Archive | August 2016

UW-Extension System

Like the other Master Gardener groups in other states, in Wisconsin our organization is supported by the publicly funded University Extension system. While our group is made up entirely of volunteers, without the underpaid and overworked employees of the UWEX system, we would struggle to accomplish all we do for our community. A nod, then, to the UWEX system and all it does is the basis for today’s post.

When the land-grant college system was set up, back in 1862, one of the things it was set up to do was to make sure farmers had access to the latest research. In 1887 the colleges were awarded funds for agricultural experiment stations, to broaden the knowledge base. And in 1914, Congress authorized the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service, an educational outreach effort jointly run by the land-grant colleges, the experiment stations, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Almost immediately, state and local governments also got into the act.

Now, over a century later, this publicly funded information machine has offices in every county in every state. And every office has an expert available to answer — at no charge — any question about growing things that you might care to ask. (The extension service offers information on many other subjects as well — including food and water safety, nutrition, and natural resources).

The service is unexcelled at pinpoint diagnosis: testing your soil, putting a name on the disease that’s killing your apple tree, suggesting the varieties of turf grass that will do well in your particular yard. The only fly in this all-purpose ointment is the fact that these offices are PUBLICLY FUNDED and, therefore, funded within the state budget. As a result, at least in Wisconsin, we’re seeing a severe reduction in the funding and, by extension, the staffing of our local UWEX office, and considerably more pressure on the remaining staff members to take on more responsibility. For those of us that live in Wisconsin, it’s important to contact the county board and state representatives to make sure they understand the importance of maintaining a well-staffed and viable UWEX office.

For gardeners in Outagamie County in Wisconsin, you can reach out to the UWEX office at any time to get answers to your gardening questions. For more information, visit the website here.

 

 

 

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Agatha Christie, Zombies, and Deadly Nightshade

“Belladonna is a poisonous plant with a long history of use by humans as a beauty aid, as a medicine and as a murder weapon.” So begins the second chapter (Chapter B) in the book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup.

As gardeners, it’s fun when our passion for plants intersects with other areas of our daily life. In my case, that means books and reading. This particular little volume got my attention because, as an admirer of Dame Agatha Christie and her many novels, I’m always intrigued by the inspiration and ideas of great writers. The book contains a chapter on each of 14 poisons that are used extensively in the Agatha Christie novels — nine of which come directly from the garden. The other five are chemical compounds.

Each chapter describes the poison in question, how it’s obtained, the effects on the human body, and medical applications. There are also descriptions of real-life cases of murder using the poison and, of course, instances when the poison has been used in the Agatha Christie books. It’s particularly fascinating to read about people using many of these poisons as dietary supplements and for cosmetic purposes.

Belladonna

Belladonna

Belladonna is a member of the family Solanaceae, which also includes mandrake and datura. All of these plants are well-known in the world of witchcraft, but their gentle family members (potatoes and tomatoes) are more well-known to the rest of us. The mandrake may be the most famous of the evil side of the family, mentioned in the Bible and, more recently, in the Harry Potter books.

Datura’s poisons are found primarily in the flowers and seeds, and has a variety of common names like thorn apple (because of appearance of the fruit) and moonflower (because it’s flowers open at night). The datura strammonium, known as jimsonweed, was responsible for a mass poisoning of soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia. In Haiti, datura is known as the zombie cucumber, and the book takes some time to describe the two-step process in creating a zombie.

Some of the other plant-based poisons in the book:  hemlock, opium, digitalis, monkshood, and ricin. It’s a fun read and will give you a greater respect when handling those lovely plants you find in your garden and nature.

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed seed pod

Jimson Weed seed pod

Pharmacy in your Garden?

Xi'an_traditionnal_medecine_market_(20)

Traditional Medicine Market in China

There is no doubt that many plants are useful medicinally, just as there is equal certainty that many of them are poisonous. The problem is that these are often the same plants. The vast array of widely available herbal supplements and the equally huge assortment of books on herbal healing reinforce a general sense that natural products are safer than manufactured ones. But the truth is a resounding “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” Herbal medicine is a huge and complicated subject, well worth investigating but by no means something to plunge into incautiously. Things to bear in mind:

  • Very few scientifically rigorous studies have been done, largely because almost all such studies are underwritten by drug companies, and herbs, which cannot be patented, could never return the investment involved.
  • There is no way for the home gardener to standardize dosage: plants produce different amounts of active chemical agents depending on how and where they are grown, when they are harvested, and the variety characteristics of the particular plant.
  • Herbs may interact badly with other drugs, rendering them less effective or more toxic, in unpredictable ways.
  • Like other drugs, many herbal toxins are cumulative. Small doses may produce no adverse symptoms but become dangerous in the aggregate.

The don’t-mess-with-in list. A sampling of herbs that have historic reputations as medicinals but are potentially deadly: aconite (Aconitum napellus), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), lobelia (Lobelia inflata), May apple (Podophyllum peltatum), and pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides and Mentha pulegium both go by this common name, and the oils of both are toxic). Note: for an interesting literary exploration of some of these poisonous plants, check out our upcoming August 9, 2016 blogpost on the natural poisons found in Agatha Christie’s books.

In addition, many well-known herbs appear to be carcinogenic (sassafras, coltsfoot, and comfrey); cause abnormal heart rhythms and/or violent gastrointestinal symptoms (tansy, broom, and blood root); or have other downsides that make freelance experimentation unwise.

The give-it-a-whirl list. A sampling of herbs that are very unlikely to hurt you and may well do some good, assuming you use only small amounts: agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), catnip (Nepeta cataria), chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), garlic (Allium sativum), hops (Humulus lupulus), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Be careful with Borage as it absolutely deserves its reputation as a natural laxative; a few leaves go a long way!

In addition, there are herbs that emphatically should NOT be ingested but do have strong healing properties when used externally. First and foremost is aloe, most commonly Aloe vera, which deserves its high reputation as a healer of burns. [Personal side note: I incurred a really, really bad sunburn on my lips in late June of this year — I’m talking second degree burns. Since I have a lovely pot of Aloe growing in my house, I thought I’d smear a little on my lips to make them heal. I have NEVER tasted anything worse in my whole life!! I couldn’t wipe it off fast enough and it took forever for the taste to go away.]

Another healing herb to be used externally is arnica (Arnica montana) which is right up there as an easer of aching muscles, and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) does seem to promote the healing of wounds when applied as a poultice.

Saving Seeds, Saving Memories

By Master Gardener Tammy Borden

My first experience with saving seeds began with a beautiful hyacinth bean vine that I planted from seed during my classes to become a Master Gardener. I can still recall our entire class lined up with Styrofoam cups and starting mix while Larry and Kay Herried rationed out the seeds, eager to be an agent in allowing life to come into existence. Even the seeds looked intriguing with their matte black surface and white edging.

Within days, they sprouted and it wasn’t long before they overtook a small trellis. The seedpods eventually appeared following the delicate flowers, and it was easy to simply collect the encased seeds and store them until spring. When spring finally came, it brought so much gratification to know I was a part of continuing the cycle of life as the seeds from one plant soon became sev- eral dozen more that I could share with family and friends.

Saving seeds, in general, is not too difficult, and it can save you a lot of money. Here are a few basics that need to be followed for most varieties, whether they’re a vegetable or flower.

STEP ONE

In general, select seeds from heirloom variety flowers and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, do not waste your time trying to save seeds from hybrid plants or exotic species. The offspring will most likely look nothing like the parent plant, be weak, or may not sprout at all. My mother told me how she painfully came to realize this rule when she saved seeds from a hybrid cucumber… the following spring she planted the seeds; they sprouted, grew vigorously and had promising blossoms. But when the fruit began to set, every single tiny cucumber shriveled and fell off the vine, leaving her to resort to roadside stands and tasteless produce aisles.

STEP TWO

Once you’ve selected the plants you would like to save seeds from, allow the flower or fruit to mature on the vine so the seeds can fully develop. Choose from the healthiest and finest produce or flower heads. For most peppers, allow them to go beyond the green stage until they’re red. For cucumbers, allow them to get over ripe and turn yellow on the vine. For flowers, herbs and vegetables that set seed (lettuce, radish, etc.), let them get to that unsightly brown stage or allow them to set seed pods.

STEP THREE

Harvest the seeds. For fruits and vegetables, like melons, it caseed-saving.jpgn be as easy as slicing them open and scooping out the seeds. For flowers, like zinnias, pull the seeds from the center cone that forms. For others like nicotania (flowering tobacco), hold the seed pod inside an envelope and burst it so the thousands of miniscule seeds fall inside. After harvesting the seed, allow them to fully dry out of direct sunlight on a paper plate.

STEP FOUR

Fermenting… Huh? Fermenting is not required for most seeds. However, if you want to save seeds from that mystery tomato that your uncle’s been growing for years, you’ll need to read this part! Tomatoes require an extra step that will bring back memories of growing cultures in Petri dishes in your high school biology class. Tomato seeds are enclosed in a gel-like substance containing growth inhibitors that needs to be removed through a fermentation process. Remove the seeds and place them in a glass dish. Add a small amount of wa- ter to help separate the seeds from the pulp. Then set the bowl of tomato seeds and pulp in a warm spot and allow 2-4 days for the fermentation to take place. As with most fermentation processes, don’t be alarmed if the slimy mixture develops an odor. Wait for a layer of mold to form on top of your seeds & pulp, and for the seeds to fall to the bottom. Finally, remove the mold and rinse the seeds well in a strainer, removing any remaining pulp. Spread the seeds onto a paper plate or glass dish to dry.

STEP FIVE

Storage should take place in a cool, dry, dark place where temperatures remain fairly stable. Glass jars work well, as do paper envelopes. Make sure that seeds being kept in sealed containers are completely dry so that moisture doesn’t cause molding. Clearly label your containers with the variety name and date.

STEP SIX

Some seeds require cold stratification to germinate. Most hardy perennials fall into this category. Baptisia and milkweed are two examples. Cold stratification simulates a winter freezing period and can easily be accomplished by placing these seeds in the freezer for a couple months. Research on-line or use a good reference book to determine if your seed needs this cold treatment.

Saving seeds is fun and easy. There are many seeds that may require a slightly different method for harvesting, so I suggest searching on-line for your particular variety. Or you can purchase a book to help you sort through it. “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, available through Seed Savers Exchange, is one suggestion. Happy harvesting!