June 16: alternative staple crops – pine nuts

2016/06/16 deej 0

Pine nuts are the edible seeds of several species of pine tree. The main species of pines used for pine nut production are the stone pine (Pinus pinea), Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis), chilgoza pine (Pinus gerardiana), and the North American pinyon pines, including the Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis), single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), and Mexican pinyon (Pinus cembroides). We have 5 seeds (Pinus pinea) in pots, having stratified them in the fridge for the requisite 5 weeks (until they began to germinate) then planted them out into tree tubes; No sign yet of green shoots, but I’m still hopeful that spring will see baby pine trees emerging.


The trees are long lived and relatively slow growing, evergreen and coniferous. Stone pines are well adapted to (and native to) the Mediterranean region, and thus also well adapted to Perth’s climate.  Stone pines planted in areas with more than 400 mm annual rainfall produce greater yields of nuts, although the trees can survive in drier climates; the minimum rainfall for stone pines is considered to be around 250 mm per year, and 600 mm per year is considered to be the optimum. It does not appear to suffer from light frosts, and can survive well down to -10 degrees C. The tree tolerates calcareous soils, but it prefers acid or sub-acid siliceous and sandy soils.


A mature stone pine averages 12 – 20 m in height, but may be taller. The tree is bushy when young, but at maturity it has an easily recognised ‘umbrella’ shape, with a broad, flat crown of foliage at the top of the trunk. Leaves are flexible and needle-like, as is typical of most pine species, blue-green in colour and 10 – 20 cm long. The seed-bearing cones are 8 – 10 cm long, and take 3 years to mature fully. The seeds are 2 cm long, pale beige or brown with a powdery black coating that rubs off easily, and have a rudimentary wing that falls off very easily. The nuts are ready to harvest about 10 days before the green cone begins to open. Cones are collected and dried in the sun, then smashed to release the seeds. The nuts, once separated from fragments of pine cone, have a second shell which must be removed before eating.


Pine nuts contain up to 34% protein, depending on species, and are also high in fibre and oil. They are frequently added to salads and baked goods, and are an essential component of traditional pesto. Pine nuts can be pressed to extract pine nut oil, a mild, nutty flavoured edible oil. Unshelled pine nuts have a long shelf life if kept dry and refrigerated, but shelled nuts (and unshelled nuts in warm conditions) quickly become rancid. Aside from shelling, pine nuts don’t need any special treatment or preparation. They can be eaten raw or cooked, whole, chopped, or ground.




Pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts, but can be made with virtually any nuts, or even seeds such as pepitas. Similarly, the basil can be replaced with other herbs, or even with baby spinach leaves.


1/4 – 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted or raw

2 – 4 cups fresh basil leaves (you may replace some or all of the basil with spinach, parsley, etc.)

approx. 1/2 cup good quality olive oil

1/4 – 2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

salt to taste (approx. 1 tsp)

freshly ground black pepper to taste



  • Combine basil, pine nuts, olive oil and garlic in a blender, and process until smooth.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth.
  • Store in jars in the fridge until use. Pesto can be frozen, and thawed prior to use. If storing for more than a few hours in the fridge, and if freezing, drizzle a little extra olive oil over the top to avoid oxidation of the basil paste.



Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

June 15: staple crops

2016/06/15 deej 0

A staple crop is one that provides the majority of a population’s diet, generally providing primarily starch and/or protein. Our current primary staple crops worldwide are corn (maize), wheat, and rice. There are also other staple crops or potential staple crops (crops with the capacity to provide the majority of a population’s diet) grown – barley, rye, oats, teff, sorghum (milo), millet, soybeans and other legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, ..), quinoa, amaranth, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, oca, cassava, arrowroot, plantains and sago (derived from the pith of the sago palm). There are probably others, but those are some of the more common ones. Do you notice anything in common between most of them?


Of the 23 crops I just listed, all but 2 are annuals, grown from year to year. Plaintains and sago are derived from short-lived perennial plants, and the sago palm is killed when the sago is harvested. Some of the root and tuber crops can maintain themselves if managed correctly, as not all of the roots or tubers have to be harvested, but a commercial harvest will strip the entire plant population out to maximise production. Fully one third of the plants in the list are grain crops.


Nothing wrong with grain crops (all the various grains and pseudocereals I’ve tried have been delicious and versatile) or with annual plants in general. Annuals can provide a valuable contribution to our diets. However, large scale commercial production of annual crops (a) requires huge inputs of fertilisers and pesticides to support vast monocultures, and (b) is very susceptible to variability in climatic conditions. In a world running low on fossil fuels from which to cheaply manufacture chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and anthropogenic climate change increasing climatic variability and extreme climate events, that’s not a good thing for our food supply.


One option is to intensify our staple production even further – for example, raise rice intensively using aquaponics or other controlled environment production systems. Eventually, the increasingly industrialised food production systems could be moved off-planet along with other polluting industries and our staples could be produced in space stations. That sort of techno-utopic future is not immediately achievable, though – and depending on the political and popular appetite for technological solutions, not to mention the cost of sending payloads into space and back down to Earth, it may never be achievable. At best, there’s a delay before we can get there.


We need some ideas to handle that delay, and to act as fallback positions if sending industrial production off-planet doesn’t end up happening at all. Current agricultural policy is pushing the dual strategies of increasing production without increasing inputs (via genetic engineering, better management techniques and technologies, decreasing costs to offset lower commodity prices, and a combination of hope and luck) and increasing ecological sustainability, specifically maintaining soil health. No one is talking seriously about what crops we grow, except in limited areas of developing nations which are suffering from crop failures and extreme weather events. But there are alternative staple crops available.


Many, although not all, of the potential staple crops which are more resilient to climate change than our current major ones are  tree crops. Nuts are high in protein and oil (for energy), so depending on climatic zone and soil type that might include pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pinenuts, pecans, macadamias, and so forth. Chestnuts and edible acorns (from holm oaks or cork oaks, among others) are higher in starch than most tree nuts, and can be used more like a grain crop. Tree legumes are also a possibility, including edible wattle seeds and mesquite seeds (high in protein, minerals and fibre) and carob pods (high in starch and sugars). Some fruit crops which are high is starch can act as staple crops; plantains are one of those, but sweet bananas also have potential, as do figs and mulberries (both can be dried and used as a major part of the diet), breadfruit, peach palm fruit, and dates.


One plausible option to manage the potential food shortages of the not-too-distant future is using these tree crops. So, to support those who want to start trying to incorporate these alternate staple foods into their diets, I’m going to start posting recipes and instructions for the use of these crops. And we’ll be planting at least a few of each of those trees which will grow well in our climate – so one day we’ll be able to supply these crops or products made from them.


The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.


Images sourced from Wikimedia commons:

June 14: plant profile: quinoa

2016/06/14 deej 0

No tasks completed yesterday, so here’s another plant profile instead 🙂


Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is an annual plant from South America, which grows in climates just as hot and dry as ours. Its seeds are edible, and can be used the way you would use rice. They’re very high in protein, so they’re especially good for vegetarians.


Although it’s used as a cereal grain, quinoa is actually a pseudocereal, like amaranth or buckwheat, meaning that it is not a grass. All true grains are grasses; quinoa is actually more closely related to spinach and beetroot. It grows 1 – 2 m tall, with leaves arranged alternately on the woody central stem. The flowering panicles emerge form the top of the plant, and may be white, red, black, or any shade in between.


Quinoa seeds straight from the parent plant are covered in bitter-tasting saponins (soap-like chemicals) which the plant uses to discourage birds form eating the seeds. A thorough wash before cooking renders the seeds far more palatable. It is gluten free, and is considered easy to digest. Just like corn, it can be puffed or rolled into flakes, or you can buy it whole. Whole seeds may be sprouted (2 – 4 hours in water) or cooked.


What quinoa needs:

  • Water – Quinoa is drought tolerant. The regions where it grows naturally receive anywhere from 300 – 1000 mm rainfall per year.


  • Sunlight – Full sun.


  • Soil – Quinoa plants do best in sandy, well-drained soils with a low nutrient content, moderate salinity, and a soil pH of 6 to 8.5.


  • Space – Sow quinoa plants 10 – 25 cm apart.


  • Warmth – Quinoa can survive temperatures down to -4 degrees C, and up to 35 degrees C. It doesn’t like weather much hotter than that, but has been grown successfully in the Western Australian wheatbelt – so it can clearly survive higher temperatures than 35 degrees.


What quinoa has to offer:

  • Edible seeds, and edible leaves (which are similar to silverbeet).


  • New plants, from seed.


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

plant profile: amaranth

2013/06/18 deej 0

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), also known as love-lies-bleeding or pigweed, is reasonably common in flower beds and nurseries around Perth. It’s an impressive looking plant, with tall spires of long lasting pink, purple, or orange flowers and often attractively variegated red and green leaves. Amaranth species prefer a tropical climate, but many species are frost tolerant, and they’re so hardy that they’re considered a weed in many places. I saw a few growing wild in the middle of the city this morning.

Almost every part of the plant is edible. The seeds were a staple food of the native people of Mesoamerica, until its cultivation was banned by the conquistadores. The seeds have a mild, nutty, malty flavour, and are high in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese as well as offering a complete protein (containing all essential amino acids for human health).

They can be cooked like rice, either with rice or other grains, or alone; cooked on their own they cook up to a stickier consistency than rice or quinoa do, more like polenta. The seeds can also be cooked into a porridge, or used to add protein andinterest to stews or soups. They can be parched and milled into a gluten free flour, or popped like popcorn. Popped amaranth seeds mixed with honey make a very tasty breakfast cereal. Amaranth seeds can also be sprouted, in the same way as alfalfa, wheat, or other seeds.

The leaves, young stems and shoots can be cooked like spinach. They soften up readily, requiring only a few minutes cooking, which helps avoid excessive nutrient loss. The boiled leaves may be rubbed through a fine sieve and served as a puree. Young shoots and tender young leaves can also be eaten raw, as a salad vagetable.


Generally different species are grown primarily for the seeds (Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus) and for the leaves (Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus blitum, Amaranthus dubius), but both the seeds and leaves of all amaranths are equally edible and nutritious. Amaranths grown principally for vegetable use have better tasting leaves then the grain types.

Amaranths are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials, grown from seed or seedlings planted in late winter or spring (after frosts have passed). As they are tall, soft plants they need protection from strong winds. They use the C4 photosynthesis pathway, which means that they thrive in areas of high light intensity and heat, and can survive drought conditions better than many plants. With supplemental water, the yield of grain amaranth is comparable to rice or maize. Seeds can be harvested by hand or mechanically; leaves are harvested by hand.


What amaranth needs:

  • Water – Amaranth survives drought conditions, and will grow happily with 200 – 3000 mm of rainfall, or supplemental water. Leaf amaranths require more water than grain types.


  • Sunlight – Amaranth thrives in strong sunlight and high temperatures – it will grow and thrive at 30 – 35 degrees celsius. The ground should be 18 degrees Celsius or more before seeds are planted to ensure good germination.


  • Soil – Although amaranth prefers a rich soil, it will grow in virtually any well drained location short of pure beach sand. Clay soils can inhibit germination, as the young amaranth seedlings are quite delicate and may not be able to push through a clay crust on the soil.


  • Space – Amaranth comes in all sizes, shapes and colours. Commercially, optimum grain yields have been obtained at around 45 plants per square m.



What amaranth has to offer:

  • Edible seeds (which, when cooked, can also be fed to poultry & fish).


  • Edible leaves (which can also be used for animal fodder).


  • Attractive, hardy ornamental plant for landscaping.


  • New amaranth plants.



Further info:
Amaranth grain & vegetable Types
Alternative Field Crops Manual: Amaranth
Jefferson Institute: Amaranth
National Academies Press: Lost Crops of Africa: Amaranth
Ripe organics: Amaranth
Strengthening food security with grain amaranth
Tropical Permaculture: Amaranth
Harvesting Amaranth grain – Is It Worth it?


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

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