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Nature's Pharmacy

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

Our much-loved veggie dog Dave is a constant source of amusement and inspiration for the whole family.

He knows for example, that digging up veggies or stripping red currant bushes bare will result in no more serious consequences than delight-filled admonishment and regular posts on the ‘fam jam’ group chat. He also knows intuitively, exactly which native roots, bulbs and plants he should sniff out and snack on when his canine digestive and other systems are in distress.

I can predict, by the urgency and pitch of his troubled tummy growls, in which garden direction Dave will head. After binging on beetles, grubs, moths and other juicy but oftentimes undigestible bits, he will scoot, tail down, to the rain gardens where native plants thrive in the relative shade. He can sniff out the tiniest of medicinal plants without assistance or direction.

Red-veined sorrel, maidenhair and other deciduous ferns, yellow dock, and goatsbeard are Dave’s go-to natural remedies, and while several of these plants contain properties that are toxic to humans (so please do not imbibe), Dave seems to know precisely which plants he needs to consume, in which order, and in what quantities.

In the wild, animals regularly practice zoopharmacognosy — eating or exposing themselves topically to plants, insects, soil, even psychoactive agents to aid digestion, prevent disease, eliminate parasites, kill bacteria and viruses, recover from stressors, regulate fertility, and induce delivery.

Nature is crazy amazing!

Veggie dog Dave in one of his medicine gardens with native Goat's Beard - Aruncus dioicus.

Until only very recently, human hunter gatherers routinely and easily identified and foraged for thousands of native food and medicinal plants, and used them to nourish, heal, and prolong life.

Thankfully, indigenous cultures, through their oral traditions, have retained this valuable knowledge and are sharing it freely with the scientific community. This sharing of information has led to a renaissance of sorts for the ancient idea of food as medicine, and by extension for the promotion of both wilderness conservation and regenerative agriculture at scale.

While it is now human nature to value and trust the scientific method in advance of so-called folklore, we should not and cannot afford to underestimate the value and validity of inherited wisdom.

The way forward I believe, is to lean heavily on the scientific method and modern technology to understand and interpret the hows and whys of inherited traditional knowledge, so that empirical facts can be dispersed quickly into public, private and educational domains globally, to greatest possible affect.

Once armed with defensible arguments for change, consumers and individuals can and will call to account, self-serving political, financial and industrial leaders spewing toxic nonsense about environmental, economic and social issues that negatively affect people or planet, or perpetuate detrimental climate change.

A bucket bouquet of gorgeous beet greens gone to seed.

As a permaculture designer living on the edge of a major city, I have been head-down focussed on creating easy to duplicate regenerative practices in our urban permaculture gardens, while at the same time earning certification as a Holistic Nutritionist with a specialty in Plant Based Nutrition.

It is remarkable how much the two disciplines inform one another, proving yet again that these very broad areas of study, like all natural systems, are best considered in relation to each other, to the entire planet, and to everything on it.

Case in point: I have been digging into beets lately — how best to grow, harvest, prepare and preserve as many beneficial nutrients as I possibly can. We hear from our grandmothers and elders that beets are good for us even though they taste famously (and deliciously) like dirt, and they stain our good kitchen towels and porous matte tableware brilliant shades of pink, purple and gold.

Knowing what I know now about beets, and about living soil, I say the dirtier and pinker the better. I can feel beet goodness in my bones and I can smell it.

Beets seduce us with their gorgeous colours and down to earth personality.

Standing next to a box of freshly harvested beets, at a Farmers’ Market, or walking past a green grocer’s display, I can smell the good earth, and it is seductive. I’ve learned to trust my nose — it knows.

Beet goodness comes from many sources, too numerous to list, but suffice it to say that grandma was onto something. Red beets for example, are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They contain biologically active substances like betalin, inorganic nitrates, polyphenols and folates, and nutritionists consider beets to play an important role in preventing and treating chronic disease.

The dirt smell, I have learned, comes from a natural terpene called geosmin, produced by soil microbes. Terpenes are compounds found in plants and some animals, and are responsible for aromas and/or flavours, even colour in specific species.

Plants and insects use terpenes for many fascinating and mysterious purposes, including to attract and repel prey and predators. Again, nature is bloody amazing.

Healthy snack of red beet, cannellini bean, chickpea and roast garlic hummus.

The word geosmin has its roots (pun intended) in the Greek words for earth and smell.

The bright red, purples and gold colour of beets come from natural pigments called betalains which many studies credit with benefitting chronic disease related to hypertension, heart, and cancer.

My body craves beets sometimes, and I have no doubt that like veggie dog Dave, my body knows intuitively what it needs. I have learned to listen and pay attention, and in turn I am healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually.

In a 2020 study conducted by Liliana Ceclu and Oana-Viorela, that appeared in the Journal of Nutritional Medicine and Diet Care, the authors listed in great detail, how and why red beetroot is one of the richest foods from the vegetal kingdom, and concluded that its beneficial affects depend on both how the vegetables are grown and processed, as well as bioaccessibility of nutrients during digestion.

Smoothie-ready bowl of golden beets, pears, par-cel, carrots, turmeric and bell peppers.

My take-away from the study is that, we should be growing beets organically in living soil (where microbes, fungi, etc can thrive); consuming beets as close to source as possible; enjoying beets raw, as well as cooked and preserved in conjunction with a variety of other seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, clean oils, and proteins (also sourced as locally as possible).

Having a healthy gut microbiome is important to the bioavailability piece, but that is a topic for another day.

Par-cel and turmeric add a punch of anti-inflammatory goodness to golden beet smooothies.

For now I hope to encourage you to join me in growing beets at home, even just a few in whatever space you have.

Gorgeous red, golden, candy cane stripe, even white beets are super easy to grow just about anywhere — in beds and in pots, and the great news is that they don’t attract pests and disease as easily as many other crops do. Beets help loosen and aerate compacted and stagnant soil, and improve overall fertility.

Beets are resilient, winter-hardy, relatively slow growing, and can be consumed at all stages of growth, including as wee babies, and as microgreens. If one invests in growing and maintaining good soil biology, beets can be a mega storehouse of fibre, antioxidants, and beneficial macro and micro nutrients.

Also though, beets can take up soil-borne heavy metals, pesticides and toxic chemicals into root and leaf tissue, and those poisons can be transferred to humans through the act of consumption.

Waste nothing: roast whole beets in a small amount of water to create a concentrated pigment for drizzling.

It is important then to know where your produce comes from and how it is grown. Asking the grocer or market gardener questions is a good thing, and over time will pressure the grocery industry to pay closer attention and make better decisions.

I’m planting chioggia (candy cane stripe), touchstone gold, and golden flame beets now in a single 4x8 foot no-dig bed, but also inter-cropping here and there around the perennial, flower and vegetable gardens, in warm sun and in cooler part-shade. Beet greens are gorgeous and look as lovely in flower beds and arrangements as they do on the plate.

Golden beet risotto with microgreens, beet carpaccio and crabcake.

I especially love beets gone to seed, and I don’t hesitate to gift bouquets of blossomed and seeded beet greens. It’s especially fun to see the reaction on people’s faces when I tell them that the exotic greens they covet were not flown in from some far-flung semi-tropical locale, rather they were remnants of my summer veggie beds.

To take best advantage of limited garden space, grow beets down into your soil, right next to something that grows up like lettuce or spinach (not chard), or bush beans (not pole beans). Growing beets between trellised cucumbers or corn is another space saver that works well for me.

Grow beets in healthy, living, well-drained soil, adding plenty of organic matter if soil is dense with clay or compaction. Be sure to surface-mulch with clean chopped straw or an inoculated mulching compost. Always, I add my all-time favourite worm castings and also sea minerals. This year, I will foliar spray with a compost tea.

Gingered chioggia beets in a spiced brine + marinade + dressing.

I plan to bulk harvest beets from the dedicated bed for canning, pickling and drying, and we will harvest the rest incrementally throughout the season, as beets mature.

My plan is to sow one quarter-bed of bull’s blood and winterkeeper beets late summer, for fall harvest, and then store the beetroots in damp sawdust over the winter. I will clean and dry, chop, vac-pack and freeze the greens.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don’t blanch hardy broadleaf greens like kale and beet before freezing because the high heat involved in braising and boiling will eventually kill most worrisome pathogens. During harvest season, I choose the path of least resistance, and time.

We use beets fresh in juices, smoothies and salads (peeled and washed); roasted in mashes, pasta, spreads, dips and soups, even ice cream. A favourite main of late is golden beet and roasted shallot risotto, tinted and garnished with the concentrated pan juices from oven-roast beets, and topped with a single crab cake or piece of grilled fish.

I don’t have the time or inclination to waste tin foil by individually wrapping beets to roast in the oven, so I wash and roast them all together, skin-on, in a bit of water in a thrift store pyrex dish.

The warm (not hot) beets are a breeze to peel and slice, and that beautiful beet juice is liquid gold — perfect for drizzling and tinting. By adding the juice at the last moment to al dente arborio rice, the grains stay pearly white against an exotic saffron coloured background.

Beet bellinis: arguably a food group.

Cooked beets freeze well, as does beet hummus, beet soup, beet juice, and beet puree — which by the way pairs beautifully with Prosecco. Beet bellini anyone?

Puree roast red or golden beets with a bit of maple syrup and ginger, freeze in ice cubes trays, then store cubes in a glass mason jar. Place thawed puree in a tulip or coupe glass, top-up with Prosecco, Champagne or soda, garnish with mint and voila!

Eat your beets. They can’t be beat!

*Studies suggest that consuming beet juice improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, and may even provide some benefits to people living with diabetes. However, beet juice does contain more natural sugar than many other vegetable juices, so please check with your healthcare provider or a certified nutritionist before changing your diet.

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