Least Favorite Plant: Euphorbia tirucalli

When we bought the glorified shack which is our house, it came with a collection of trees I’d never plant including a twenty foot tall, multi-trunk, Euphorbia tirucalli also known as the “pencil tree.” In most places Euphorbia tirucalli, which hails from tropical Africa, is only a house plant, but here in frost free Los Angeles, the damn thing can grow to massive proportions. Merely cutting a limb of this toxic tree produces drops of sticky white latex capable of raising welts, should it contact the skin, and clouds of eye searing sawdust. We had our eccentric tree trimmer, who would sometimes show up as late as 9 pm, chainsaw in hand, take the sucker out. I’m especially glad I removed this living Superfund site after hearing a story neighbor Pilar told me this morning.

A woman, getting out of a car, caught part of the Euphorbia tirucalli tree on her car door, breaking a branch and causing some of that toxic sap to fall into her eyes. She started screaming in pain immediately and could not see. Pilar rushed her to the emergency room where she spent several hours hooked up to apparatus that flushed out her eyes. Thankfully she escaped any permanent injury.

Ironically, for such a toxic plant, it has many uses, both historical and proposed:

  • Plant blogger Mr. Subjunctive included it in his list of useful houseplants to fend off zombies with over at Plants are the Strangest People.
  • It’s been proposed as a cancer cure, I suppose because it’s so nasty that you’ll forget you have cancer.
  • Africans use it as a mosquito repellent and fish poison.
  •  Petrobas, the Brazilian national petroleum company, is investigating the use of the latex as a fuel source. Tap into the trunk and perhaps we can propel one our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s many Priusi. 
  • The Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plants Products lists off dozens of uses for the plant including this gem: “In Tanganyika, the latex is used for sexual impotence (but users should recall ‘the latex produces so intense a reaction … as to produce temporary blindness lasting for several days.’”

Using temporary blindness to cure sexual impotence, ain’t exactly a compliment to one’s partner. Spammers take note: you’ve got a new plant product to push.

For medical information on the eye damage caused by Euphorbia tirucalli  see a case study here:: http://www.hkcem.com/html/publications/Journal/2009-4/p267-270.pdf. And, as that case study points out, remember to wear eye protection when you take this plant out of your garden.

UMass Soil Testing

I finally got around to trying out the University of Massachusetts’ soil testing service and can report that it’s fast and cheap. I tested two areas of my yard for both nutrients and heavy metals and found out, more or less, what I expected, that I need to add a small amount of nitrogen. Surprisingly, for having such an old house, I don’t have a lead problem. It costs just $9 for the basic test and $13 for the basic test + heavy metals. The order form and instructions can be found at http://www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/. Why test? UMass sums it up nicely:

  • to optimize crop production.
  • to protect the environment from contamination by runoff and leaching of excess fertilizers.
  • to aid in the diagnosis of plant culture problems.
  • to improve the soil’s nutritional balance.
  • to save money and conserve energy by applying only the amount of fertilizer needed.
  • to identify soils contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.

The brochure they send with the results is geared towards New England soils, but beggars can’t be choosers. This test is a bargain, but I’d check first with your local extension office to see if they offer free or low cost soil testing first. Should you want the Cadillac of soil tests, vegetable gardening expert John Jeavons recommends Timberleaf Soil Testing. I’ve seen some Timberleaf reports and they are quite detailed and informative.

The cutting edge of soil testing is about the living inhabitants of the soil, all those microorganisms, fungi and other critters rather than just old “NPK.” Dr. Elaine Ingham is a pioneer in this field. She offers “Soil Foodweb” testing via her website. I’ve read some grumbling from academics about some of her ideas and her commercial endeavors, particularly related to aerated compost tea. However, soil foodweb testing makes intuitive sense to me, though I have not tried it. You can read her interesting Soil Biology Primer here, and make up your own mind. There’s also an excellent book based partially on her research, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.

Thanks to Cool Tools for the tip on UMass.

A Fishy Mountaintop

We considered putting an aquaculture project in our next book but ultimately decided a against it, because we felt it’s too complicated a subject for most people.Aquaculture/aquaponics also seems to require just the right context. Even here in sunny Los Angeles we’d have to figure out a way to keep the fish warm during the winter, not to mention the use of lots of  water in a very dry place.

Austrian permaculturalist Sepp Holzer has developed an innovated aquaculture system.While, obviously, Holzer’s mountaintop setup is very unique, his problem solving through sophisticated but low tech means is universal. There’s something to learn from his methodology, even though few of us will be able to recreate his specific innovations..

I haven’t read it, but Holzer has a book: Sepp Holzer: The Rebel Farmer.

Via BoingBoing.

A silly note, but I had to point it out. Judging from the video, kudos to Holzer for being a proponent of traditional Austrian alpine clothing. Can we make that a trend? Nice to see.

Ordo Ab Chao

There’s a lot of conflicting advice in the vegetable gardening world. You’ve got your square footers, biointensivists, permaculturalists and survival gardeners, just to name a few. The truth is these often conflicting techniques probably all work for someone. I’ve been thinking lately that the next book we write should be a version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders turned into gardening advice.Got attention deficit disorder? Well, here’s how ya mix up your own potting mix.

Face it, we’re all in the diagnostic manual somewhere. I suffer from a chronic lack of organizational ability. Square foot gardening has never worked for me–I just can’t keep up with the schedule. For some folks, I’m sure it works great. John Jeavons’ biointensive methods, however, have worked well for me. That is, when I actually follow his advice. I offer as evidence two beds from our winter garden. The one above, containing chard, carrots and beets turned out really well. It has produced an abundant and attractive harvest. The one below, on the other hand, is a mess.

The difference: planning. Whereas some people can probably improvise a vegetable garden, my unique place in the diagnostic manual means that I benefit from some degree of organization. With Jeavons, you project how much of a particular vegetable you’d like and plant with tight hexagonal spacing. Plan ahead and you get an abundant and attractive garden assuming you’ve taken care of your soil. At least it works for me.

My new commitment for our summer garden is to carefully choose what I’m going to grow, how much of it to plant, and stick with the program. No last minute improvising. And better note taking! I attempted to weigh vegetables this winter, earning the scorn of Mrs. Homegrown who deemed it too male an approach, too much about bragging rights. All that weighing took away note taking time from what would have been more useful information: when things were planted, transplanted and harvested.  That data could help prevent gaps in the garden in the future and clarify the best times to plant, information that’s hard to come by in our unique Mediterranean climate. Not to say that weighing is without merit–it would be a good way to compare  methods–but I’m going to leave that to academic researchers and Mr. Jeavons. I’m also trying to figure out a way to share my gardening diary with other people in the L.A., area via Google docs so that we can all compare notes. More on that once we get our next book done!

As for keeping track of planting times, simply hanging the Stella Natura calendar by the stove has done wonders. I now keep better records of planting and transplanting dates. Cooking while looking at the calendar prompts me to plan ahead and think about the things I actually like to eat. Less turnips next year and more arugula!

Leave a comment about your vegetable gardening methods and, if you’re so inclined, your place in the diagnostic manual!

Italy Questions Neonicotinoid Pesticides, California Department of Food and Agriculture Loves Them

Can I report the CDFA as a pest?

Responding to concerns about the safety of nicotine based pesticides, such as imidacloprid, the Italian government, last year, banned them as a seed treatment. According to the Institute of Science in Society, Researchers with the National Institute of Beekeeping in Bologna, Italy discovered that “pollen obtained from seeds dressed with imidacloprid contains significant levels of the insecticide, and suggested that the polluted pollen was one of the main causes of honeybee colony collapse.”[1] Since the Italian government’s ban last year bee colonies have sprung back. In some regions no hives have been lost at all with the exception of citrus groves in Southern Italy where neonicotinoids were sprayed.[2]

Which brings me to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, whose love for the neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid I got to experience first hand. Last year our neighborhood was one of the first targeted by the CDFA for treatment in Los Angeles county after the appearance of the dreaded Asian Citrus Psyllid, a carrier of a fatal citrus disease called Huanglongbing (HLB)–see my early post about the psyllid and HLB. During a brief treatment period last fall CDFA agents and their contractors TruGreen attempted to spray every citrus tree with Bayer Crop Science’s version of imidacloprid, brand name Merit. During that spraying in my neighborhood CDFA agents and TruGreen:

1. Entered private property without warrants or permission.

2. Left misleading notices (click on image at right to enlarge) which failed to note that the treatment was voluntary.

3. Acted in an arrogant, condescending and rude manner. They also lied. When I declined treatment and noted that I was particularly concerned about the use of imidacloprid one agent offered what he called, “an alternative.” Upon further questioning he admitted that the “alternative” was a pellet version of imidacloprid–not an alternative at all, just the same insect neurotoxin in another form.

4. Ran out of pesticide. There are so many citrus trees in our neighborhood that the CDFA ran out of their precious imidacloprid tablets. They never returned to finish the job leading me to conclude that the operation was a kind of pesticide theater, a way to both justify their funding and please their friends at Sunkist.

European beekeepers would like to see all neonicotinoids banned for good. I’d like to see the same here. While imidacloprid is probably not hazardous to humans, all the oranges in the world are not worth killing our pollinating insects. And fighting invasive species this way is a losing game. I believe that HLB is inevitable. It’s just like Pierce’s disease in grapes, which is now an unavoidable part of viticulture in Southern California.

To my neighbors: I suggest we organize. Let’s resist CDFA’s attempt to spray more imidacloprid should they come around again. I’ve created a form where you can leave your email address here. I promise not to share the email addresses you provide or to send out spam. The list I create will only be used in the event we need to organize as concerned citizens. Hopefully I’ll never have to send out an email. But let’s not let CDFA treat us in a rude or condescending manner again. The next time CDFA pays a visit they may come with warrants and be even more surly. I’d love it if we had a crowd to greet them.

Nutria Trappin’ by Bike!

I like to keep up on all the “urban homesteading” trends, but bikesnobnyc beat me to this one: nutria (Myocastor coypus) trapping via bike.

“We then returned with our catch and skinned them, prepared the hides for tanning and butchered the carcass and cooked up a bit of the meat. Most folks seemed pleasantly surprised at the “chicken- like” taste of the meat.”

Read more about it at dellerdesigns.blogspot.com, “Maker of Fine Hats for Town and Country Cyclists.”

Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium

–click to biggify–

(If you still can’t read it, it says “Erigeron canadensis, the common hogsweed, bruise and press out the juice from the green plant and take it in tablespoonful dose as often as the stomach will bear, for bleeding lungs, bleeding from the stomach, bowels or womb. It is a powerful agent in stopping hemorrhage from any organ.”)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our friend Nancy gave us some salve made up of calendula, plantain and a plant I was unfamiliar with, something I vaguely remembered her referring to as horseweed or fleabane. Actually, I mis-remembered the name as colt’s foot, and then discovered another kind of plant called fleabane, two more actually. All these plants have their uses, but the plant I was looking for had astringent properties–enough to stop bleeding in small cuts. Our salve is for thrashed gardeners’ hands, and I remembered that this …uh…horse…colt…flea…weed…plant was in the salve for that purpose.

This is why scientific names are so important–common names overlap. But thank the good lord for Mr. Google. I found the plant I was looking for: Conyza canadensis, formerly Erigeron canadensis. When I saw the picture, I said, “Oh, you!’ for it is a very common summer sidewalk weed. Recognize it?

Conyza canadensis
(image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

And along the way I found a charming resource to share with ya’ll: The Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium, a project hosted by the University of Austin, Texas.

Dr. Lincecum was a 19th-century naturalist and “botanic physician” who lived in Mississippi and Texas. This virtual herbarium includes scans of more than 200 pressed specimens of medicinal plants and his hand-written notes on each specimen. The image at top is his note on horse weed.

Here’s another card of his, this one on opium, where he not only condemns the plant, but other physicians for misusing it:


Go take a gander. But just beware it’s a real time suck for plant geeks.

Chumash Plant Wisdom

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Great news for our readers in Southern California (and parts near)! I’ve just found the holy grail of local plant guides: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. It’s co-authored by a Chumash healer, Cecilia Garcia and a USC pharmacology prof., James David Adams, Jr., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. It features full-color pictures of plants familiar to you from hikes in the desert and the chaparral, and discusses the recommended use of the these plants from both the Chumash perspective and the western scientific perspective.

I found this book in the wonderful Green Apple book store while visiting San Francisco. It can be ordered direct from the publishers. The title link will take you to their site. It also is available in our Amazon store.

Mushroom Porn

Funny how going to a mushroom fair can enhance your perceptiveness (and not in the way some of you are thinking!). Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have noticed these beauties in my own backyard, as they were deep under a rosemary bush.

I’m no mushroom expert, so don’t quote me on this, but I think they are common blewits, Clitocybe nuda. The spore print was a very light yellow/buff. If they are Clitocybe nuda, they are edible when cooked. I’ll just appreciate them for their beauty.

An administrative note: We’re flattered to have been the subject of a comment spamming attack all the way from Cebu City in the Philippines. Hello Cebu City! I’ve temporarily turned on comment moderation until the spamming folks get the idea that most of the visitors to this blog are probably not interested in dubious investment advisers and pharmaceutical sleep aids. Note to the spammers: ship us some durian and we’ll consider an advertising deal!