Knowledge of plants is essential for survival, that is what it comes down to. Plus it is a lot of fun to be outdoors doing walkabouts and working with the animals and plants, rocks and rivers. Here we will share with you a couple of cultures and how they approach plant propagation. It is the text that accompanies an earlier blog entry of photos from last year:

Subsistence slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon:
Back in the day, after marriage, we thought it would be neat to see the amazon jungle for our honeymoon; to visit the grandmother load of plant diversity so to speak. We had been inspired by botanists like Alwyn Gentry working out of Missouri, Richard Schultes from Harvard, and of course the native peoples who safeguard the plants. We made it down to Siecopi territory in Ecuador and met up with some gringoes doing their apprenticeships, folks named Luke Weiss, Jonathon Weisberger, and Luke Hass. Here is a painting I did of the trip later:

Plants grow really well int that steady tropical warmth and light. The Siecopi Secoya peoples practice slash and burn agriculture. That means you chop everything down in a plot, pile it then burn it and ash for fertilizer. Y’all have heard about how rainforest soils are notoriously poor and thin. Well this way you can at least get a year or two production in before you got to move on to another spot. Its not like you can buy in yards of manure or guano down in the jungle. When we were there the generation that is about our age were stoked to have chainsaws to make the work easier. Otherwise you just go at it with a machete, and if it took three days to take down a tree with that wedge cut motion that is what you did. Imagine before metal tools people did just the same but with a stone head and a lashed wooden handle. That is how you get pretty crazy strong working in the forest. In some burned plots folks just tucked seeds into that charred earth. Seeds of plants like the peach palm chonta duro or maybe ungurahui palm used to flavor the chicha drink. Figure if you move around and come back five, ten, fifteen years later there’d be a nice grove to harvest from. Or you could come back and hunt it at night when the pacas come around sniffing for ripe fallen fruits. In other cases the burned plot is planted with cassava, manioc. In the Mexican markets around here manioc is the waxy brown root crop that is called yuca in Spanish. You like – yuca? Like joshua trees? No, that is another plant, spelled with two c’s – yucca.

My wife and I had tragically failed to cross the swollen river in the canoe, one of them local style dugouts with less than one inch from the waterline to the gunwhale. Had a capsize and luckily further downriver swam to the edge of the Agua Rico and got some help. Wife went back in another canoe with the old wise man Cesareo while I traipsed through the trails and got a good glimpse at local agriculture. Came across a plot of manioc tended by the women, looking all uniform and orderly; no weeds. So that is the challenge always when growing food plants, keeping pests at bay and production up. Later on we will talk about disease resistant cultivars, selective breeding for particular traits, and so on. The amazonians solve this dilemma by growing a plant that is poisonous, then leaching and removing the poison as part of the food processing later. This is a good and practical strategy for a place with a multitude of hungry creatures. Come to think of it, California natives did the same with acorns from oak trees. And they burned plots too to cultivate tobacco up by the Klamath River in nor cal.

Another neat concept the Secoya have is regarding the origin of plants. There are many plants there that are intimately tied to the culture but which do not occur in nature. They are so called ancient cultivars that are exclusively grown and propagated by people. The plants do not set seed or grow wild. These plants are always propagated asexually, by cuttings, or division. Caapi vines, snake bite sedge tubers, all come to mind. Of course the Secoya explanation for this is mythical, that these plants come to them as gifts from spirit beings. That is why they only grow in relationship with humans. From a forest management angle, it would be easy, after you harvest some lianas, to stick a few pieces in the ground next to a tree that the vine could climb. This way you are continuously gardening for future generations and ensuring that useful plants are growing all around.

If you want to read or understand more about this culture you can follow up by reading or watching the work of a couple of those apprentices we met. Jonathon wrote a book about his experiences called Rainforest Medicine. And Luke Weiss has been cultivating the bitter morning beverage that is a caffeine rich vine called yoco, and working with the conservation group called Amazon Frontlines to pass on botanical knowledge. A whiles back he did a shaman conference tour in England with his grandfather in law Don Delfin, you can watch the action here: The other Luke, Luke Hass, has been patiently moving huge boulders and melding himself into the leatherwood hills of the east bay. Last time I saw him he was walking alongside some heifers with a drawing notebook and beer in hand.

Settled agriculture in southern Spain:
The forest folks in the amazon traditionally moved around, following game animals and staying mobile. These days of course they are living in more permanent towns, working jobs for the cash economy, and buying goods in a market. Well this sort of gradual settled pattern of life happened all around the world. Once you could secure and store food, then you have the time and leisure to work on any number of other pursuits, from the arts to politics to engineering and so on. In almost every case, it is a balance of carbs and proteins that provides this foundation – rice and soy, corn and beans, potatoes and quinoa, taro and pigs, wheat and chick peas. And always, there are ritual stimulants and depressants involved – tea, coffee, alcohol, yoco, kava, tobacco, khat, coca, cola nut. All plant products.

Propagation wise, to be able to produce plant products year after year, you have to have a consistent supply of water and irrigation. This usually means dams and aqueducts, pumps and wells. In some places this led to the development of water wheels and turbines, terraced paddies, and aquaponic systems like chinampas of the Aztecs.

In southern Spain, small farmers still use the irrigation system that was introduced by the Moors from northern Africa sometime after 711 AD. My nephew Miguel he works as a city water distributor in his small town. An aguador it is called. There are four distributors total. Their job is to go to all the different farms and sell them an allotted amount of water (timed) for a fee. The water comes from the town reservoir and source called El Nacimiento. So you are working all night long opening and closing small canal gates that lead to all the different farms. You get to know every farmer really well in your sector; many become friends, and some even offer hunting privileges and such. The water flood irrigates an orchard or field, or it is stored onsite in a tank to be pumped out as needed. It is pretty hectic because you are on the move every hour or two, and people get upset if they don’t get the water for their crops. Plus if there is a back up or a pump breaks or leak happens then you gotta reschedule everybody down the line and the heat makes everyones nerves start to fray.

The crops that are grown are appropriate for a mediterranean climate. My uncle he grows potatoes and tomatoes. He used to be a pig farmer, but that is another story. Potatoes are bought in as seed potatoes from the Dutch, in 50 kg bags. So the origin is asexual production, likely lab grown micropropagation. At the end of the season that 50 kg has been converted to 1500 kgs of starch, filling plastic crates high on the truck. About a 30 times return in weight. Tomatoes are bought as starts; last summer he was growing two varieties thats it. Nearby neighbors got orchards of oranges and olives, lemons and occasionally loquats cherimoyas pomegranates and figs too. The latest crop craze has been the planting of avocado trees with the hope of a big return on the fruits. Unfortunately they do require quite a bit more water, and are susceptible to the cold if the temperature drops. Agricultural inspectors and extension agents do come by; they offer tips or check on the status of a pestiferous moth. Labor and market prices are another concern. Uncle is tough and strong, but getting on up in age. At some point you just cannot climb up and down the truck, or bend down to haul another crate. Would you like to work all day in the heat for little money? Or would you rather work in an air conditioned restaurant or office? Maybe the Moroccan immigrants can be hired to help with the harvest if they are around? And what happens if after all that work, add in the cost of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and they pay you only fifteen cents a kilo? Or less… So it is not an easy gig, the work of a small farmer.

If you look at the crops grown in the area, few are truly indigenous to the place. Theres wild asparagus in the woods, and wild chamaerops palm fruits, but they are sparse, far and in between. The production plants originate from trade and travel. The citrus trace their roots to Marco Polo and Asia, the tomatoes and potatoes to the Andes, and olives to somewhere by Asia Minor which is present day Turkey. This is what people do – move plant parts around. And plants, if they are happy in their new surroundings, thrive with a little care and attention.

As a small farmer working in a market economy, you are not the seed collector and saver, the breeder, nor the germinator, you are the grower. You are one specialist in a stratified system. In another part of southern Spain, where Clint Eastwood filmed all his westerns, is the town of Almeria on the coast. There you will find big time producers of food crops like peppers and eggplants, all grown in huge massive greenhouses. Some say the biggest concentration of greenhouses in the world. Combine a nice long growing season, maritime influence, steady temperatures, and a convenient European market. Take a look, here is one link: The climatic and geographical characteristics of Almeria are similar to the ones that put cannabis and the emerald triangle of northern California on the map as well. Not too hot, not too cold, nice little breeze.

Over time, the tendency for farmers has been to automate and get bigger. The work is hard, the profit margin is thin. This pattern is what you see here in the Midwest or in the Central Valley of California. Check out some farm machinery videos on youtube and you will be amazed or shocked at the power and efficiency of modern agriculture. This is why seeds and propagation are so important, and are such a huge business.

New developments in propagation
We have been propagating plants throughout the course of humanity. Some methods such as grafting are recorded from some six thousand years ago. Many of our basic techniques remain unchanged. These days, if you are growing a plant or buying a plant you want it to be healthy, clean of disease, and be successful, whether in producing underground tubers or blooming with a pretty flower. You want a plant product that performs consistently and without problems. So in the twentieth century, that has been the direction of plant propagation.

Steam sterilization of soil was used since the early 1900’s. At Park Nursery in Golden Gate Park and at City College we still have the remains of such systems. Soils can be overheated, and end up killing all the beneficial bacteria and microbes that are present in the soil, and ruining the physical structure too. Nowadays, modern steaming and disinfecting methods kill the insects and weeds and pathogens but do not kill the soil. Some people have taken this one step further and eliminated soil media altogether, growing plants in sterile type media with fertilizer water flowing over the roots. This is called hydroponics. One example is vertical farming in large warehouses filled with LED lights, all the work done by robots. Not sure if this is the future but it is certainly one direction society is taking with venture capital dollars.

Manipulation of plant growth using plant hormones is another modern invention. These substances were isolated around the 1930’s. Over the years, we have learned more about them and their applications. Whether to help initiate root growth on cuttings, produce vegetative somatic embryos, or keep a plant compact in stature, these are extremely useful substances. In class we will likely use a solution of gibberellic acid-3 to induce stubborn dormant seeds to germinate. This in addition to using smoke and fire treatments to germinate fire adapted species.

Micropropagation is a technique pioneered in the twentieth century. It is growing plants in a test tube on a medium that would induce the cells to divide and grow. Not only are you then able to grow identical uniform plants, but you are also able to eliminate viruses and pathogens in this process by excising or cutting from only clean pieces of material. The orchids you see at Trader Joes or Costco? Micropropagation.

Greenhouse growing has enabled many plants to grow in places that were previously out of their range. Important in the greenhouse are the mist and fog systems that improved root growth and cutting success, as well as supplementary bottom heat. Ventilation and heating, lighting, and beneficial insects have all helped open whole new worlds indoors with regards to plant propagation.

Genetic modification is another change in this last century with regards to plant breeding. Perhaps y’all have heard of GMO’s and the crops resistant to roundup, or crops that produce their own bacterial insecticide called Bt. This development follows millennia of plant selection and breeding, but it is done in a lab using DNA transferred from one organism to another, not using old fashioned pollination fertilization and seed sowing techniques. Heres the word from the FDA: . As human culture evolves, as do the plants and numerous microbes that interact with us. It is a continuous and dynamic process that does not stop. The ultimate gauge of our success will be the health of communities, and their relationship with the plant world. Stay tuned, the saga is ongoing!