Monday, 31 March 2014

Growing precious plants that are near extinction...

After a long time without normal weather, spring has finally arrived to Iceland. 
I will make another post of it, but before please let me share with you my latest achievement in plant conservation.

I was busy buying seeds of species in danger of extinction and sowing them. Many endangered species are obviously very rare and impossible to find for sale, but since there are many thousands in risk of extinction, some of them can eventually have seed for sale online (like in

Over these last days, I managed to germinate seeds of two endangered species and one critically endangered species:
Abies pinsapo, Spanish fir
  • One is Abies pinsapo, a conifer species, a fir, only growing in moutains of the south of Spain and parts of Morroco. Despite conservation efforts, its population is still decreasing, mostly because of forest fires and the warming of the climate, which has increased mortality of the trees. Twenty years ago, the tree was more abundant. In Morroco, the tree is threatened by both deforestation (to grow cannabis) and forest fires. Overall, the fir is only present in 5 locations, so it's not a very good situation. I germinated one seed by placing it in a container with moist gravel in the fridge, after one month. Since this tree is from a Mediterranean mountain climate, I think it could be eventually be grown in a few spots in Portugal, where climate is still more temperate. I 
Aloe peglerae
  • A second species is Aloe peglerae. It is native to only 3 locations in South Africa, and although some part of them are protected areas, the population of this aloe is decreasing in number mostly due to illegal collection and also urbanization. This aloe germinated in a gravel mix containing a bit of soil, only barely moisted, placed in partial sunlight at 19-23ºC

  • The last species is Matelea orthoneura, this vine is native to Ecuador coastal forests. From the family of the milkweeds and is pollinated by flies in a similar fashion to orchids. It is critically endangered, since it is only known to be present in two small locations. And it's habitat has been destroyed at a fast speed and it continues. The two locations are near farms and villages, so this is no surprise. Thus this species can become extinct in soon, and as far as I know there is no cultivation or conservation efforts of it. I germinated two seeds by placing them on the surface of a mix of equal parts of soil and gravel covered by a bag, at 29ºC over a week, and then 20ºC for another week. If I end up sucessfully growing it, I must find ways of propagation to distribute this vine to other people interested in ensuring this species does not become extinct.

  • A few weeks ago I germinated Bauhinia bowkeri. This is a beautiful legume species only native to South Africa. The seed germinated in a tray containing moist gravel and soil, at 29ºC, after 2 weeks. I am now growing it near a light. The species is classified as vulnerable, but it hasn't been throughly accessed. Some decades ago the species was growing in several locations but presently it's only known at a single location and only 20 mature trees. Therefore this species could be well critically endangered. And I must protect my seedling at all costs! Guess now there are 21 known plants in the world!
The other threatened species I am already growing for a couple of months are:

The biblical gift to Jesus, the frankincense tree. Now it could also become extinct in the near future

  • Boswellia sacra, frankincense (highly difficult to germinate and grow past seedling stage; currently the tree are overexploited and in bad health due to that, it is not yet endangered but at the current rate it could become endangered in a few years, and extinct by end of the century if not soon - I germinated the seed by placing a mix of limestone, gravel, pumice and sand, over 29ºC for 3 weeks. Although a biblical species, frankincense is very rarely cultivated, and if it is, only as a bonsai; as far as I know, outside of the Middle East, I know only of one person growing it, and that is in Arizona). I could technically grow my frankincense tree if not in bonsai form, in the drier parts of Portugal.
Aloe dichotoma, an amazing aloe tree!
  • Aloe dichotoma (an outstanding yet vulnerable status aloe from South Africa and Namibia - germinated at 25ºC on moist gravel; it's rare but sometimes cultivated, including for its conservation purposes. However its population in the wild is reducing, mostly due to climate change, so it is important to continue its preservation efforts)
A forest of jubaea chilensis, called coquito nut
  • Parajubaea torallyi and jubaea chilensis, these two palms I got in ebay, but there are increasingly endangered in the wild (especially the parajubaea), despite ocasional cultivation and even an interesting use as a coconut-like fruit from a tree which is relatively hardy when grown in Mediterranean climates; apparently they can be grown in climates like California, Texas and South Europe. They are native, respectively, to steep ravines in Chile and moist ravines in a small part of Bolivia.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Fresh new year! List of gardening/ permaculture projects for 2014 !


It has been a while since I do not write.
I should write about my travellings back in January, and all the ideas for new projects I had starts since then.
Needless to say I have been obsessively gardening in February, now that springs is nearing.


Everything is growing amazingly good, thanks to the two CFL growing lights I bought last November. They are 250W and 300W. Tomatoes have buds and salads grow fast, when placed about 30-40cm away, and if tomato seedlings are placed about 20cm then they grow like crazy. Seedlings are 30cm tall one month from seed.

Two fluorescent lamps (300W and 250W) allow me to grow tomatoes and salads during the winter


This is a project dedicated to Pami, which is now on the first year of her herbalism/natural medicine course. We want to have a collection of dried herbs and homemade tinctures, so we are collecting medicinal herbs. I have grown from seed comfrey, borage, arnica, skullcap (last two with 2 month cold stratification), marshmallow. I have also a crazy big motherwort plant (3 month old from seed), which is a very good herb for anxiety and heart.  Our dream is to have a etnobotanical collection, and we are building it that way.

Motherwort, an amazing herb for the heart and anxiety


Ok. This one is work-related. I work as a soap maker/ natural cosmetic/ herbalist, so I have a fairly wide collection of essential oils in our workplace. Of course we all know what a lavender or a thyme plant looks like, but what about frankincense or patchouli? So, these are the species I am growing from seed, to smell them directly from the plant! I also have eucalyptus citriodora (with a fabulous scent when you touch the leaves!), tea tree (very tiny seedlings germinated over a radiator over a month). I want to germinate plumeria but so far I have failed (its flowers are ornamental and have a soberb sweet smell).

Patchouli plant (and tiny tea tree seedlings in background to the left)


This is my special pet project. I had the idea back in November after watching a documentary on endangered animals, and thought I could help a few endangered plants. I found seed of many on the internet (some of which rapidly disappearing, and on brink on extinction). I have ordered a dozen of them, and now I am on to germinate them. I have succedeed with frankincense (near endangered even if it such a famous biblical tree), that required radiator and a special mix of volcanic gravel and limestones. Germination is about 10% and keeping seedlings alive requires rigorous control of moisture on the dry side, and strong light. I also have a fan to simulate wind, which helps plants to become strong. Other than it, I have aloe dichotoma (an endangered aloe from south africa) and an endangered species bauhinia (germinated like a bean). Obviously by using only seed you do not threaten the endangered plants themselves. This project is a big one, and many seeds are very rare and expensive (and difficult to start), so I will need to write a crowdfunding project to help me finance this. Hope people contribute. Furthermore, I plan to later propagate more these rare plants and spreadf them to other people, so that these species remains less rare and farther away from the brink of extinction.

Aloe dichotoma, frankincense, and bauhinia, 3 plants I am growing from seed that face risk of extinction. 


This is a second attempt after the experiments last summer.
Last year I successfully grew siberian tomatoes, even in such an unusually cold and rainy summer! This year I want to try corn; still a second try of the painted mountain corn, which failed miserably last summer, but I am going to try also dwarf blue jade corn, and earlivee (the quickest corn to produce). Dwarf and early varieties are probably a good bet.
I ordered bush bean "provider" which was recommended by people in Canada, as more cold tolerant than most beans. And bush varieties of pumpkins: summer ball and golden nugget. They don't grow long, so they will be similar to zuchini which grows well in our cool Icelandic summers.
About the tomatoes, I am growing an outstanding number of 15 different varieties, all adapted to cold climates, from Alaska, Canada and Siberia. I already exposed seedlings to -6ºC and snow outside and had several of them survived. I am doing a natural selection of them.

This siberian tomato plant has survived freezing of -6ºC and it is still alive and recovering. While I demonstrate the extreme situation, this variety is able to set fruit outdoors in Iceland, which is quite an achivement.


I done this back in 2007. I did an experiment of planting spinach and radish for each day for an entire moon cycle. Such a patience! I observed that radish produced better roots and bushier plants when planted in earth and water element days, while seeds in general germinated faster near the full moon. Seeds germinated near new moon grew longer roots, while those at full moon, longer aerial parts.
As a scientist/ biologist, I am quite surprised, shocked, and fascinated, that yes plants do respond to lunar cycles and lunar influences.
Now I have repeated the experiment in February with seeds of radish, broccoli, tagete, chicory and tomatoes. I have seen many interesting observations which I will report later, but basically they reinforced what I have seen back in 2007. I add that last year I saw also an impact of the use of certain biodynamic herbs (valerian, nettles, dandelion, chamomile) on the growth of vegetables (when added on the watering of those plants).


This is another crazy idea I had.
Long it has been reported that crops grow fantastic well in volcanic slopes and soils. Since I live in a volcanic island, one day, while we were hiking, I imagined I could try the volcanic material of the different 30 active volcanoes in Iceland, and see how plants react. I started a few experiments with ash and gravel from Hekla, Veidivotn, Katla and Grimsnes volcanoes from Iceland. So far, I see that most of them seem to increase growth of the plants, as compared to controls without volcanic material. I will report on this later.

Testing different volcanic rocks/ash, in plant growth


These are all developments done with other people.
First, I have been invited to give permaculture lectures where I live in Sólheimar, I will gladly do so. I think it's time to push forward some of my educational side. Also, this spring I am excited to see whether I will manage to have the opportunity to do an online permaculture course with the big guys in Australia. More details later.
Another outreach thing - but one that I am skeptical about - is to bring forward the idea of permaculture into Solheimar (the community where we live in). This would be to implement the idea of a garden with perennial species, zoning design and forest gardening, applied  to the community garden in Solheimar, possibly also to the other outdoor spaces, and also inside the community´s plastic house. Perhaps even a collection of medicinal plants, exotic tropical species and unusual crops.
All of these ideas develop slowly. People are still not receptive, so I do not want to invest much energy on it. Also I am impatient so when people do not show interest or support, I quite rather early and focus in my own projects without bothering others. I don't like pushing my ideas into other people, if they are not receptive to them. Manifesting the idea of permaculture is surely a challenge in Iceland (since it has no tradition in gardening or even vegetable farming). Nevertheless I feel the need to move my ideas from a personal to a more communitarian and social sphere. It makes all the sense, since human beings are community beings, not isolated cells. Let's see how it goes.

I am happy growing many indoor vegetables, and also many other interesting species, like edible perennials, fruit trees, endangered species, medicinal herbs. However such projects cannot be sustainable if not supported by other fellow human beings, and continued by others.


One of these is to continue to cultivate edible plants from around the world, especially perennials, and introduce some of them to my permaculture garden in front of our house. And hopefully transform it, gradually, into a forest garden kind of thing.

Another project is to continue the 1 month food production project. This year I will still cultivate vegetables, broad beans, normal beans and peas, potatoes, and of course, try grains. Last year the grains mostly failed (except for oats), so now I am cultivating much earlier indoors (and more varities - something ought to work!). I organized myself and did a calender for the gardening tasks in Iceland, with the exact timing one must sow seeds and transplant them outdoors, in order to be successfully with an harvest. I also want to eat much more, rather than just trying and experiment. Currently, we are already growing salads and sprouts indoors.

I also want to develop an essential oil mix to deter spider mites and aphids. I created one with rosemary, peppermint, lemongrass, and some lavender, thyme and cinnamon. It seems to at least control them, but it burns the leaves of some sensitive plants if applied too much. Perhaps dilution is key. Spider mites are a big problem, they quickly kill a plant, and I can loose months of effort within a couple of days.

Yacon(left) and chinese artichokes (right): two edible perennial roots

Indoors, I am excited to try to acomplish the following goals: collect seed from the perennial roccoto chili pepper, from the mexican jicama root, harvest chinese yams, grow different and beautiful varieties of peppers, tomatoes and corn, grow and produce yacon, grow more moringa, grow winged beans, and try peanuts for the first time. Outdoors, I want to grow skirret, chinese artichokes and try again the groundnut. Want to try quinoa outdoors, now not in a container but transplanted into the soil! And hopefully I will get the cherry tree to produce fruit this year (fingers crossed!)