Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How plants work (pt.I. Function) ..As above, so below..

Its strange how we are surrounded by these beautiful, adaptable, resilient and precious things and are completley dependant on them for our survival- but know hardly anything about them. Most people will relate back to highschool biology and tell you about photosynthesis, but apart from that not much else is said. The fact that most people don't even know what a broccolli plant looks like, or how a pineapple grows seems really odd to me.
I myself never really delved into the world of biology until later in my life- I was always into the chemisty side of things (and once again, were taught in subjects rather than taught about how these things relate to one another!).
Here I will explore the basics of how plants work, to give the gardener, permaculturist or general inquisitive human a little more of a base platform to work from. I am hoping in time to fill these pages with more advanced plant biology and morphology, so keep posted and I will try and fine the thyme.
Hopefully the world of green that surrounds you will ake a little more sense after this.

First things first:

Photosynthesis: (means 'put together with light')
How plants obtain their energy from the sun by using chlorophyll to capture light and converting it to carbohydrates using carbon dioxide and water.
Plants can manufature their own food from the sun by using carbon from the air and water from the soil to form photosynthates (sugars, starches, carbohydrates and protiens). In turn they then release oxygen into the atmosphere as a biproduct.
The process is directly dependant on the amount of carbon dioxide, water and light.
Limiting any one of these factors on the left of the equation will lead to a reduction of photosynthesis and therefore a reduction in plant vigor, growth and overall health.

Chloroplasts are tiny sub cellular structures in the cells of leaves and stems which houses chlorophyll.

Respiration: This is the opposite of photosynthesis. This is a process where plants (and animals) convert sugars and carbohydrates (photosynthates) back into energy for growth and metabolic processes.

Respiration is similar to the oxidation process which occurs when wood is burned and gives off heat. Quite often when compounds are combined with oxygen it is said that they are 'burned'. Plants take in oxygen from the stomata in their leaves and also from their roots.
Respiration is the burning of photosynthates that creates energy for growth.

The difference between Photosynthesis and Respiration at a glance:


Produces sugars from light energy              
Stores energy                                            
Occurs only in cells with chloroplasts          
Releases oxygen                                        
Uses water                                 
Uses carbon dioxide                             
Requires light                                             

Respiration:Burns sugar for energy
Releases energy
Occurs in most cells
Uses oxygen
Produces water
Produces carbon dioxide
Occurs in dark and light
Transpiration: This process occurs when water is brought through the roots of the plant to the leaves and is lost or transpires as water vapour through the stomata of the leaves.
About 90% of water is lost through this process, which shows that most of what is taken up by the plant through the water is the minerals within the soil. The other 10% is used for photosynthesis and cell growth.
Transpiration serves three functions; movement of minerals, cooling and what is called tugor pressure.
Minerals are moved through the plant in the xylem within the roots and sugars from photosynthesis are moved through the plant in the phloem. Water acts as a solvent and a mode of transport for these minerals and sugars.
Transpiration is responsible for the evaporative cooling that occurs with plants, much similar to the perspiration process in humans.
The tugor pressure is responsible for the turgidity of plants. It is what gives plants their form. Much like a balloon is blown up with air, the cells of a plant are made turgid or stiff by the water vapour carried through the plant. Being upright gives the plants advantage when it comes to competing for light.
Turgidity is also the force that governs roots being pushed through the soil.

Osmosis: Difussion is the movement of molecules from an area of higher conentration to an area of lower concentration. Once there are the same number of molecules on both sides there is no longer any net movement as this is because a gradient no longer exists between the two. Osmosis is a kind of diffusion, it is the movement of water through a selectivley permeable membrane from a higher water concentration to a lower water concentration. So the increase in particles on one side leads to a decrease in particles in the other.
Plant cells both have a cell wall and a plasma membrane, which is why they are selectively permeable. They can choose when to diffuse certain molecules. Osmatic pressure is caused within the cell by the rigidity of the cell wall and by turgor pressure (as explained above).

Phototropism: Tropism is a growth response between a plant and an external influence or stimulus. This stimulus could be touch, weather, light or gravity. A positive response means the plant grows towards the stimulus, whereas a negative response would have the plant growing away from the stimulus.
'Photo' means light, so phototropism means a response to light.
Auxin is a plant growth hormone. It is produced in the shoot apical meristem, the new leaves and the fruit. From these locations it is transported to the root tips.When light shines onto a plant the auxins move to the part of the plant that is in the darker or shadow region (think of the auxins shying away from the light). This hormone stimulates the cells on the dark side to elongate, while the cells on the light side remain the same. By doing this it means the plant then starts to bend in the direction of the light, allowing more light to reach the photosynthesising cells of the plant.

Gravitropism: This is the process of a plants response to gravity. This is also governed by the plant hormone auxin. The same principle as above applies. If a plant is laid on its side, the auxins will move toward the lower part of the roots and stem, elongate and cause the stem to bend upwards. The auxin ceases elongation in roots, which causes them to bend down into the soil.

Cytokinins: These are a group of plant hormones that stimulate cell division. They can prevent leaves form aging and support fruit and embryo development. In spring large amounts of this hormone are produced in the roots, which are then transported up the plant into the dormant buds that in turn become active.

Ethylene: This is the only gaseous hormone and is responsible for the ripening of fruit.

Life Cycles of Plants:

Annual plants have a life cycle from when they germinate from seed to when they produce seed in one growing season, then they die.
Biannuals: Biannuals germinate from seed and produce vegative structures and food storage organs in the first season, and then in the second season flowers, fruit and seeds are produced before the plant dies. In the first season winter a hardy basal rosette of leaves persists before the plant is ready to put its energy into flowers and seed production.
Perennials: These plants, when they have reached maturity, typically produce flowers and seeds each season without dying. Perennials are classified as herbaceous if the top dies back to the ground each winter and new stems grow from the roots each spring. They are classified as woody if the top persists, as in shrubs or trees.

The Functions of Plant Parts

Roots:  anchor and support for plants, absorb and conduct water and minerals, store products of photosynthesis (sugars, carbohydrates and proteins), aid plant survival in winter (for perennials),
Adventitious roots: These are roots that are produced from the plant leaf nodes in cuttings from the stem or from the basal point in cuttings of a leaf. It is also a practice of asexual reproduction. Auxin concentrations increase dramatically at the site of root production when this occurs.
Stem: Used for asexual and vegative propergation, supports leaves and fruits while connecting them to roots, conducts water and nutrients from the soil and products from photosynthesis to and from leaves and roots, water and nutrient storage.
Leaf: play a major role in photosynthesis, transpiration, gas exchange, food storage, plant support and defense.
Flower: the sole function of a flower is sexual reproduction through pollination.
Fruit: Part of the pollinated flower ripens and becomes the fruit, which usually encases or surrounds the seed and acts as protection, or as an invitation to be eaten by animals and in turn aid in seed dispersal.
Seeds: Storage of nutrients and protection from outside elements until conditions are correct for germination.

More coming on the parts of plants and their roles in a future post!

Monday, 8 April 2013

..Autumn Wild Food and Medicine..

As the dried leaves are carried by the strengthening winds, a majestic and almost eerie nature is felt as we loose ourselves in a swirling of whipping wind and spiralling debris.  
Berries start to ripen and amongst the landscape of littered eucalyptus leaves and lush ferns of the Dandenongs, we see the introduced treasures that can provide us with medicine.

Now I say these are treasures as I love 'weeds'. That is not to say I condone their spreading throughout this area or even Australia, there are many species which are detrimental to the landscape that need to be kept under control or even eradicated- what I am saying is that we can use some of these plants as food and medicine while we manage them. Seems like a win win situation to this little Pixie!

This post is a follow on from the Permaculture Design Course class that I teach on Wednesday nights, this session was about Autumn wild foods. In a 3hr class we went for a weed walk, discussed some plants and their uses and then we made:

- Slippery Elm lozenges
- Fennel Brew
- Hawthorn Vinegar

I will cover these recipes, some information about different herbs and the season and I will include a few more recipes at the end for everyone to go get their hands dirty! (which I wholeheartedly encourage, I personally think that soil contains something that makes our souls go 'ahh').

It all starts with a process called wildcrafting. This is me, in the streets with my basket and my headphones and my knife, walking and sweating and looking for patches of medicines that grow freely beside roads and in parks. Now a note for collecting herbs beside roadsides- I only ever collect from roads which are not used too frequently, never a main road! Our plants are very sensitive and they take in nutrients from the air and soil, absorbing anything nasty that we have subjected them to.
When wildcrafting it is important to know your plants and herbs- please, I do stress never eating anything if you are not sure, especially in large quantities. Get a good book, or use the internet as a resource. (I will include some good resources at the end of the page). I also want to add that using intuition is something that people have long forgotten it seems, and I highly suggest honing in on and developing this skill. The more you start to look, feel, taste and smell the more you will gain a sense of what is edible, what is medicinal and what is not.
On my walk I collected: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Dandelion (Taraxacum officanale), Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Broad leaf plantain (Plantago major), Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgar), Violet (Viola odorata), Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) and Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila).

Crataegus monogyna

Family: Malaceae
This is said to be a herb of the heart and it truly does make my heart sing when I see the contrast of red berries appear against the bleak Autumn skies. The leaves are a dark green with a more silvery underside and to me it speaks of warm fires, antioxidant rich berry tonics and immune rich soups!
Join me as we touch on the wonderful world of Hawthorn as the deciduous leaves give a crisp coating to the Dandenong floors.
Branched spiny deciduous shrub or small tree that grows up to 10m high, generally not with one central trunk, but with many branching from the base.
Leaves: wedge-shaped  at base with toothed lobes, main veins on lower surface are hairy and the leave stalk is up to 5cms long.
Flowers/Seedhead: white or pink, up to 15mm wide in terminal flat-topped clusters.
'Berries': the berries that we see in the Autumn are actually false fruits, which are red when ripe and about 9mm wide, each with one single seed inside.
Indications and Actions:
Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Antioxidant, Nutritive.
A herb for the heart! Improves circulation, strengthens smooth muscle tissue, increases the efficiency of contraction of the heart, stabilises high and low blood pressure, improves high cholesterol problems, dilates the coronary arteries and helps angina, aids digestion, aids insomnia and nervous disorders and can be used for diarrhoea and dyspepsia. It is a herbal adaptogen, loosely meaning it helps to bring the body into balance, irrespective of whether it is over or under functioning.
Anti-oxidants,alkaloids, flavonoids and bio-flavonoids, phenylalanine and tyramine, pectin, phenolic acids including crategolic acid, citric acid, chlorogenic acid, tartaric acid and triterpene acids, coumarin, tannin.

Recipes: There are many recipes that can be made with this delicious plant (the leaves and flowers can also be used in the spring!). Infusions, Decoctions, Jellies, Tinctures etc. can all be made. As to not make your heads explode I will give you a 'simple' recipe (using just the one plant) and a 'compound' recipe (using two or more plants) and then some resources in case you feel like going Hawthorn mad this Autumn!

Hawthorn Vinegar:
Herbal vinegars are different to culinary vinegars as they have more medicinal properties. They are so easy to make! One of the great advantages to making herbal vinegars (and herbal oils too) is that they can be used as part of daily meals and you are receiving health benefits.
- If you are making a vinegar you will need a jar with a plastic lid (vinegar corrodes metal).
- Fill the jar almost to the top with Hawthorn berries (leave a small space of perhaps .5mm - 10mm to the top of the jar).
- Now fill the jar to the top with vinegar, preferably apple cider vinegar as this has amazing health properties. Don't use vinegars like red wine or balsamic. Make sure the herb is completely covered by the vinegar so that it doesn't oxidise and breed mould.
- Put the lid on and let steep in a cool dark place for about a month.
- When ready, strain the mixture into appropriate vessel and use accordingly on food, or the mixture can be taken by having a small capful each morning to kickstart the digestive system.

Slippery Elm:
Ulmus fulva 
Family: Ulmaceae
photo from
Identification: Leaves: Alternate in arrangement, broad below or near the middle and tapering to a long narrow point. The base is rounded and uneven with a double row of teeth along the margin. Upper leaf surface is dark green and rough, while the lower surface is lighter. All the veins run directly to the teeth along the edge.
Flowers: flower buds have 8 to 10 purplish coloured scales which are covered with copper coloured hairs. Flower buds are often larger and rounder than leaf buds. The flowers themselves are green and appear early n spring before the leaves expand.
Bark: the bark is dark brown, reddish brown, or even slightly grey. It is thick, with irregular furrows the separate the flattened ridges.
Indications and Actions:
Demulcent, emollient, expectorant, diuretic, nutritive.
Due to the high content of mucilage, which is a slippery substance that lines the mucous membranes, Slippery elm is used to sooth and heal areas such as the throat and skin. It is useful for making everything a lot smoother, which makes it excellent for constipation too. If taken internally, has a nurturing effect on the mucous membranes of the stomach and intestines, giving excellent results in gases of irritable bowel, gastritis, gastric catarrh, as well as things like bronchitis and even bleeding in the lungs.
This plant bark is amazing as a food supplement when ill or when other foods can't be contained or absorbed. Slippery Elm can be made into a porridge type gruel (sounds appetising doesn't it?! But you can actually make it into a tasty type of pudding or breakfast cereal!). It is super nourishing during the time of Autumn, as we ready ourselves for the winter cold. 
Constituents:Mucilage, tannins, calcium oxalate, phytosterols and cholesterol.

Slippery Elm lozenges:
This is a very simple recipe! All you need is honey and slippery elm powder.
Mix them both together so you get a consistency that is a little more slippery than dough but a little more floury than paste. Roll into balls (or other creative shapes if you like... astronauts, bees... let your imagination go) and place on a baking tray. Bake at about 100 degrees Celsius for 20-30 mins (or so the lozenges are hard but not too brown).
These are great to keep in your first aid kit or in your bag to have when your throat is sore or you have had a big day. They also work good if you need a little extra nourishment in the day.

If you want a harder hitting throat lozenge that is designed for a dry irritated throat and cough:

Sweet Sucker throat relief: - Sage oil
- Thyme oil
- Oregano oil
- Licorice root powder/herb
- Marshmellow root powder/herb
- Slippery elm powder
- Honey
- Calendula powder/herb
-Ground ivy tincture (optional)
Now please forgive me! I am not one for measurements really, I have many books that tell me how much of what and how to work out percentages of herbal constituents in medicines (which I may even do a whole post on one day for the wonderfully mathematical minded!) but I tend to work with the earth herself whispering in my ear "yeah a little more of that... mmmhhmm... now a dash of the oil, a little more of that one so it has this effect... yep... nice one love!"
For those that haven't grown up cooking don't fret!
You want to mix in a few drops each of the oils, perhaps 7 or so depending on how pure the oil is, blend all the dried herbs and add the powders, honey and a few drops of the tincture and mix together so you have a consistency that you can roll into a ball or other lozenge type shape.
Bake for about 20-30mins on 100 degrees Celsius.
I encourage people to use their intuition and logic, blend things until you have a good consistency and add less of the more potent or concentrated ingredients. I am also aware that not all people are comfortable with this way of making things, if that is the case there are lots of herbal recipes to look up, or you can message me and I will try and be more specific. I would love to do a page on measuring herbs out for recipes at some stage..... just bare with me while I work organically and keep you on your toes!

Foeniculum vulgare Family: Apiaceae
Grows to about 2m high, perennial. Stem is striated with a white pith running through the centre.
Leaves: Finely divided, lacy, with ultimate segments filiform (threadlike).
Flowers: terminal compound umbels, 5-15cm wide, each umbel section having small yellow flowers on short pedicels.
Fruit: A dried ovoid/ oblong brown to yellow seed, 4-10mm long with 5 ridges creating a groove effect.
Indications and Actions:  
Carminitive, purgative, stomachic, expectorant
Used for abdominal pain, digestive upsets, problems of the bowels. It is an amazing herb to use after a meal, aiding the process of digestion. Also used for colds and flus, coughs and liver upsets. Regulates breast milk production and stimulates bile flow.
Constituents: Volatile oil, tannins, stigmasterol and coumarins.

Fennel Brew:

This is a simple and effective medicine and can be applied to many other recipes or drinks.
Fill a large glass jar with as much of the fresh herb as possible.
Pour boiling water into the jar and fill to the top (remember to pour a little at a time and swish it around the glass jar, or heat the jar in the oven first so that the difference in temperature doesn't crack or shatter the glass!)
Leave to infuse overnight
In the morning strain the mixture, which can be kept in the fridge for up to a week.
Reheat this brew as a tea, or add the brew to juices, smoothies, other herbal teas, soups or salad dressings.
This brew does not taste the best, so it is sometimes better disguised with other foods. The medicinal properties are amazing though. It is a good thing to drink it in the morning or at night after a meal, as fennel aids digestion.

Fennel and Fig salad:
This recipe is more of a flavour sensation rather than used for its medicinal qualities- if you do require the actions of fennel, using the brew is the best way to go.
This is delicious though:
- Fennel bulb and leaves, finely chopped
- Cos lettuce, thin slices
- Walnuts
- Pomegranate jewels
- Figs, halved
- Beetroot, grated
Fry the figs in a little honey, water and fennel seeds, until they are soft and squishy
Toss everything together!
Make a dressing out of: honey, orange juice, cinnamon, apple cider vinegar and olive oil... awesome!

Fennel, Hawthorn and Rosehip Jelly:
This is a recipe that requires a little bit of time but is worth the effort.
Firstly, pick fennel seeds when they are plump and juicy. They form into firm seed heads which turn a pale green to yellow colour.
You can pick rosehips around this time of year too, when all the berries are making themselves known along the sidewalks (be careful, make sure the berries you are picking are actually edible, some berries are extremely toxic). Rosehips are full of anti-oxidants and vitamin C.
Pick and dry the rosehips and hawthorn berries (you can buy rosehips too, if you are finding sourcing these a little too difficult). By drying them you will retain a lot of their properties and it will help for the constituents to leach into the jelly later.
- Place rosehips and hawthorn berries in a pot of water, so the water level reaches about 10cm above the plant material
- Bring to the boil, then gently simmer until the berries and rosehips are soft
- Use a blender or a barmix to make the mixture smooth
- Add the fennel seeds (you can also use dried fennel seeds, but its nice to use the fresh ones that are still plump for this recipe)... not too many so it overpowers! you only want about a 10th the amount of fennel seeds to the amount of berries and rosehips.
- Gently simmer until the mixture turns thick and sloppy, adding more water if necessary
- The mixture should turn into a thick paste, so that when you scrap the bottom with a wooden spoon you can see the bottom of the pot clearly
- Jar the mixture and wait for it to settle. The pectin in the hawthorn berries should set the mixture into a jelly like substance which you can use on toast, deserts, with cheese and crackers... be creative and enjoy the benefits of Autumn wild food!

This is only a short brief on each of these herbs- there is so much more information available on each of them, let alone all the others I haven't included here. I hope this inspires you to go outside, take a walk and start looking for your own food and medicine! I will be including a brief on wildfoods each season, and am hoping to compile my own materia medica of herbs and publish them as pages on this blog one day.
If you have any questions please write to me and I will try and answer to my best ability.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Next Permaculture Design Course starts July

Join The Perma Pixie and Tamara Griffiths this winter as we snuggle up next to the combustion stove with tea constantly brewing and share our knowledge and experience about the wonderful world of Permaculture!
The course will run through spring and into summer, when we will start to put our winter lessons into practice and get our hands dirty!

Permaculture was what lead us to believe we can make a positive change in our world, helping to heal the environment, bring ecology back to a healthy equilibrium and give ourselves an inherent sense of well-being through this work. We hope others will find the same sense of connection to their surrounds and empowerment within themselves through our courses.

A full 72 hr PDC which aims to empower and inspire students to continue their lives with a sustainable and conscious outlook.
Topics covered include:
- Permaculture Principles and Ethics
- Ecology
- Patterns in Nature
- Methods of Design
- Water
- Soils
- Animal Systems
- Community and Social Permaculture
- Forests and Plants
- Wild Foods and Herbal Medicine skillday
- Food Forests

The course is Wednesday evenings for 3 hrs from 6:00pm - 9:30pm, and runs for the duration of 6 months. This is to accommodate for peoples busy lives and ensure that we keep warm by the heat of the combustion stove for the winter evenings while we learn some theory, before stepping out and getting our hands dirty in spring!

Cost: $700
$500 concession

Join Tamara Griffiths and Taj Scicluna (The Perma Pixie) as we continue our journey to revolutionize the world through Permaculture.
For more info check my website:
For bookings: