©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly


Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee

43. Rampion, Nettle & Flax

 I must have been eight or nine and crazy about books when my mother gave me a collection of four fairytales in which plants figured as major players. The book survives to this day, coverless, the binding broken, one and a half fairytales missing. I hold this book responsible for my falling in love, first, with the names of plants in English, and, second, for falling in love with the plants themselves. In these stories, rampion, nettle and flax were more than plants; they were beings, plant allies, effecting major transformations and possessing mysterious, magical properties.

 Rampion, the name of the plant craved by Rapunzel’s mother when she was pregnant, had the air of a forbidden but delicious incantation. Her mother’s weakness for rampion was the reason Rapunzel had to be given away to the old woman who had the plant growing in her garden. Old women and gnarled little men always wanted the babies, and they usually got them in exchange for one moment of immediate gratification.

 I learned much later that rampion, the European bellflower Campanula rapunculus or rapunculoides, is a plant with an edible root used in salads. The alert reader will see the derivation of the heroine’s name in the Latin binomial (or raiponce in medieval French, raponzo in Italian). Gardeners who enjoy the clean-cut freshness of bellflowers and their compatibility with old roses, warn others against Campanula rapunculoides, which they claim is the wildest of the genus, a “pretty, but ineradicable weed.”

 Flax is another plant which exists for me in mythic time. I have written of flax elsewhere, in greater detail, but in the oldest stories, recounted by noted linguist Algirdas Greimas, one reads about the Torment of Flax, “a symbolic summary that represents the entire complicated procedure of flax preparation…trampling, bone-breaking, soaking in the deadly waters of the pond, and finally burning…” That degree of personification of and identification with an acutely familiar plant sounds exotic today. In Lithuanian if one says, “He has endured the Torment of Flax,” it means that person has had a very difficult life.

 Of all the fairytale herbs, however, it was stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, urens and other species, also known as “devil leaf”) that captured my imagination. Even today some naturalists refer to nettles as “forbidding and rather ugly” mainly because of the hairs that act like hypodermic needles injecting formic acid and causing irritation and blisters on the skin. Nettles sting and burn, but the pain passes in a short time and no damage is done. The plant lives in the English language as a noun and as a verb; to nettle is to irritate, annoy or provoke. There are patches of two species of nettle on Dry Creek in Modesto: the native, taller (and slightly meaner) nettle (Urtica dioica), and the shorter, milder non-native (Urtica urens or “field” nettle). California Towhees relish nettle seeds, and you may spot them among nettles in season.

 When I read the tale of “The Eleven Wild Swans” as a child, I was enthralled by Elise [called Rose in other versions] who had to remain silent until she broke the spell that had changed her eleven brothers into wild swans. She had to gather nettles from a graveyard at night, crush them with her feet and weave the green fibers into shirts she could throw over her wild bird brothers. She could not say anything while she did this painful work, for speech would kill her brothers as surely as if the words were daggers. “She is asked not to dissipate her energies or her attention, not to expend her creative force in talking about what she going to do instead of doing it. She is asked to enter into that state of solitude and receptivity where the great powers of life can speak,” write Starhawk and Valentine in their interpretation of the fairytale. In traditional lore, nettles have the power to break curses and reverse negative magic.

 According to herbalist Susun Weed, nettle may have been cultivated as fiber in Mexico as early as 8,000 years ago. She claims nettle “is fifty times stronger than cotton, and almost as strong as silk.” It can be used in paper pulp, or spun and woven into a strong thread. “Accepting the challenge of the nettles is like accepting the challenge to master any difficult spiritual practice,” comment Starhawk and Valentine. They see Elise’s work as an initiation into adulthood because making cloth out of gathered plant material was the responsibility of every adult woman at least until the beginning of the twentieth century. “She must “master (or mistress) the skill and labor, power and knowledge that go with adult womanhood,” they add. “She must learn to work in a skillful way with a plant that is a strict taskmistress.”

 In our non-mythic everyday world, nettle is still considered one of the most nutritive of herbs: it is high in iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, trace minerals, chlorophyll and vitamins A, C and D. Nettle infusions are said to strengthen, even heal kidney cells, and to strengthen the adrenal system, “seat of the will.” Perhaps this is the source of the most intriguing claim for nettle--repeated by various herbalists and healers and so apparent in the fairytales--that it induces “self-empowerment.”

 Gathering nettles, planting them in the garden, and consuming them in teas and infusions, soups and salads, I think with pleasure about how the story and plant have lost none of their luster in the fifty years since I first encountered them. In Starhawk’s words, “To know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent are the four powers of the mage in Western occult tradition. Rose’s initiation journey encompasses all four.... The work of this section of the story is to know the elements and plants that are our allies, to discover our true tasks and life purpose, and to learn the power of silence.”

 Sources: Ann Gardon, The Wild Food Gourmet; Algirdas J. Greimas, Of Gods and Men; Elson M. Haas, M.D., Staying Healthy with the Seasons; Hugh Johnson, The Principles of Gardening; Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West; Starhawk & Valentine, The Twelve Wild Swans; Susun Weed, Healing Wise; Michael Tierra, The Way of Herbs; and Gregory L. Tilford, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West.

Growing tomatoes in your garden


Horticulture Associate, University of California Cooperative Extension

Spring is here-it’s time to start a vegetable patch. Even gardeners with small yards can find space for a few tomato plants. Right now, local nurseries and garden centers have numerous tomato varieties from which to choose.

Tomatoes are classified into three fruiting periods: early, mid and late. To guarantee an abundance of tomatoes throughout the summer, choose a few varieties from each category. Early tomatoes such as ‘Early Girl’ and the cherry tomato ‘Sun Gold’ begin producing fruit after only 55-60 days. Mid season tomatoes such as ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Roma’ produce after 70 days, and late season tomatoes like ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Mortgage Lifter’ can take anywhere from 80-100 days.

Choose a spot that gets full sun for most of the day. Before planting, add compost to the plot and dig it in to the soil. Give each plant about 12 to 18 inches of space between them if you have room. Plant tomato transplants at soil level, or bury leggy transplants until only 3 or 4 leaves are showing. After planting, add a 3-4” layer of mulch around the plant.

Tomato plants have deep roots so construct a basin around the plant to hold water. Using a hose, let water fill the basin and drain several times. For a large planting of tomatoes, drip irrigation on each plant can save watering time. Check soil moisture by digging at least one foot into the ground with a shovel.

Ensuring tomatoes receive sufficient moisture is important. However, it is also important to note that a tomato plant can be over-watered, resulting in lush green growth with no tomatoes. Allow plants to dry out somewhat between watering, as roots need to receive oxygen as well as water to grow. If you’ve planted them deeply enough, they will only need watering once a week (unless there is an extended summer hot spell)

Tomato plants will not require fertilizer until flowers and fruit begin to set. Use a fertilizer low in nitrogen, as too much of this element can cause lush green growth instead of tomato fruit production.

Many pests will be attracted to your garden. Control tomato hornworms and other caterpillars with products containing Bt. [or pick them off by hand]. Insecticidal oils can help in controlling whitefly, aphids and other soft-bodied insects on contact. Insecticidal soaps are also helpful in controlling insect pests. Read labels carefully, and make sure the product targets the specific insect pests in your garden. Use caution with insecticidal oils and soaps, as applying it when temperatures are over 80° can cause leaf burn.

Visit your garden on a daily basis to check for pests. In small gardens, prepare a jar of soapy warm water, hold it under each plant and carefully knock pests such as stinkbugs and hornworms into the mixture. Tomato worms can grow to “monsters” in a few days. If you see a branch that has been stripped of leaves, the worm is probably munching away there. .

In Stanislaus County, a microscopic insect known as a root knot nematode can be found in our soil. If tomato plants look unhealthy and do not set fruit, it is possible that they have been attacked by this pest. Pulling out the plant will reveal a gnarled and knotted root system. This pest can cause serious problems for many types of vegetables. For more information on nematodes and other pests and diseases, see the UC Integrated Pest Management Guideline at http://ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/selectnewpest.tomatoes.html.

While home gardeners anxiously await their first tomatoes, other problems along the way may prevent blossom set or ruin the fruit while it’s on the vine.

When a blossom fails to set (drops off the plant), this is often the result of temperature fluctuations (above 100°F and below 60°F). When temperatures are low, using a hormone spray can help blossoms set fruit, however, using this same spray during hot temperatures is not effective.

If tomatoes have a water-soaked spot on the end of the fruit that becomes sunken, the plant may have “blossom end rot”. This problem can be caused irregular watering. If fruit has blossom end rot with normal watering patterns, the issue may result from a calcium deficiency. Adding calcium containing fertilizers while tomatoes are growing may be necessary.

Cracks and “Catfacing” (a word used to describe disfigured tomatoes) appear when fluctuations in nighttime temperatures occur, or if the tomato was watered inconsistently.

A tomato plant that is well-cared for and watered correctly will be resistant to pests and diseases, as well as better able to withstand Central Valley summer temperatures.

Tomatoes are known for their high vitamin C content, but contain vitamin A as well as potassium and iron. Use this healthy fruit in sauces, salsa and salads. The abundance of varieties that come in red, pink, yellow, orange and green will make them a colorful addition to both your palate and dinner plate.

Calculate your carbon footprint

From Next10.org

The California Carbon Calculator, is now available online in English and Spanish at CoolCalifornia.org

Visit the site, use the calculator, then fill out an online survey. Your suggestions will help us improve these resources.

The next version will include more personalized information on how you can reduce your carbon footprint, additional detail on how you can save energy in your home, additional information for businesses, and improved design and functionality.

ACTION: For information, email Sarah Henry at sarah@next10.org. We also invite you to use the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Home Energy Saver, also available at CoolCalifornia.org

Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty measure likely for November ballot


Since October, 790,486 Californians have signed petitions in support of an anti-cruelty ballot initiative, and on February 28th, they were submitted to county election offices. Californians for Humane Farms, sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary and other animal protection groups, worked with nearly 4,000 volunteers across the state to collect the signatures.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act will provide the most basic protection to nearly 20 million animals confined in industrial factory farms in California — that they merely be able to turn around and extend their limbs, and will prevent California factory farms from confining animals in the most restrictive crates or cages — specifically, veal crates for calves, battery cages for egg-laying hens, and gestation crates for breeding pigs. The new law would take effect in 2015, allowing producers ample time to transition to more humane and environmentally sustainable systems.

"Across California, millions of farm animals are crammed into cages so small they can barely move for months on end," stated Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "We're heartened that nearly 800,000 Californians signed to put this important anti-cruelty initiative on the ballot, and we look forward to the vote in November when Californians will vote to establish the principle in law that animals raised for food deserve humane treatment."

"Americans oppose cruelty and believe that animals, including farm animals, deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Hundreds of thousands of Californians signed petitions circulated by volunteers to place the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act on the ballot," said Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary.

The HSUS has offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento, about 1.2 million supporters in California as well as a wildlife rehabilitation center in San Diego County. Farm Sanctuary operates the largest farm animal rescue and sheltering network in North America, including a 300-acre sanctuary in Northern California. The two organizations led a successful 2002 Florida ballot initiative that banned gestation crates (55%-45%) and in Arizona in 2006 that banned gestation and veal crates (62%-38%). In 2007, the Oregon legislature banned gestation crates. Recently, The HSUS investigated a dairy cow slaughter plant in Chino and documented appalling abuses of downer cows.

ACTION: Visit http://www.hsus.org/farm/camp/totc/