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subtropical species resources

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Hello to everybody from the FGCU and ECHO workshops.  Thanks for a great time, here are some resources.


South Florida native all-stars

South Florida introduced all-stars

Florida perennial plant palette 2013




Upcoming Events 2014

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Hi everybody. Mostly I’ll be writing my next book in 2014, but I will be going on the road to give some presentations and also inviting all of you to my home for some tours to sample the fruits of each season. Please contact the organizers for more information.


Perennial Crops and Food Forests

February 8

ECHO, Ft. Meyers FL USA

Featuring hands-on bamboo and biochar opportunities and tours of ECHO’s incredible tropical demonstration farm.


Backyard Bioshelters

March 8

Holyoke MA USA


Local Food Enterprise Summit

A Financial Permaculture Convergence

Earth Learning

March 10-14

Homestead FL USA

Permaculture Writers Workshop and Retreat

March 29-30

Holyoke MA


Paradise Lot: Perennial Vegetable Spring

April 26

Holyoke MA USA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

May 23-28

Au Petit Boisé

Frelighsburg, Quebec CANADA


Create Your Paradise LotMay 16-18

Omega Institute

Rhinebeck NY USA


Paradise Lot: Berry Summer

July 5

Holyoke, MA USA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

June 27-July 2

Burlington, VT USA

Details TBA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

July 28-Aug 3

Woodbine Ecology Center

Sedalia, CO USA


Bosque Comestible

September 1-5

Las Canadas

Huatusco, Veracruz MEXICO

This course will be in Spanish


Paradise Lot: Fruit and Nut Tasting

October 17-18

Holyoke MA USA


Regenerative Enterprise and Commercial Food Forestry

October 20-26

Blue Ridge Permaculture Network

Virginia USA


Designing Food ForestsNovember 7-9

Occidental CA USA


Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization Annual Conference

November 18-20

Ft. Meyers, FL USA




Carbon Farming Conference

February 10-14

New York, USA

species resources for south Florida

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Here are some species lists I’ve put together for folks in South Florida.

Florida perennial plant palette 2013

South Florida introduced all-stars

South Florida native all-stars

fall workshop series

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I’m on the road doing a number of workshops this fall. Please come check them out!

Rainwater Harvesting and Edible Forest Gardens

August 23-28, Sedalia, CO

Hosted by Woodbine Ecology Center, a two-part series: first rainwater harvesting and greywater utilization with Brad Lancaster, followed by a forest gardens weekend intro with five-day advanced design option.

Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) is a native perennial staple crop for cold, dry regions.

Ecological Edible Landscaping

September 12, Hockessin, DE

An evening bringing together the best of native plant gardening and permaculture, hosted by the Mt. Cuba Center, home of one of the finest collections of eastern native plants I’ve ever seen.

Camassia scillioides, our eastern native staple bulb, at Mt. Cuba

Camassia scillioides, our eastern native staple bulb, at Mt. Cuba

Edible Forest Gardens

September 13-15, near Philadelphia, PA

A weekend forest garden design workshop hosted by Green Light Plants, a great nursery featuring useful eastern native plants and other permaculture specialties. We’ll check in on Dale Hendricks’ mature pawpaw trees, incredible groundnut collection, and interesting polycultures.


Planting understory polycultures beneath pawpaws at last year's workshop.

Planting understory polycultures beneath pawpaws at last year’s workshop.

Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

October 4-5, Reno NV

Cold and dry climates are among the most challenging for agriculture. This workshop will include tours of some very interesting successful food forests in the Reno area.

Yellowhorn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium), a promising protein and oil nut crop for arid cold regions.

Commercial Food Forestry

October 14-18, San Ramon, CA

Commercial food forestry and regenerative enterprise planning. Featuring the fantastic Elizabeth U, author of Finance for Food.

Regenerative enterprise planning is what we need to scale the forest garden up to the commercial food forest.

Food Forest Tasting Workshop

October 18-19, Holyoke, MA

Come tour our Paradise Lot garden and Tripple Brook Farm, and taste forest garden delights like pawpaw, hardy kiwifruit, chestnut, butternut, and more. This is also part of the highly recommended FEAST permaculture design course.

Some of the bounty from last year's fall harvest at Paradise Lot.

Some of the bounty from last year’s fall harvest at Paradise Lot including chinkapin chestnuts, pawpaws, Asian pears, hardy kiwifruit, and American persimmon.

International Permaculture Convergence

November 25-Dec 6, Cuba

I’ll be presenting on perennial staple crops at the International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba.

Breadfruit, one of the finest perennial staple crops for the humid tropics.

Breadfruit, one of the finest perennial staple crops for the humid tropics.


Perennial Vegetables DVD review in Permaculture Activist

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Permaculture Activist  #88, May 2013

Five segments show perennial vegetables of every shape and size growing in climates from Massachusetts to Mexico and back by way of Florida. Eric is photogenic, poised, and delivers in a beautiful voice. He’s a fount of fabulous fare on growing and preparing unusual foods. High production values and an excellent script make this long film very practical and appealing as it follows closely the content of Eric’s book of the same subject. The final segment covers methods of planting, propagating, and maintaining. A treat for visual learners of all ages.

Paradise Lot review in HortIdeas

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Nice thoughtful review of Paradise Lot in HortIdeas:

HORTIDEAS, March 2013, 30(3)
Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, by Eric Toensmeier with contributions by Jonathan Bates, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2013, 234 pp., $19.95, ISBN 978-1-60358-399-2.
Perennial Vegetable Gardening with Eric Toensmeier, 143-minute DVD, Chel- sea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2012, $29.95, ISBN 978-1- 60358-369-5.
We aren’t exaggerating when we say we’ve been looking forward to reading Paradise Lot more than any other gardening book we can remember. At last, we hoped, it would provide documented results, over a period of several years, of a highly motivated attempt to create and maintain a temperate-zone garden with an emphasis on perennial polycultures. (The book’s authors have no qualms about labeling their approach “Permaculture.”) The location is an tenth-acre urban lot in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and the gardeners have backgrounds in what has been publicized as “forest gardening” or “farming in the image of the [natural] forest.” Actually, we think that the Holyoke garden would be better labeled as “old-field gardening” to avoid the enticing yet misleading vision of mimicking an old-growth forest–after all, the main point of it is to yield food, not inedible biomass, although ecosystem services such as moderating pest outbreaks and recycling nutrients supposed to be given some consideration as well.
Most important to us is that, as far as we know, nobody else has reported in anywhere near the detail of Paradise Lot on their experiences with temperate-zone perennial polycultures. Despite a large body of theoretical claims about the advantages of this kind of gardening, until now empirical data on it have been few and far between. Because our own experiences with perennial edibles here in Kentucky have been mixed (to say the least), we have been skeptical about the purported advantages, both in terms of food yields per time and resource inputs, and in terms of ecological benefits, of perennial polycultures versus more conventional gardening almost exclusively with annuals in temperate areas. Of course, our skepticism is nearly as theoretical as the wild-sounding–at least to us–claims of some perennial polyculture advocates that it should be possible, even in temperate areas, simply to install various edible perennials and then do essentially nothing except harvest from them.
Hence our enormous interest in Paradise Lot. After having read it (and especially after having watched the Perennial Vegetable Gardening DVD, which shows many of the plants growing in the Holyoke garden a number of years after its establishment), we have tremendous admiration for the energy, knowledge, and, particularly, candor of Eric and Jonathan. They have truly “been there and done that.” Been where? Gathering edible perennials from far and wide, perusing the horticultural and ecological literature for ideas, and seeking to learn from like-minded “plant geeks” whenever possible. Done what? Planting a huge variety of edible perennials, finding out how to make use of them, and winnowing out those found to be lacking. The book shows very clearly the difference between assuming that something “theoretically should work” and the typically much harder showing whether or not it actually works in practice. Eric and Jonathan have spent a lot more time showing than assuming, and we think they deserve to serve as models for all who are interested in improving horticultural techniques.
That’s not to say we found no disappointments in Paradise Lot. The biggest disappointment is that the experimentation that sets this book apart from previous empirically unsupported theorizing does not go beyond the “preliminary research” stage. Preliminary research done by professional investigators is done prior to rigorously controlled research to establish the parameters most likely to be fruitfully investigated rigorously.
For example, preliminary research might involve looking for variations in results when a particular factor (such as the application rate of a fertilizer or pesticide) is varied over a wide range; if the factor of interest doesn’t change much for certain ranges of application rates, then those ranges are avoided in the rigorous research. More to the point with the Holyoke garden experiment, the preliminary research consisted of identification of particular edible perennial species that (for various reasons determined by Eric and Jonathan) did or did not appear to show considerable worth. Once such identification had been made (and the book provides many examples), the next step would be to characterize the desirable and undesirable characteristics of the most promising species in considerable detail at various locations. This step was not taken, in part for reasons that do not reflect at all on the scientific abilities or attitudes of the experimenters–after all, they have no foundation or corporate subsidies and integrate their work into their lives–in part (a good part!), Paradise Lot is a love story! We are only pointing out that the work described in Paradise Lot is just a first (and quite admirable) step toward characterizing and optimizing the use of “new” perennial edibles in temperate gardens.

[Note - the Apios Institute is our (still forming) effort to do just that]
There is a second, even more important (in our opinion) step that needs to be taken, building on the results presented in Paradise Lot. Lacking in the Holyoke garden, again in part for understandable and forgivable reasons, are controls. In particular, there is no way to compare work inputs and yield outputs between the garden’s perennial polyculture and annual food plants. Eric and Jonathan did not set out to make such comparisons–but we are concerned that some readers of their book will jump to the conclusion that the results, without controlled comparisons, can be taken as vindicating the superiority in some sense of perennials over annuals for temperate-zone food production. Some of the blurbs on the back cover and at the beginning of the book have an aura of jumping to such a conclusion in the absence of sufficient evidence. Farmer-writer Gene Logsdon, for example, writes as follows:
The authors … have raised 400 pounds of perennial fruits and vegetables … per year in this tiny garden…. here is proof positive that with proper knowledge and will there is no such thing as food scarcity.
The still-open question, we believe, is whether such “proper knowledge” (for temperate-zone gardeners) should privilege edible perennials (and, if so, which ones, and how best to grow them). In the November-December 2010 HortIdeas (page 123), we noted that the web site reported a yield of more than 140 pounds of (presumably annual) vegetables on a six-foot by nine-foot balcony, in six window sills, and on a small patio in England–almost certainly a considerably higher yield per square foot than reported from the Holyoke garden several years after its establishment. There remain questions about ecological impacts as well as food yields of perennials–only bare hints of preliminary research on the former (particularly with regard to weediness) are presented in the book. And a considerable but not quantitatively assessed nutrient supply for the garden comes from materials imported from outside the garden.
In sum, we think Paradise Lot is an extremely important book, and we hope that it gains a following for the contribution it actually makes, rather than for what it doesn’t (such as proving that perennial polycultures make sense for gardeners in the temperate zone). This book is just the start of what we suspect will be a long but very interesting research endeavor.
One technical issue: the DVD promises inclusion of a “searchable database of perennial vegetables” (PDF file), but there is no such file accessible using any of our (Windows XP) computers. Perhaps Chelsea Green could make the file available as a download for purchasers of the DVD?

[NOTE - the database is downloadable at the Chelsea Green page for the DVD, and here on my blog.]

Staple Fruits of the World

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This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices, and is part of a series promoting my kickstarter campaign to raise funds with which to complete the book. You can pre-order a copy through April 30th and help make it possible for me to get this book out soon.

Breadfruit is a remarkable staple starch that grows on trees. This species should be much more widely grown in the humid tropics.

Breadfruit is a remarkable staple starch that grows on trees. This species should be much more widely grown in the humid tropics. It represents a fully-developed perennial staple crop. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Staple fruits provide starch, protein, and fats from fresh fruits. This is a marvelous category of perennial foods and offers much promise in sequestering carbon. Sadly for those of us in cold climates, not even one of our perennial fruits are high enough in starch, protein, or fat to make the cut. In fact almost all of these are for humid tropical climates – probably because it takes a lot of sunlight and water to produce that much food value. My source for the data here is Janick and Paull’s remarkable Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts, with some help from Lost Crops of Africa Volume III , Plant Resources of Southeast Asia, and Useful Plants of Neotropical Origin. I’ll profile additional species in the book.

These “superfruits” can and should play an important role in carbon-sequestering agriculture, agroforestry, and productive reforestation efforts.

As my standard I determined that fruits should be used as a starchy vegetable or, when fresh, should demonstrate at least 5% protein or fat. I’ve also added the date palm, which though sugary rather than starchy has been an important staple for millennia. Percent starch figures are not available as most sources do not distinguish between dietary carbohydrates and inedible carbohydrates like starches and lignins. I hope to find more information to show that Pouteria species, for example, are as nourishing as they seem when eaten.

Latin Name Common Name Origin Climate




Artocarpus altilis breadfruit New Guinea humid tropical lowlands




Artocarpus heterophylla jakfruit Asia humid tropics and subtropics




Artocarpus integer champedak Asia humid tropics and subtropics




Bactris gasipaes peach palm tropical Americas humid tropical lowlands




Balanites aegyptica balanites North Africa arid tropics and subtropics




Blighia sapida akee West Africa humid tropics




Caryocar villosum Pequia Amazonia humid tropics




Dacryodes edulis safau, “Africado” West Africa humid tropics




Gustavia superba membrillo tropical Americas humid tropics




Iryanthera laevis cumala Amazonia humid tropics




Musa acuminata, M. balbisiana, & hybrids banana & plantian Asia humid tropics




Persea americana avocado Mesoamerica humid or monsoon tropics and subtropics




Phoenix dactylifera date palm Middle East arid tropics




Akee is incredibly high in protein and fat, but can be fatal if underripe.

Akee is incredibly high in protein and fat, but can be fatal if underripe.


Safau is a remarkable African parallel to the avocado, high in protein and fat. Photo Wikimedia Commons.


Peach palm is a nutritious staple palm fruit. Photo Wikimedia Commons.


The avocado is an important staple and also a delicious fruit. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The date palm has been a vital staple food to desert peoples for millennia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Pequia flesh has incredibly high fat content, and also features a delicious edible nut. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Balanites fruit is 40% sugar. This species also has edible nuts. It grows in intensely arid deserts. Photo Wikimedia Commons.


Bananas and plantains are widely grown starchy staples.


Legume Trees with Pods Edible by Livestock

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This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices, and is part of a series promoting my kickstarter campaign to raise funds with which to complete the book. You can pre-order a copy and help make it possible for me to get this book out soon.


This painting by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida shows sheep enjoying the shade and dropped pods of an ancient carob tree. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rotational grazing is one the most powerful tools we have to sequester carbon through agriculture. We can increase its carbon-sequestering capacity, and its livestock production power, by adding widely-spaced trees. This practice of integrating trees with grazing is called silvopasture. Studies have shown that in many cases trees actually increase the productivity of pasture beneath them, especially trees that cast light shade.

This article is about a particular kind of silvopasture, where the trees literally drop food to the livestock grazing below. Around the world there are many farming systems that utilize this concept, most famously the dehesa of Spain and Portugal which produces gourmet acorn-fed pork. Here I’m narrowing the focus a bit more, to legume trees that drop nutritious pods to the ground for ruminant livestock like cattle, sheep, and goats. There are “fodder pod trees” like this for most of the world’s climates.

Pods of carob, a tree for Mediterranean climates. Great livestock fodder and edible for humans as well.

Pods of carob (Ceratonia siliqua), an ancient Mediterranean crop. Great livestock fodder and edible for humans as well. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These trees are providing more than just food for animals. Livestock enjoy the shade they provide, especially in the tropical sun. Many of these trees fix nitrogen. Some even have pods edible for humans.

Unfortunately not all of these pods fall to the ground when ripe, some must be knocked off the tree with poles, increasing labor requirements. To my knowledge there has been little or no breeding of these trees for the purpose of feeding livestock. The foliage of many serves as a fodder, and some make excellent firewood as well.

The great majority of these species hail from semi-arid Africa savannahs, but this may in part result from a lack of research in other regions. Surely there are many, many more. Savannahs would be the best place to search for such species as they have coevolved with large grazing and browsing animals. An asterisk (*) indicates pods also edible by humans. Sources: Nitrogen Fixing Tree Association NFT Highlights and World Agroforestry Center Agroforestree Database.

Latin Name Climate Native Range Nitrogen Fixation
Acacia leucophloea semi-arid tropical lowlands Asia yes
Acacia nilotica semi-arid tropical lowlands Africa yes
Acacia saligna semi-arid tropical lowlands Australia yes
Acacia senegal semi-arid tropical lowlands and highlands Africa yes
Acacia seyal arid to semi arid tropical lowlands Africa yes
Acacia tortolis arid to semi-arid tropical lowlands, highlands Africa yes
Adenanthera pavonina semiarid to humid tropical lowlands Asia yes
Cassia grandis humid lowland tropics tropical Americas some
*Ceratonia siliqua Mediterranean Mediterranean no
Enterolobium cyclocarpum yes
*Erythrina edulis semi-arid to humid tropical highlands Andes yes
*Faidherbia albida arid to humid tropical lowlands and highlands Africa yes
*Gleditsia triacanthos cold humid and arid, Mediterranean, tropical highlands North America no
Newtonia buchananii humid tropical lowlands and highlands Africa no
*Parkia biglobosa semiarid to humid tropical lowlands Africa yes
*Parkinsonia aculeata arid to semiarid tropics and subtropics Americas no
*Piliostigma thongii semiarid tropics Africa yes
Pithecellobium dulce semi-arid to humid tropical lowlands Americas yes
Prosopis africana yes
*Prosopis alba semi-arid tropics South America yes
Prosopis chilensis semi-arid tropics and subtropics South America yes
Prosopis cineraria arid to semi-arid tropical lowlands Asia & Middle east yes
*Prosopis glandulosa arid to semi-arid, subtropics to cold North America yes
*Prosopis juliflora yes
*Prosopis pallida semiarid tropics South America yes
Prosopis tamarugo arid tropics South America yes
Samanea (= Albizia) saman semi-arid to humid tropical lowlands tropical Americas yes
Senna singueana semiarid tropics Africa no

Again note that nitrogen-fixing legumes are often likely to escape from cultivation. Always investigate your regional native plant resources first. I’m quite certain that there are tens or hundreds more species that produce fodder pods, as well as many more that drop food of one kind or another to ruminants. For example there are many more species of honey locust (Gleditsia) in Asia.

The pods of Acacia nilotica, from African semi-arid savannahs. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The pods of Acacia nilotica, from African semi-arid savannahs. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Cassia grandis, from the humid tropical Americas. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The North American honey locust (Gleditia triacanthos), a good choice for cold temperate climates. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The sweet pods of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), a nitrogen-fixing tree for cold, arid landscapes.

The sweet pods of honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), a North America nitrogen-fixing tree for cold, arid landscapes. There are mesquites throughout the dry Americas as well as native species from Africa and Asia, for highlands and lowlands, arid and semi-arid climates. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Perennial Cereal Grains: A Promise Requiring Patience and Prioritization

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This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices, and is part of a series promoting my kickstarter campaign to raise funds with which to complete the book. You can pre-order a copy and help make it possible for me to get this book out soon.


Field of ripening intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) at The Land Institute’s research farm in Salina, Kansas. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine corn, wheat, or rice that comes back every year without saving seed, tilling, or replanting. Such crops could have a tremendous impact in restoring degraded farmland, rebuilding soil, and sequestering carbon while providing humanity with the staff of life.

The dream of perennial grains is getting tantalizingly closer. Today there is more hopeful news than there was even just a few years ago. In 2009 the First International Perennial Grain Breeding Workshop gathered researchers from all over the world. Land Institute research director Stan Cox proclaimed “we will look back on this workshop as the international launching of the perennial grain revolution.”

Perennial grains include cereals (grass seeds), legumes (dry beans), and oilseeds. In this article I’m focusing just on what’s happening with perennial grass seeds, though in the book I’ll be addressing all three categories and many more.

When compared with other perennial staple crops, perennial cereals have their pros and cons. Their big advantage is that they are basically familiar. People already know how to harvest, process, cook, and eat them. Existing equipment and infrastructure needs few if any changes to handle them. There are perennial cereals under development for almost every climate, from the northern plains to equatorial highlands to salty tropical delta farmland.

Unfortunately perennial grains are still a decade or more in the future, though thanks to the visionary work of the Land Institute and others, we are already decades closer to achieving that goal. There are a number of breeding challenges, whether one seeks to “perennialize” existing annual crops or domesticate wild perennials.

My own attempts to grow perennial grains here in Massachusetts have all failed. Perennial selections of wheat, rye, corn, sorghum, and Agrotriticum were all either winterkilled or proved to be annuals. I will be giving it a try again this year with a perennial wheat from Oikos Tree Crops.

Fast-tracking perennial grain development should be a high priority for use of climate change funds and efforts. They are within our reach, and researchers have a road map to achieving this remarkable goal.  My thanks to the network of NGOs, Universities, governments, and backyard breeders who are making it happen. Funding may be the biggest obstacle between us and long-lived, soil-protecting, climate-stabilizing versions of the familiar crops we depend on today. A primary aim of my forthcoming book is to mobilize much greater support for development of perennial crops and production systems.

F3 seeds from a perennial F2 rice plant (D. Van Tassel, 2009)

F3 seeds from a perennial F2 rice plant (D. Van Tassel, 2009). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Corn or Maize (Zea mays) is one of the most important staple crops on the planet. Perennial corn could slow or reverse the degradation of sloping lands around the world that are inappropriately used to grow annual maize. Scientists and backyard breeders have been working toward this goal for many years, and have made some limited progress. Diploid perennial teosinte (Z. diploperennis) is a wild relative which is crossable with annual corn. Several other wild corn relatives have recently been found by scientists. Maize can also be crossed with more distantly related hardy perennials including Eastern gammagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) and the related dwarf Fakahatchee grass (T. floridanum).

The Land Institute has made substantial progress towards developing perennial corn. Their breeders report that with sufficient funding a perennial corn could be ready for field tests in as little as ten years. One challenge is that the perennial rhizomes that overwinter the plants are not cold-hardy, so their breeding is focused on deeper rhizomes that survive below the frost line. Of course this consideration is not important in the tropics where millions of people rely on corn as a staple.

Recently the US Department of Agriculture has begun to show interest in perennial corn breeding. If they were to dedicate a tiny fraction of their budget to this effort, great progress could be made.

First-generation cross of annual corn and diploid perennial teosinte. Photo (and breeding) courtesy Craig Hepworth.

First-generation cross of annual corn and diploid perennial teosinte. Photo (and breeding) courtesy Craig Hepworth.

Nipa (Distichlis palmeri) is a perennial salt-tolerant grass of the Sonoran desert deltas. The flavor of its grain is apparently excellent. Once a staple of the Cocopa people, wild populations of nipa have been greatly reduced due to dams and other watershed disruptions. Wild patches of nipa have been estimated to yield 1.25 tons per hectare, making this one of the most promising perennial grains on the planet. As a C4 grass it is particularly efficient at photosynthesis.

Dr. Richard Felger, a researcher associated with the University of Arizona herbarium and the Sky Island Alliance, has been researching the potential of nipa as a salt-tolerant perennial grain for decades. Though there were some efforts to commercialize the crop too early by other researchers, Felger feels that it will become a major world crop, comparable to short grain rice in grain size and flavor.

Nipa tolerates salty conditions including irrigation with saltwater, and can handle wet conditions. In the wild, the saltmarshes it grows in are inundated twice daily by tidal seawater. It does not, however, require salt or waterlogging. As unsustainable irrigation practices and sea level rise result in increasing salinization of coastal plain farmlands, nipa could become prominent in regions like the Colorado, Ganges, Indus, Murray, and Nile deltas. It is adapted to tropical and subtropical conditions, and prospects for crossing it with the cold-hardy D. spicata are not promising.

Nipa is still undomesticated, and poses several challenges. Roughly half of plants are seedless males. It also appears to take several years after planting until full yields are achieved.

This perennial grain, already a staple for ages, has great promise for salty tropical areas and beyond. Nipa development should be a high priority to agencies and individuals concerned with food security, salinization, and climate change. Perhaps it may also offer an opportunity to develop productive revegetation of barrier islands, to provide protection to coastal areas from extreme weather events.

Rice (Oryza sativa). Rice has several perennial relatives, one an African perennial rice and the other actually a strain of the wild ancestor of annual rice. Under some conditions, some annual rice plants will “rattoon” (re-sprout) for several years. Perennial rice breeding work was carried out at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the 1990s, and was picked up by the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Kunming, China in 2007. Perennial rice breeding is very challenging and many factors need to be overcome before field testable material is available. The current focus is on replacing annual upland rice, which is grown on steep slopes, as opposed to irrigated paddy rice, which is grown in terraces or level fields. Pest and disease control are challenges in perennial rice as crop rotation is not an option.

The Land Institute reports that Yunnan Academy breeder Hu Fengyi has lines of rice that have produced grain for three years in a row, with yields competitive with annual rice. This is very promising news, as the prospect of perennial rice could have tremendous impact in tropical and subtropical areas of the world.


Research plots in a perennial rice breeding nursery belonging to the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences near Sanya, Hainan Province, PRC. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rye (Secale cereale) is one of the perennial cereals that is closest to commercial viability. Annual rye has been crossed with a wild rye (S. montanum) and several varieties have been developed, including “Permontra” and “ACE-1”. In a recent study perennial ryes yielded 73% as well as their annual counterparts in years one and two. Not enough plants came back for a third year to make further measurement possible. Annual rye itself yields quite a bit lower than annual wheat. Nonetheless, we are probably closer to seeing perennial rye in production on real farms than most other global cereals.

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is weakly perennial in the tropics and “rattoons” or re-sprouts for several years in ideal conditions. Perennial sorghum breeding at the Land Institute has focused on crosses with the perennial weed Johnsongrass (S. halipense). Like corn, there are challenges in overwintering tender rhizomes, which would not be an issue in the tropics. Perennial sorghum is farther along than most of the other perennial versions of major grains but is not yet ready for prime time. Perennial sorghum could be bred not just for grain but also for sweet syrup, which was once made from the stalks across the American Midwest. Sorghum is very versatile in terms of climates to which it is suited, but it is particularly appropriate to dry regions where it can outperform corn.


Perennial sorghum breeding nursery at The Land Institute. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wheat (Triticum aestivum). Perennial wheat breeding efforts began in the Soviet Union almost one hundred years ago. Only with recently developed techniques is perennial wheat breeding beginning to show results. Perennial wheats are typically crossed with wheatgrass (Thinopyron) species.

Several universities are working alongside the Land Institute on perennial wheat breeding including Washington State. In one Washington State study, some perennial wheat varieties yielded 93% as well as annual wheat the first year – most impressive. In a more recent study, perennial forms yielded 50% as well as annuals, in both the first and second years. Most of the plants died after their second harvest.

The Land Institute has had no success in perennial wheat survival in Kanasas (nor have I in Massachusetts). An Australian economic study has shown that perennial wheats could be economically viable if they yielded just 40% as well as annual wheat, but provided good fodder for several years after for grazing sheep. It seems that even this relatively low bar has not yet been cleared by perennial wheat, but breeding work continues.


Heads of plant derived from hybridizing wheat with Thinopyrum intermedium. These plants are completely male sterile, but they are strong perennials. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Additional Perennial Grains Worth Exploring

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is adapted to very cold and short-season environments. The annual form has been crossed with a wild perennial (H. jubatum), probably to impart improved vigor or disease resistance. Researchers in Scandinavia, northern Canada, and Siberia might turn their attention to the potential of perennial barley for their regions.

Indian Ricegrass. This perennial North American native (Oryzopsis hymenoides) was a major staple to indigenous peoples of the west. Discovery of a non-shattering clone allows it to be grown today on a commercial scale in Montana, producing a specialty gluten-free flour marketed as “Montina”. High prices make up for low yields, and about 3,000 acres are in production. Little breeding work has been done of this remarkably drought- and cold-tolerant perennial grain.

Indian ricegrass is a candidate perennial grain for cold, arid climates.

Indian ricegrass is a candidate perennial grain for cold, arid climates.

Intermediate Wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). The Land Institute has been working for several decades to domesticate this perennial wild grain. They have had relatively rapid success, and intermediate wheatgrass is currently undergoing a 30-acre field trial. The research fields are burned annually to control weeds, and apparently the crop can also be grazed to provide a non-seed yield. Production is still low, though researchers aim to see it reach one ton per acre. Thinopyrum species are also used as the perennial parent in attempts to develop perennial wheat.

Job’s Tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). Wild Job’s tears is a perennial from South and Southeast Asia. The seeds of the wild forms (var. stenocarpa and var. monilifer) have thick, hard shells that are often used as beads. These forms are grown around the world as ornamentals, and have naturalized widely. Though they have edible seeds, the shells make these forms impractical for use as food. Farmers in India domesticated an annual or mostly annual form with thin, soft shells (var. ma-yuen) between 3-4,000 years ago, which by 2,000 years ago was being grown in China. Before the arrival of corn, Job’s tears was an important grain in subtropical Asian highlands. Annual Job’s tears yields a respectable 2-3.5 tons per acre, and tolerates acid, poor, and waterlogged soils. Crossing annual grain types with perennial forms could result in a new perennial grain for the tropics and subtropics, including highland areas.

Job's tears. This is the perennial, less edible variety.

Job’s tears. This is the perennial, less edible variety grown as an ornamental.

Markouba Grass, or Afezu (Panicum turgidum) is a wild perennial grass, ranging from the heart of the Sahara desert through Pakistan. It grows in areas with as little as 25mm (1”) of precipitation, spreading by stolons to stabilize sand dunes. Markouba grains are an important staple in the Sahara. Efforts at domesticating this species could serve the dual functions of feeding people in very arid tropical areas and reversing desertification. It might be crossed with proso millet (P. miliaceum), an important annual world grain.

Oats (Avena sativa) are important both as livestock fodder and in oatmeal breakfasts in cold climates around the world. Oats have been hybridized with the perennial A. macrostachya, though not for the purpose of creating perennial oats. Who will rise to this challenge?

Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is an important world grain, thriving in arid environments and poor soils. It has been crossed with the (very weedy) perennial elephant grass P. purpureum. A perennial millet could be significant in Africa and India where millions of people rely on millet for survival.

Woollybutt Grass (Eragrostis eriopoda) is an Australian wild edible that has served as an important staple to indigenous people there for millennia. They are reported to have been the most important native grass seed, in part because of the ease of processing seeds, high yields, and holding on the plant for months. This species is now cultivated on a small scale by “bush tucker” (wild edibles) enthusiasts in Australia.

References and Further Reading

Cox et al. “Prospects for developing perennial grain crops” in Bioscience, 56: 649-659 (2006).

Duke, James. Handbook of Energy Crops, unpublished 1983, online at, accessed April 16 2013.

Glover et al. “Increased food and ecosystem security via perennial grains” in Science 328: 1638-1639 (2010).

Hayes, R.C. et al. “Perennial cereal crops: An initial evaluation of wheat derivatives”, in Field Crops Research 133: 68-89 (2012).

Jaikumar et al. “Agronomic assessment of perennial wheat and perennial rye as cereal crops” in Agronomy Journal, 104:1716-1726 (2012).

Low, Tim. Wild Food Plants of Australia, Angus & Robertson, 1991.

O’Barr, Scott. Alternative Crops for Drylands. Amaigabe Press, 2013.

National Research Council. Lost Crops of Africa Vol. I: Grains. National Academy Press, 1996.

Pearlstein, Felger et al… “Nipa (Distichlis palmeri): A perennial grain crop for saltwater irrigation” Journal of Arid Environmental 82 (2012) 60-70

Shim, Junghyun. “Perennial rice: Improving rice production for a sustainable upland ecosystem” in SABRAO Journal of Breeding and Genetics ,44 (2) 191-201, 2012.

Smith, Keith & Irene. Grow Your Own Bushfoods, New Holland Publishers, 1999.

Van den Bergh, M.H. & N. Iamsupasit, 1996. Coix lacryma-jobi L.[Internet] Record from Proseabase. Grubben, G.J.H. & Partohardjono, S. (Editors).
PROSEA (Plant Resources of South-East Asia) Foundation, Bogor, Indonesia. Accessed from Internet: 16-Apr-2013

Carbon-Sequestering Perennial Industrial Crops

Posted on by User Admin

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices, and is part of a series promoting my kickstarter campaign to raise funds with which to complete the book.

Industrial crops produce materials, chemicals, and energy. Some, like cotton, have been used since the dawn of agriculture. Others, like firewood, go back with our species for a hundreds of thousands of years. Few of us pause to think where cardboard, rubber, fibers, solvents and biopesticides come from.

Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) is a common perennial industrial crop, though typically grown in problematic monocultures. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) is a common perennial industrial crop, though typically grown in problematic monocultures. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Currently much of the materials, chemicals, and energy that support our civilization are synthesized from fossil fuels. To address climate change this needs to end, and we need to learn to do without or use renewable feedstocks (raw materials). Of the biobased renewables used now, GMO corn may be the most frequently used, for example for ethanol and bioplastics. In addition to the social and ecological problems of GMO corn, as an annual crop it contributes to the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere. We must do the opposite, developing perennial and regenerative systems that sequester vast amounts of carbon while meeting human needs.

Some industrial crops are perennial, but these are problematic as well. Plantations of pine and spruce used for paper are clear cut and destructively harvested, killing the trees and ending their carbon sequestration potential. Even non-destructively harvested perennial industrial crops are often grown in vast monocultures with devastating effects on people and ecosystems. Examples include rubber and ethanol sugarcane.

Biofuels are particularly problematic. They are taking land from food production, but there simply isn’t enough land to grow close to all the energy we need. There is a role for local, small-scale production of biofuels, but the great majority of energy must come from clean sources like wind, solar and water. But you can’t make plastic from the wind!

Imagine what the role of industrial crops could and should be in a free and ecological civilization. Perennial, non-destructively harvested crops, grown in integrated polycultures with food plants, livestock and more. Decentralized production and appropriate-scale technology could provide many of the needs of civilization in a fashion that supports regional self-determination. All while substituting for petroleum and annual food crop feedstocks and actively sequestering carbon! Check out my article on industrial starch to see a case study of perennial potential.

Biomass Resprouting woody plants and grasses, bamboo, crop residues Paper, cardboard, agromaterials, biochar, insulation, natural building materials, synthetic fibers Solvents, chemical feedstocks, resins, stabilizers, dispersants, binders and fillers Firewood, combustibles, biogas, gasification, pyrolysis, ethanol, methanol
Starch Pods, starchy fruits, nuts and seeds, starchy trunks Bioplastics, paper, cardboard, packaging materials, plasterboard Solvents, paints, glues, binders, coaters, stabilizers, coagulants, flocculants, textile finishing agents, chemical feedstocks Ethanol
Sugar Pods, saps, extracted sugars, fruits Biomass products from crop residues Solvents Ethanol
Oils Oilseeds, extracted oils Bioplastics, biomass products from residues Glycerin, soaps, lubricants, hydraulic fluid, surfactants, surface coatings, solvents, paints Biodiesel
Hydrocarbons Resprouting woody and herbaceous plants, saps Bioplastics, rubber, biomass products from crop residues, asphalt Chemical feedstocks, pharmaceuticals, virtually infinite products Gasoline, propane, jet fuel, other hydrocarbon fuels, biogas
Fibers Resprouting woody and herbaceous plants, bamboos, seed and fruit fibers, multipurpose palms Textiles, cordage, paper and cardboard, agromaterials, bioplastics and composites, biomass products from residues, natural building materials As for biomass
Specialty products Diverse Cosmetics, diverse products Soaps, waxes, resins, biopesticides, essential oils, pharmacecuticals, dyes
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