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Stages of succession in a perennial tropical food forest

 
Giulianna Lamanna
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Location: Pittsburgh, PA
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I have a question that might seem a little odd. It's for a novel I'm writing.

Imagine that a group of people start a perennial tropical food forest. It's designed to be self-sustaining, and likely contains a mix of foods from tropical ecosystems all over the world that modern-day Americans enjoy. 400 years later, their hunter-gatherer ancestors tell the story of their people, and their ongoing duty to care for the land, using the metaphor of ecological succession. So for example, we begin with Fire Generation (industrial civilization) which destroyed everything. The first group of permaculturalist settlers who established the food forest might be (some sort of edible grass) Generation, and then shrub generations and pioneer tree generations, and so on and so forth until you start to see climax species. All of these examples have to be edible, because part of telling the story is eating a meal. It's a coming-of-age ritual that's a bit like a Passover seder.

The trouble is, I don't live in a tropical climate myself and I'm not all that familiar with the tropics. (I've never even been further south than Florida, and even those trips were restricted to Disney World and my grandmother's retirement community in Boca Raton.) But it's got to be tropical, because a basic premise of this setting is that runaway global warming has produced a world similar to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when basically every place up to Alaska had a tropical climate.

Anyway... I'm looking at 16 generations, divided into four stages of succession. (The four stages would likely be courses in the meal, so the foods in each group may be mixed together.) I was hoping some you might be able to help me fill this out. Do you have any ideas?

Stage One:
1. Some variety of edible grass or groundcover?
2. Some variety of nightshade?
3.
4.

Stage Two:
5. Ginger?
6. Bananas?
7.
8.

Stage Three:
9.
10.
11.
12.

Stage Four:
13.
14.
15.
16.

Thanks in advance. I should add that I'll thank you by name in the book if you can help me out!
 
R Ranson
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What an exciting project. I'm looking forward to reading it.

I hope you get loads of helpful answers. If anyone knows this stuff, I bet you'll find them here.

Perhaps early on, we would want a nitrogen fixer. Legumes like cow peas would be an awesome staple crop. They grow well in Africa and Southern States, but I don't know if they would qualify as tropical. Their advantages is that they extract nitrogen from the air and make it available in the soil for the other plants. They also make fantastic, long storing food as dry beans, as well as the leaves are supposedly edible (cook as spinach). I've seen references to them being eaten in Africa in years when other greens won't grow - so I imagine they aren't the most tasty of greens. The stocks can be fed to animals as fodder, and make good mulch. I imagine that once the forest is established they would grow near the edge of the forest as they like a lot of light. But there are fast growing nitrogen fixing trees that I don't know the name of which would take over in the deep food forest.

Runner beans might also make good nitrogen fixers. They are good as dry beans, green beans, shelly beans, animal fodder, the leaves are edible (supposedly, but I doubt it's tasty), the roots are edible as a starch... it climbs so it can grow deeper in the forest and seek out the light by climbing trees. The highest I've had mine clime is 25 feet. It is often perennial in warmer climates. I don't know if it's a tropical plant or not, but it does have a wide range. Perhaps with selective plant breeding (also a tool of permaculture), it could become a tropical plant.

Two books come to mind that might be useful to you:
The Edible Food Forest (which is a bit pricy, but most libraries either have it or can interlibrary loan it)

and

Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution. He's a pioneer in the field and has a lot of description of how he began his food forests. It's primary orange trees with vegetables underneath. His book is also great for understanding the philosophy that permeates permaculture.

Please let us know when your book comes out, and perhaps you could consider being a guest author here once it's published.

Looking forward to reading everyone's encouraging replies.
 
amarynth leroux
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This article may be right up your alley - Seeing the Garden in the Jungle by Toby Hemenway. This is also how we in the tropics would approach creating a new food forest or a place to grow.

http://tobyhemenway.com/127-seeing-the-garden-in-the-jungle/

Novice permaculturists aren’t the first to visit the tropics and mistake a lack of garden beds for a lack of food production. Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies “hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.” How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.


The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.


Bear in mind after 30 to 50 years, there is only jungle with hardwood trees left, if the process is done correctly. Indigenous gardeners move on or they have 4 or 5 'milpa' fields in production, and rotate them over the course of years.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Do we have to limit ourselves to edible plants from a specific region? Or is any edible plant worldwide up for grabs?

http://perennialvegetables.org/perennial-vegetables-for-each-climate-type/tropical-lowlands/

Lots of geoff lawton's videos on his website and on Youtube deal with tropical food forests, and he mentions many specific plants:

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=geoff+lawton+food+forest+

http://geofflawton.com/free-videos/

 
Casie Becker
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Considering the tendency (an in think it's an increasing trend) for permaculturists to selectively breed to improve the ability of plants to survive, would you be interested in including subtropical species also? I don't want to backseat write, just think it might make a wider selection of familiar crops available.
 
Giulianna Lamanna
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Location: Pittsburgh, PA
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Thank you all for your helpful responses! This is all great.

R Ranson wrote:Please let us know when your book comes out, and perhaps you could consider being a guest author here once it's published.

Oh wow, you flatter me! I don't know how relevant the book as a whole is to permaculture; what I'm talking about in this thread is mostly background for the main characters' culture. It'll show up in the first chapter. The bulk of the story is about nuclear waste. But hey, if you'd have me as a guest author, I certainly wouldn't turn the honor down.

I actually have The Edible Food Forest, and I've flipped through it a few times. I probably should have checked that before going begging for information here, though honestly it intimidates the hell out of me. I went to a PDC some years back where Dave Jacke guest-taught for a day. I remember that day being the hardest. I don't remember exactly what he had us do - I know there was a lot of writing, which was unusual for that course - but it kind of made my head spin. It now occurs to me that everything I need to know is probably in that set of books, if I can get over the intimidation factor of actually cracking them open.

amarynth leroux wrote:Bear in mind after 30 to 50 years, there is only jungle with hardwood trees left, if the process is done correctly. Indigenous gardeners move on or they have 4 or 5 'milpa' fields in production, and rotate them over the course of years.

Thank you so much for that link. This is amazing; that article almost tells me everything I need to know. I mean, look at this:

Corn, beans, and squash fill much of the milpa the first two years or more, but after the first harvest, the farmers dig in seedlings of bananas, papayas, guavas, and other fruit trees, and interplant them with manioc, tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices, other favorite food and fiber plants, and some native forest seedlings. Nitrogen-fixing and firewood tree seedlings (such as Gliricidia, which is both) weave a border around the plot. The three sisters and other annuals cover the remaining ground for a few more seasons, but over the next five to eight years, the fruit-tree canopy closes in, and the farmers stop planting annuals. That activity shifts to a new plot, but meanwhile, back at the milpa . . . new cycles begin. By now most anthropologists have gone home and are missing the rest of the picture.

In some spots, farmers pull out a few non-flowering trees and bring in beehives. They also coppice trees known to stump-sprout (often leguminous) and begin growing firewood or craftwood. The tree fruits attract game animals, which supply meat, skins, and feathers. Cattle, tied to large trees, forage amid the greenery. Some of the other originally spared trees become trellises for vanilla beans and other vines, which yield for 10 to 12 years. Fruit rains down.

This actually works better than my original idea. 30 to 50 years is about one human generation, so each generation sees one cycle, and in their story they describe each generation as one step in the cycle, so it's like a cycle of cycles. Very mythic. I'm ashamed to admit that I am familiar with Toby Hemenway, and probably read this exact article (I know I read about managed food forests in Charles Mann's 1491), but I didn't remember or put it together with what I was doing for this project.

Tyler Ludens wrote:Do we have to limit ourselves to edible plants from a specific region? Or is any edible plant worldwide up for grabs?

Any and all edible plants from tropical regions worldwide are definitely up for grabs. Thank you for the links; I'm totally going to check out those videos!

Casie Becker wrote:Considering the tendency (an in think it's an increasing trend) for permaculturists to selectively breed to improve the ability of plants to survive, would you be interested in including subtropical species also? I don't want to backseat write, just think it might make a wider selection of familiar crops available.

Sure! It's been 400 years; I'm sure a number of plants have managed to evolve to adapt to the new climate, with or without humanity's help.
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/cards
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