In July, my wife Nancy and I celebrated our 20th anniversary by taking a trip to the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon. Wine was the theme. We passed through many of Oregon’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the way, concentrating on the Chehalem Mountains south of Hillsboro, Dundee Hills west of Carlton, Umpqua Valley near Roseburg, and finally the Applegate Valley (or Southern Oregon) west of Ashland, where we stayed at the wonderful Applegate River Lodge.
One of our first stops on the trip was at Cooper Mountain Vineyards. Given that we had enough time for only a few stops, out of almost 200 wineries between here and Eugene (our first night’s layover), I chose Cooper Mountain because their blurb on our winery map said they had “certified organic and biodynamic fruit”. I was curious as to what “biodynamic” meant. Life forces in wine?
Well, as a matter of fact, or at least assertion, that’s what biodynamics is all about. Devised by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics uses various “preparations” to enhance the health of the soil and plants. Also important is when these enhancers are applied, so that astronomical forces are taken into account. Even waterfalls are employed to enhance the oxygen content in the water used on the plants in a biodynamic vineyard or farm.
In the tasting room at Cooper Mountain, there were displays of the biodynamic preparations and their beneficial effects. Passing by the cow dung in cow horn preparation (BD #500, and the big one), I honed in on four of the plant preparations that are sprayed on the grapes at prescribed times of the year. Yes, weeds they are. Horsetail, dandelion, stinging nettle and yarrow. That’s BD #508, #506, #504 and #502, respectively. Not officially invasive species in Oregon or Washington, these plants are nonetheless considered noxious weeds by many, and countless resources are used and marketed to remove them from gardens and fields.
But as we’ve seen with other species mentioned in this column, there are beneficial aspects to these weeds that are often overlooked in our zeal to destroy them. Horsetail, for instance, is used in biodynamic agriculture to help prevent or control disease. Yarrow has compounds that help sequester beneficial trace elements. Stinging nettle contains nutrients that grapes need. And dandelion “stimulates the relation between silica and potassium so that the silica can attract cosmic forces to the soil,” according to the Cooper Mountain display.
Of course, beneficial uses of these plants have been known for centuries, and many weeds have traditionally been used as medicines and cosmetics, not to mention foods, as well as industrial products such as dyes. In fact, my Masters thesis dealt with the utilization of an invasive weed from South Africa, the broaf-leafed cotton bush (Asclepias rotundifolia), that had naturalized in South Australia, where I carried out the research in the 1980s. Back then, the first wave of “biomass” research was going on as the OPEC oil embargoes of the 70s raised the price of oil enough to think about alternatives for fuel and chemical products such as polymers. Like today, the government gave credit for fuels that were derived from “renewable” sources, and therefore the race was on to utilize plants that would not detract from the food supply. Arid-land weeds like the broad-leafed cotton bush were prime candidates.
The field investigating the uses of plants to man is called economic botany. And a fascinating field it is. You can find out more about economic botany from the Society for Economic Botany website at http://www.econbot.org/. Learn more about biodynamics by visiting the Demeter USA site (the certifying company, at http://demeter-usa.org/; their vision is “to heal the planet through agriculture”), or the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association (headquartered in Junction City) website at http://www.biodynamics.com/.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, the wine from Cooper Mountain tasted pretty good, and no, Australia doesn’t get any fuel or chemicals from the cotton bush. I tried.