Monthly Archives: August 2014

Multispecies Grazing: An Introduction

Years ago, I read a great book titled Small-Scale Livestock Farming by Carol Ekarius. It was in this book that I first came across the idea of multispecies grazing. I immediately fell in love with this concept, and over time I have continued to find more and more reasons to believe this may be the best way to manage animals. When we look at nature, which is supposed to be our guide or teacher in Permaculture, what do we see (Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact)? In healthy ecosystems (and this is key), there is a multitude of species all occupying a single area (Permaculture Principle Eight: Integrate Rather than Segregate).

Multispecies Grazing is how Nature does it!

Multispecies Grazing is how Nature does it!

If you’ve ever seen a National Geographic video about the savanna, you see that this is how animals live in the wild. They still mainly associate with their own species, and this can be loose or strict, depending on the species, the season, the environment, and many other factors, but the point is that they are mixed. No species, plant or animal, exists in a vacuum. Many of us are rather against monocropping of plants, but I wonder if we shouldn’t be against mono-species animal husbandry for the same reasons. Although, I have to admit that “monocropping” is a catchier phrase.

Modern farmers/ranchers have been experimenting with the idea of multispecies grazing for a few decades already. Some recommend what is called the Leader-Follower system. This is where the manager will allow, for example, sheep into the pasture first. Within a day or three, the sheep are rotated to the next pasture, and the pregnant/lactating cows follow onto the pasture that the sheep just left. Then the steers and dry cows follow, then the goats follow, and so on. This management method works, but I don’t think it is the best method.

Alternatively, some land managers are using a single mixed herd. All the sheep and cattle and goats and maybe even pigs are put into a pasture together. The animals sort it all out themselves. I have met and read about a number of farmers/ranchers who initially had split herds and were running a leader-follower system, but they eventually decided to combine them into a single mixed herd. They had just as good results (sometimes better), the work was easier because it was only moving a single herd at a time, and the land usually improved because there was more rest time between grazing. And again, this is how nature does it!

Multispecies Grazing can consist one just two species, but can also include many more.

Multispecies Grazing is most common with cattle and sheep or goats, but many other species can be utilized in a mixed herd management plant.

There are a few things to keep in mind. Not all land is immediately ready for multispecies grazing. If a pasture has been managed for cattle for decades, then it may not be a great pasture for goats. Goats prefer browse (shrubby, woody plants), and if the pasture has no browse in it, they will not be content. They will constantly be trying to escape – even more than they normally do. They may not be as healthy as they would be if they were allowed to eat the way they were designed to eat. So, in this case, it may be best to add sheep. Sheep prefer grasses to browse. They will compete with the cattle for grass, so we can’t add too many sheep to our cattle herd, but the sheep will eat many of the plants that the cattle do not like and that we often consider “weeds”. Remember, if a weed is eaten, it is no longer considered a weed! I’ve heard it joked, “If a sheep eats a weed, its called a forb!” Of course, you need to know that a forb is an herbaceous/non-grass plant for this joke to be funny. But the bottom line is that we need to match the animals to the land’s resources. The more diverse a pasture, the better it is for multispecies grazing, especially the smaller ruminants like sheep and goats.

Next, multispecies grazing requires good record keeping and observation. It is important to keep records of individual animals, breeds, and species. Is one animal not producing offspring? Is one breed or hybrid outproducing the others? This is how we will know how best to manage our animals. And compared to conventional animal management, it is a lot more fun to sit and observe your animals. We get to know them and learn about them, so that we can make intelligent management decisions that improve our herd, our land, and our profit.

There are a variety of things to consider when choosing to work with a multispecies herd. We will need to learn more (which I love). It is easier to become an expert on one species, but it takes some work to become an expert on three or four or seven species. We need to consider if/how we will handle, process, and market these other species. Fencing requirements will be different compared to a single species herd. We will need to consider predators if we are adding smaller animals to our herd. The good news is that there are more and more people out there practicing multispecies grazing. The answers to your questions are out there.

Multispecies Grazing in action.

Multispecies Grazing in action.

Following is my list of the Top 10 Benefits of Multispecies Grazing. I think this provides more than enough reason to consider it on our land.

  1. Mimics Nature. Described above, but this is the most compelling reason for me.
  2. Parasite Control. Cattle and sheep/goats do not share internal parasites. Therefore, cattle will serve as “vacuums” for the sheep/goat internal parasites (and vice versa). This breaks the parasite’s lifecycle and decreases the parasite load in a field. Sheep and goats do share parasites, and this is something to keep in mind, but it is not a reason to avoid mixing sheep and goats in a herd.
  3. Utilize More Plants/More Uniform Grazing. Different species prefer different plants.
    1. Cattle prefer grass
    2. Sheep prefer forbs (“weeds”) over grasses and grasses over shrubs
    3. Goats perfer browse over grasses and forbs, and goats can tolerate plants with more tannins
    4. Grazing next to manure – most species don’t eat where they poop, but many animals don’t mind eating near where other species do. This means more uniform grazing.
  4. Improved “Weed” Control
    1. Controls “Undesireable” Plants such as Brambles, Multiflora Rose, Hardwood Seedlings/Sprouts, Lespedeza/Sericea, Knapweed, Ironweed, etc. Goats are especially equipped to deal with these plants.
    2. Controls Plants in “Difficult” Areas
      1. Public Land often has restrictions on management.
      2. Environmentally Sensitive Locations. This includes areas where using chemicals will directly harm an environment and/or where the public has opposition to chemical use. I disdain chemical use, and this provides an alternative to those who think chemicals are the only answer.
      3. Expensive to Maintain Terrain. Steep hills, rocky but weedy fields, treed pastures (savannas!) can be very time consuming to keep “trimmed”. Multispecies grazing provides a profitable answer to these management issues.
  5. Decreased Wildfire Fuel Loads. With more uniform grazing and more plants being eaten, especially the woody plants eaten by goats, there is less fuel to burn in wildfires.
  6. Increased Carrying Capacity. Carrying Capacity is defined as the environment’s maximal load (Hui 2006). Another way of saying it is the carrying capacity is the maxium stocking rate possible without inducing damage to vegetation or related resources (Bryant et al. 1978). There are many ways to calculate this, but that is a discussion for another article. The bottom line is that because different species have different forage preferences, we can add other species to an existing herd without harming the land and without interfering with the original herd’s performance. Here are some general guidelines:
    1. 1-2 goats can be added for every single cow without decreasing the carrying capacity. As mentioned above, goats have a dietary preference different than cattle, so they are not competing much for pasture resources.
    2. 1 ewe can be added for every 2 cows without decreasing carrying capacity. Sheep eat more grass than goats, and so less sheep can be added to a cattle operation. Although I have not seen any specific data, I imagine that the inverse correlation would be adding one cow for every 6-8 sheep in a sheep operation (i.e. adding cattle to an existing sheep herd).
  7. Increased Pounds Per Acre. This ties right into number 5 above. When we increase carrying capacity, we have an increase in meat production (or milk production).
  8. Increased Income/Profit Potential. This is an obvious consequence of number 5 and 6 above. It is not guaranteed, but it is a very real possibility.
  9. Production Security. Beef prices may drop. There may be a virus that takes down goats across the country. Bad weather may effect performance of one species… There are a number of problems that can arise when raising animals. If we put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, by raising only one species, then we have nothing to fall back on if/when catastrophe hits. There is security in diversity.
  10. It is fun! It is educational, entertaining, and enjoyable  to see a pasture full of a variety of animals interacting with each other. Seeing a mixed herd just feels more right to me. It gives one a sense of completeness.


Multispecies grazing is not utopia, and it has its own management issues and concerns; however, I think multispecies grazing is the logical progression in the continuing advancement of sustainable and regenerative agriculture.



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    The Difficulty with Changing Direction… my plan for Continuing Permaculture Education.

The Difficulty with Changing Direction… my plan for Continuing Permaculture Education.

The painting above is Fishermen at Sea by JMW Turner, 1794. Making the decision to change direction often makes us feel vulnerable, like we are being tossed about in a dark sea.

Scientists, psychologists, pollsters, and statisticians are always trying to categorize people into groups. Are they conservative or liberal? Are they introverts or extroverts? Are they right-handed or left-handed? Do they prefer that the toilet paper rolls over the top or from the back?

I guess I am no different, because I found myself putting people into two groups, although I had no agenda. My categorization of people had to do with personal decision making. I was making some significant decisions for myself, and I found myself wondering why certain decisions were difficult. Let me explain…

I was going to go to Australia as an intern under Geoff Lawton at Zaytuna Farm. This was my plan for many years. I just needed to complete my service commitment to the U.S. Air Force. I had already spoken with his staff about it. I spoke briefly to Geoff about it at the Permaculture Voices conference last year, and I sent in a deposit to hold a spot. I was getting ready to move back to the United States, and I even had a job that was going to allow me to take a leave of absence. However, after much consideration and deliberation I decided that I would not take the path I had planned on for so long, and I realized that this was a very difficult decision to make. I will go into the reasons for my decision in a moment, but first I want to share why I feel this decision was so hard for me. I believe others may benefit from this analysis as well.

First, and here comes my people-catagorizing, I initially thought people could be lumped into two broad groups: Those who change direction easily and those that do not. I think there is some truth to this, generally speaking. The people who change direction easily are often considered “flighty”. They hop from project to project, idea to idea, job to job. They never quite finish anything. They are often impulsive. They can be a lot of fun, but they are not always dependable. Conversely, the people who don’t change direction easily are often considered “determined”. They see things to the end, sometimes to the bitter end. They will often forsake much in the pursuit of their goal. They often accomplish a lot, but they can leave a lot of damage in their wake. Of course, these are the two extremes. Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the two, just like a right-handed person still uses their left hand for many tasks through the day.

This initial categorization held up, but not for long. I looked at my own past, and I saw that I was flighty with some things and very determined with others. Why was this? What I realized is that it is easy to change direction on things that are not that important to us, on things that we have little invested, on things that we have not planned on for very long. Whereas things that are important to us, things we have invested in, and things we have planned on for a long time are much more difficult to give up.

I also came to understand that there is a potential danger in becoming determined about a task or goal, for once we have become determined to accomplish a certain task or achieve a goal, we tend to lose introspection. We tend not to reevaluate. We tend not to ask ourselves if that goal is still the goal we should accomplish. So I asked myself again, why was this? I think it all comes down to having more at stake when we change our mind about things we have become determined. Here are some reasons why it is hard to change direction:

  • We may have money invested.
  • We may have time, sometimes a lot of time, invested.
  • We may have people relying on us to accomplish that task/goal. They are probably relying on us, because we have talked about it so much.
  • Our pride may be wounded when we change our mind. People may say, “I thought you were going to do…”, “But you told me you were going to… “, “Ha! I didn’t think you’d be able to…”, “That was a bit lofty, don’t you think?”
  • When our pride is wounded, we may feel disappointed in ourselves.
  • When we decide not to accomplish something we have wanted to do for so long, there may be a sense of loss.

On a side note, I think I should add that changing direction is very different than failing. Failing can occur for many reasons, many of which are outside our scope of influence, but not always. Changing direction may occur due to failure, but it is not failure in and of itself.

To me, this thought process about changing direction reinforced Permaculture Principles One (Observe and Interact) and Four (Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback). And while I am not an expert on the subject, a decision-making framework is exactly what Holistic Management is all about. I would highly recommend looking into HM as you move forward with any project.

Ultimately, we need to be constantly reevaluating what it is we are doing and understand why we are doing it. We need to be comparing the “what” and the “why” of the specific project on which we are working to our larger, big-picture goals (HM would say our Holistic Goals or Context). We need to adjust or completely change directions when needed, and we can’t be too afraid or too blinded by our determination to do so.


How things feel when a wise decision is made. Fishing Boats in a Calm Sea, by Charles Brooking (1745-1759)

This is how things feel when a wise decision is made. Fishing Boats in a Calm Sea, by Charles Brooking (1745-1759)

Now that I have given a little insight into the difficulty of changing direction, I will share the specifics on why I decided not to go to Australia:

  • It was going to cost a lot of money. Yes, the internship itself was not cheap, but I honestly felt it was worth it. However, I also had to factor in the cost of airfare and the cost of lost wages, since I would not be earning an income while I was gone for 10 weeks. I also had to factor in the cost of maintaining my household (wife and four children) who still needed to eat while I was gone. This was turning into a very expensive trip. In reality, I had first planned on taking this trip before my first child was born. Goodness, but time changes a lot!
  • In the same vein, I would be spending the money I was saving for a land downpayment. Spending this money for education, while a good investment, was going to set me back a few years. This would further delay our big-picture goal of purchasing land, and this goal had already been delayed more than I would have liked… I have been waiting for YEARS to complete my Air Force commitment.
  • I spent four years living overseas at very small military bases. The assignments officer (that is the person who decides who goes where in the military) always had difficulty filling spots for physicians in Turkey and in the Azores. Nobody wanted to go to these bases, so someone would be “volun-told” to go there. These were rather remote assignments, and they were considered “less desirable” bases for a number of reasons. But there was one benefit to these bases. Because there were only 1-2 regular staff physicians at these locations, they almost never got deployed. I understood that I was in the military, and if I deployed, that was my job. I wasn’t going to complain about it. However, I was very proactive about trying to avoid deployments. I had seen too many really good people (physicians included) who were forever changed, for the worse, by their war experience. I had no desire to have that kind of emotional and psychological baggage, especially when I had my own personal questions about the mission as a whole. I also had no desire to leave my wife and very young children if I could help it. So I volunteered to go to these remote bases, because I knew the chances of my being deployed would be so low. The assignments officers were always a little surprised about my requests. But, truth be told, I loved living in Turkey and the Azores, and I really wonder why they have such a bad reputation. I wouldn’t ever trade that experience, and my wife agrees. With all that said, I spent four years proactively avoiding being separated from my family. And here I was about to volunteer to be gone from my family for almost three months for a trip to Australia. Granted, it would be nothing like a deployment, but it just seemed a little backwards.
  • When I first started learning about Permaculture, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Everything looked amazing, and I wanted to try it all. Actually, I think I still feel the same way, but I have realized I can’t do it all. As I have continued to grow and mature and learn about Permaculture, and sustainable/regenerative agriculture in general, I have begun to develop a vision for what it is I want to do. I want to exercise Permaculture on the broad scale. I want to be a food producer. As a physician, I always try to look for the root cause of the problem; I don’t want to just put a band-aid on it. I feel that our country’s health is very poor, and while there are a lot of contributing factors to this, I feel like the ultimate root cause is how our food is raised. It is the soil, or rather the dead soil (dirt), where our food is being grown that is the problem. The internship at Zaytuna Farm has a lot of great education, but the goal of that farm is different than what I want to do. Their focus is on education and getting a broad Permaculture experience. I didn’t want to take the time, and money, to do things that were not directly and entirely in line with my primary goal, even though I know I would have a great time and learn a lot at Zaytuna.
  • I realized that if I did not take this trip to Australia, I would instead be able to attend a number of other courses closer to home. These courses would focus my educational time on things that would help me reach my primary goal. In addition, because I was not gone for months at a time, I could still keep saving for our land.
  • I hope that this doesn’t sound arrogant, because that is not how I see it. Over seven years ago, when I first decided I wanted to attend a Permaculture internship, I had so much I needed to learn. But I have learned a whole lot in the intervening years. I don’t think it would benefit me nearly as much as it would have seven years ago. In addition, internships offer the opportunity for people to do the same thing many times so that they can master it, or hopefully at least get proficient at it. But I realized that my learning style is really one of seeing, not doing over and over. If I see how something is done, I get it. I don’t need to do it over and over again before I understand it and can replicate it. This may be related to the classic style of medical education I endured, “See one, do one, teach one.” I am sure that if I did an internship, I learn something new every day. However, I decided that I would rather spend my time “seeing” as much as possible over this next year before we acquire our land. I will then be able to “do” on my land. I have no issues with internships. I’ve done a physician internship myself. There is great education in internships, and I plan to offer internships on my land as well. I have just decided that an internship is not my best use of time right now.
  • Finally, and this development occurred after my decision was made, but Geoff Lawton is no longer even offering his 10-week internship! Zaytuna Farm revamped their courses, and now they offer 4-week Specialized Work Experiences. I actually think this is a great change, and it actually addresses some of my reasons for deciding not to attend the internship. After reading about it, I may consider attending one of these in the future. But that is a whole other decision!
My photo from the Keyline Course.

My photo from the Keyline Course.

So, with all that said, I am planning on attending what I call Continuing Permaculture Education (CPE). As a physician, each year I am required to maintain a certain level of Continuing Medical Education (CME) to maintain my license. Why should I not do the same with Permaculture? Here is what I plan on doing this year… if all goes according to plan. Maybe I’ll see you there!




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Permaculture Plants: Raisin Tree

Common Name: Raisin Tree, Japanese Raisin Tree, Oriental Raisin Tree
Scientific Name: Hovenia dulcis
Family: Rhamnaceae (the Buckthorn family)

The Japanese Rasin Tree has edible fruit stalks, not fruit!

The Raisin Tree has edible fruit stalks, not fruit!

The Raisin Tree is a unique plant. The edible portion of the tree is not actually the fruit. The fruit itself is small, hard, pea-sized, and not edible. But the stem or stalk of the fruit, once the fruit is mature, will swell up and become gnarled. It is this fruit stalk, technically called a rachis, that is edible. I rarely write about fruits I have not eaten, but this one is so cool that I couldn’t pass it up.

The Raisin Tree is a medium to large tree that is cold tolerant, likes long, hot Summers, can grow in the sun or shade, has edible parts, has a high-quality wood that is used in construction, furniture, tools, and crafts, and has no common pests or diseases. There has been almost no development with this plant, and I think there is a lot of room for improvement… from larger fruit stalks to more cold tolerance to experiments with animal feeding. There is a lot of room to grow with this tree!

The Raisin Tree (Holvenia dulcis)

The Raisin Tree (Holvenia dulcis), Flora Japonica, Sectio Prima (Tafelband), 1870.

Native to the moist, shady mountains of China. Likely brought to Korea and Japan thousands of years ago. Once source states that it was brought to the West in 1820, but it remains a very rare tree here. Another report states that this plant was never cultivated much in Asia for food, but the fruit stalks were collected by children from the wild and used by the family. It has been commercially raised for its high-quality wood.


  • The Japanese name for the edible fruit stalk is kenpo-nashi. My Japanese is not very good, but as best as I can tell, kenpo has a meaning related to the hand or fist. Nashi means pear.
  • The Chinese name for the edible fruit stalk is chi-chao li or chih-chu li which means chicken-claw pear.
  • There is some research being done on the compounds found in the Japanese Raisin Tree. It is hypothesized that these extracts may help prevent liver damage after alcohol intoxication. Some are looking to use it as an “anti-hangover” medicine.


The Raisin Tree is a pretty, but subtle tree.

The Raisin Tree is a pretty, but subtle tree.

Although it becomes much more pretty when flowering.

Although it becomes much more pretty when flowering.


Primary Uses:

  • Edible Fruit Stalk – Can be eaten raw or cooked. Reported to have a flavor similar to Asian Pears or candied Walnuts. The fruit stalks can be dried and then have a flavor and texture more like a raisin. (here is a fun article about cooking with the Raisin Tree)
  • Extract – An extract from the fruit stalks and other parts (young leaves and small branches?) is made in China. It is called “tree honey” and is used as a honey substitute. It is used for making sweets and even a type of wine!

Secondary Uses:

  • Wood is used for construction, flooring, furniture, tools, utensils, artwork, etc.
  • Although I can find no reports of this, the Raisin Tree can likely be coppiced. There is a report that a specimen tree in the Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had a height of 30 feet (9 meters). In the Winter of 1933-34, the record cold froze the tree to the ground. However, “vigorous shoots” grew from the main trunk. Within 8 years, it was back to its 30+ foot height again, and within 45 years (this was a 1978 report), the tree was 78 feet (23 meters)!
  • Wildlife food for both birds and small mammals.
  • Although I can find no reports of this, I would think that the profuse, fragrant flowers would benefit insects, including bees.
  • Drought Tolerant Plant – I have found a few reports that this tree is drought tolerant once established.
  • The Raisin Tree is being evaluated as a reforestation tree. It grows fast enough, attracts wildlife, and is not considered invasive.
  • Medicinal – There is some research to support that the antioxidants in this plant (hodulcine, ampelopsin, quercetin) has liver protecting and anti-inflammatory effects.

Yield: Variable, but one report states that mature trees can yield 5-10 pounds of edible fruit stalks.
Harvesting: The most common complaint I have seen about the Raisin Tree pertains to the harvesting. As this tree can get quite large, trying to harvest the edible fruit stalks from at the very tips of the branches can be difficult. Author Lee Reich suggests cutting off branches and harvesting the fruit stalks from the ground.
Storage: Up to 2 months in a dry, well aerated position. The flavors seem to improve with age… up to a point!

The flowers are small, but numerous and fragrant.

The flowers are small, but numerous and fragrant.

The fruit that develop are only about the size of a pea.

The fruit which develop are only about the size of a pea.

As the fruit matures, the fruit stalk starts to swell and twist.

As the fruit matures, the fruit stalk starts to swell and twist.

Eventually the fruit (at the tips) are mature and dried. They often rattle with the few seeds contained within. But the stalks are swollen and sweet.

Eventually the fruit (at the tips) are mature and dried. They often rattle with the few seeds contained within. But the stalks are swollen and sweet.

These fruit stalks can be eaten fresh - used like you would dried fruit.

These fruit stalks can be eaten fresh – used like you would dried fruit.

...or they can be dried and used like raisins.

…or they can be dried and used like raisins.


USDA Hardiness Zone: Zone 5-10. This may vary depending on the origination of the mother plant that the seeds were collected from (i.e. if the mother plant grows in a colder climate, then the seeds may yield trees that are able to tolerate similarly cold climates). It may be worth tracking down seeds/seedlings originating in a climate similar to where you will be planting your trees. Also, there is a good chance that colder specimens can be developed/found with the planting of enough seeds.
AHS Heat Zone: 8-4
Chill Requirement: Likely considering where this plant originates, but no reliable information is available.

Plant Type: Medium to Large Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer, Sub-Canopy Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Only the single species exists. There are no “improved” varieties.

Pollination: Self-fertile
Flowering: Early Summer. Flowers are small but very numerous

Life Span:

  • Years to Begin Fruiting: 7-10 years, although 3 years has been reported in “ideal” growing conditions (fertile, moist soils and long, warm/hot Summers).
  • Years of Useful Life: 50-150 years, although I found only one source for this information. I honestly do not think there is good information for this.
Leaves of the Raisin Tree.

Leaves of the Raisin Tree.


Size: 30-70 feet (9-21 meters) tall and 20 -40 feet (3-7 meters) wide; however, Raisin Trees typically stay toward the smaller end of their potential.
Roots: No information can be found describing the root system, although I came across many reports that state the roots are not a problem at the surface. This indicates to me that the roots are deeper in nature. This is also supported by the reports that this tree may be drought-tolerant once established.
Growth Rate: Medium

Bark of the Raisin Tree

Bark of the Raisin Tree

The Raisin Tree has high-quality wood.

The Raisin Tree has high-quality wood.


Light: Full sun to partial shade
Shade: Tolerates light to medium shade, but fruits earlier and in larger quantity in full sun.
Moisture: Prefers moist, but not wet, soils.
pH: One source states 6.1-8.5 and another states “highly acid to slightly alkaline” soils. The reality is that this plant likely tolerates a wide range of soil conditions.

Special Considerations for Growing:

  • Avoid wet soils.
  • Raisin Trees need Summers that hot enough and start early enough (and are therefore long enough) to allow the fruit to ripen. The fruit must ripen enough before the fruit stalk will swell and become sweet.

Typically from seed since no improved varieties exist. Seeds need to be scarified or stratified. Scarification with acid (sulfuric acid for 2 hours) seems to yield the best germination rates. This mimics the degrading process of the hard seed coat which would occur in nature over a very long period of time. Germination can take place within a few weeks but can take up to a few months. Softwood and root cuttings are also proven means of propagation.

None. It is said that this tree will “self prune”, dropping the lower branches as it grows.




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Tapping the Pine Tree… Plant Resins and their Uses

I avoid saying that I love trees. That sems too trite, and it sounds blasé… because everyone “loves” trees; it says so on their t-shirts. So I choose other words like fascinated, inspired, excited. To me, there really is something magical and spiritual about walking through a forest filled with trees that are hundreds of years old. There is a sense of life that permeates the air in even the stillest of forests. There is a fair amount of quality research being released in recent years about how trees communicate. Yes, trees actually do communicate with each other in the forest although I have not seen any credible evidence for sentience in trees, and maybe this is really a topic for another article. Ultimately, I believe that there is a point of balance between using trees for our benefit and treating them with respect. I have no problem with utilizing the products that trees provide us. Trees can truly provide a sustainable supply of many things useful for humans. Trees can even be part of a regenerative agriculture, where the air, water, soil, and ecology as a whole are improved while we still collect a harvest. But if we do not respect the trees, and the ecology surrounding them, our endeavors will be destructive and degrading. Trees cannot be treated like so many things in our modern throw-away society.

With that said, there are so many products that trees provide, in their living and, yes, even in their dying. Most people are well familiar with the fruits and nuts that living trees provide. Dead trees provide firewood, building wood, and even food for certain medicinal and edible mushrooms. There are a number of trees that can be tapped to provide sweet sap that can be reduced to a tasty syrup. The most notable are the maple species, although there are actually a number of other species that can provide a good, but lower quality syrup than the maples.

I want to address another product that can be obtained from tapping trees, but it is not for their sap. It is for their resin. Resin is obtained from many trees other than the pines, but that is the most common resin-producing tree in my local Temperate Climate.

We see a pine tree and we think Christmas trees, pine cones, wood, and maybe paper. A few of us think about pine nuts… delicious! There are probably a few of us who think about a tea made from pine needles that is high in vitamin C and was used to prevent scurvy in long Winters without fresh fruits and vegetables. Those with some land may consider them as good trees for windbreaks. But how many of us see a pine tree and think of turpentine, rosins (for bowed string instruments, gymnists, ballet dancers, baseball pitchers, etc.), varnish, oil-paint thinner, furniture wax, lamp oil, soap, tar, and pitch?

In modern times, many of these products are now made with synthetic chemical processes that can be highly polluting and is typically unsustainable. As a Permaculturist, I am very interested in learning more about traditional products, their collection, processing, and uses. The remainder of this article provides an overview of the science, history, collection, and uses of resin.



Pine Resin is naturally produced from wounds on the tree.


Resin is a fluid (specifically, a hydrocarbon) that is secreted from certain plants (a.k.a. resinous plants), most commonly trees, and most commonly coniferous trees such as pine trees. Resins perform a number of functions in the plants that produce them. Resins seal over wounds, and this protects the plant from pests and infections. Resins contain antimicrobial properties that help prevent decay and fungal infections, and resins also seem to decrease water loss during droughts or plant injury.

Humans have gathered and used resins from plants for thousands of years. Resins have been used for waterproofing, varnishes, adhesives, art, incense, medicines, and many other purposes. It is only recently in human history that we have started using synthetic, as opposed to  natural/plant-derived, resins.


Historic photo from Florida’s pine-tapping turpentine industry.

Another historic photo from Florida's pine-tapping turpentine industry.

Another historic photo from Florida’s pine-tapping turpentine industry.

Another pine resin collection device.

Another pine resin collection device.

Resins can be collected by tapping trees. This has traditionally been achieved by notching the bark in a parallel V-shaped pattern. At the lowest notching, a bucket collects the pooled resin. Trees can be tapped for well over 20 years, and are then used for other purposes including timber, since the wood is not damaged during the tapping process. Depending on the species of tree and the product desired, various processing techniques are used to refine the resin.

While all resinous plants produce resin, some species and hybrids produce higher quality resin than others. Trees also produce other fluids (e.g. sap, latex, gums, etc.), but these are chemically quite distinct from resin. Resins can be categorized a few ways, and while I think the following is a pretty good system, there is a fair amount of overlap between categories:



Hard Resins: These are, not surprisingly, hard. Here are some examples of hard resins:

    • Dammar – obtained from the Dipterocarpaceae family of lowland, tropical rainforest trees from around the globe and the Agathis trees of  southeast Asia and northern Australia. Dammar is used as a glaze for foods, crafts, incense, varnish, and more.
    • Mastic – obtained from the Mediterranean Mastic Tree (Pistacia lentiscus). Mastic was commonly used as a natural chewing gum, but it is also used in ice creams, puddings, pastries, nougat, sauces, soups, fruit and vegetable preserves, soft drinks, coffee, liqueurs, and many other foods. It has a long history as a medicinal and incense, and is also used in perfumes and cosmetics and even in varnishes.
    • Sandarac – obtained from the Sandarac Tree (Tetraclinis articulata) of North Africa in a dry, Mediterranean climate. Sandarac is used for varnish and lacquer.
Elemi resin ready to be harvested.

Elemi resin ready to be harvested.

Oleoresins: These are resins that contain an oil component naturally made by the tree. They typically stay soft or gum-like. Here are some examples of oleoresins:

    • Balsams – obtained from a variety of trees and shrubs. Balsams contain certain esters (e.g. benzoic or cinnamic acid) that are aromatic, and therefore, balsam is commonly used for as a fragrance and a traditional medicine.
    • Copaiba – obtained from the Copaifera genus of leguminous trees of South America. Used in varnishes and lacquers.
    • Elemi – obtained from the Elemi Tree (Canarium luzonicum) tree of the Philippines. Used in varnishes, lacquers, and traditional medicine.
    • Labdanum – obtained from the Rockrose (Cistus species) from the Mediterranean. Used in traditional medicine and perfumes.
    • High-Terpene Resins – obtained most commonly from Pine Trees (Pinus species). See Turpentine below for more detailed information.


Gum Resins: resins that are produced with a natural gum (sugars/polysaccharides) instead of oil. Here are some examples of gum resins:

    • Frankincense – obtained from the Boswellia genus of trees from tropical Africa and Asia. Used as an incense, perfume, medicinal, and had many religious ties.
    • Guggal – obtained from the Guggal Tree (Commiphora wightii) of North Africa and central Asia. Used as a traditional medicine.
    • Myrrh – obtained from the Commiphora genus of tree of tropical Africa, Asia, and South America. Used as a fragrance and medicinal.
Amber with a trapped insect.

Amber with a trapped insect.

Fossilized Resins:

    • Amber – the color “amber” is named after this amber-colored plant resin that has fossilized, although there is a blue amber that is stunning. Amber sometime contains animals or insects and is used in paleontology. Amber is used in jewelry, traditional medicine, perfumes, incense, varnishes, and lacquers.
    • Copal – this is a resin that has not quite been fossilized yet, so it can be considered a resin that is on its way to become an amber. It has been used as incense and medicine and varnish.



The Loblolly Pine is commonly used for timber, phone poles, and paper, but is a high-terpene producing resin plant.

The Loblolly Pine is commonly used for timber, phone poles, and paper, but is a high-terpene producing resin plant.


Many of the oleoresins from pine trees (and other trees listed below) have high levels of terpenes. Terpenes are a class of organic compounds (hydrocarbons) that a tree produces to repel pests; however, terpenes are produced and/or used in almost all living creature in the world. Some examples of natural products containing terpenes are steroids and beta-carotene. Once a terpene is altered, it is known as a terpenoid.

Turpentine is a fluid obtained by distilling high-terpene oleoresins. Collected oleoresins are placed into a steam distiller, and the turpentine is evaporated off and collected in a condenser. Turpentine can also be extracted via a process known as destructive distillation which occurs during pyrolysis (this is the process that occurs with the proper use of rocket stove technology). I can’t find a lot of information on obtaining turpentine through pyrolysis, but when I do, I will share it.

Turpentine can be used as a solvent (a substance that dissolves other substances) and to produce varnish. It can also be mixed with beeswax to make a high quaility furniture wax. Turpentine can be burned in oil lamps and can be mixed with ethanol to make “burning fluid”, an illuminant. Turpentine is mainly used today, once it has been processed, as synthetic pine oil. Pine oil is used for fragrance, flavoring, and in cleaning agents to give the “pine” odor.

Trees that have traditionally been primary sources of terpentine:

  • Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis)
  • Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
  • Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)
  • Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster)
  • Ponderosa Pin (Pinus ponderosa)
  • Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii)
  • Sumatra Pine (Pinus merkusii)
  • Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) – produces Canada Balsam. Used as a glue for eyeglasses, a traditional medicine, and in soaps and perfumes.
  • Terebinth or Turpentine Tree (Pistacia terebinthus) – a very-long lived tree from the Mediterranean and Middle East.
  • Larch (Larix species) – produces Venetian Turpentine. Used in varnish, traditional medicine, and traditional chewing gum.
  • Red Spruce (Picea rubens) – produces Spruce Gum. Used as a traditional chewing gum.


Pine Rosin

Pine Rosin

Other Resin Products

Rosin (aka Colophony) – ROsin (not REsin) is the substance left over after turpentine is distilled from resin. Rosin is a solid and ranges in color from yellow to black. It is used by violinists and other string instrument musicians, in sealing wax, varnishes, medications, foods, and in electronic soldering.

Pine Tar – produced when heating Pine wood at high temperatures without catching fire (pyrolysis). Water and tar drip from the wood leaving charcoal behind. Used as a wood preservative and water sealant (boats, roofs, ropes, etc.) and in soaps and traditional human and veterinary medicines.

Pitch – Pine Tar is heated so that the water is evaporated. When the tar thickens, it is called pitch. Pitch was traditionally used for waterproofing seams and wooden containers (buckets, barrels, boats, etc.) and roofs. Some people consider Pine Tar and Pitch the same thing, others separate them based on consistency… Pine Tar being more liquid than Pitch.


Varnishing a hand-crafted wooden canoe.

Varnishing a hand-crafted wooden canoe.

Additional Definitions

Varnish – This is a protective “finish” or application for wood and other materials. Varnish is usually transparent or mostly transparent. It goes on wet and dries hard. It can have various levels of sheen (high gloss, glossy, semi-gloss, satin, etc.). Traditional varnishes contain an oil, a resin, and a solvent. The oils, also known as drying oils, harden after long exposure to oxygen. Examples of drying oils are linseed oil, poppy seed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil. Resins have been discussed at length above, and varnish resins include amber, copal, balsam, copaiba, elemi, mastic, rosin, and sandarac. The most common solvent, by far, is turpentine.

Lacquer – This is a type or method of varnishing, but is typically treated separately. Most varnishes undergo a chemical reaction that causes the varnish to harden. However, lacquers only undergo evaporation. If the solvent is reapplied to the finish (i.e. the lacquer), it will soften again. The resin that is traditionally used to make lacquer is lac (you can see where the name comes from!). Lac is the secretion from the lac insects of Asia. The dried secretion is refined and cleaned with a few different methods and then dries into shellac flakes. These flakes are dissolved in a solvent (lacquer thinners or alcohols) to make liquid shellac. Modern lacquer uses synthetics like polyurethanes, acrylics, or alkyds. Because these lacquers do not contain lac, they are not called shellacs, just lacquers. Another difference between modern varnishes and lacquers is that modern lacquers/shellacs are sprayed on while varnishes are brushed on.


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Photo References:

  • – State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,


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TCP Update (1 August 2014): Transitions

I don’t often give personal updates, but the frequency of my articles have dropped quite a bit as of late. I thought I would give just a brief update on what is going on with TCP.

To say that this is a busy time in our lives would be an understatement.

My family and I have been back in the United States for just over 8 weeks. We spent 4 years living abroad, 2 years in the Middle East (Turkey) and 2 years on an island in the North Atlantic (Terceira Island, Azores). I was working as a U.S. Air Force Family Medicine physician. After 11 years with the military in a Reserves and Active Duty role, my commitment was complete. I have no regrets, but I am glad to be done with the military for a number of reasons, the largest of which is that I am now free to pursue my personal, family, and Permaculture goals with no extraneous limitations.

This year is a year of transition for us. Just moving back to our home country is quite a big transition. My two oldest children don’t remember anything about life in the U.S., and my youngest two have never even lived in the U.S. before. All of them are having to deal with adjusting to a new culture, yet again. It is fascinating to see all the things my wife and I just “know” about our culture that we learned as children, but that our children don’t understand because they haven’t grown up in America. This is stressful for both them and us. My wife and I are also dealing with our own reverse culture shock, which I have written about a bit in a previous article. We are so glad to be back in the USA, but we are also still adjusting to our home culture again. I have had to forgo some of my typical writing time each day to be present with my family during this time of transition, and this has been healthy for all of us.

I have also stepped out of Family Medicine and into Emergency Medicine. There are a number of reasons for this transition. While I have loved practicing military Family Medicine, civilian Family Medicine is quite a bit different. I really cherished the relationships with my patients and their families, and I think this is the biggest aspect of Family Medicine I will miss. I like the faster pace and mostly higher acuity of care in Emergency Medicine. I really like working a shift where I do not have to take my work home with me and I don’t have to take call. And while I am very excited about transitioning to a new job and a new schedule, this process has taken up a lot of my time.

We decided to rent a house for this year of transition as well. While I am tired of living a transient life, this was a good decision for many reasons. Our household goods just arrived from the Azores… this only took four months! We have been digging out of boxes for the last few days. This is what I call a “good stressful” time. We are glad to be able to start to make this rental house a home, but the amount of work and exhaustion it takes to unpack a truck full of boxes is rather stressful. Again, this has also been taking up a lot of my time.

I am almost giddy with the fact that we are planning on purchasing land within this year. We are actually waiting to get final word from the bank on our pre-approval. There are a number of small, but surmountable, glitches with trying to get a mortgage after not living in the U.S. for 4 years.This process has actually been taking up quite a bit of my time as well, but it is slowly moving forward. We’ve gone out to look at land a few times, but we are waiting to look in earnest until the loan pre-approval is complete.

Education is another thing I am focusing on during this year of transition. My schedule affords me the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling if I desire. I am planning on using this year to get some real practical, hands-on education before we purchase our land. I have spent the last decade reading about Permaculture and sustainable/regenerative agriculture. I have been able to implement these ideas on small, transient scales. However, we are on the brink of finally settling down with a sizable plot of land. I want to spend some time with others who have vastly more practical experience than I have. I’ll actually write another article here soon outlining the course I will be attending. Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

So there it is. There are multiple more transitions occurring right now, but these are the main ones that are taking me away from writing as much as I typically do, and this is why I wanted to share them with you. But I am hopeful that these transitions are taking us a step closer to our goals of living a fulfilled life. That makes this path worth walking.


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Photo References:

  • Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854,_1854.jpg