Thursday, 29 December 2016

Can Dill and Fennel Cross Pollinate?

Dill (Anethum graveolens) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are often quoted as cross pollinating easily if planted close.  Many reputable gardening books and publications as well as seasoned home gardeners also claim that dill and fennel will hybridise and produce "less than desirable" offspring.  Do dill and fennel really cross pollinate with one another?  The answer may surprise you.

At first glance dill and fennel appear to be similar in appearance, so one may assume that they could cross.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that they do cross with each other.  Many reputable gardening books, online publications, as well as seed saver groups and organic gardening societies who claim that they cross easily.  Unfortunately they never show any pictures of these mysterious and supposedly common intergeneric hybrids.  I dislike gardening books as they are mostly written by people with little to no knowledge of gardening, as such they are often filled with inaccuracies.

Many home gardeners claim that dill and fennel cross easily.  The amount of nonsense ideas that are perpetuated by home gardeners who should know better is rather large and worrying.  Home gardeners also spout a lot of weird superstitions and counter-intuitive cultural taboos so it is not difficult to ignore their claims when they do not provide any proof.  I am yet to hear of any home gardener who saved seed from dill and had anything odd grow out of it, let alone anyone who has even attempted to grow it out for a few generations and try to stabilise it and create something great.  I have seen a few photos of fennel that has crossed with weedy feral fennel, and have the gardener claim that it is a cross with dill, but unfortunately it is not.

Dill and fennel are both members of Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family, but they are not closely related.  They are from different genus and species.  Carrots, parsnip, coriander, skirret etc are all part of that family, all of them are from different genus, yet none of these will hybridise to produce intergeneric hybrids.

Sometimes different species do not cross, such as many Cucurbita species, sometimes different species cross easily, such Capsicum species, sometimes they can cross but not very easily and only with a great deal of intervention.  Intergeneric hybrids are reasonably uncommon, so one may assume that they would not cross, but some intergeneric hybrids in orchids or cacti are simple enough to achieve, so things get murky here.

There is no evidence in any peer reviewed journal, or anything written by any plant breeder anywhere in the world (that I can find) which claims that dill and fennel can cross.  There have been some attempts by universities to cross them using embryo rescue techniques etc to incorporate some of fennel's disease resistance into dill, but I am unable to find results of these attempts without paying for subscriptions to things I don't want to pay for.  Clearly they were not terribly successful as it is not possible to buy seeds of these plants.

If it were possible to cross dill and fennel people would do it.  Fennel is a true survivor (as can be seen on many roadsides across Australia), dill tastes great but is a bit weaker, a cross between them would be lovely.  The F1 plants would likely be dreadful, which is to be expected, after this they would begin to segregate into lines that are increasingly stable.  After careful selection, and perhaps a little back crossing to lock in desirable traits, it would not be long before these hybrids would be better than either original plants.  As no one appears to be doing this it is safe to assume that they do not cross as easily as all of those gardening books and seed saver groups and gardening societies say they will.

Both dill and fennel, like many herbs, change how they smell when they flower.  Often home gardeners confuse this for their plant somehow hybridising with something else.  Some herbs, such as coriander look different when they flower and many home gardeners will swear that it somehow crossed with dill, again this is not the case.

Wild, feral, weedy fennel is a rather common roadside weed in Australia and many other parts of the world.  It WILL cross with fennel from a great distance and the resultant plants are often of poor quality.  They do not look or smell overly like fennel and differ from the parent considerably.  The F1 fennel bulbs are greatly reduced and the smell is often odd and unpleasant.  None of this has anything to do with dill or any other plant, it is simply fennel crossing with fennel.

I have tried to track down seeds of these supposed dill/fennel hybrids, but no one has them.  I have also tried to cross dill and fennel myself many times, but have had no success, ever.  I have had success creating wide crosses with other plants in the past yet am unable to achieve this supposedly simple cross, so I am doubting that dill could hybridise with fennel.  Personally, I don't see how they could cross.  It is a rather wide cross to begin with, there would be many benefits from creating such a cross and breeding resistance and vigour into dill, yet no one (neither home breeders nor commercial plant breeders) seems to be attempting it successfully. 

When seed saving, Dill can and will easily cross pollinate with other varieties of dill.  Fennel can and will easily cross pollinate with other varieties of fennel.

As far as I can tell dill can not cross pollinate with fennel as I have seen absolutely no proof, but I am happy to be wrong about this!  If you believe that you have successfully (and/or accidentally) crossed dill and fennel, and you are absolutely certain that you saved seeds from dill, please send them to me and I will grow them out for a few years to try and put some of the hardiness of fennel into something that tastes like dill.  I am only interested if dill was the female parent, if you collected seed from fennel I am not interested at all.  What you will most likely have is not just fennel, which I don't particularly like, but fennel that has crossed with poor quality weedy fennel, which I like even less.

Alternatively is you happen to know of some scientific peer reviewed paper (not just the web page of some seed saver group or a gardening book written by someone with no experience) that claims dill and fennel do cross easily I would love to read it.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Blue Roses do NOT exist and other fake rose seeds

After looking through ebay and finding pages of seeds that do not exist I thought I would write another post.  Hopefully this helps someone not be taken advantage of.

I am not a fan of roses and am far from an expert.  Even so, it annoys me that so many criminals are selling seeds of roses that do not exist.

While you will be sent seeds from these thieves, and they will probably grow, there is a possibility that they will send you rose seeds but they will mostly be white flowered.  By the time they flower it will be several years after your seed purchase, far too late to claim money back from paypal.

Blue Roses
How amazing do blue roses look!  Too bad they do not exist.  Back when I was studying my first degree I completed a subject called 'Horticultural Science and Plant Biotechnology'.  During that my lecturer told me that $10 million had been spent every year over the previous 10 years trying to create a blue rose.  The closest we have ever come is a weird looking mauve, she showed me a picture, it was not at all blue in my opinion.  Apparently we do not have the technology to do it and it is unlikely that we will gain the technology any time soon.  Do NOT buy seed of blue roses.

Blue roses do NOT exist
The large photo on the left and the blue rose are the SAME photo!!!
Blue roses do NOT exist
Black Roses
Black Roses look amazing, but unfortunately do NOT exist.  Just like the blue roses there would be a massive market for them if they existed and a lot of money has been put into trying to create them.  If they are ever created you will hear about it as it will be a big deal.  Do NOT buy seeds for black roses.

Black roses do NOT exist
Black roses edged in different colours do NOT exist
Blue and Green Roses
This flower does not exist, they have simply changed the colours on a picture and not even done a very good job.  Blue roses do not exist, roses that are blue on one side and green on the other split by a perfectly straight line also do not exist.  The sellers even put their name on the photo as they are proud of their deception.  Please do NOT buy ANYTHING from these thieves EVER.  If they are happy to sell seeds of things that do not exist, what makes you think you will ever get what you paid for from them?  If you are one of the criminals responsible for the photograph below feel free to leave a comment and try to justify your deception.  Do NOT buy seeds of these.
Roses do NOT exist in this colour.  These thieves are apparently located in Queanbeyan NSW
Pokemon Roses
Seriously, why would anyone think this is real?  It even looks fake.  Strangely they have sold hundreds of dollars of these fake seeds.  It is too bad that people do not realise until a year or so afterwards when their rose plant flowers and the flowers are all white.  Do NOT buy seeds of pokemon roses.
Pokemon roses do NOT exist

Green Roses
Green roses like in this picture do NOT exist.  I have seen some roses that are probably considered to be green, but the colour is nothing like in this picture.  Do NOT buy seeds of green roses.
Green roses do NOT exist

Multi-coloured Blue Roses
You may have seen flowers like this, you can even buy roses like this from some florists, they cost a small fortune.  They can NOT be grown from seed EVER.

The reason they cost so much is the amount of work each flower takes.  The florists begin with white roses, they split the lower stem and put each part of stem into different colours.  The colour goes up the stem into the white petal staining it different colours.  It looks great.  The florist then cuts off the bottom of the stem so it is neat and sells the flower.  Feel free to buy these multicoloured rose flowers from a florist, or even make them with your kids, but do NOT buy SEEDS of multi-coloured blue roses ever.

Multi coloured roses, do NOT grow from seed

Mixed Seeds
Any time you see pictures like this where they have a mix of different seeds and they include anything that does not exist, do NOT buy from them.  If they use the same picture several times and change the colour, do NOT buy anything from them.  They are criminals and you should not be deliberately funding criminals.  Do NOT buy seeds from someone if anything they list does not exist.
Many of these do NOT exist and are the same picture with changed colours, which means the seller is not to be trusted

Many of these do NOT exist, plus they have used the same picture several times in the one ad and changed the colour!
Why does Ebay allow blue roses to be sold?
I know some people who claim to report each and every listing of blue rose seeds that they see.  They tell me that none of these reported ads has ever been removed.  Apparently they report some of these ads several times and still nothing has ever been done.  In some ads Ebay has deliberately inserted a broken link so it is impossible to report them.  Ebay makes tens of thousands of dollars each year by knowingly allowing and aiding criminals to sell seeds of things that do not exist.

Ebay even says on one of its pages that blue roses do not exist and black or blue strawberries do not exist, yet they still allow them to be sold:
  • "Beware of scams. There are many sellers selling seeds of fake seeds such as blue, black or multicoloured roses (there are no real blue roses, those that are called 'blue' are actually mauve or purple) and black or blue  strawberries, these don't actually exist and by the time you have grown the plants and find out they are not as described it is much too late to be able to leave feedback."
I understand that ebay gets many new listings each day and can not look at them all.  Ebay have systems to prevent all kinds of other (mostly illegal) things being sold, it would not be difficult for them to use the same system to prevent thieves selling blue rose seeds.

Buyer Beware
I had a chat to someone the other day who had bought some seeds from ebay of things that don't exist.  Strangely his comment was "it only cost $1, what do I have to lose".  What an ignorant view!

Do NOT give money to thieves, ever.  While you are only losing $1, the thieves are making tens of thousands of dollars each year, honest people are unable to sell rare things, people are less willing to buy seeds of rare plants, rare plants are becoming extinct as fewer people are growing them, and the ebay thieves who sell seeds of things that don't exist have no reason to stop.

If you are one of these thieves, or an ebay representative, feel free to leave a comment to try and justify your dishonesty.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Comfrey - the "Emperor's New Clothes" of plants

Remember the story by Hans Christian Anderson about the two weavers who promise to make the Emperor a set of clothes that is exquisite to intelligent people but invisible to anyone who is stupid or ignorant.  The Emperor and pretty much everyone claimed that they could see this amazing garment, all the while the Emperor paraded around in nothing but his under garments.  Well, comfrey is to farmers what these invisible clothes were to the Emperor.

I know I am going to get frowned upon by many permaculturists, but it has to be said, comfrey just isn't all that great.  There is a lot of hype about comfrey, I have heard glowing reports of it my entire life.  I have grown comfrey on and off in many different situations for many different reasons for most of my life.  I have spoken to a bunch of other people who have grown it and they have all experienced similar things to myself.  I have also done some research on comfrey to see how well it actually stacks up.  

Lets begin by looking at some of the claims about the benefits of this plant to a permaculture or biodynamic garden and I will try to briefly explain my experiences.
Comfrey struggling in the heat and about to be over run by grass
11 amazing reasons why people grow comfrey, but probably shouldn't

Wonderful mulch material – while it is true that comfrey makes an acceptable mulch there are many better alternatives for mulch than comfrey.  Many plants produce more mulch material which is just as high if not higher in nutrients, but is easier to handle.  Some break down faster, others slower, but none of them have the irritating hairs that comfrey has on its leaves.  I dislike those hairs, they are the main reason I decided to try and see if any other plants could be used instead of comfrey.

Compost activator and general ingredient – again, far better alternatives exist both in terms of bulk as well as the ‘compost activator’ status.  Where I used to live comfrey does not produce much bulk at all even when watered, it was simply too dry and hot for comfrey to cope.  I have seen comfrey grow on the south coast where the climate is mild and lovely, again it did not produce very much bulk.  As far as compost activation goes I am hard pressed to find anything that works as well as dandelions.

Mineral and micro nutrient accumulator and fertilizer – very little research has been done on this unfortunately and the research that has been done indicates that comfrey is actually terribly bad at this task.  I have a feeling that dandelion is better at this than comfrey as it has higher levels of most nutrients.  Plants such as horseradish, sorrel and turnip all have me wondering if they are better at this than comfrey as they all have deep roots and grow so fast but I have found no unbiased data to confirm or deny this hunch.

Deep roots help break up compacted soil – comfrey has deep roots, but from a lot of experience I can honestly say that these roots have never broken up compacted soil effectively or efficiently in any of the gardens in which I have grown it.  Other plants such as horseradish, dandelion, sorrel, daikon, turnip all can have extremely long roots and lack the irritating hairs of comfrey.  I think this whole “breaks compacted soil” thing can be better attributed to improving the soil biota than deep roots.  All of the other plants listed increase soil biota and appear to decrease soil compaction in my garden far better than comfrey.

Comfrey tea as a foliar fertilizer – I do honestly wonder if sorrel would be better at this, but I have never heard of anyone doing a trial of the two to see which is better.  Sorrel, dandelion, horseradish and turnip all contain high levels of nutrients, have deep tap roots, accumulate minerals from subsoil, produce copious amounts of green material etc so could potentially be used for this purpose.  It would be nice if one of those permaculture research places put some effort into confirming or denying some of this.  Unfortunately they appear to be too taken with confrey's hype to look further into it.

Livestock feed – in my experience very few animals will eat comfrey unless it has been wilted and none of them will touch it if it has been over wilted.  I don’t want a plant like this where I have such a fine line to walk, I have to do extra work to wilt it but if I wilt too much the animals may not even touch the stuff.  Our chickens, guineafowl, sheep, alpacas, cattle, and guinea pigs were all extremely reluctant to ever eat comfrey unless they had nothing else green to eat.  That's right, I have tried to feed it to many different animals many times.  Occasionally muscovy ducks would eat the comfrey plants to the ground, then they will not touch it again for months.  People often go on and on about how great an animal feed comfrey is, and on paper it sounds remarkable, but if I can not convince the animals to actually ingest it then it is pretty useless for this purpose.  If I was making pelleted feed I assume that comfrey would be a good ingredient, but I don't make pellets, I feed plants as they are.

Slug trap – surely there are better ways to control slugs than attracting them to live under leaves with irritating hairs.  I have only tried to collect the slugs under comfrey once, after getting covered by these hairs I decided to run the ducks in the yard instead.

Water cleanser (when growing in standing water) – comfrey is poorly suited to this as far as I can tell.  I have tried it twice and it has failed miserably both times as the plants rotted and died fast.  Many other plants are far better suited to this purpose.  Duck weed, azolla, QLD arrowroot, water chestnuts, duck potato, water cress, water celery, Vietnamese coriander and many others seem to out perform comfrey in this task.

Poultices and other medicinal uses – assuming that it works (which I think it does) and assuming it is safe then comfrey is reputedly great for these purposes, I am yet to find any substitutable plant.  This is actually the only reason why I would consider to grow comfrey again.

Nutrient trap at the bottom of a slope – comfrey is probably good for this if it is not too dry or too wet, but then I have to cut and carry the leaves which irritate my skin.  Many other plants are far better suited to this, QLD arrowroot is rather tall and is often used for this purpose, I can cut it easily, carry it easily, use it as mulch or compost and my animals actually ate it.  Sorrel out grew comfrey on my old property, lacks the irritating hairs, tastes nice, is hardier with heat/cold/dry/wet, and is actively growing all year, so I much prefer sorrel.

Grass barrier – I am yet to see this actually work with any plant, anywhere, ever.  Many people love to make this claim with comfrey and a few other plants but I will believe it when I see it.  I have seen running grasses such as kikuyu easily cross a large established comfrey barrier on a few different properties, they didn’t appear to even slow down at all.  Most of the time I try to weed comfrey to give it an advantage, yet it still fails at this task.  That being said I do not know any other plant that achieves this purpose better, perhaps the concept of a plant used as a grass barrier is a pipe dream?

Comfrey patch not really thriving despite being watered each day
After growing several varieties of comfrey (including the famous and well hyped Bocking 14) and have it never live up to its reputation so many times over so many years in several different climates, and seeing that there are better alternatives for almost every use, I have started to wonder why people grow the stuff.  The only reasons I can come up with are they grow it due to wishful thinking (similar to a placebo effect) or for some nostalgic reason.  I used to grow it for the medicinal qualities but did not bring any with us when we moved to town and don't plan to get any more now that I have moved again and settled.

I find that comfrey dies off completely during dry years if not watered, not just dies down but needs to be replaced as it does not return the following years.  Perhaps in climates less dry this is not the case, but I have lost most of my clumps the last two years of living at our property due to not watering them enough.  That's right, I watered them, just not enough water to keep them alive.  I also find that if it is too wet for too long it tends to rot and again die off completely and need replacement.  
Sorrel surviving the heat better than comfrey
In my property there were several established clumps of comfrey which I divided when we moved there.  Most of those died off completely in the few years we lived there and I tried to plant comfrey in places where they were more sheltered and easier to water.  I also had a small clump which appeared to be a slightly different type that a friend gave us, I had to nurture this each year otherwise I fear it would also die off completely just like the established clumps that were already there did.

Comfrey research
As well as the anecdotal evidence above (ie years of personal experience in several different climates) I have also done a little research on comfrey to compare it to turnip.  As you can see, turnips were much more consistent than comfrey.  While better results for comfrey were obtained in ideal conditions, worse results were obtained for comfrey in less than perfect conditions.  I have to note that my property does not have ideal conditions.  I need plants that perform well for me consistently under harsh conditions.

Use as a dietary supplements for people 
According to the research 85g of dried turnip leaves, in comparison to 567g of dried comfrey, supply adults with the total daily requirement of all essential amino acids, except for methionine.  That is a huge difference!  Eating half a kilogram of dried comfrey is possibly going to be bad for you due to the amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids you would also be consuming.

Turnip - above-ground parts normally contain 20 to 25% crude protein, 65 to 80% in vitro digestible dry matter, about 20% neutral detergent fiber and about 23% acid detergent fiber . The roots contain 10 to 14% crude protein and 80 to 85%
in vitro digestible dry matter.
Comfrey – above ground parts contain 13 to 31% protein.  Comfrey was found in one study to be high in crude protein (21 to 31%), which increased from the first to last harvest. Research trials conducted by USDA scientists found crude protein contents only ranged from 13 to 17% for comfrey.

As far as protein goes I would choose turnips as they have consistently high protein.  Comfrey may have higher protein at some stages, but how am I as a home gardener *without access to a food lab) to determine when that is?

Turnip - 3 to 4 tons of dry matter/acre when harvested or grazed about 90 days after planting. Up to 1,000 grazing days/acre for 900 lb steers and 2,300 grazing days/acre for 90 lb lambs.  These are pretty decent statistics.

Comfrey – extremely variable 1.7 to 10.7 tons of dry matter/acre depending on the country tested.

As far as yield goes I would again choose turnips.  Comfrey can out perform turnips in specific situations but it performs poorly here.  I want to grow something that provides reasonable yields even under adverse conditions in bad years, not just when it is pampered or if I happen to grow it in its perfect climate.

Negatives of each plant
Turnip - The high levels of glucosinolates (which can cause thyroid enlargement in young growing sheep and cattle) can be a problem if turnip forage is fed for long enough.  Glucosinolates are higher in older forage compared to younger forage.  Slashing it seems to bring on a flush of new growth which makes it simple to avoid this problem.

Livestock should not feed on turnip during the breeding season or after the plants have begun to flower. Nitrate nitrogen toxicity can be a problem, especially if ruminants are allowed to graze on immature crops or if soil nitrogen levels are high.  The risk may remain for a longer period of time in autumn than in summer. Dairy cows should not be fed more than 50 lb turnip/head/day and should not be milked immediately after feeding on turnip to avoid milk tainting.  Cattle have reportedly choked on large turnips when fed the whole plant.

Turnip is also not perennial, so there is the added hassle of growing from seed time and time again.

Comfrey Extremely low palatability, irritating hairs which I hate, potential health risks due to pyrrolizidine alkaloids if consumed in large quantity or over a long period of time (although I think that the actual risk of this is very low).  The leaves die off over winter, wet soil seems to rot and kill the plant, and the plant does NOT like hot dry weather.

Should you grow comfrey
Sure, go for it, you have little to lose by trying.  You may be in its perfect climate and it may produce well for you.  Just don't be surprised if it happens to fall short of the hype.