Peter Cun­dall:

On why plants are the true sur­vivors

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - CONTENTS - with Peter Cun­dall

The unique phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of many plant species oc­cur be­cause of the com­plex and in­ge­nious meth­ods they use in or­der to sur­vive.

Life it­self is an end­less strug­gle to ex­ist and ev­ery living thing has learnt to com­pete and de­fend it­self. The ul­ti­mate sur­vival ex­perts are plants. They can turn en­e­mies into friends by util­is­ing brows­ing or graz­ing an­i­mals, in­sects and even dis­eases in or­der to stay alive. They can even use the most de­struc­tive forces of na­ture in­clud­ing wind, drought and wild­fire to be­come more re­silient.

In harsh en­vi­ron­ments where all life forms are at the ex­treme edge of sur­vival, plants use a range of in­creas­ingly des­per­ate sur­vival tech­niques. In the dri­est deserts they have de­vel­oped pow­er­ful, cun­ningly ar­ranged spines or highly toxic, bit­ter sap, or a com­bi­na­tion of both to de­fend them­selves against des­per­ately hun­gry an­i­mals.

Some plants be­come stronger by be­ing reg­u­larly dam­aged. Most grasses re­main

Many Aus­tralian plants have evolved to rely on brows­ing an­i­mals, bush­fires and even smoke in or­der to re­gen­er­ate

healthy when reg­u­larly grazed. Con­stant re­newal builds stur­di­ness, wind-re­sis­tance and a tough­ness that keeps dis­eases at bay. Many Aus­tralian plants have evolved to rely on brows­ing an­i­mals, bush­fires and even smoke in or­der to re­gen­er­ate and re­pro­duce more ef­fi­ciently.

Some plants al­low brows­ing an­i­mals just an oc­ca­sional nib­ble to help con­trol weak, floppy growth. They do this by fill­ing leaves and young stems with highly aromatic oils and flavours. These volatile oils are not toxic, but just strong enough to act as a mild de­ter­rent.

Most culi­nary herbs are in this group and they de­velop even stronger flavours and aro­mas when grown in stress­ful con­di­tions, es­pe­cially soils which are slightly im­pov­er­ished or in low rain­fall dis­tricts.

Com­mon Sage (Salvia of­fic­i­nalis) is a good ex­am­ple. This sil­very-grey

Mediter­ranean peren­nial thrives in sandy loams where lack of ni­tro­gen pre­vent plants from be­com­ing too lush and rel­a­tively taste­less.

The thick, felt-like sage leaves can with­stand salty winds and plants, once es­tab­lished and deep rooted are re­mark­ably drought-re­sis­tant. There are sev­eral forms in­clud­ing the su­perb red-pur­ple-leaf va­ri­ety Pur­puras­cens and Ic­te­rina with golden-green leaves. All can be grown as duel-pur­pose, or­na­men­tal plants.

Culi­nary thyme (Thy­mus vul­garis) also comes from the Mediter­ranean re­gion and loves an open, sun-baked, well-drained spot in the gar­den. Young plants can be inserted into crevices be­tween pavers or rocks where they grow strongly.

Most species of thyme con­tain the essential oil thy­mol which has an­ti­sep­tic and de­odor­ant prop­er­ties. So apart from be­ing a culi­nary herb the oil is also used in mouth­washes and even tooth­paste. There are also va­ri­eties of lemon and car­away flavoured thymes which look great as part of a sunny flower bor­der or grow­ing from tubs on patios and sun-decks.

Parsley (Pet­roselinum crispum) is so eas­ily grown it should be in­cluded in ev­ery gar­den. Here is one herb which thrives in en­riched soil with reg­u­lar wa­ter­ing. Plants are tol­er­ant of both high and low tem­per­a­tures so can be grown from the trop­ics to very cold re­gions. Poor drainage en­sures a quick death. Gar­den cen­tres sell parsley by the pun­net, es­pe­cially ‘triple-curled’ va­ri­eties which are tightly com­pact and form bril­liant green bor­ders.

So-called plain leaf or Ital­ian parsley is more strongly flavoured and is in fact much bet­ter for culi­nary pur­poses. Un­like the other herbs, parsley does not re­tain or con­cen­trate its flavour when dried. Pick sprigs while young firm and green for im­me­di­ate freez­ing. Al­ter­na­tively chop finely, mix with water and pour into ice cube trays for quick freez­ing.

Even the tini­est gar­dens have space for a se­lec­tion of culi­nary herbs be­cause they are so eas­ily grown in tubs, troughs and even hang­ing bas­kets. All they need is a place in the sun and to be reg­u­larly nib­bled.

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