GRAPE VINES GAIN and pests suffer when TOBACCO and SAGEBRUSH grow in the same neighborhood. For example, Chinese experiments show that when tobacco roots intermingle with grape roots, vineyards soils are progressively cleansed of the dreaded soil-dwelling phylloxera aphid; the same phylloxera aphid that almost completely destroyed French grape growing in the 1800s, before resistant rootstocks were discovered. In recent decades, the phylloxera aphid has evolved new forms that destroy formerly-resistant rootstocks. But on the positive side, the phylloxera plague in nineteenth century French vineyards was a major catalyst for innovations such as the development of modern scientific agriculture and modern methods for fumigating or disinfesting sick soils.
Tobacco plants get a bad rap today, as the source of abused and addictive products with adverse health effects. But it was not always so, and need not be so today, write David A. Danehower and colleagues in the book, Biologically Active Natural Products: Agrochemicals: “When Columbus first arrived on the shores of North America, he found Native Americans growing and using a plant unknown to Europeans. This plant held great spiritual significance to Native Americans. Scientists who followed in the footsteps of the early North American explorers would later name this plant tobacco. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) farming began in the early 1600s near the Jamestown colony in Virginia. As the use of tobacco products for smoking, chewing, and snuff was promoted in Europe, tobacco became a leading item of commerce between the colonies and England. Notably, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both farmed tobacco. Thus, the history of America is inextricably linked with the history of tobacco production.”
The specific idea of interplanting tobacco with grapevines to control soil pests like phylloxera aphids is apparently a recent Chinese agricultural innovation. Why no one thought of it before is a mystery, as nicotine from tobacco plants has a long history as a fumigant and sprayed insecticide; and more recently sweet “sugar esters” (fructose, glucose, fatty acids) have been singled out from among the several thousand chemical compounds in tobacco as “new” natural insecticides (some fungi and other microbes are also killed). Perhaps agricultural tradition plays a role, as the Chinese have an ancient agricultural heritage that includes pioneering biological pest control (e.g. predatory ants to control citrus orchard pests) and routinely interplanting compatible plants for their pest-fighting and mutually beneficial effects. Of course, growing cover crops and beneficial insect plants like sweet alyssum in grape rows is becoming more common. And since ancient times, the Mediterranean areas of Europe and the Middle East have had grape vineyards interspersed with oaks (corks, barrels for wine grapes), olive trees and crops such as wheat. But never before has tobacco been grown among grape vines to control soil pests. Indeed, modern farmers seem to favor pumping liquid chemicals and volatile gases into the soil to combat soil pests.
Perhaps as close as a nineteenth century French grape grower came was Bernardin Casanova of Corsica, France, who in 1881 patented a liquid mixture of grape distillates, Corsican tobacco, spurge, laurel, grain straw, burnt cork and soap that was rubbed and poured on the base of grapevines to kill phylloxera. In California, which has native plants that are every bit as insecticidal as nicotine from tobacco, the only anti-phylloxera interplanting seems to have been new resistant rootstocks to eventually take the place of the old. In essence, a concession of failure and a starting over with new rootstock (and pulling out the old phylloxera-infested vines).
Like Mr. Casanova in nineteenth century France, the modern Chinese researchers started out with a watery solution containing tobacco; but in a bit more scientific fashion with controlled tests of the tobacco solution on young greenhouse-grown grape vines. “The results showed that aqueous extracts of tobacco had certain alleviating effects on phylloxera infection,” according to a 2014 abstract from the journal Acta Entomologica Sinica. “Both the aqueous extracts of tobacco at the concentration of 20 mg/mL and 50 mg/mL had an inhibition to phylloxera infection,” with a 50% reduction in phylloxera infection within 3 weeks (along with a reduction of fungal invaders that kill injured grape roots).
Chinese tobacco-grape laboratory and field studies were also reported in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture in 2014. The lab studies indicated that tobacco extracts in water were indeed a valid herbal (botanical) remedy against phylloxera aphids. In three years of field tests with tobacco interplanted in infested grape vineyards, phylloxera infestations of grape roots steadily decreased each year. “Tobacco was used as the intercropping crop because it includes nicotine, which is a source of bio-insecticides,” said the researchers. “The production of new grape roots was significantly higher in the intercropping patterns than in the grape monoculture in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the vines gradually renewed due to the continuous intercropping with tobacco over three years…The results indicated that the secondary metabolites of tobacco roots had released to soil and got to the target pest.” Tobacco intercropping effects on grape plants was also measurable in terms of “cluster number per plant, cluster weight, cluster length, cluster width, berry number per cluster, mean berry diameter in the mid portions of the cluster, carbohydrate content, fruit color index, leaf width and branch diameter.” The researchers expect that this “Successful intercropping with tobacco” will stimulate more research with other insecticidal plants to disinfest vineyard soils.
We could probably end the blog item here, or have a second article as part II, but we have some interesting interactions among sagebrush and tobacco plants that can spillover to grape vineyards. Oddly enough, sagebrush and tobacco seem to get along very well. According to M.E. Maffei, writing in the South African Journal of Botany: “Aerial interaction of the wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp.) is the best-documented example of between-plant signaling via above-ground VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in nature.” Wounded or “Clipped sagebrush emits many volatiles, including methyl jasmonate, methacrolein, terpenoids, and green leaf volatiles.” These sagebrush volatiles (VOCs) stimulate nearby tobacco plants to become less hospitable to caterpillar pests (fewer in number). The process is called priming and results in plants producing more chemicals deleterious to pests. For readers desiring all the details and more theory: In 2006, Kessler et al. published in a journal called Oecologia under the title “Priming of plant defense responses in nature by airborne signaling between Artemisia tridentata and Nicotiana attenuata.”
Big Sagebrush, known scientifically as Artemisia tridentata, is a native North American plant that can reach 4 meters in height and live from 30 to over 200 years in arid desert environments by using hydraulic lift to pump water from deep soil layers. The plants are a rich and underutilized source of medicinal compounds, insecticides, fungicides, natural preservatives, etc. Worldwide there are at least 500 Artemisia sagebrush species, many used in traditional medicines (e.g. China), cosmetics, insect repellents, and as spices and flavorings in foods. For example, Artemisia annua has attracted attention to combat malaria. Readers desiring a crash course in Artemisia species and their bio-active essential oils will find it online in an excellent 24-page review article in a journal called Molecules.
Big Sagebrush is “found in arid regions of North America from steppe to subalpine zones, dry shrub lands, foothills, rocky outcrops, scablands, and valleys,” wrote Christina Turi and colleagues in 2014 in the journal Plant Signaling & Behavior. “Traditionally, species of Big Sagebrush have been used as a ceremonial medicine to treat headaches or protect individuals from metaphysical forces. A total of 220 phytochemicals have been described in A. tridentata and related species in the Tridentatae. Recently, the neurologically active compounds melatonin (MEL), serotonin (5HT), and acetylcholine (Ach) were identified and quantified.” In other words, sagebrush plants and human brains and nervous systems have a lot in common.
Indeed, galanthamine, a botanical drug treatment for mild to moderate Alzheimer disease, can also be used to “treat” sagebrush. Galanthamine, which is named after the snowdrop plants (Galanthus species) where it was discovered, is also found in Narcissus and other common bulbs. Galanthamine is, according to researchers Turi et al., “a naturally occurring acetylcholinesterase (AchE) inhibitor that has been well established as a drug for treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer disease.” Why bulb plants produce chemicals affecting both Alzheimer disease (human nervous systems) and sagebrush plants is a good question. One theory is that plants release these chemicals into the environment to communicate with and influence the behavior of other plants, and also perhaps deter or otherwise influence herbivorous animals. Environmentalists, overly preoccupied with worries about carbon dioxide and GMOs, might ponder the fact that human chemicals with medicinal effects released into the environment might be the bigger threat, affecting plants and ecosystems in ways not yet fully appreciated that may comeback to bite us.
The Western USA is known for its vast expanses, perhaps 50 million acres with Big Sagebrush, some of which is being displaced for vineyards in isolated valleys in the Pacific Northwest. I particularly like the description of the Big Sagebrush ecosystem at the Sage Grouse Initiative: “To many of us, sagebrush country symbolizes the wild, wide-open spaces of the West, populated by scattered herds of cattle and sheep, a few pronghorn antelope, and a loose-knit community of rugged ranchers. When you stand in the midst of the arid western range, dusty gray-green sagebrush stretches to the horizon in a boundless, tranquil sea. Your first impression may be of sameness and lifelessness—a monotony of low shrubs, the over-reaching sky, a scattering of little brown birds darting away through the brush, and that heady, ever-present sage perfume.”
About 90% of the native sagebrush steppe habitat in the eastern Washington grape growing area was removed to make way for the vineyards. But the 10% remaining sagebrush habitat may have important ecological benefits, such as improved natural or biological pest control in the vineyards. One suggestion is to leave some of the native Big Sagebrush around vineyards, for its beneficial ecological effects. “Perennial crop systems such as wine grapes have begun using cover crops and hedgerows to increase beneficial insects and promote sustainable vineyard management in areas like New Zealand and California,” Washington State University researcher Katherine Buckley told the 2014 Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. “However, in arid wine growing regions such as eastern Washington, cover crops are often prohibitively expensive due to water costs. We wanted to determine if native plants, which require little or no irrigation, could be used to increase beneficial insects and enhance conservation biological control of vineyard pests in eastern Washington.”
The native sagebrush steppe ecosystem has a wide range of plants, but is characterized by species such as big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), rabbitbrush (e.g. Chrysothamnus, Ericameria spp.), bitterbrush (Purshia spp.) and perennial bunchgrasses (e.g. Agropyron, Stipa, Festuca, Koeleria, Poa spp.). The Big Sagebrush ecosystem is richer in species than meets the eye at first glance. Over 100 species of birds (e.g. sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow and Brewer’s sparrow) forage and nest in sagebrush communities, and they could provide a lot of insect biocontrol at less cost and with less environmental impact than chemical sprays.
A U.S. Forest Service report called Big Sagebrush a keystone species and “a nursing mother” to “31 species of fungi, 52 species of aphids, 10 species of insects that feed on aphids, 42 species of midges and fruit flies that induce galls, 20 species of insects that parasitize the gall inducers, 6 species of insects that hibernate in big sagebrush galls, 18 species of beetles, 13 species of grasshoppers, 13 species of shield-back katydids, 16 species of thrips, 74 species of spiders, 24 species of lichens, 16 species of paintbrushes, 7 species of owl-clovers, 5 species of bird’s beaks, 3 species of broom rapes, and a host of large and small mammals, birds, and reptiles.”
“After locating vineyards with some form of native habitat restoration in four different growing regions of eastern Washington, yellow sticky traps and leaf samples were used to monitor beneficial and pest insect numbers in the habitat restored vineyards and nearby conventional vineyards over a three year period,” said Buckley. The native plants, which are adapted to the region’s hot summers and cold winters, are home to at least 133 insect species. Native habitat vineyards had fewer pest insect species; and higher populations and a higher diversity of beneficial insects. Anagrus wasps, which are known to parasitize pesky grape leafhoppers, were most abundant in Big Sagebrush. More amazingly, this leafhopper biocontrol wasp was found year-round in Big Sagebrush, even when the plant was not flowering. No other plant, not even the photogenic wild roses planted at the end of vineyard rows and admired by tourists, hosted the tiny leafhopper biocontrol wasp year-round.
Garden herbs such as thyme (Thymus ssp.), mugwort (Artemisia ssp.) and fennel (Foeniculum ssp.) have all been tested in vineyard interrows because they are fungicidal against Botrytis cinerea, a fungus attacking grape clusters, and boost soil micro-nutrients like copper, manganese and zinc. Maybe at some point in time, the Chinese interplantings of tobacco and alternating strips of Big Sagebrush (or other Artemisia species) and garden herbs will all get integrated together with other cover crops and native hedgerows into grape vineyards for a more biological or natural approach to agriculture. With sagebrush and tobacco, we have only scratched the surface of vineyard possibilities.