The endangered Marshall Strawberry and the endangered Chicago native plant front yard

May 12, 2013

What is the “Marshall Strawberry” and why should you care?

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that since the beginning of this century, about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops worldwide has been lost. According to this FAO article

“Genetic erosion” refers to the loss of genetic diversity between and within populations of the same species. Nearly all of the 158 countries that submitted background reports for FAO’s State of the World Report on Plant Genetic Resources identify genetic erosion as a serious problem. In China, for example, nearly 10,000 wheat varieties were cultivated in 1949. By the 1970s, only about 1,000 varieties were in use…In Mexico, genetic erosion of maize is well documented. Only 20% of the maize varieties reported in 1930 are now known in Mexico.

The primary reason for the loss of crop genetic diversity is that commercial, uniform varieties are replacing traditional varieties – especially in the South’s centres of diversity. When farmers abandon their community-bred varieties to plant new ones, the old varieties become extinct.

This unwise trend can be laid directly at the feet of Big Agriculture, which, in its quest for higher yields, has pushed aside the unique characteristics of traditional and native seeds. USC Canada calls biodiversity our “insurance policy” against catastrophic food losses–the more varieties we have in the mix, the less likely that any one disease or insect can wreak havoc on a crop.

Which brings us to the Marshall Strawberry. In 2004, this variety was described by Slow Food USA and the RAFT alliance in 2004 as one of the top ten endangered foods in the country. This Slow Food blog post quotes the first RAFT publication, which says it was once known as “the finest eating strawberry in America”: “exceedingly handsome, splendidly flavored, pleasantly sprightly, aromatic and juicy”. No less a figure than James Beard, the father of the American gourmet food industry, proclaimed it the tastiest berry ever.

The origin of the berry starts with a man named Marshall (surprise!) Marshall F. Ewell of Marshfield, Massachusetts produced it in 1880, and introduced it in 1883. It was widely grown in Washington, Oregon and California until as recently as the 1960s when it was phased out. Why? According to the Marshall Strawberry website, it was due to its “modest production, delicacy and and therefore incompatibility with modern industrialized agricultural practices.” (See Big Ag reference above.) By 2007, the last remaining plants existed as a single clone at the USDA’s Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon.

Enter Leah Gauthier, an intermedia and relational artist who lives and works in Bloomington, Indiana. Again from the Marshall Strawberry site:

In 2007, while in graduate school in Boston , Leah requested some runners from the scientists at Corvallis. Since she was growing them for food and not for research and also returning them to their native east coast, they generously and enthusiastically FedExed her several baby Marshalls, and it was love at first sight. Three plants took from those first runners, and since then they have traveled with Leah to New York City and Bloomington, Indiana. Now hundreds are healthy, happy and making more! She’s working on a permanent home for the Marshall in Maine, and meanwhile would love to share this delicate and rare plant with other enthusiastic growers.

That includes people in the Chicago area. She has been working with Lisa Hilgenberg at the Chicago Botanic Garden to get the berry propagated in the Midwest. And I’ll be talking to her today about how some of you might get your hands on this lucious fruit.

Leah is about to make a journey to Chicago next week and she is considering arranging for local pick up (local TBD) on the “shop page” on the website. The cost would be $30 per plant instead of the usual $65, so you might want to get in line for a couple of these babies. Each numbered plant comes in a handmade container, suitable for gift giving, along with a certificate of authenticity and signature of the artist.

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Another environmentalist caught in Chicago’s “weed law” trap

You might remember the saga of Kathy Cummings, the gardener who came in first place for “Most Naturalized City Garden” in the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program in 2004. Then, in October of last year, she was cited by the Department of Streets and Sanitation for being in violation of a city weed ordinance and she was fined $640.

She was on my show twice at the beginning of the year to talk about the matter and to tell me that she had decided to appeal her violation (at the cost of another $317). Her court case comes up on May 21. Meanwhile, the City continues to issue tickets left and right, seemingly regardless of whether or not the home owners have a plan for their landscapes.

Allow me to introduce you to a woman named Nance Klehm. If you are not familiar with her, here are some of her credentials, courtesy of a site called Spontaneous Vegetation:

Nance Klehm is a steward of the earth. She is an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permacultural grower, as well as an in demand consultant, speaker, and teacher. She is respected internationally for her work on land politics and growing for fertility.

Nance has been featured in Time Magazine , the Utne Reader, the Chicago Tribune , Reuters news service, on the MSN Money website, and many other publications and media outlets. She has been interviewed extensively about her work including spots by American Public Media’s Weekend America program, KRCL in Salt Lake City, BBC Radio Canada , Chicago Public Radio , and KBOO in Portland, Oregon.

Nance has lectured recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the University of Cincinnati, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. She has taught at the University of California – Los Angeles, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Dartington College in the United Kingdom, as well as for countless community groups worldwide. She writes a regular column for Arthur magazine. In addition, Nance was included in the books Radical Homemakers (by Shannon Hayes), Participatory Autonomy (edited by Rick Gribenas), and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (by Sandor Katz).

There’s more, actually, but it’s already an embarrassment of accomplishments. Oh, and by the way, Nance Klehm has also been hit with a $640 file for growing “weeds” on her parkway. So I ask this question, “Do you think that Nance Klehm is likely to grow nuisance plants on her property?” Just askin’.

She joins me on the show today to talk about her situation. Meanwhile, I talked to another “victim” yesterday–a business owner who was ticketed for the same ticket, even though his plants vegetables and they’re in containers! Really? He declined to be on the show until he learns more about his “violation.”

Meanwhile, Kathy Cummings has been on a one-woman crusade to fight what seems to be arbitrary enforcement of an arbitrary law. She has gathered some like-minded people to work on this issue and last month she sent me an update:

Re our meeting Saturday, my attorney Jim, found ticketing weeds and other types of ticketing happening all over the country. Many municipalities are in a fiscal crisis, desperate for revenue. Politicians not wanting to hurt their chances for re-election by raising taxes, have been approving increasing fines. It’s the new way to create revenue and keeps them under the radar at election time.

[Chicago] City Council in 2011 unanimously (49 to 0) approved increasing the amount property owners could be ticketed for weed violations. It tripled and is now a $600 minimum.  My Adm. Law officer told me he was giving me the “lowest fine,” said as if he were giving me a gift.

From the city responses to FOIAs I sent, since 2008, there’s been a HUGE increase, every year, in the amount of City revenue earned through weed ticketing. The city may collect almost $13 million for weeds, i.e., 7-28-120(a) this year.

From Kathy’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, she received the following information about the number of tickets issued by the City of Chicago:

Mrs. Cummings,

This letter is in response to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request received by the Department of Administrative Hearings for the above requested ALJ.

2008 there were 4,779 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).
2009 there were 5,522 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).
2010 there were 10,798 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).
2011 there were 11,895 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).
2012 there were 11,104 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).
2013 through January 31 there were 1,659 violations filed for Municipal Code Section 7-28-120(a).

[Italics in bold are mine.]

I was struck by two things in looking at the numbers. First, the increase in fines started in 2010, during the Richard M. Daley administration, probably in response to the downturn in the economy. Second, which I have noted in bold and italics, based on the January numbers for 2013, the City is on a pace to issue almost 20,000 “weed” tickets this year, a 79% increase.

As I have mentioned before, these fines seem inconsistent with the City’s own Chicago Sustainable Backyards Program, which promotes growing native plants.

Nance Klehm has her own take on all of this:

I am interested in fighting this subjective law with a ridiculously steep fine in the broadest way by getting many people behind it PLUS a darn good lawyer. Everyone is scared (I have been contacted by chicken owners, eco-punks, community gardeners, etc.) and there is nothing that will stop me getting ticketed again for the ‘hippo’ in the parkway or in my yard that only the writer of the ticket and hearing judge could see.  When I asked “where are the weeds?” I wasn’t shown. Just told they were there. How can I remove or take care of that is being interpreted as such when I am not shown? I just have trees and shrubs in the parkway – my list of established plant material that I presented in court was argued as irrelevant by the prossecuter. My stated background as a horticulturalist landscaper and designer was ignored.

Just like a Kafka novel. I thought I was going insane.

Spring plant sales continue

Last week, I briefly mentioned some of the plant sales that are happening in the area over the next few weeks. Here you go:

May 12, 10am – 4pm – The Peterson Garden Project Plant and Bake Sale, Peterson Garden Project’s Learning Center, 4642 N. Francisco, Chicago, IL (adjacent to Francisco Brown Line stop). All proceeds from the sale will benefit Peterson Garden Project learning programs. Seedlings will be locally-grown, organic, heirloom herb and vegetable varietals hand-selected by Peterson Garden Project for growing in Chicago. Baked goods will be hand made from local Chicago pastry chefs and bakeries. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag)

May 12, 10am – 2pm – Paseo Prairie Garden Plant Sale 2614 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL Perennials, Organic Vegetables and Herbs, Native Plants Native Illinois/Midwest plants are eligible for the on-site 50% rebate from the City of Chicago Sustainable Backyards Program FOR CHICAGO RESIDENTS

May 18, 9am-1pm – Perennial Divide Plant Sale  – P. Holt (773) 412-1232 2260 W. 108thPlace, Chicago Epimedium, Monarda, Black Cohosh, Hosta Varieties, Solomon’s Seal Sundrops, Brunnera, Pulmonaria, Bearded & Japanese Iris, Lamium, Wild Ginger, Sweet Woodruff, Stella del Oro Daylily, Archangel, Coneflower, Rose Campion, Hakone Grass, Ribbon Grass, Cupflower and more

May 17 (9am – 6pm) & 18 (9am – 4pm)
Hyde Park Garden Fair – Chicago’s Oldest Community Garden Sale – Annuals, Container Plants, Groundcover, Hanging Baskets, Herbs, House Plants, Perennials, Shrubs-Vines-Roses, Vegetables, Wildflowers, Fall Fair – Sale Held at Hyde Park Shopping Center, 55th Street and South Lake Park, Chicago, IL 60615

May 18 & 19, 10am to 2pm each day – Kilbourn Park Organic Green House Plant Sale. More than 150 varieties of organically grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Cash only. Help them recycle/reuse:  Please bring your own plastic flats or cardboard boxes to hold your plants. If you have extras from last year, bring them to share with other shoppers. Here’s the plant list.

May is Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month

And while we’re on the subject of keeping our natural areas healthy, I just want to remind you that May is Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month. Educational events, field days, hay-wagon tours, workshops, presentations, volunteer workdays, ‘Garlic Mustard Challenges’, training events, and interpretive hikes are just some of the different types of events that have been held as part of ISAM in the past.

If you are planning to host work days and garlic pulls, please contact Cathy McGlynn, coordinator for the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership, at 847-242-6423 or so that she can post your events on the NIIPP website.