After posting about nettles and docks, I got to thinking about brambles (Rubus fruticosus) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) as well. Also mint (Mentha arvensis) which we have in abundance and which spreads in a similar fashion, and mimosa (Acacia dealbata) which we don’t have on the quinta but which is another “problem” plant in Portugal. All these plants are vigorous, resilient and quickly outcompete most other herbaceous species. The primary means of their rapid spread and apparent monocultural tendency are their extensive creeping rhizomatous root systems.
Nettles, brambles, bracken and mimosa
What I was thinking about was what do all these plants have in common besides these characteristics? What’s their role in nature? Is there an analogous process we can easily relate to that’s more useful and true to the state of things than this notion of “noxious weeds”?
Something that we presently have growing abundantly in the damper parts of the quinta by the stream are stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and docks (Rumex spp.). Far from being unwanted plants, these are valuable food and medicinal plants.
Nettles accumulate nitrates and are high in minerals (especially iron, silicon, and calcium) and vitamins (A and C). They make liquid fertiliser, an insect repellent and a hair tonic. The juice of the leaves, or a decoction of the herb, can be used as a rennet substitute in curdling milks. An infusion of the stems and leaves provides an organic pesticide against plant mites or aphids. They make tomatoes resistant to spoilage, encourage strawberries to grow, and increase the essential oil content of nearby aromatic herbs. They tend to grow in soil rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, so are indicators of good soil fertility, and are among the first colonisers of disturbed soil.
Docks with their deep roots are also good mineral accumulators and both make excellent compost activators and a nutritious mulch. Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) is relatively high in phosphate and potassium levels in the leaves, and is particularly high in magnesium.
In this video, herbalist Frank Cook talks about the usefulness of nettles as food and medicine (there are videos about docks from the same source). In the background is Agroforestry Research Trust‘s Martin Crawford, the creator of the forest garden behind Schumacher College in Dartington, Devon, which is where the video is filmed. 15 years ago this woodland was pasture.
Nettles also make a fabric that’s stronger than cotton, finer than hemp, and is naturally fire retardant. Finally a use for the old weaving loom I have sitting in the attic! It should make a perfect complement for all that hand-knitted yoghurt …
While idly Googling around, as you do (or at least as I do), for interesting snippets of online information about the Serra do Açor, I somehow stumbled on a photograph of Quinta do Vale as it was 5 years ago on April 17 2004, snapped during a weekend hike by a member of the Associação para a Defesa do Vale do Bestança on their way along the track towards the path up to Pai das Donas.
Vegetables growing on the fruit terraces and lots of equipment in the house.
It underlines how fortunate we’ve been to find somewhere that hasn’t been badly neglected for a number of years (though I’m guessing it probably also means a fair few chemical residues in the soil).
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