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The seed head of the milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is very prickly; to prevent injury, the seeds are harvested by shaking the seed head.
Harvesting, caring for and keeping track of our own seeds is laborious and takes up a lot of time. So, why do we bother? ‘Biodynamic farming methods are central to what we do,’ according to Bernhard Ehrmann, Head of the WALA medicinal herb garden. ‘That means we don’t use genetically modified plants, and we never use chemical or synthetic pesticides. So, it only makes sense to use seeds from our own plants, which are adapted to grow in our location. Of course, we select only the finest quality seeds. We are convinced that it is the seeds that lend potency to the whole plant. That’s a powerful force, a force we have a duty to protect and preserve.’
Diversity, not homogeneity
When plants reproduce naturally, as is the case for those in our medicinal herb garden, we refer to them as having open pollinated seeds. For us, maintaining the diversity of the plants in our garden is key. That’s why we take care to harvest their seeds by hand, just as we do the plants themselves. Harvesting by hand might take more effort, but the result is a healthy variety of plant life that forms the basis of our extensive collection of natural medicines and cosmetics.
Seeds of success
Everything starts with a tiny seed. Bernhard Ehrmann knows the value of these minute bundles of goodness and the essential cycle of growth they contain: ‘At its core, the seed is the idea of a plant. The plant itself – stems, leaves, flowers – does not yet exist. It has bequeathed its entire existence to the seed, trusting that it can use that seed to bloom and grow again next year.’ So, it’s essential that the seeds are documented and stored correctly.
A closer look
Gardener Sibylle Strofus is the keeper of the seed cabinet, which stores seeds from our medicinal plants collected over the past four to five years. That’s because, just like wine, seeds have good years and bad years. Sybille explains: ‘Every plant has its own patron, one of the gardeners. That means that we each know the most about the plant assigned to us. And we are also responsible for harvesting its seeds.’ She took the time to help us examine some of the precious treasures she is responsible for.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is also known as ‘stinking nightshade’. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that the pods that hold the seeds are a dark, menacing colour. But the pods are very fertile – a single pod can contain up to 100 seeds. To harvest the seeds, the gardeners break open the pod and shake the seeds out. As the name stinking nightshade suggests, henbane belongs to the nightshade family, as do other plants such as tomatoes or plants from the genus mandragora.
Our gardeners sometimes refer to St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) as ‘extravagant’ due to the sheer number of seeds it produces. St. John’s wort, like many other plants, requires light to germinate – at the beginning of May, the seeds are placed in the ground in a sowing tray and pressed only very lightly into the earth. This is because they do not germinate underground, but on the surface.
Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) seeds require very particular treatment. They need to be threshed and cleaned in order to grow well. Sibylle says the seeds are ‘playful and fun’. They are soft, but surrounded by a protective shell.
According to Sibylle, marigold seeds (Calendula officinalis) are ‘multi-talents’. That’s because they have three different types of achenes (fruits): rostrate, cymbiform and annular. It’s the only plant in our medicinal herb garden that can claim such a feat. The seed head has a closed, scraggly and wild appearance.
One of the unusual things about the milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is the fact that it’s the seeds themselves that have medicinal properties. The seeds contain a great deal of oil, and birds love them. So, our gardeners have to harvest them quickly!
Thanks to Harry Potter, many people are familiar with mandrake root. Here at our medicinal herb garden, we often refer to mandrake as ‘the magical plant’ for exactly that reason. The seeds for this plant can be found in its green fruits, which look quite similar to tomatoes.
The seeds of the small nettle (Urtica urens) sting just like the leaves do. The seeds contain plenty of nutritious elements such as iron, healthy fatty acids, Vitamin E and a variety of minerals, so they are often used as a superfood in muesli and other mixes. However, it’s quite difficult to harvest them. They have to be sifted multiple times before they separate from the main plant.
Drying seeds preserves life
Let’s not forget that there are plenty of valuable treasures to be found outside of our medicinal herb garden. One of our current projects involves foraging arnica seeds from our wild meadow in the Black Forest. Our expert gardeners then care for and nurture the seedlings until they are ready to be planted back where we found them. The project is being monitored and supported by nature conservation professionals. We are also working together with the University of Hohenheim to protect natural diversity in the region. As part of the project, a variety of botanical species are cultivated, conserved, archived and digitally recorded.
TEXT: Rosa Thomas