Potential Domesticates: Three Australian Natives

A quick reminder- I am moving my blogging exclusively to my substack starting in June, so head over there to sign up if you want to continue getting notifications. Expect weekly posts for the foreseeable future.

I am just one person, with one set of hands and eyes and limited hours in the day, and only so many good years ahead of me. That can be a bit frustrating when I look around and see so many plants with astonishing domestication potential. The hope of this post is to inspire more people to take up a plant breeding project and see where it might lead. I plan to do similar posts in the future on other groups of plants, but decided to start out focusing on Australian natives.

First up is the Lomandra, a genus not too distantly related to asparagus. The most common species in cultivation (L. longifolia) grows as a rosette of tough, strappy leaves, a bit over a meter tall. Its ability to absorb abuse has seen it planted in parking lots and school gardens for decades. I have planted drifts on the overflow of a dam wall to reduce erosion, with excellent results. Aboriginals used them for weaving, ate the starchy bases of the long leaves, young flowers, and most interestingly the ground up seeds into flour. Personally, I have nibbled on the leaf bases and found them bland and inoffensive. I tried grinding seeds but found them too hard to break down into flour, so the technique may require presoaking. Most importantly the genus contains around 51 species which vary considerably in their traits, and hybridisation between them seems to be fairly straightforward.

Next is Brachychiton, a genus that contains the spectacular flame tree from the rainforest coast and peculiar bottle trees from the semi-arid interior. The seeds are high in protein and were roasted and ground traditionally. Of more interest, young seedling trees develop a crunchy, carrot-like root that can be eaten as a vegetable. Once again, the critical trait that makes this genus worthy of attention is the relative ease with which hybrids are produced between the 31 known species.

The final genus I wish I could find time to work on is Grevillea. This massive group of 360 diverse species come in every form, from low groundcovers to towering trees like the silky oak (G. robusta). The majority of species are medium shrubs from semi-arid regions, which produce large bird-pollinated flowers that produce enormous quantities of nectar (exemplified in ornamental hybrids like “Robyn Gordon” and many others). Aborigines often collected the nectar from the flowers by shaking them into bark vessels. This genus has the potential to produce sugar crops without the need to cut and crush plant material like sugarcane and to produce it over a flowering period of many months, unlike sap crops like sugar maple. The flowers could be selected to make them less attractive to birds, even to the point of being inaccessible to anything but humans.

While many ornamental hybrids have been produced from a limited number of original species, there appear to be barriers to crossing the more convenient shrubby types (like “Robyn Gordon”) with the towering but coastally adapted silky oak, but I haven’t been able to determine if such hybrids have ever been seriously attempted. Silk oak is naturalised on my property, while the shrubby forms tend to drop dead in my heavy coastal clay. This makes growing the two side by side for hybridisation attempts difficult here, but for someone on a different soil type in a drier region, it might be a very interesting crop to develop.

Hopefully, these three examples have helped tune your senses to spot other opportunities for breeding novel crops. There are a few qualities that you should keep an eye out for. First look for previous evidence of edible uses of the plant, often in the form of foraging by indigenous peoples. Working with a species where you enjoy eating the output makes life a lot easier. Next, the ability to source multiple diverse species is invaluable. A species where the flowers and reproductive habits are easy to work with makes a difference, but technical challenges with hand pollination can be overcome with a little extra effort most of the time. Evidence of hybridisation in the genus (or even better outside it) is also very encouraging, but often it will be the case that nobody ever bothered to try before. 

It really is that easy to make history, in your own back yard, just by turning a little time and attention to a possibility that nobody ever thought to try before. You might be taking the first steps in establishing a useful plant that will continue to be grown and enjoyed for millenia. 

Grevillea Robyn Gordon- the first popular hybrid in the genus, produced as a chance seedling from a plant collector
Brachychiton populneus seeds. Watch out for the glassy hairs inside the pods.
Lomandra longifolia in full bloom. I will have to try the immature flower stalks soon, much easier for me to grow than their close relative, Asparagus.

The Genie in the Bottleneck

Although the scale of the contraction that lies ahead for the human race is unprecedented, our ancestors have passed through many critical periods where the effective population size decreased dramatically. 

On many previous occasions the total population size shrank, while in others a small group with some competitive innovation replaced the previous population. Either way the end result was the same- a new form of humanity founded by a relatively small pool of ancestors. This process has repeated many times to make modern humans one of the most inbred animals on the planet. 

Genetic analysis has hinted of a strong bottleneck between the primitive Australopithecines and Homo erectus, their much more successful descendant. Stronger evidence is available for the more recent transition to Homo sapiens. It appears the global hominid population shrank from 2.5 million to under 10 000 individuals, possibly in response to the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mt Toba. Other large mammal species display evidence of a genetic bottleneck around the same time. Some researchers dispute this model of the emergence of Homo sapiens, instead favoring a prolonged multiregional evolution in Africa. The tribulations of this period seem to have pressured early modern humans to become more cooperative with others, increasing maximum social group size and allowing connections between neighbouring tribes to trade.

Clear founding bottlenecks are evident in the genetics of groups that left Africa, and again when they crossed into the Americas (though more recent evidence suggests multiple distinct founding groups). Many modern groups show evidence of founder effects. Ashkenazi jews appear to have been reduced to a few thousand individuals a millennium ago. Many castes in India appear to have been founded by small groups and practiced strict intermarriage for similar timespans.

In more recent history a few situations stand out as bottlenecks. Population estimates are fuzzy for the period of the Bronze Age collapse, but evidence shows cereal cultivation was abandoned over many regions in Europe in favor of pastoralism. The regional economy peaked as a series of kingdoms with dense urban centres, who traded the tin and copper to make superior bronze weapons and tools. These in turn allowed more intensive agriculture and higher population densities. Experts disagree on the trigger for the collapse, but it resulted in abandonment of most of the cities around the Mediterranean and a loss of literacy for many generations.

The Black Death represents the second most dramatic disease driven population decline in recent history, with 20-50% of the population of Europe lost over a generation. Analysis of populations before and after show certain susceptible genotypes were driven close to extinction. This event had major cultural and economic consequences, weakening the authority of the church enough to allow the birth of rationalism, and disrupting the balance of power between the wealthy and the poor. It also triggered improvements in labor-saving mechanical technologies in the form of wind and waterwheels, which built a foundation for the industrial revolution. It also freed up metalworkers from producing chain mail, allowing them to instead produce papermaking moulds which crashed the price of paper (a fairly new invention spread from the east like the plague itself) which in turn made the printing press economically feasible.

The most dramatic disease driven bottleneck happened in the Americas following introduction of multiple epidemic pathogens. Estimates vary wildly, but Mexico is believed to have declined from 22 million to 1 million in a period of years. The biological consequences of selecting out a small percentage of resistant individuals will probably always be unknown, but the cultural and economic consequences were devastating. Given recent increases in global population a contraction of a similar scale in the future is not implausible, though it will likely take much longer.

Notable bottlenecks of the past happened for a few different reasons. Sometimes the carrying capacity of the land was dramatically decreased, due to a catastrophe or climate change, or the loss of a key technology. Other times the carrying capacity remained unchanged, but the previous population was reduced through disease. Sometimes a small divergent population used a unique advantage to outcompete older, established populations. Often a combination of these factors work together- for example the horse riding Yamnaya warriors who replaced the early farming men of Europe had a much easier job due to the spread of an early wave of the Black Death (which they probably spread and were partially resistant to).

The challenges ahead for humanity also represent a combination of possible stressors. Our carrying capacity has been artificially inflated through the use of concentrated, non-renewable resources like oil and coal, which allowed us to tap into previously inaccessible resources of metals and chemical fertilisers, then cheaply transport the products of industry everywhere across the planet. 

Our tightly woven trade network and the resulting intensification of population density most resembles the scenario that led to the Bronze Age collapse. The disintegration of industrial power might trigger cascading mass migration (the primary force which destroyed the cities of antiquity). The unprecedented urbanisation of populations around the world could be regarded as the first stage in this process. Around the world, regions where people retained some of their pre-industrial culture sit alongside the most highly urbanised: Europe and the middle east beside Africa, Central America beside North America, Papua New Guinea beside Australia. One thing that is very different today is that the landscape is so degraded that it is unable to support nomadic populations (the Mongol’s horses would starve before they passed through the suburban fringe of modern cities), though this must be balanced against the persistence of high speed/long distance transportation methods from what remains of our industrial age. 

More probable, given our ailing systems of health, nutrition and sanitation, is the emergence of a novel epidemic pathogen, or more likely the reemergence of several older ones that people find it hard to get excited about. Antibiotic production and distribution chains were stretched across the globe for maximum efficiency, and shortages of these key drugs are becoming common even in rich nations. Slow moving epidemics like multidrug resistant tuberculosis don’t grab the attention of the media.

This all sounds pretty dreadful to the average person. However a study of the history of bottlenecks reveals that they bring an opportunity for transformation that isn’t possible during normal times.

One feature of bottlenecks is the loss of advanced technology. A close study of archeology reveals all sorts of artefacts that even high industrial technology of today would have difficulty reproducing. The high technology of a peak can drive simpler technologies to extinction, meaning they do not automatically reappear after the collapse. I predict there is a decent chance that iron smelting will become a lost technology in the future. Currently only a small number of dedicated enthusiasts have mastered the primitive techniques for turning hand mined iron ore and charcoal into workable iron. They are mostly scattered and elderly people. During the downslope of industrial civilisation there will be an abundance of scrap iron that can be reworked to meet basic needs, a much simpler process than creating new iron from ore. By the time people run out of iron for recycling the few people who understood the intricacies of low tech ore smelting will be long gone. This would be an advantage to humanity in the long run, restoring a more sustainable balance between people and trees. The civilisations of the Americas achieved superior civic organisation than anything comparable in Europe or Asia without the need for iron.

The cultural memory of mass/long distance communication is likely to survive. It is plausible that humanity will rediscover or maintain radio but will probably never again make integrated circuits or satellites. Memory of the core principles of biology will probably be retained so that we can engage in selective breeding (including of humans) but will never again be able to sequence or manipulate genomes directly.

Some general trends are seen in the history of human bottlenecks. The general trend has been increasing intelligence balanced by decreasing physical robustness. The groups with the best capacity for interpersonal cooperation and coordination seem to win out in the end (which favors rice farming communities of south east Asia). 

Ossified forms of culture tend to be swept away and eventually replaced. I hope the abomination that we call written English will finally be put to the flame and a better language takes its place. Mass migrations tend to blend languages, so hopefully the best parts of several languages are hybridised and selected.

The ideas we have gained during the age of industrialisation and rationalism that survive the coming contraction will need to be repackaged in a form that is simple, compelling, evident through ordinary experience and most importantly, useful. What these ideas might be, and how to craft them into a durable packages (such as fables) is a puzzle I am currently contemplating.

The age of industrialisation will have other enduring legacies. One important way the world has changed is the movement of diverse people’s over vast distances, creating new, hybrid populations. Traditionally these have been the source of cultural innovation. The most notable examples are found in South Africa, the Phillipines and south/central America. The diaspora of south east Asian merchants into every corner of the world will also likely have lasting consequences. Likewise crops, livestock and weeds have been scattered across the planet, fundamentally changing ecosystems and potential post-industrial agriculture.

Finally, there is a possibility that humanity will modify itself through industrial style genetic engineering during the desperate years ahead. We have already attempted to produce HIV resistant babies (though this trait is relatively common already among people). I can think of a handful of simple but transformative changes that might be achieved with our limited tools and understanding. I explore a few of these ideas in my recently released science fiction novellas.

In these stories I explored the possible long term consequences of the end of industrialisation in a series of novellas, Our Vitreous Womb, recently released on Amazon. The inner workings of a new society built on pure biotechnology are experienced through the eyes of four diverse individuals in interconnected stories. Currently I’m chasing three more reviews on Amazon to apply to a science fiction promoting list, so if you can read and review I would be most grateful.

Reviews so far have been very encouraging. Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

The story was fast paced and gripping. It reminded me of Atwood’s ORYX AND CRAKE.”

Also a shout-out to the prose. It’s very strong. Especially the first chapter was magical to read.”

It’s rare to find such a combination of storytelling and well-imagined speculative science fiction, and when you add in concise, precise prose, it creates something truly outstanding.”

This is one of those books where it feels as though the author has actually visited their world. The details are sharp and clear, and backed with logical, consistent worldbuilding.”

So now for the conclusion to today’s post. This is meant to be the part where I put a positive, hopeful spin on everything established so far. 

How about this?

Everyone alive today is going to die.

That is an inevitable and unremarkable fact, as true today as it was at any time in history, and likely to be true for the millions of years of life left on this planet.

What matters today is which new lives will be created and nurtured through the coming contraction, and how they will be trained and educated to carry a more modest version of humanity into the vast future.

There was never anything particularly desirable about cramming many billions of people on the planet. Nobody set out to get where we are today. It was an accidental consequence of well-intentioned increments in agriculture and technology. 

Once this time is over, its passing will come as a relief, not just for humanity but for the entire planet.

This tribulation will change us, in ways we cannot fully imagine, just as Homo erectus could not have imagined the wonders of ancient Rome. 

Our time as a species in this tower of metal and glass is nearly over. 

Your job is to carefully select a handful of useful and compact items and ideas to carry with you, to pass forward on the next phase of our long journey into the future.

Book Review- “Energy and Civilisation: A History.” by Vaclav Smil

Note- After May I will discontinue blogging here on WordPress and shift my writing to substack. You can select the free option to subscribe or throw me a few dollars to keep my experimental farm going. Expect a revived online seed and plant shop in the future.

This book was written in 2017 as an update of a similar book from 1994, by an emeritus Professor who has spent his life studying economics, energy and history. After establishing the initial concepts of energy (as stores and flows subject to various controls) he tracks the use of energy from prehistory, through early agriculture, all the way to industrial civilisation. The book is extremely detailed in its treatment, with most of its assertions backed by fascinating graphs and figures. Not every reader will find every subtopic as compelling, so you might consider skimming in places.

The central role of fire and tool making in allowing humans to access more energy is explored. The high efficiency of human locomotion compared to other mammals is another important point. Domestication of grain, with its much higher energy density than tubers, made storage and transport feasible (though transport over water was vastly superior to transport over land, a reality that continues today even with oil powered machinery).

Much is discussed of the importance of draught animals and metal production, though the book only briefly acknowledges the complex new world societies that rose without the aid of either. One point that stood out was the role of improving plough technology allowed German farmers to colonise land in Eastern Europe that had been too heavy to cultivate previously, setting up the initial tension which sparked WWII. Even in the most productive farming systems at least 0.3 acres of irrigated and fertilised grain was needed per person (consistent with the estimate in “Farmers for Forty Centuries” which I previously reviewed). Most regions with less favourable conditions needed much more arable land per person for food production.

Biomass production was the main limit to the growth of cities before industrialisation, with a vast surrounding area deforested to support construction, cooking and especially smelting. The transition to coal allowed societies to break through this limitation (though ironically the world consumes more biomass energy today than it did before industrialisation).

A positive feedback loop emerged where firewood created better metal tools for cutting wood, just as how coal powered machinery was first used to facilitate the extraction of deeper coal reserves. The book details the steady increase in the energy efficiency of machines and power per mass of engines, made possible through improvements in alloy properties and precision machining.

I ran into some interesting facts in the book, such as how the average speed of car travel in the modern world is a mere 7 km/hr if one includes all the time spent making money to buy and maintain the car. This drops to a mere 5 km/hr, the same speed as walking, if you include traffic congestion in the calculation. This correlates with similar calculations for train travel between cities, and with the energy efficiency of an electric stove being lower than simply burning the coal in an open pit fire on a cold and windy day since most of the energy is lost during conversions along the way. So much of our industrial system seems to be designed around convenience rather than efficiency.

Along the lines of this book, I have my own theory for the emergence of industrialisation in England. This island has an unusually stable climate, with gentle, year round rainfall that doesn’t readily cause erosion after deforestation. This allowed the British to push their wood production capacity to the limit without collapsing the ecosystem (as usually happened in seasonally arid locations in the middle east and mediterranean). Its geography allowed absorption of cultural and technological innovations from the continent without the constant threat of land based warfare (as happened in continental northern Europe). The British expertise in sailing made energy efficient water based transport more effective for internal trade. Sailing expertise then allowed Britain to leverage industrial power into the fastest wave of economic expansion and domination ever seen. The only comparable nation in terms of biogeography would be Japan, but their lack of local coal resources prevented them industrialising under their own power.

Toward the end of the book there is a short section looking towards the future (though the author has expanded his views on this topic in subsequent works). The book does its best to pick examples highlighting how per capita energy consumption doesn’t always correlate with quality of life (after pointing out that economic development and energy consumption represent the most tightly correlated relationship in all of macroeconomics). It also dredges up historic examples of experts who failed to predict the potential of technological changes, and expresses hope that renewable energy or fusion will provide the next steady energy system transformation. In this work the author seems reluctant to face the possibility that fossil fuel resources will run short before such transitions happen, and only briefly acknowledges the risks of consuming the remaining (low quality) coal reserves. Perhaps this book was better off focusing on being a detailed historic account of the role of energy in society, so I can understand the choice to make a cursory hopeful note in conclusion.

The stark fact is that human populations were constrained below half a billion people for thousands of years under agriculture (a system which often undermined its own foundations). Tapping fossil fuel reserves led to explosive population growth to 8 billion (coupled with astonishing environmental degradation). There is compelling evidence that fossil fuel extraction has reached an all time maximum (especially in terms of net energy available after extraction) and that the mineral resources needed to scale up renewable energy are lacking. Just because we recently passed through a few energy source transitions doesn’t guarantee an unending list of new alternatives are waiting to maintain the current arrangements. 

Overall I would recommend this book to someone who is relatively new to the interplay between energy and civilisation and who has an appetite for lots of historic data, graphs and figures. If a lower energy future awaits us then a detailed understanding about how society functioned inside pre-industrial limits could be invaluable for charting a path forward.

The Divided Heart

Note- I plan to shift my blog to my substack within the next few weeks. Be sure to sign up over there if you wish to stay up to date. I’m plan to return to weekly posts for the foreseeable future while I catch up on a long list of jobs on the farm.


Now back to this week’s post…

I hesitated to write about recent events. 

Don’t worry. It isn’t anything bad. I just put a couple of goats in the freezer, as I have done many times before. A doe gave birth out of season at the end of summer, producing two unwanted buck kids. Instead of bottle feeding I let the mother to raise them to experiment with that simpler alternative. I didn’t disbud their horns or castrate since I planned to cull them before either became an issue.

Usually goats breed in late summer and kid through the winter, but now I keep my buck with the herd so it sometimes happens at random. In traditional goat keeping three kiddings every two years is supposed to be normal. The alternative is keeping the buck isolated for half the year to control matings, which puts stress on him and demands either twice as much fencing, or grazing two groups alternately through the day (which takes a lot of my time and results in poorer nutrition for all). Provided I keep the herd small enough that their nutrition is never compromised, keeping the herd together full time makes more sense (especially since I prefer a few unsynchronised births so I produce a steadier supply of milk throughout the year).

There is also debate on the pros and cons of allowing young does to get pregnant too young due to being around the buck full time. Again, many sources argue this isn’t always a problem. First time mothers usually have single kids rather than twins. If nutrition is adequate they normally size up through their first pregnancy. Culling the kid at birth and removing the demand to produce milk is also an option (as often happens in wild herbivores when predators are present). Sometimes an animal comes along with genetics that causes it to get pregnant prematurely, which I see as just another genetic flaw which can be selected against.

I have been reluctant to talk about any of this side of keeping animals. Everybody loves to ooh and aah at the photos of fluffy newborn kids. The inescapable flip-side is that goats are prolific breeders, and a healthy herd (that is constantly rebalancing with a healthy pasture) demands humans manage the population size. 

To love and know animals, in a state that allows them to experience their full potential in the absence of predation, means killing them from time to time. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about humans is our ability to hold two contradictory thoughts, or feel two irreconcilable feelings at the same time.

I love my goats. They are intelligent, adaptable, generous creatures.

But they evolved in a context of constant predation. They demand it to remain a part of a healthy ecosystem, just as grass needs grazers. 

Life demands death. Across most of the world, the predators that once provided death are gone. 

We killed them, often thousands of years ago.

Humans are still getting used to their new role as the universal predator. 

As omnivores, we don’t automatically adjust our numbers in response to changing prey populations.

Often we lean too far toward death and drive a hunted species to extinction.

Sometimes we leave species unchecked and herbivores overrun the plant life.

Our attitude toward animals needs to strike a dynamic balance that serves the ecosystem.

In symbiosis such a balance is struck between the separate parts that grow together.

When mitochondria and chloroplasts took up residence inside cells they negotiated mechanisms to balance their numbers.

These valued guests are nourished by the parent cell, and it is nourished by them in turn.

Perhaps this core distinction between one organism or two lies in the dynamic between them.

Two separate organisms have opposing motivations. The predator always wants to eat the prey, the prey always wishes to escape. Balance is created through the limitations of both desires.

In a single organism the different parts align to a single goal. 

When a cell digests surplus mitochondria they don’t long to escape.

Just as the lamb quietly offers its throat to the farmer who will continue to shelter its mother.

I hope I have succeeded in exploring this topic without raising undue discomfort.

In my immediate family, the responsibility of processing animals falls on me. Everyone around me prefers not to think about it.

That can make it a lonely experience. Hence my motivation to write about it here. 

I hope you can understand.

Eating other animals is what made us human in the first place. 

In the future, raising and eating animals will once again become an essential activity to sustain ourselves and manage this vast planet. Human hands and tools are insufficient. 

Humans and livestock make up the bulk of vertebrate biomass today.

When I look at the global ecosystem, I keep coming back to the phrase “you broke it, you bought it”. 

Humans are the last predator standing, forced by the consequences of our spectacular successes to transform ourselves into the universal symbiont.

We broke this planet. Now it is our responsibility to remake it.

Plant Profile- Sword Beans (The Beanogenesis Chronicles)

Staple legumes appear in the majority of agricultural systems. They produce only modest amounts of carbohydrate (a role dominated by grains or tubers that give higher total calorie yields). Their most valuable role is as a form of storable protein (to complement variable flows of animal protein). Protein from legume seeds is usually inferior to animal sources, due to lower bioavailability and the presence of toxins, but if the alternative is protein deficiency then a sack of dry beans can be a lifesaver.

Under my peculiar conditions I have trialled just about every staple legume species imaginable. The main barriers are my weird low calcium/high magnesium soil, abundant weed growth whenever we aren’t in a drought, and considerable pressure from our local pod sucking bug. This pest inserts its proboscis into developing legume pods, damaging the developing seeds. The only legume which had shown some promise was lima bean, due to its habit of cropping through the end of autumn when pressure from the bug was lower.

I acquired my first swordbeans pretty much by accident, initially pegging them as some barely edible permaculture weed that nobody knew how to eat. The first species I grew was C. gladiata. The enormous, bright pink seeds germinated readily into robust seedlings that ignored my trellises and scaled the hedges surrounding my vegetable gardens. I sowed them in an area going back into fallow, so the plants got zero follow up attention. The next winter the giant, thick walled pods were scattered around the hedges, providing a modest crop. I have researched the required steps to detoxify the seeds but haven’t scaled up enough to try cooking them myself. The consensus for the cultivated species seems to be soaking, then cooking in 2-3 changes of water (and most critically cycling the ingredient in and out of your diet seasonally). For a long time I assumed lima beans would be the better alternative, and intended to begin hand crossing the half dozen strains I had gathered in coming years.

My outlook on Canavalia changed when two other species appeared on my radar. C. ensiformis is the other main cultivated species, with smaller white seeds. C. papuana is a wild native species from northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Its undomesticated nature is evident in its thick seed coat which needs abrasion or hot water treatment to break its dormancy. This species is also likely to have more toxic seeds. Given the robust performance of C. gladiata I decided to plant all three species side by side and do deliberate hand crossing. The aim was a locally adapted staple legume that I could plant all through my overgrown orchard and hedges, needing nothing more than sowing and harvest (and careful cooking).

Once the crops were started the first barrier to overcome was simultaneous flowering. They were all sowed at the same time, but there was no way to know in advance how each species times its reproduction. Luckily this wasn’t an issue and they all flowered together in February (though C. gladiata was the earliest, and C. papuana latest).

The next barrier was how to arrange cross pollination. Most legumes (especially domesticated ones) are predominantly self-pollinating. This is probably an adaptation from when the original wild species were moved into regions where they lack suitable pollinators. Interestingly I observed a species of native solitary bee enthusiastically working the flowers, but I couldn’t rely on them to do outcrossing for me. I scrounged around for a piece of gauzy cloth, cut it into handkerchief sized squares, and started wrapping spikes of flowers that were at a convenient height on the trellis (held in place with a wooden clothes peg).

Using a set of tweezers, I applied the technique used for hand pollinating sweet peas. Anthers start to develop in the late afternoon in unopened flowers. The petals are squeezed open, often using the tweezers to split them apart. Then a gentle downward motion will knock off the ends of the anthers while usually leaving the female stigma intact. I usually had a cloud of tiny mosquitos around my ankles at the time, so sometimes I hurried and damaged the flower. The next morning I had to get up just as the dew was rising to beat the solitary bees to the intact flowers. I found the easiest method was to collect whole flowers from one species in my pocket, then peel back the petals off the anthers. With my other hand I could squeeze open the anther free flower of a different species from the day before, then dab the anthers from one species onto the stigma of another. I would then reapply the square of mesh to prevent bees from self-pollinating each species.

I didn’t bother labelling individual crosses, but selected a plant of each species to receive pollen from either of the two other species. This ensued that all six possible crosses were conducted. In the end I think I got around a 10-20% rate of pod setting, with no indication that any crosses were more or less incompatible. All going well I should end up with a few dozen seeds to grow out next season. I plan to plant about half of them (around one row) alongside another row of pure C.  gladiata.

The ultimate aim is to identify the most promising hybrids to backcross to gladiata since it seems to be the closest to my ideal plant. C. ensiformis is a bit too domesticated for my tastes- the plants set most of their pods low, dragging in the dirt, and the vines are almost bush shaped. By contrast C. papuana is too wild, with small, toxic, hard shelled seeds, pods that shatter. A complex hybrid of all three, selected back toward the best traits of C. gladiata will most likely produce a lineage which can provide large quantities of seed in return for little more effort than sowing and harvesting.

I still plan to breed my lima beans, but see them as being a crop suited to areas with more intensive management (namely vegetable gardens and silty lowlands in my icecream bean alleys). Sword beans will fill a complementary row in less managed spaces, where their hardiness allows them to produce a useful yield with minimal involvement on my part.

Our friendly pod sucking bugs that ruin many legume crops

C. papuana getting attention from a local solitary bee species.

The larger flowers of C. gladiata. The one on the lower left had its anthers stripped.

(Hopefully) hybrid pods on the refined C. ensiformis.

Mining the Midden

Lately I’ve been contemplating the core of the ecological niche for human cultivated crops. Let’s explore one of the key factors that started before the official origins of agriculture.

In the majority of terrestrial habitats plant growth is limited by access to nitrogen or phosphorus. Only in arid zones does water become the limiting factor. In some peculiar regions with unusual geology a deficiency or surplus of other elements may come into play. For example there are natural zones with high heavy metal levels that evolved their own specialist flora. Deficiencies are more common though, such as how agriculture in West Australia was initially crippled by selenium deficiencies.

Local imbalances in soil mineral profiles have long been evened out by the vertical activity of plants (which make the minerals bioavailable) coupled to the horizontal activity of large, migratory animals which would consume the minerals in a place of excess, and deposit them in a place of deficiency. Far from being entirely random, this process would be driven by the animals own sophisticated sense of taste as they sought out balanced nutrition. The terrestrial migration was also supplemented by the movement of fish and seabirds inland, to distribute key elements like iodine which are rapidly lost from the land.

These great mineral cycles were irreversibly broken over much of the planet, tens of thousands of years ago when the majority of the world’s megafauna became extinct (usually coinciding with the arrival of humans, right up to the relatively recent extinction of the moa of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar within a century of settlement).

By contrast, how do humans engage in horizontal mineral cycles? Most hunter-gatherers settled in relatively small home ranges, undergoing an annual migration around their territory to coincide with the availability of prime food resources. This is distinct from the often continent scale migration of megafauna. Along the way humans formed a series of regular camps, to which they carried harvested food, along with large quantities of wood for burning (also containing minerals). The consequence of thousands of years of this pattern is visible in the form of middens- monstrous mounds of shells, bones, excrement and plant material, usually concentrated close to the periodically disturbed ground of human camps.

This concentration of minerals would have represented a prime resource for the evolution of human associated weed species, many of which would eventually form the ancestors of crops (especially vegetables). Adaptable fruit species would also find their seeds deposited in this region, undisturbed until the humans returned.

The wider region around the camp would also be affected, through persistent wood collection at a convenient distance to camp. The creation of deforested habitats may have created niches for non-woody species that tolerated the periodic disturbance by humans, especially in swamps and waterways. Perennial tuberous crops seem especially suited to this niche since they have a fairly wide harvest window (unlike grains which must be harvested as soon as they are ripe). Another early domesticate ideal for this system is the bottle gourd, a vigorous annual vine which produces woody fruit that are invaluable for carrying water.

Agricultural humans intensified this new pattern, further shrinking home ranges. They often spread their crops at the expense of trees until the vertical mineral cycle was significantly damaged. Agriculture seems to be the most stable in the long run in regions where the majority of the landscape is unsuitable for cropping (with only limited pockets of flat, silty soil), leaving the remainder of the hilly landscape to continue to grow trees. Uniformly flat regions tend to experience cyclic population explosions, deforestation, then crashes. Regions of cropping could be viewed as a kind of wound upon the skin of the world, only tolerable in isolated patches (comparable to some animal species that gnaw wounds in the bark of a great tree to regularly feed on the oozing sap). The ancient practice of trading dried sea and mineral salt over vast distances likely had significant impacts on local mineral cycles (many animals are limited from living in some regions permanently due to lack of salt).

Industrial humans have further transformed the planet’s mineral cycles in recent generations. Particularly the application of mineral phosphorus to soils has permanently changed their capacity to support plant life (usually supporting weedy species over the indigenous types that adapted for lower mineral levels). Most of the world’s industrial agriculture is dependent on phosphorus imported over vast distance and global reserves are estimated to face depletion in 80 years at current levels of consumption. In my estimate it is more likely that the economics of processing and transporting this vast quantity of material is more likely to sputter out before then (already farmers in the developing world are cutting back on fertilizer applications due to rising prices).

Phosphorus in particular has a tendency to become insoluble as soon as it is applied to soils. In doing so it binds up trace elements, often exacerbating deficiencies of key micronutrients. Plants that are well adapted to local soil structure and climate usually have little difficulty tapping into this buried treasure (and many weed species are phosphorus accumulators, making them a potentially useful component of a diverse system, provided their biomass is harnessed and the resulting nutrient flows directed at desirable species).

In our own systems we need to consider both vertical and horizontal mineral flows. Moving large amounts of material across the surface ideally requires multiple end uses beyond enrichment of cultivation spaces, otherwise it is difficult to motivate people to perform the function. Livestock is a particularly efficient way to concentrate nutrients close to the point of use. Stands of coppiced trees for livestock feed and firewood also stack multiple end uses and provides mineral rich ash and biochar for soil enrichment. But ultimately there is a limit to how much local mineral balances can be perturbed by human activity without the support of mechanisation. Finding crops and livestock that are already compatible with local soil and climate by pulling out all of the industrial era life-support systems is the only long-term sustainable solution.

Better that we go through the sometimes painful process of turning off the hose, throwing away the bag of fertiliser and letting the weaker crops die while the consequences are not catastrophic.

A modern day midden- a monstrous pile of buffalo skulls, representing a concentrated calcium and phosphorus resource.

Plant Breeding Logistics

A helpful reader requested a post about the strategies and techniques I have found useful when undertaking plant breeding projects. I learnt some useful habits from my time in research laboratories which can increase your chances of getting satisfying results from your hard work.

The first step is to decide which species are worth focusing your limited time and energy on. To begin it is generally worth growing a single variety of all available species of interest in order to assess compatibility with your local conditions. Native soil types have their own particular mineral balance and texture, which will strongly favour some species over others. Any species that doesn’t show moderate vigour in the absence of irrigation, excessive fertilisation or pest control is unlikely to be worth investing years of work into.

After the initial few years of throwing everything at the wall, eventually the time comes to assess what stuck. Crop species that demonstrated they were reasonably well suited to your conditions can be further improved by widening their genetics. Some niches in your system may take longer to find suitable candidates. Keep in mind the end result of having a reasonable diversity of crops with complementary end products. For me that looks like a dozen vegetable species (split evenly between cool and warm seasons) and a half dozen staple crops.

Different crop species can be broadly separated into those which naturally hybridise, and those that require hand pollination.  I will talk about the natural outcrossers first since they are easier to work with. Once I have identified species with some potential I gather 6 to 12 distinct strains and do a side by side variety trial. I do not assume I can buy more packets of any particular variety (often seed sold under the same name will be distinctly different strains due to mislabelling or substitution). I follow a general rule of sowing less than half a seed pack in any one year, and making sure the rest is stored properly to maintain viability (in the fridge, inside multiple snaplock bags).

Store bought seeds are often dead on arrival or rather weak, and only present in small quantities, so I sow them in pots then transplant once they are large enough (which usually demands hand irrigation until established if it isn’t raining). I label the individual pots (using a chinagraph pencil on plastic tags). I label the date, variety and abbreviated source on one side, then put multiples of a large letter (A, B, C…) on the other side. This code is recorded in a notebook, since the details on the label often end up smudged in the field. When I transplant the seedlings I also record their relative positions in the beds as labels often end up pulled out during the growing season.

I only do this careful labelling during the variety trial years, as I find it to be a pain to manage long term. I only labelling during a variety trial so I can later selectively back cross my first generation hybrids to pure plants of the best varieties in the second year. Ultimately I am aiming for a balance between quality/purity and diversity. As always I only sow half my current seed stock in any season, as an insurance against disasters. Generally by the third season I have saved so much seed that I can afford to direct sow larger beds more thickly and then thin the seedlings to select for early vigour. I find this trait to be really useful since it lets the crop to compete with weeds during establishment.

In following years I enter a maintenance phase for the species, which involves ongoing selection of better performing individuals. I only save seed from the nicest looking individuals (which means getting in the habit of not harvesting the best looking plants). From time to time I will trial a small number of plants of a new variety or three alongside my established population, and if they are above average I will save some seed from the new strains to gradually blend into my main population. Over time selecting the best plants to reproduce in a small population will inevitably lead to inbreeding depression, so adding small amounts of fresh genetics every 5-10 years can delay this process indefinitely. This is one reason why many “pure” heirloom strains are degraded today, though they represent a source of interest diversity for creating new grexes. Another viable strategy is sharing your early, high diversity mixed population with other local growers, then swapping seed periodically to increase the effective population size.

For crops that need hand pollination the process is similar but slower since you need to drive every hybridisation event, but because you are in control you can have more fun deciding which crosses to make. Every species has its own timing and techniques, so be prepared to fumble around a little before you get a feel for what you are doing. (I’m currently learning sword-bean pollination, to be described in an upcoming post). If you are doing wide crosses, where there is likely to be unknown levels of incompatibility, it can be useful to mix pollen from multiple different sources to apply to every available stigma. In early years it makes sense to cast a wider net in order to get at least some hybrid seed to get you started. In later years you can afford to be more narrowly focused on getting seed from more deliberate crosses.

Generally I will take the species/strain with the best agricultural potential and apply pollen from everything else that is available (similar to my strategy with outcrossing species). That way if any seed form I know at least half its genes come from a high quality parent. This is the approach I took to breeding Canna. As long as I know the seed parent I don’t worry about keeping track of the pollen parent. Some breeders label both parents of every single cross, but for species where the chance of getting seed set is low I think your time is better spent doing more crosses, then allowing the hybrid seedlings to stand on their own merits.

On this planet there are around 390 000 species of plants in 17 000 genera. Only around 2 000 plant species have been domesticated and most are suffering from decreasing levels of genetic diversity and vigour compared to their wild ancestors.

By contrast there are around 8 000 000 000 people alive today. We would only need one person in every 20 000 to take an interest in plant domestication to cover every known species (and only one in 470 000 if that individual took on domesticating a whole genus). Compared to plant breeding I can think of no other activity with more potential to positively impact the future of humanity. If you are fortunate enough to have the time, space and modest resources required I strongly encourage you to consider taking up this fascinating, world-changing hobby.

Winged beings hand pollinating date palms in ancient Assyria.

The Staple Crop to Vegetable Pipeline

Few people realise that many of our vegetable species have origins as staple crops. For example snow-peas are merely specialised lineage of field peas, which were cultivated for millennia as a staple dry legume (for dishes such as peas porridge mentioned in the old nursery rhyme). The creation of snap beans from kidney beans and sweet corn from more vigorous maize populations mirrors this pattern. This general pattern of harvesting a plant in its tender, immature stage of development extends to solidly staple crops like wheat (through the production of freekeh), and even to non-food crops in the form of immature bottle gourds and luffas.

The creation of dedicated vegetable type lines of staple crops often leads to a loss of vigour, probably due to some combination of inbreeding and smaller scale cultivation permitting more resources to be invested in each plant. The loss of defence chemicals may also be necessary to allow fresh consumption.

Pumpkins were also originally a staple crop, grown for their oil and protein rich seeds. Their use as a vegetable was of minor importance, until the much more recent development of weaker strains bred for production of thickened, sweet flesh. Watermelons were likewise originally domesticated as a source of storable water during the dry season, then for their oil rich seeds, until a single mutation led to varieties with sweet flesh appeared relatively recently.

The next example showing the whole pipeline is the humble apple. In many places in Europe peasants would forage for wild crab apples growing in hedge rows and wild places. These sour fruits were added in small quantities to cooked food. Later came orchards of high tannin apple varieties, best suited for brewing into cider. These were often seed grown since variations in fruit quality were tolerable, while lack of vigour or productivity was not. Only much more recently did the idea of dessert fruit spread widely, relying on highly selected, grafted clones that produced high sugar/low acid fruit suitable for eating straight from the tree. This genetic narrowing brought an inevitable drop in vigour compared to previous incarnations of the genus.

An interesting variation on this process is the evolution of various plants from potent medicinal herbs, to culinary herbs used for flavouring, and eventually bland, bloated versions that are consumed in larger quantities as vegetables. Lettuce was originally grown for the latex in its flower heads, used as a mild sedative/pain killer. Carrots were also originally a diuretic, then an herb for its flavourful seeds and leaves (similar to coriander today, a species where the insubstantial root is also consumed). In time coriander could be selected for large, tasteless roots as well. Parsley has gone through a less widely known transformation, leading to hamburg strains with carrot-like roots.

If you are interested in growing your own food then this should give you a sense of perspective. Modern vegetable varieties represent some of the weakest, most inbred organisms on the face of the earth. They were developed to give maximal performance and profit under carefully controlled, high input conditions, with each species demanding a specific soil type and set of management practices.

Expecting to grow the range of vegetables that we typically buy in the supermarket in a home vegetable garden is an act of folly. Even if your soil isn’t necessarily “bad”, it is impractical to have the sandy soil beloved by carrots and the mineral rich clay beloved by broccoli at the same time. No commercial vegetable grower would be expected to produce both crops profitably on the same land. This process of specialisation/narrowing of genetics has only gotten worse in widely accessible vegetable genetics in the last century, with the majority of seed for sale to home gardeners coming as by-product from the sprawling industrial vegetable growing system (which now relies heavily on greenhouses, automated watering systems and integrated pest management).

All this stress and effort to grow a product which is little more than water and cellulose that carries a vague promise of “health”. Vegetables can be lovely, interesting and beneficial additions to the human diet, but history shows they have always been peripheral players in broader agroecological systems. Home growers would do better to take a step backwards, away from the most intensively vegetablised varieties.

It’s time home gardeners put vegetables in their proper place. To do so we need to focus on the ideal traits of a vegetable suitable for home scale production, something I hope to do soon in a follow up post.

A Summertime Update in Four Parts

Thank you for being patient over summer while finished my series of science fiction novellas while I took a break from regular posting here. I am pleased to say that “Our Vitreous Womb”, a story set in a distant future society built purely off biotechnology, is on track for eBook release in April 2023.

If you would like monthly updates by email (including an illustrated tidbit of weird biology) then sign up via my new author website:


If you want a free review copy of book 1 (Her Unbound Hallux) please say so when you sign up.

My experimental farm has not been completely neglected during the summer months. Rather than post on one single topic today, I thought a quick update on some recent developments might be more fun.

1. Rotate Your Goat

In the six months since I started moving my goats to a new strip of paddock every three days I have observed some remarkable effects.

Firstly, milk production has held up for longer than the previous years when I was rotating between large paddocks every few months. I am still milking 6-8 L from my three adult does every second day, which has barely dropped since I weaned the kids months ago. The most interesting experiment was making a double sized cell at the end of the paddock, which should be enough to keep the herd well fed for a week. After three days in the double sized cell milk production dropped dramatically.

The most notable thing with the new system is that the goats are hardly eating any of their mineral lick (the only supplement they get). This suggests rapid rotation is improving the mineral cycles in the paddocks. The diversity and vigour of the paddock plants is also improving. This includes the spread of “weedy/unpalatable” species like bladey grass and molasses grass, but these patches seem to be acting as nurseries for fodder shrubs and trees. The bunya seedlings exposed to the goats are growing well, with minimal grazing impact.

Moving the fence now takes me about an hour every three days, which is more pleasant than the massive fence clearing job I had to do every few months with the previous system when the vegetation was allowed to overgrow the lines entirely.

On top of this new system, I have started actively herding the goats through my overgrown old vegetable garden. Only about 20% of this area was cleared for crops, which I have protected behind uncharged electric tape (and waving a bamboo stick at the goats when they approach it). After an hour gorging themselves on weeds I only have to wave my hat at them and they all go home without complaint. The richer feed they get is balancing out the lower quality feed in their daily paddock. As the weather turns dry again I plan to walk the herd over most of the property to reduce fire risk.

2. Mulch is for Losers

Now I have loads of vetiver grass bordering my vegetable garden, I experimented with using the hand cut mulch in a deep drift to help clear weeds before planting crops. The end result was a flop. Moving the soggy, half decomposed mulch was a pain. Weeds grew through it anyway. The mulch on the paths between the crops had the same issues, especially if running grasses got into it. My old system of putting a mound of charcoal/ash/goat manure down the middle of the growing beds and sowing on the edges, then leaving the paths bare to grow a crop of immature weeds before hoeing them down works much better.

I might experiment with mulching down the centre of the bed, but I am not sure it would serve any real purpose. That leaves the vetiver grass biomass in need of a new role (since the clumps need to be cut regularly to stop them turning into rat condos). That leaves animal bedding (especially for kid goats and nesting geese) or thatching the roof on the bamboo huts I keep promising to build one day.

3. Tulbalghia Hybridisation

Tulbalghia is a south African relative of onions, sometimes used as a leaf vegetable. I started hybridising a few species in the genus to see if I could make a perennial alternative to garlic chives (or maybe even a new root crop as some species have swollen bases).

After a few tries I got a feel for hand crossing the flowers and collected a decent quantity of seed. You never know if a project like this will fail at the many stages involved (pollination, seed set, germination, hybrid fertility, vigor, pest and disease resistance, or the usefulness of the end products). The hybrid seed is germinating strongly, so I will have to report back on the later stages as they unfold.

4. Train Your Inner Lizard

Nearly a year ago, after falling off the healthy eating wagon, I did some self-experimentation to see if I could reprogram my lizard brain to no longer want junk food (ice-cream in this case). The idea was to reproduce the effect of eating a bad prawn, getting mild food poisoning, then being unable to eat the offending food for years. The best additive ended up being tannin rich, unripe persimmon, a relatively safe substance that nevertheless twisted my guts up when discretely blended into said ice-cream.

Since that time I only had one moment when I ate some ice-cream, but the whole time I was suspicious of it and didn’t end up enjoying it at all. Any time I think about buying ice-cream I can easily locate that same feeling of visceral, gut-reaction suspicion. I think I have to call this experiment a win. Coupled with the higher production of goat milk I have been living off banana and yoghurt milkshakes for about half my calories for many months.

I should be back to my regular fortnightly posting schedule. If you have any suggested topics for the year ahead feel free to comment below.

Goats enjoying the fruits of neglect while I herd them about

Brisk Fiction- Green Cancer

A piece of microfiction this week (which is anything under 1000 words. This one is under 600). It explores a likely consequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels which I rarely see discussed.

In related news, the final rewrites and editing are proceeding smoothly with my novella series (Our Vitreous Womb) which imagines a distant post industrial society where pure biotechnology provides the foundation for a new kind of society. I’m on track to publish in April 2023. I’ll keep you all up to date with progress.

[Eerie music]

[Drone shot pans over the Bangkok skyline]

Voice over: It was here in this bustling, tropical megalopolis that the first infestations of Microsorum lithophytica appeared in the summer of 2023. This unremarkable fern first sprouted along shady drains and bridges, taking root on any damp patch of concrete. A few years later the locals named it “Kiao Mareng” though it is now better known as “Green Cancer”. In this shocking report we confront the activist responsible for spreading this sickness to the United States.

[Pull back drone shot of crumbling, abandoned apartment block covered in vegetation]

(Caption: Dr Ubon Suksathan. Botanist)

Dr Sukasathan: What we are facing is a total rearrangement of the global ecosystem. The atmosphere has changed irreversibly.

[Shot of Dr Sukasathan inspecting culture flask of green gunk]

Dr Sukasathan: The fern was first described last century from limestone gorges around Thailand. The species name… lithophytica… means living on rocks. Then carbon dioxide levels crossed 480 parts per million a few years ago. That allowed the fern to expand into drier habitats, accelerated its growth.

Interviewer: How far do you think it might spread?

Dr Sukasathan: If CO2 levels keep rising… [blinks awkwardly]… everywhere. I can’t see anything stopping it.

[Drone shot of work crews descending side of a skyscraper surrounded by steam clouds]

(Caption: Gus Thongsuk. Building Maintenance Supervisor)

Gus Thongsuk: Green cancer doesn’t only hold concrete. It eats rock. The roots make acid… like Alien. Get away b**ch.

[Gus peels back a pad of the fern and crumbles the concrete with his fingers]

Gus Thongsuk: We never stop work to clean kiao mareng. Steam knives very… effective, but when wet season come spores blow all over. Some company won’t pay extra… maintenance. Later… building is broken. I don’t complain. Always more work to do [laughing].

Voice over: Bangkok is ground zero of the infestation, and it’s fighting a losing battle. Unfortunately for us, the organism recently arrived on our own doorstep, sooner than anyone expected. All thanks to the reckless actions of a few.

[Pan across Georgia State Prison complex. Shot of a female prisoner with cropped hair in orange]

(Caption: Suzette Luers. Sentenced to 23 years for ecoterrorism).

Suzette Luers: What they think I’m gonna to do to you? [Shows her cuffed wrists] Throw some leaves at you? (laughing)

Interviewer: Do you feel any remorse for smuggling spores of the Green Cancer to the US?

Suzette Luers: What difference would regret make? It spread itself to eight more cities since christmas. Capitalism built the bonfire. I just tossed the match.

Interviewer: Doesn’t it bother you that people will be homeless when buildings are destroyed?

Suzette Luers: Humans didn’t give a f**k when they destroyed the habitat of other creatures. Look. Plants are pushing back everywhere since we crossed 480. Tree of heaven, knotweed, kudzu, tumbleweed. Every time you start your car you encourage ‘em grow faster. Ten years tops until that little fern chews through this concrete prison like a rice cracker. What’ll they do with me then? Stick me in a bamboo cage?

[Shot of workers in white hazard suits spraying clumps of fern in Miami]

Voice over: Local authorities are rushing to develop chemical measures to hold back the infestation, but the ferns mature rapidly and produce millions of dust like spores. Scientist are hopeful biological control may prove useful for slowing down the tide, but no candidate species have been identified. Citizens can report any new infestations on the website linked below. We must work together to defeat this menace and protect our homes.