New Dimension in Cultivating Medical Plants
The following excerpts are based on tape transcripts from the first ITTM Colloquium on Biodynamic Cultivation of Medicinal Plants. The event took place at Vijnana Niwas, Kalimpong, in December 1996.
TADEU CALDAS, ECOTROPIC, UK. Mr. Caldas is a Brazilian agronomist, based
in the UK, who has been working on the development of ecological
agricultural systems (especially biodynamic agriculture) for the last 20 years. As a researcher, lecturer and consultant, he is involved in several organic cultivation projects in Latin America, Africa and India. Having initiated organic cultivation projects at ITTM since 1996, he teaches and supervises the plantation of medicinal plants at Vijnana Niwas on his regular visits to India.
is the science of life forces, a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature. Bio means "life" and dynamics refers to "energy". Hence Biodynamic agriculture suggests working with the energies which create and maintain life.
Humanity has created a situation where we can truly say that our Earth is ill. There is not a single place on this planet, apart from a few very remote areas which have not been contaminated with chemical pesticides, or even with fertilisers. This condition a serious affair and has come about only in the last fifty years.
Chemical supplied by the industry, and, used in agriculture, have been a result of War. Most of the fertilisers - especially the urea fertilisers - were developed during War time as explosives. Since that time, they have been used extensively in agriculture. In fact, the whole agriculture of this century has drawn upon natural reserves of humus and soil, which have been accumulated by Nature through many decades of natural vegetation growths.
Having produced those chemicals, and we know very little about their consequent effects on the environment. Chemical fertilisers are very soluble salts, which change the nature of the soil, waters, and substantially alter the ecology of the plants.
Using chemical fertilisers is similar to a non-nutritious human diet. Can plant nutrition be reduced to only a couple of minerals?
Fertiliser-based methods that reduce plant nutrition to a set of minerals imply that one can disconnect the health of a plant from its surrounding ecology, including insect pests. This approach is one that treats illnesses according to symptoms and not the cause. In this way it is similar to the modern allopathic method of treatment.
Many modern medicines are based on symptomatic treatment. The same mode of thinking has been applied in agriculture: there is a pest and the pest has to be killed, no matter what happens around it. It is not realised, that often the pest has its origin in the malnutrition of the soil. Improving the quality of the soil leads to stronger, healthier plants which in turn are more disease and pest resistant. This fact suggests that if plants were healthier, pesticides would not be necessary.
The earth is a living body. Whatever we do at this part of the planet has consequences at another. Even the people living in the Arctic have been tested positive for traces of chlorides and DDT in their bodies, although there is no farming in those remote regions of the planet. Why? Somebody in Africa is spraying DDT on his cotton crops. The rains wash the pesticidine into the river which in turn carries it into the ocean. Oceans are the circulation body of the earth; all their currents reach to every corner of the globe including the poles ... and the circle continues.
We need to change the way of farming, not only of medicinal plants but also of our food, fruits and grains. Biodynamics recognises that soil itself can be alive. If we enrich the soil with life-sustaining properties the plants will carry those life forces. That, in turn, will give us life as well. Therefore, one of Biodynamics fundamental efforts is to build up stable humus in our soil through composting.
In India, I have worked over the years with more than 1000 farmers who are now cultivating cotton in the biodynamic way. Along with cotton they cultivate a whole range of crops, such as wheat, maize, peas, soya beans, bananas and sugar-cane.
In South India, we have introduced these agricultural principles in an area of about 7000 acres. Also tea is cultivated organically. Likewise, we have taken up this method in some of the Darjeeling tea gardens.
Origin of Biodynamic Agriculture
The biodynamic system was developed in the 1920s in Europe. It draws extensively on traditional agricultural knowledge and wisdom which was present in the traditional farming communities. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian philosopher, scientist, artist, educator, and the founder of antroposophy, developed this agricultural system. Biodynamic cultivation has developed into a world-wide movement since 1922.
The products from this type of agriculture are identified in the market with the Demeter symbol. On seeing this symbol affixed to a packet of carrots the consumer in Europe, the United States, Australia or New Zealand, knows this product was cultivated according to this biodynamic practice, an agricultural system which aims at quality.
Informed consumers in the industrialised countries have now realised the importance of organic and biodynamic food, and are willing to pay a premium price for food that is 100% free from any pesticides.
II. Principles of Biodynamic Cultivation
Quality or Quantity
The main aim of biodynamic cultivation is to improve the quality of either food, fiber or medicinal plants. Of course, it also aims at improving the yields but, most importantly, it concentrates on quality.
In this century, more and more chemical fertilisers have been developed to produce maximum yields. The main objective has been to increase the yields. The reason is simple: bigger yields bring more money. Most vegetable producers have been cheating the consumer by selling them water for the price of vegetables. For example, dried carrots which have been chemically fertilised show less weight than organic carrots.
Adding fertilisers, which are salts, to plants, means that the plants draw more water from the soil in order to balance the ratio of fiber to salt inside. Consequently, as the plant cells expand and swell with water, the ratio of proteins and even vitamins decreases, and the essential oils, which have important medicinal properties, deteriorate. It has been scientifically proven that the amount of vitamins is less in chemically fertilised products. There is an imbalance of vitamins because the fertilised plants draw only one kind of nutrient and not all the trace elements. Hence, it does not produce the entire range of vitamins, and its whole value changes.
Quality of Medicinal Plants
What we want to achieve in biodynamic farming of medicinal plants, is the cultivation of the inherent quality of the plant. That is the very subtle active principle, which the plant has in very minute quantities. Instead of substance, here we are dealing with essential oils, which are almost not substantial, sometimes present only in parts per million.
What is quality, and how can we provide quality in food or in medicinal plants? What are the indicators for quality in medicinal plants? Quality comprises certain active principles, such as taste, juice, colour, seed content in the fruits, nutritional value, the vitamin and protein content. The question is, do we know how to evaluate subtle medicinal properties?
How do we define the taste, the aroma, the smell of flowers? How do we increase the scent of a rose, and how do we make oranges more sweet? How do we increase the content of active principles in medicinal plants? Does science know how to produce the best quality of food? I am not an agricultural scientist, but I question whether we know, for example, how to produce maize with the best content of protein or vitamins. The answer, I think, is no.
Modern agricultural sciences are based on how to work with yields. We know how to produce quantity but we don't know how to produce quality. We are facing the tragedy that roses don't have any smell any more; oranges have lost their taste; tomatoes are not sweet any more; carrots are bitter, and cultivated medicinal plants have less active principles.
Characteristics of the Himalayan Flora and Fauna
Each plant develops in a particular ecological zone. Here in the Darjeeling Hills we meet with this fantastic possibility of having land from very low elevations up to very high summits. Additionally the climate provides a lot of warmth and moisture. This combination of moisture and warmth creates very specific kinds of chemicals in the plants.
In high altitude mountains the principles are mainly dry and cold, with a lot of light. In contrast, the valleys are full of moisture, heat with a lot of vegetation and rather dark forests. Those extremes produce substances that are very different from each other.
In the higher regions of the Himalayas plants grow on very dry alpine soils. These, in many cases, are sandy and not very fertile. The cold climate limits the plants' growth. On lower elevations, the plants produces a lot of leaf, and in higher altitude they prominent with the flowers.
Polarities in Biodynamics
There is a polarity between yields and quality, between substance and un-substance, between big quantity of products and very small quantities of subtle ethereal oils. Regarding the definition of quality, a polarity can be observed between something very physical, such as the weight, substance - and something very subtle, such as ethereal oils.
In biodynamic farming we are trying to rediscover what is important in agriculture.
Earth and Sun
The entire plant life is a product of the earth and the sun - as some people say, the Mother Earth, and the Father Sun. In many cultures, the sun is masculine and the earth is feminine.
The Principle of Light
The colours of the beautiful high altitude flowers are a powerful manifestation of light. Colour is the resistance of substances to light, the tension between the light and the earth. The alpine regions are full of light.
This leads to very special structures of medicinal plants: the flowers are very colourful and bright, the leaves are very delicate - and with a lot of medicinal value. With hardly any substance alpine medicinal plants tend to be small but very powerful. The light that they accumulate is all transformed into essential oils. The more light, the more essential oils are produced. These medicinal plants pass through the whole winter with very little water. They are processing all this light, and they have to concentrate everything into essential oils.
The tannin in the tea leaf, for example, is nothing but concentrated sunlight. It is this sunlight which activates our senses, working on very subtle principles.
Using Polarity Principles in Biodynamic Agriculture
An example: Curcure (Equisetum arvense L.) is a plant without leaf. It consists only of stem. It grows in shady places, and is very rich in silica. The amount of silica, almost 90%, is one of the highest in the plant world. Silica is a mineral, belonging to the earth, but it lets the light go through. I call silica the forgotten nutrient.
Where do we find silica? In sand. Sixty or seventy per cent of the earth's crust is silica. And if you want to know how silica is connected to life, just look at a window: the glass is pure silica. There is silica in spectacles, silica in the eyes and skin, in the hair - and in leaves. Silica has an affinity to light. In fact, it draws light.
With silica as a carrier of light, we can make use of the polarity of light and darkness in agriculture. Equisetum arvense contains a lot of silica, and therefore belongs to the realm of light. On the contrary, fungus belongs to the realm of cold, moisture and darkness. We can use a product from one realm to control an imbalance in another. Equisetum arvense is an excellent fungicide.
Out of his own insight, Rudolf Steiner introduced what is known as biodynamic preparations. Naturally occurring plant and animal materials are combined in specific recipes in certain seasons of the year and then placed in compost piles. These preparations bear concentrated forces within them and are used to organise the chaotic elements within the compost piles. When the process is complete, the resulting preparations are medicines for the Earth which draw new life forces from the cosmos. Effects of the preparations have been verified scientifically.
One of the preparations is made from silica powder, processed in a special way. It is applied to the plants at the time when they are producing the part that shall be harvested. In case of medicinal plants, if, for example, the root is harvested for medicinal purposes, silica is applied when the root is forming. The same applies for the flower, leaf, etc.
This silica powder preparation helps to increase the concentration of silica in the plant. With silica, the plant increases its rate of photosynthesis, draws more light, and produces more of those finer aspects. The medicinal value of plants cultivated under such conditions will be naturally higher and their pests lesser.
Silica is an excellent remedy for the foggy Darjeeling climate. The monsoon mists hold back the plant, whereas silica will activate the plant growth. Too much shade also creates a situation for fungus, which silica counteracts. In this way one can balance an unfavourable climatic situation with biodynamic preparations.
One of the biodynamic preparation is made from quartz crystals: the crystal form of silica. These crystals have geometric forms, perfect hexagonal shapes. The geometry shows another polarity of form and formlessness: in silica we have these beautiful shapes, and in fungus we have amorphous shapes, without form.
Geometric Principles and Medicinal Values
Alpine flowers are of the most perfect shapes, like stars: they have the most beautiful, artistic quality. The same applies for this quartz. These perfect shapes are based on the same geometric principle. It belongs to the heights, near the light, close to the stars. In pentagonal and hexagonal flowers we find the same geometrical principles as in crystals.
The differences between the root and the flower of such alpine medicinal plants reveal the polarity that we are talking about. The flower is very nicely shaped, though every species is different. But why do we not study the roots to differentiate those plants?
Because they are all more-or-less the same. There is no differentiation at the root level, and yet there is this high differentiation at the flower level.
How do these plants know that they have to grow like this? Why are they shaped and coloured like this? For example, this plant has five petals, five sepals, five stamens, so it is shaped by the principle of five, but where does it come from? It is these principles that form the plant, and along with it its medicinal values.
We can release this formative principle in our plants and understand how it starts shaping them and bringing forth these fine aspects of scent, aroma, taste, colour and medical properties.
In comparison, in tropical plants the principle of flower has been pushed into the leaf. Tropical climate produces fleshy plants that would never grow in the Alpine regions. These plants need moisture. It is warmth, which, combined with light, manifests in these plants in the leaves instead of in the flower.
Many plants, where this principle of warmth pushing into the leaf operates, develop a lot of poison. When this principle, that belongs to the flower, has been pushed as far as into the root, it colours even the roots. Colour at the root level means that what belongs to the flower has been pushed deep inside the plant.
Cosmic Integration - The Zodiac Principles
The ultimate fine-tuning of biodynamic principles lies in harnessing cosmic influences for cultivation. Only at particular times of the month or year are the cosmic influences are most supportive to the growth of a particular part of the plant.
The cosmic factor that determines a month is the moon. The movement of the moon in relation to the Zodiac is most interesting. The Zodiac symbols are Greek in origin. The Chinese developed a different system, and the Tibetans created their own amalgamation of the Indian and Chinese systems.
All the different systems have twelve constellations, though represented by different archetype figures and animals. Within these twelve signs there are four groups of three constellations each which have the same qualities. They are related to the four elements, earth, water, fire, air. These four elements can be placed in relation to the four parts of the plant: the root, the leaf, the flower and the fruit.
- The roots are associated with the earth: there is no base and ground without earth.
- The leaves relate to the water element: the more water, the more leaf.
- The flower corresponds to air and light: there is no light without air.
(There is no light on the moon because there is no atmosphere.)
- Fruits are associated with fire: there is no ripening without warmth.
Cultivating the soil on specific days means harnessing the cosmic influences for the particular plant. Recent research has shown that in one month there are three periods which are variously beneficial for the root, the leaf, the flower and the fruit. These period are governed by the moon cycle. The different parts of the plant are stimulated, one at a time, three times in a month. Researchers discovered this by planting radishes every day and then observing their growth. Radishes from one day would be of very of good quality while those from another day would be smaller and less healthier. In between would be radishes with shrivelled roots or too much leaf. Anybody can try this experiment. The researchers found that the yields can be increased 20 to 30% just by cultivating at the right time.
Table 1: Transplanting and Sowing Medicinal Plants according to the Moon Rhythm
Transplanting when the Moon is in the Zodiac
the plants to be
(also grains and cereals)
In case the seeds are sown during a period unfavourable to their nature they can later be transplanted during the appropriate sign.
Re-presenting Traditional Knowledge
When I was working in Peru, in the Andes, at 4000 metres above sea level, the farmers there told me that they always plant their seeds according to the moon. Farmers all over the world observe these natural laws. I have observed this with farmers in Africa, America and Asia: they all have some knowledge about how to harness the position of the moon. But nowadays a lot of such traditional knowledge has been lost.
A farmer in Peru told me: "If we use fertilisers, the moon doesn't matter." In his simple words he clearly stated that if we use fertilisers, we cut off the cosmic influences. Another farmer in a village, at 4,000 metres altitude, told me: "We want to produce food that in itself has medicinal value."
There is a clearly palpable loss of traditional knowledge. Children are not trained in going back to the countryside and asking the elder people: 'What do you know about our environment?' Instead of learning from the old people about the medicinal plants, etc., they generally say: 'Oh, the old people don't know how to read, so they are ignorant'. That is the tragedy in which a lot of traditional knowledge is lost.
We can observe that the younger generation rejects the oral traditions because they clash with modern knowledge presented in writing. When I worked in the Andes, we tried to present traditional knowledge in a modern language. There is a psychological aspect to it. When a young person reads his grandfather's knowledge in a nicely-presented, logically-written paper, he considers it to be important. And if he sees it on the TV, then it is even more important!
If traditional knowledge is presented in a format that young people can understand, they re-evaluate it. So, we produced a magazine with a picture of the grandfather and an article about the elaborate cultivation system that he had developed. This magazine was presented to all the farmers. Only then did they have the courage to go to that farmer and ask him questions. He finally became their teacher. He could only become their teacher because his insightful tradition was validated by a written system of knowledge. There is no school for such knowledge. It lives with individual people - I call them the 'rural scientists'.