On why plants are the true survivors
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.