  Each of the five varieties was rated for head firmness, bead size, and head color.

Note cut stem and strong new shoots.
Note cut stem and strong new shoots.

Looking carefully at each broccoli plant was like botanizing, or better yet, it was like collecting flowers for fresh flower bouquets. Broccoli of course is a head of immature flower buds. Each one is known as a bead. The horticultural term for each branched stem that makes up a head is floret. Depending on the weather, an immature head two-inches in diameter can expand to five inches in a few days. In the cool of spring and fall it can take much longer. A head can be large but still immature. I have harvested broccoli years ago on my own farm in Missouri and more recently doing work trades on CSA farms, so I thought I was qualified to choose ripe broccoli, but looking at heads of different varieties and consciously rating them was a new experience. Also I had never noticed the different ways heat stress can manifest in broccoli.

Broccoli of course is a head of immature flower buds, known as Unopened buds are called beads. Each head is made up of stems called florets.
Broccoli of course is a head of immature flower buds, known as Unopened buds are called beads. Each head is made up of stems called florets.


Tinker has a razor-sharp memory and has honed her observation skills during 40 years of farming and gardening. She showed me the subtle differences between over ripeness and heat stress. Although some varieties mature with a flat head or compact dome, several varieties have bumpy heads when they are fully ripe or prime. Typically broccoli heads differentiate, or start to show signs of separate florets, when they are overripe and ready to flower. Gypsy variety responded to heat stress by sprouting leaves in the middle of the head.  Another sign of heat stress is starring or resetting, indicated by an undeveloped center bead of a floret compared to outer beads.

Color is another trait in the selection process. Dark green or green with a slight purple tinge is most desirable and gets the highest rating while medium or pale green have a low rating. I knew purple broccoli existed but Tinker explained that a purple tinge is part of the complex genetics of Brassica oleracea, the botanical name for broccoli and other cole crops. Apparently there is a whole spectrum with some varieties having more anthocyanin, a purple pigment. The heads are weighed and noted. Then Tinker went to the office and entered the data that will be used to rate the open-pollinated varieties.

Mature broccoli on right has dark green color. Uneven beads are caused by heat stress.
Mature broccoli on right has dark green color. Uneven beads are caused by heat stress.

Many years of research go into developing a new crop variety. Breeding open-pollinated varieties for use with organic systems is turning the tide from corporate-dominated patented hybrid seed to providing seed that everyone can use and save. The old paradigm makes farmers dependent on a handful of seed corporations that gear plant breeding to crops that perform with high levels of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. The goal of NOVIC is to identify the best performing existing varieties for organic agriculture, and educate farmers on organic seed production and plant variety improvement. Tinker recognizes the importance of working closely with the farmers who will use the seed. She is an astute farmer who brings many years of direct experience to meet the challenges of variety trials.

More information:

NOVIC Broccoli Breeding

The website http://eorganic.info/novic/broccoli explains why the group is breeding broccoli and describes the plan.

An Edible Petiole: Four Reasons to Grow Cardoon

  • The edible portion, the leaf stalk or petiole, tastes like its sibling artichoke.
  • The form is dramatic—a bold architectural plant for the edible landscape.
  • Electric-blue flowers attract honeybees.
  • This giant perennial provides foliage and stalks for the compost pile.

Harvest Cardoon:

Cynara cardunculus is the botanical name of both cardoon and artichoke. If you grow cardoon as an edible ornamental, just harvest a few stalks in spring, the way you would harvest rhubarb. Let the perennial grow into its statuesque form. The early growth is tender while later in the season the stalks grow bitter. Let the flowers bloom as a bee crop but remove the spiky flower heads before they go to seed. In a few years the plant will be six feet tall.

Serious cardoon eaters, most of who live near the Mediterranean Sea, grow cardoon as an annual row crop planted on three-foot centers. Traditional growers blanch the crop in autumn 2 or 3 weeks before harvesting. Blanching deprives the plant of sunlight to reduce the crop’s bitterness. This process will not enhance the ornamental value, only the edible quality!

Here’s how:  In September or before autumn rains begin, pound a 5-foot stake into the ground close to the crown of each plant and hug the plant to the stake. Next tie twine to the base and spiral up to within six inches of the top. Or tie three separate pieces. Wrap with corrugated cardboard or heavy brown craft paper. Let the top of the plant peek out. Blanch for two or three weeks and then harvest the entire plant. A faster blanching technique  involves cutting roots on one side of the plant, pushing it over without uprooting and covering the plant with dirt.

If you love grey foliage in the garden, but are not interested in the edible petiole, consider this: The Royal Horticultural Society in England has tagged cardoon with their Award of Garden Merit. At Ecology Action Grow-Biointensive the plant has been recognized as a compost crop. A mini-hedge of mature cardoon grows in their Willits garden during the summer and provides carbon for compost piles. Permaculture gardeners like to plant it as an edge crop.

The trick is to harvest the plant before it goes to seed. If you do save seed, please do it responsibly, as escapees have become invasive weeds in Argentina, New Zealand, and parts of California.

Culinary Preparation: Although many traditional cardoon recipes are dairy-rich, Chez Panisse Café has served it as a marinated salad. Prevent the oxidation that turns the leaf stems brown by tossing them in water with lemon juice. Cut stalks to fit in a pan and boil for 15 minutes to remove the bitter flavor. Peel the ribs from large stalks.  Cut into pieces and toss with olive oil and vinegar and garnish with hard-boiled eggs.

Oregon Grape—Pacific Northwest Native

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.

Choose this plant for bank stabilization
Choose this plant for bank stabilization
Flower close-up
Flower close-up

Nopal: edible cactus

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.

Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge
Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge
Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.
Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.
Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!
Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!

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


I’ll keep you posted about the winning recipe from Hosto!

I forgot how much I love nettle tea!

Nettle HarvestGathering NettlesIt 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.

Needle-like tiny hairs cover the stems and back of leaves.
Needle-like tiny hairs cover the stems and back of leaves.
Illustration from Biology of Plants, Peter Raven, Ray Evert and Helena Curtis, 1976.
Illustration from Biology of Plants, Peter Raven, Ray Evert and Helena Curtis, 1976.

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.