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When I was out the other I came across some council trees. They’re maybe 4 or 5 years old. They’re between the road and a large empty paddock that gets mown several times a year but where the grass is still thick and abundant.
The area around the base of the trees is bare dirt for maybe a 2 – 3 metres diameter and the rabbits have been going beserk, making extravagantly big holes. I was curious about this – some time ago it was pointed out to me that rabbits thrive where the grass is really short. That’s why you have rabbit problems where there is sheep grazing (because most farmers graze pasture very low).
Bearing this in mind I look around to see where else the rabbits are making homes. And sure enough, the only places there are holes is where there the grass has been disturbed or is very short. Most of the paddock is thick grass up to five inches tall but generally less than that and there were no rabbit holes there at all. But where the grass had been dug into by humans or sprayed, there were holes.
Here’s the irony. The council were obviously spraying around the trees to keep the grass down, and then the rabbits where coming along and digging because it’s the only accessible dirt in the area. The spraying is unnecessary as these older trees won’t be adversely affected by long grass. I guess it’s a cosmetic thing, you can’t have long grass in a town, it looks messy. Messier than dead grass, bare earth, rabbit holes and pesticide residue.
So go rabbits I say. If humans are going to do stupid things, then nature will point it out.
Solutions? Personally I don’t mind long grass and would take that over pesticide use any day. I accept that that is too much for many people, so how about wild herbaceous borders that act as mini wildlife preserves or corridors? The strip of land where these trees were growing could be seeded with local wildflowers, in this case yarrow, vipers bugloss, st john’s wort, wild carrot, dandelion, red clover and curly dock (they just all happen to be medicinal, heh). This would encourage abundant insect life, including food for bees and predator insects that control ‘pest’ insects (which would also benefit nearby gardens).
Grasses could be included (especially some of the more aesthetic ones), which would provide food for small birds. If the trees were fruit or nut trees, then the undergrowth could be a permaculture orchard using plants beneficial for predator and pollinating insects eg feral parnsip which when flowering attracts insects and when seeding is elegant (I have a thing for umbelliferae).
In permaculture there is a technique called a guild. This is where you have a cluster of plants that work together for the benefit of each other. In this example each food bearing tree could form the centre of a guild that included plants that act as mulch and ground cover (preserving soil moisture), insect attractors (pest control and pollination), increase fertility and provide nutrients, and provide beauty. You can read more about guilds here.
I went out today following my nose looking for weeds. My mood is good and I move past the harsh reality that I would have to drive at least an hour to find an intact native ecosystem or even a thriving mixed one. I will take what is on offer – there is comfort to be had from the land that is trying to heal. When I arrive there are 3 kahu hunting rabbits in the paddock. A good sign. One of the kahu is very large, which means it’s an older bird. But the rabbits are big too, I’d like to come back and see the hunt in action.
I wander around and down to the river. It’s all broom and willow and small plants of succession. It’s easy to understand why the river bed is the way it is (flooding limits what can grow here) but harder to make sense of the land up on the banks, rabbit riven, dry, sparse. The paddocks nearby are mown for some reason, but stock have been here too at some stage, which explains why there are so many rabbits (rabbits don’t like long grass) and why only the big trees, inedible shrubs and first sucession plants survive. There is no moving on.
Still it is a beautiful late afternoon and on my way back from the river I come across an oasis. It’s a large double willow. Underneath is a pile of what has been dumped earth and gravel, several metres high and four or five in diameter.. Over the top of this are the lush green plants, especially the annuals that bring advancing fertility each time they die and feed the soil.
I wander around the mound delighted in the abundance of edible and medicinal plants:
Chickweed – Stellaria media (the brighter green plant) and hemlock – Conium maculatum (the ferny looking one). Eat the chickweed and make medicine from it. Don’t do anything with the hemlock that involves putting it in or on your body, and take special care with look alike edible and medicinal plants from the same family (Umbelliferae) because hemlock is so poisonous. There was enough chickweed here today to eat handfuls while I was looking around. I took some care to make sure my handfuls weren’t mixed with hemlock though.
That’s the annual nettle, Urtica urens. A bit tricky to eat because it flowers so early and the leaves aren’t great on nettle once it’s flowering. But it makes fantastic fertiliser, so I am happy to see it in this garden.
Mullein – Verbascum thapsus. Darling medicine of dry lands, it’s a good general lung healing herb (more on that soon). Seriously not edible – furry and with small hairs that will drive your throat crazy – always strain herbal preparations through a cloth.
Horehound – Marrubium vulgare. Another medicinal plant, most well known as a cough remedy. Very bitter.
Giant puffball!!! – Calvatia gigantea. I’ve never seen one of these before, they’re apparently a bit rare. It’s past its edibleness, but still a very exciting find. The white bits are the outer cover that has peeled back as the ball had puffed. The brown bit is spongy and sends of clouds out brown spores when you poke it. Even better and more delightful was that once I’d spotted this one, I saw half a dozen others, more decomposed, hiding in the grass:
Yep, that is a puffball, collapsing in on itself. They were spread out around half the mound. The puffball bit is the fruit of the fungi. The body of the plant, the mycelium, is underground. I don’t know much about puffballs yet (other than they are edible and the small species is yummy), but mycelium can grow over a much wider area than what you see above ground so I’ve probably been walking on puffball the whole time.
Fungi are the coolest of the cool, very important for ecosystem health especially ones restoring, and they make fantastic people food and medicine. Expect more raving posts about them.
Yellow Dock – Rumex crispus, aka curly dock (you can see the curl especially on the left edge of the leaf in the bottom of the photo). Medicine and food. This is a lovely young succulent looking plant. Possibly even a first year, as I didn’t see any old seed stalks from the autumn. This suggests that the pile of earth has been dumped recently (and this plant came in with that or grew up through).
Broad leaf Dock – Rumex obtusifolia (I think). Interchangeable with Yellow Dock, but for some reason I prefer the yellow. Again a young looking plant. The leaves of both docks are tart with oxalic acid. Some people have a higher tolerance for this than others, but if you like it cook it well like spinach. Most edible weed books will have ideas about cooking docks.
Sheep’s sorrel – Rumex acetosella. Not growing in the garden but nearby. I wanted to include it because it’s related to the docks, and has a delicious sharp lemony taste making it perfect as a garnish or addition to salads. It’s on my to do list to collect seeds for inclusion in a wild greens salad growing mix. Sheep’s sorrel is a small plant, although these ones are a decent size. You can’t tell from the picture but the leaf is maybe an inch and a half long.
A mystery plant growing out in the mown paddock and on the flat around the willow. I broke the cardinal rule of wildcrafting and grazed on this while wondering what it was (don’t do this at home folks i.e. never eat a plant that you can’t identify). It’s dandelion like, but isn’t dandelion. Possibly chicory, and perhaps it’s been sown in this place in the past. It was bitter but not as much as dandelion, and fresh.
The beautiful tree that made all this possible. We have such a downer on wild willows in this country, but they are incredibly helpful plants. Not only are they medicine trees, but they assist degraded landscapes by keeping the water table high enough for other plants to grow nearby. A friend told me about this recently, and when I looked at this place today it was true that all around the tree, including on the north side, there is more lush growth than away from the tree. The lushness lasts well beyond the shade offered, and past the drip line.
After all that I lay in the grass and watched the sky and crescent moon overhead. It was hard not to think I had been brought here. You can take that literally or poetically, but there is no doubt that the more I open to nature the more it shares with me.
That’s peach blossom! Wild peach blossom! It’s an old tree and I don’t know if it produces fruit, but the blooms are fantastic.
I wish we had more of these growing wild. And more fruiting peach and apricot in towns too, rather than ornamental cherries, which seem too ubiquitous to be attractive now (and what is with our obsession with growing fruit trees that don’t provide fruit?).
Not only is peach a great food for humans and bees, but it’s also good medicine. You can use most parts of the tree including the blossoms, leaves and fruit. The effect is both cooling and moistening, a double boon in Central Otago and other hot, dry places where these trees grow well. I make blossom and twig tincture and dry the leaves for tea. The tincture is a fine relaxing herb, helping diminish hot conditions. The leaf tea I am still figuring out. You can read more about peach medicine here.
Two other things about this particular peach tree. One is that it is growing in a dip in the land and is undergrown by yellow tree lupin (Lupinus arboreus). Any decent rain will have run off to the roots of this tree. And the lupin is nitrogen fixing which means it will be helping with the soil fertility. Both of those probably led the peach to grow there. I’d love to see trees like this in the wild taken care of, utilising the natural advantages already there (the tree grew because some things were right about this particular site) and building on that to plant out from this oasis of fertility. I’m not sure what goes well with peach but I’d guess any of the orchard companion plantings would be a good start. Central Otago is one of our most degraded landscapes, and it’s fascinating to see what grows here despite this. I love the tenacity of this tree to have established and survived for years without any help from us other than the original throwing of a peach stone. We could learn alot.
The other cool thing is that the trunk and branches have alot of usnea on them.
Usnea is a medicinal lichen, very good for helping heal bacterial infections. There’s not enough to harvest from this tree (it’s too dry and the lichen is very short), but in the bush you will see it growing long and straggly.