Thorn Medicine

“upon a hyll stands a treow but this treow it has no stics no leafs […] abuf the tree flies a raefn below it walcs a wulf and deop in the eorth where no man sees around the roots of the treow sleeps a great wyrm…”

-Paul Kingsnorth, “The Wake”

In Coast Salish creation stories, the islands off the coast of British Columbia were formed from mud that fell from the bill and the feet of Raven. And though there is no wolf in sight on this day, there are definitely worms somewhere underfoot where we stand, gathered in a half-circle, at the western boundary of Ravenhill Herb Farm.

I’m reminded of this passage, written in Paul Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” – halfway to Old English – while a dozen of us talk together about the history of hedges. We’re here with Jude Hobbs, longtime permaculture designer and co-founder of the Permaculture Institute of North America, for a weekend workshop about multifunctional hedgerows. The word ‘hedge’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon haga, and if Kingsnorth’s tree were a hawthorn (hagaþorn, “hedge thorn”), the residents of his England in 1066 might well ascend the hill to take a thorny cutting.

Jude Hobbs at the front of the classroom on day 1 of the workshop at Ravenhill Herb Farm, reviewing base mapping techniques.

Traditionally, once hawthorn whips reached a length of around ten feet, English hedgelayers would split them through the stem and bend the pieces over to weave into a living screen. These ancient hedges had myriad uses: their limbs offered shelter, firewood and a source of coppiced timber; their bushes provided wild berries and nuts. By the Middle Ages these uses had been codified in law, as hedgebote granted commoners the right to the resources of the hedgerow.

And so for centuries the English countryside was knitted across with spiny, teeming thickets that marked out field boundaries and served as animal enclosures. After the Second World War, though, the British government began promoting hedge removal as a means to add productive agricultural space and to better allow machinery to maneuver in the fields. Hedges were dug up and replaced by slim wire fencing.

(L-R): Digging holes for Arbutus unedo compacta, the dwarf strawberry trees that will make up the backbone of the hedgerow; Jude Hobbs’ “Whole Systems Design” approach to permaculture; a Philadelphus (mock-orange) shrub awaiting planting.

But the hedgerows had been performing hidden labour: in their absence, soil quality began to degrade and biodiversity dwindled. In recent decades the government reversed course and began to protect remaining hedgerows and incentivize the planting of new ones.

Here in Canada, the word “hedgerow” conjures up images of sweeping countryside – arrow-straight bands of Manitoba Maple, Trembling Aspen and Bur Oak are a common sight on rural drives through the prairies, the trees framed at their roots by shrubby ranges of chokecherry or sea buckthorn. These are often called windbreaks or shelterbelts, offering a clue as to their primary function. At Ravenhill this weekend we are performing a hedgerow installation along the fenceline, working to bring the benefits of a mixed edible hedge without obstructing the farm’s view of the Saanich Inlet to the east.

Ground prep at the site of the hedgerow planting, Ravenhill Herb Farm.

Jude, who founded Cascadia Permaculture and Agro-Ecology Northwest, is visiting from her acreage at Wilson Creek Gardens, a homestead located in Cottage Grove, Oregon. She tells us that to her mind, permaculture means thinking in whole systems design – providing strategies and tools to create sustainable land use. It is through the latter business that her interest in hedgerows was cultivated in the 1980s, as she sought to implement forest garden principles in her work with farmers.

Hedgerows can do a lot. Beyond serving as a windbreak and privacy screen, they can increase nutrient uptake and perform erosion control and soil stabilization, enhance biodiversity for wildlife habitat and encourage insects and pollinators, conserve water, reduce pesticide drift, limit home heating and cooling costs, and buffer noise. They can also diversify farm income, providing a food source, wood products, culinary and medicinal herbs, floral and propagation materials, and income through carbon sequestration credits.

Prepping the ground for salal (Gaultheria shallon), a native shrub that likes deep shade and is ideal for the forested section of the hedgerow. Salal is an important medicinal plant and pollinator.

Key to achieving this is careful and diverse plant selection – what Jude calls “right plant, right place”. Before the group starts gauging plants, we perform a sector analysis (assessing the magnitude and direction of sun, wind, water, animals, noise, pollution, view, frost risk, and extreme weather events); and an in-depth site analysis (examining the farm’s microclimates, soil, topography, and access needs). We consult with the owners to determine and prioritize the desired functions for the hedgerow.

Jude suggests that in most situations, hedgerows of between 3 and 5 rows of plants – a mix of tree canopy, smaller shrubs and bushes, and groundcover – are usually best. Our site has several distinct zones, ranging from a sunny south-facing slope thick with pasture grass and plantain to a shaded coniferous forest further up the slope, the ground made spongy and acidic by fallen needles. Native grasses skirt the fenceline and bow in a gentle cross breeze.

(L-R): Staggered planting at the hedgerow site; drinks at the back of the classroom, Ravenhill Herb Farm; shovels in the ground at the end of day 2.

For the shadier forest, we settle on salal (Gaultheria shallon), a native shrub that provides flowers and berries and attracts pollinators, and honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea), a semi-evergreen shrub that can grow in wet or dry soil and produces large, blueberry-like fruit.

Downslope we stagger plantings of Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), a deer-tolerant native shrub with strong medicinal properties that will provide food for birds and wildlife, with hardhack (Spiraea douglasii), also known as meadowsweet, a deciduous wildlife attractor that has a long bloom and attracts pollinators.

We continue, interspersing fragrant and nectar-rich mock orange (Philadelphus virginalis) with june plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), another strong pollinator and insect attractor, and California lilac (Ceanothus ‘Victoria’), an evergreen nitrogen fixer. Closer to the fence, for the higher canopy layers, we will plant wax leaf myrtle (Myrica cerifera), a medicinal evergreen, and dwarf strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo ‘compacta’).

Watering downslope after planting is completed.

This isn’t a short-term undertaking – by the end of the second day, with plants in the ground and soil on my knees, I feel the satisfaction that is borne of this kind of work but have to muster some imagination to picture how the site will look in four or five years, once the plants have fully established and are thriving. In time, if we’ve chosen our species well, this will become a bountiful and vigorous hedge, providing privacy and shelter from the wind, but also attracting a range of beneficial wildlife and insects, enriching the soil and surrounding vegetation, and providing food and medicine for the residents.

We had our first herbal processing class earlier in the week, and I have this last gift of nature – medicinal plants – at the top of my mind. Some of the species we’ve planted here are available at the herbal dispensary at Pacific Rim College, for students and members of the community. And I think again of the hedges of medieval England, the ancient art of weaving hawthorn. Hawthorn is unique medicinally because it’s among the few Western herbal adaptogens, commonly prescribed as a heart tonic. It’s also an example of “thorn medicine”: a medicinal plant that will heal, but that demands as well that we pause and contemplate its thorns. Thorns are teachers. Hedges, if we pay attention, are teachers too.

*Local funding for initiatives that increase biodiversity may be available through the City of Victoria, Island Health, and Vancity Credit Union.

Jude Hobbs addressing the class at the end of day 2.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.