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Degrees of Freshness – Or what I learned from an Alpine Meadow

July 28, 2013

Tags: food, water, air, alpine, animals, aroma, Austria, basil, bell flower, biodiversity, bulbs, burdock, bush, buttercup, cilantro, coltsfoot, cranesbill, crocus, dandelion, diversity, Earth, Europe, eyebright, farm, fresh, heal-all, garden, Germany, Good King Henry, grazing, Great Britain, Grimming Mountain, growth, Hamburg, harvest, healing power, health, hedge, herbal, humans, kitchen, limestone, lovage, meadow, meadowsweet, mowing, nutrients, ocean, oregano, parsley, plant, plantain - broad-leafed, plantain - narrow-leafed, poisonous, pollution, polyphenol, primal, processed, red clover, rosemary, Russia, scilla, silverweed, skiing, soil, species, stinging nettle, storage, Styria, sub-alpine, sun, supermarket, sweet Annie, tea, thyme, travel, tree, underground, vital, yarrow, hiking, vacation

People vacation in Austria – skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer. I never considered summer vacations in a land-locked country like Austria, because, originally from Hamburg/Germany, I am a child of the ocean – of all the oceans. But I am just back from one of the high meadows in Styria, smack in the middle of Austria. And what I found: a primal meadow.

The alpine meadows high up there, facing the Grimming Mountain, have been mowed twice a year, for hundreds of years, probably thousands of years. The plant diversity is unimaginable. In an article I read some years ago that in Great Britain the age of a hedge can be estimated by how many different tree and bush species grow there; roughly one species is added per decade. I imagine it must be similar with these ancient meadows, mowed over year after year, different plants moving in all the time, enhancing biodiversity over time. The converse is also true: If we abandon regular mowing and/or grazing – as often now is the case on the steep and hard-to-reach meadows, and in light of shortage of labor when the young people move into the cities for a “better” life – we will lose this biodiversity. And might regret it too late.

Because I was exhausted from my Europe travels through Russia, Germany, Austria, I brewed myself an herbal tea from the plants of the meadow right after arrival. The underground is limestone that let so many plants thrive: yarrow, meadowsweet, narrow-leafed plantain, stinging nettle, heal-all, broad-leafed plantain, red clover, eyebright, silverweed, Good King Henry, dandelion, sweet Annie. To which I added herbs from the kitchen garden: parsley, cilantro, rosemary, lovage, basil, oregano, thyme. Of course, other plants grew there that where not useful for my tea as they are poisonous, like cranesbill, coltsfoot, bell flower, buttercup, and a variety of spring-flowering bulbs like crocus and scilla that were now out of bloom. The tea had a gorgeous aroma, and I felt better and stronger immediately. Wish I could take such a meadow home!

My garden at home, lovely as it is, does not come close. Its plant variety is not as great, the individual plants are not as sturdy, their green is not as deep, their aroma is not as overpowering. From this exceptional plant health we can assume that their polyphenol content is higher, and that their healing power is greater. Mostly, it is the strong sun out there that enables such a lush growth. But also the absence of pollution of air, soil and water so prevalent where we live. Earth just isn’t that primal anymore as it is high in the alpine and sub-alpine meadows. I am coming home with a new yearning, namely to preserve what we have, and perhaps even return our planet to more health. Because, the life of plants, and animals, and humans are closely interwoven here on Earth, none can survive alone.

In my books, and here on the blog, I am touting fresh foods over processed foods. Fresh does not only mean harvested recently and stored for not too long, but also containing a high amount of vital nutrients. Up there, in the mountain meadow, I learned that degrees of freshness exist: Fresh from the supermarket: good. Fresh from your garden or directly from the farm: better. Fresh from an alpine meadow: best.

Invasive Plants 5 - Crab Grass

November 1, 2011

Tags: herbs, food, Africa, America, Bermuda grass, bone health, bread, calcium, cataracts, colic, cow, crab grass, cultivation, deer, digestion, Digitaria, eye health, fall, feebleness, finger grass, folate, fonio, gardener, garden tea, germination, grass, grass - warm-weather, grazing, harvest, hay, horse, infusion, Invasive Plants 5 – Crab Grass, lawn, lime, magnesium, milling, nutritional value, perennial grass, phosphorus, poisonous, porridge, protein, retinol, ripening, season, settlers, starch, Sub-Saharan Africa, sugar, summer, tea – herbal, ungulate, vitamin A, weed, winter

Writing about the possible benefits of invasive plants, I had the fear that for most broad-leafed weeds it would be easy to find medicinal and other value, but that for grasses, I might have to pass. Interestingly, grasses have some good sides, too – even a such-maligned, horrible weed as crab grass.

Crab grass (also called “finger grass” because of its spiky inflorescences, or “fonio”, for African plants) are actually several Digitaria species – “Digitaria” again meaning “finger-like”.

Why is crab grass the proverbial weed? It turns out that “crabs” can’t take hold in a well-watered, well-fertilized lawn. But let that lawn be neglected, and develop some bald spots – that’s where the annual crab grass will move in, taking advantage.

A lawn usually consists of perennial grasses that stay green long into fall and often into winter. Crab grass would be fine to be intermingled, if it would not die by the end of summer and will leave a bald spot – especially if you pull it and do not immediately reseed with normal lawn seed. In that bald spot, its many, many seeds can take hold again. Crab grass’ trick is its long germination period: It might die early, but it can germinate basically all year, as long as there is no snow on the ground. Usually, a bald crab grass spot extends thus from season to season, always looking awful in the fall, showing your neighbors that you are a less-than-perfect gardener.

Remedy? Keep your grass healthy, well-fed, well-watered, well-limed, and reseed in fall and spring, so that crab grass seedlings have no chance.

So, what for is this invasive grass good? For cows and other ungulates like deer crab grass is as nutritious as any other grass; even more so, because of its high protein contents. Sub-Saharan Africa people eat the milled crab grass seeds in porridge and bread. The problem with crab grass is that it germinates and ripens its seed willfully throughout the year. Therefore it must be hand-harvested, defying large-scale cultivation. However, early settlers in America purposefully would till a spot in the spring so that crab grass could grow there, for the grazing of the animals later in the year.

Crab grass (like Bermuda grass) is a warm-weather grass. As such, it accumulates less sugar than a perennial grass - it does not intend to stay around for the winter, needing staying power through the winter. That makes crab grass better digestible especially to horses who might be quite sensitive to a high sugar and starch content – which bloats them, causing colic. So, as hay, crab grass is quite desirable.

Crab grass contains non-trivial amounts of magnesium, phosphorus and calcium – important for bone health, and some vitamin A, folate, and retinol; they might account for its use in eye health: Medicinally, crabgrass infusion is said to be helping against cataracts and feebleness. I probably won’t use it exactly for that purpose. But just knowing that crab grass is not poisonous will land it in my garden teas from now on.

World Water Day 2011 – Seen From the Namib Desert

March 22, 2011

Tags: water, food, Angola, agriculture - plant, Benguela upwelling, deforestation, desert, ecosystem, fauna, flora, fog, fruit, gazelle, goats, Gondwana, grazing, Harald Süpfle (photo), Independence Day - Namibia, jerky, Namib Desert, Namibia, overgrazing, rain, rain clouds, sheep, South Africa, sweet water reservoir, thunderstorm, ur-continent, vegetable, well drilling, Welwitschia mirabilis, West Gondwana, World Water Day 2011, World Water Day 2011 – Seen From the Namib Desert

Every 22nd of April, World Water Day is celebrated. This year I observe it from an unlikely place: The Namib Desert.

The Namib is the oldest desert of the world. We know that some deserts have been man-made, by human deforestation and overgrazing of goats and sheep. This desert, luckily, is not man-made. When West Gondwana split from the original one-lump ur-continent Gondwana about 140 million years ago, conditions arose for the arid coastal strip that we call the Namib Desert. Then and now, warm moist winds from the north are cooled down by a cold ocean stream, the Benguela upwelling. The mixture results in cold air that can’t rise up high enough to make rain clouds, just fog. So it rarely if ever rains here, which creates this desert, many hundred of miles long, from Namibia to Angola. Those cool ocean fogs maintain the nearly invisible desert fauna and spare flora.

History aside, the most prominent feature of the Namib Desert are the wandering dunes, spectacular formations in constant movement, propelled by the winds. I marvel at the sharp edges, undulating forms, surprising patterns one finds and the colors of yellow and red sand, sometimes dusted with crimson or black – the beauty of this desert is indescribable. The desert reaches right to the edge of the ocean. One would think there should be a thin stripe of green between them, but there is only the stark contrast of endless yellow sand and endless turquoise ocean.

Plants and animals eke out a living in the Namib Desert. Welwitschia mirabilis is such a plant, ancient and immutable, nurtured by the ocean fogs that roll in most days. Hundreds of years old at times, perhaps even thousands, Welwitschia has two long leaves (usually ripped into several strands by the constant desert winds) and a middle trunk that grows incredibly slow. We saw a colony of plants of male and female plants spreading on the desert floor – it takes hundreds of years before you’d call the middle a real trunk that visibly reaches some height from the ground.

How can a country like Namibia exist? Due to a sweet water reservoir beneath this scorched coastal stripe. Namibians are very aware how fragile this ecosystem is, and fierce regulations who is allowed to drill a well and where are in place. Namibian agriculture consists mostly grazing cows and sheep. A famous meat product is a jerky made from springbok, a wild antelope. Due to lack of water, Namibia has nearly no plant agriculture – most fruit and vegetables are imported from South Africa by which Namibia was annexed until 1990, when it freed itself during a bloody rebellion. By chance, their Independence Day happened to be yesterday – March 21st.

And by another chance we arrived last week during some of the worst rains and thunderstorms the Namibian remember. We ended the first leg of our trip at a washed out bridge and had to make a huge detour. And for all that unusual rain, the Namib Desert, in places, showed us a fine, fuzzy green – a beautiful welcome.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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