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Harnessing Phytohormones

Harnessing Phytohormones

Growth stages in cannabis are so crucial. As passionate growers, we do our best to develop systems that maximize the potential of our plants. Another tool to put into your toolbox that will help your plants reach their fullest potential is the understanding and implementation of plant growth hormones. First off, what is a hormone? Hormones signal cells to develop in certain ways. The same cell can take several forms depending on the hormone that it is exposed to. This is universal for all cells, plants, and animals alike. 

An example is when our cannabis enters flowering. Multiple factors trigger a hormonal reaction that helps the cells of our plants shift from multiplication that will increase the size of our plants to developing cells that start the formation of sex organs; in cannabis, this is the bud. As the caretakers of this magical plant, we have the opportunity to help plants thrive and transition into and out of these new changes by introducing sources of these growth hormones naturally from plant matter inputs. A short warning, you can overdo it with hormones. Too much of a hormone can cause stunting, blisters, mutations, and can kill your plant. Always remember to start with small doses. Increase rates after observing that a safe dose was administered. An example of this is auxin and its influence on ethylene. Ethylene in high doses will act as an herbicide. Too much will kill your plant. In proper doses, it will create large growth spurts.

Photo Credit: Luna Whitcomb

There are several ways to harness hormones from plant inputs. You can ferment, steep in water, blend and strain or extract with alcohol. When fermenting, I suggest using the natural farming technique FPJ, or fermented plant juice. This is done by mixing equal weight brown sugar with organic plant matter, crushing the plant matter, then letting it ferment and separate over five days. This mixture can then be used at a ratio of 1:500 FPJ:Water. If you want to do an alcohol extraction, you can make a tincture or follow the Natural farming method to make OHN. This is typically only used on dehydrated inputs or for compounds that are not water-soluble. Check out Cho’s global natural farming literature if you need some help with these natural farming concepts. When making extractions from tree barks and woody inputs, you can steep them in water. When steeping in water, simply collect the input, place it in a sealed container, submerge in water and let brew for 3-4 days in full sun. Use an equal volume of plant matter to water and use the finished solution at 1oz per gallon. If you’re worried about any potential anaerobic pathogens, you can add some Lactobacillus serum at a ratio of 1:100. The Lactobacillus will help competitively exclude unwanted biology. When working with soft plants like aloe or sprouted seeds, you can blend them up in a blender. Add an equal volume of plant matter to clean water, blend them and strain them. Use this solution at a ratio of 1:100 solution:water. Like anything else, you can take a low-tech method or make it more complex if desired. Keep in mind that results may vary when experimenting with new techniques and ideas. It’s best to stick to tried and true methods. Remember to research what conditions the hormone you are trying to extract can handle. As some will oxidize and degrade while others can’t handle high temperatures.

Selecting the right plant inputs to make your hormone extractions is an art. Some plants have much higher levels of hormones than others. Those hormone levels change during different growth stages of the plant also. So not only do you need to choose what to collect, but when to collect it. A solid choice is to use an invasive plant in your local environment. That invasive plant and different parts of that plant can serve multiple functions for your garden. Local plant inputs will always perform better than anything store-bought for sanitation reasons and to harness locally adapted microbial life and enzyme profiles specific to your environment. Microbes secrete enzymes. Enzymes attract microbes. Local plant life will have local microbes that have already adapted and acclimated to your environment, giving them a better chance of survival and multiplication. 

Photo Credit: Luna Whitcomb

If you want to play with hormones on your plants, start here. Make a list of all the plants growing native to your environment. Separate them into four categories: root crops, fast-growing vegetative stage, flower producing, and fruit-producing. Depending on which stage of growth you harvest each plant from each of these categories will determine which hormones you’ll be collecting. The next part is pretty intuitive but can have exceptions—root crops for root growth, fast-growing vegetative plants for increased vegetation growth, flowering plants for transitioning into flower, and fruiting plants for fruiting. Premature fruits are a potent source of hormones like jasmonic acid and auxin. Young shoots and sprouts are also potent sources of hormones. Young, freshly forming cells will always be the most hormonal dense portions of the plant. Diversity is helpful in these situations. It’s best to make multiple ferments from multiple plants but use them together. Never exceed a total of 1:500 FPJ:Water. Trust me; you can cause irreparable damage to your plant. These methods may seem rudimentary, but don’t underestimate the potency of nature. A lesson that is typically learned the hard way. Again, find what plants are growing locally and research their compounds. Then use those compounds in the appropriate growth stages. A few of my favorite plants to extract hormones from to get you started: aloe, white willow, fresh bamboo shoots, dandelion, horsetail, purslane, queen Anne’s lace, nettle, yucca, blackberries, and mulberries.

Here is a list of the different plant hormones and their functions.

Auxin- Auxin controls many plant processes such as root branching, adventitious root formation, wound healing, fruit development, and ethylene production. In layman’s terms, auxin is responsible for stretching limbs to chase the sun, helps maximize root surface area, repairs damages to the plant, and plays a minor role in initial sexual organ formation. Farms will spray auxin on a crop so the entire field will start flowering at the same time. This is a good hormone to induce “stretch” and promote vigor. A good source of auxins is fresh new growth tips, aloe vera gel, and willow bark that is fresh and green.

Cytokinin- Synthesized within the root system. High levels are present in root crops. Cytokinins promote cell division in plant roots and shoots. Acting together with auxins, cytokinins will help retard early senescence in plants. Help prevent yellowing by stabilizing protein and chlorophyll content in plant tissue. High auxin and low Cytokinin conditions give rise to root development, whereas low auxin and high Cytokinin conditions encourage shoot development. Mature leaves of sugar beets and sprouted corn are rich in cytokinins.

Gibberellins- Occurs in young plant tissues like seeds, young leaves, and roots, named after a fungus that produces the hormone at high levels. This infectious fungus is considered a pathogen that promotes fast growth and low yields in rice crops. It’s safe to say that you can overdo it with gibberellins. This hormone is to only be used in the early growth stages. It also plays a role in causing the “bolting” of some plants. Small applications can break a plant out of stunting. Gibberellins can be used to stimulate a stubborn old seed to germinate. Barley seed is a potent source of gibberellic acid.

Abscisic Acid– Related to cytokinins, abscisic acid is considered a growth inhibitor and promotes abscission (leaf fall). It is required to synthesize the enzymes at an abscission zone that catalyzes actions that break down cell walls. This is typically not a hormone you would search out and give to plants. 

Ethylene- A hydrocarbon naturally occurring in plants. Ethylene is released as a gas. It inhibits and promotes growth when different levels are present in the plant tissue—typically used as a ripening hormone—a regulator of plant senescence. Plants sensitive to ethylene will show early yellowing, abscission, or desiccation when exposed to too much ethylene. Ethylene can be found in any overripe fruit.

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Jasmonic Acid- A stress response hormone released during abiotic stress to recover from otherwise plant-killing damage. Causes large growth spurts. Works In conjunction with Abscisic acid, ethylene, Salicylic acid, and other hormones to resist environmental stress. Can cause overgrowth in vegetative plants. My favorite sources of Jasmonic acid are young bamboo shoots, premature berries, premature apples, and jasmine flowers. Jasmonic acid is extremely potent. As a volatilizing plant hormone, it can affect the growth rate of plants close to a strong source. For example, jasmine flowers can increase the growth rate of plants around them during their blooming stage.

Triacontonol- Growth stimulant. When not overused can increase the density of chlorophyll in plant tissue, increasing photosynthesis rates, water uptake, cell division, and elongation. Increased efficacy when applied to foliage during warm temperatures. Triacontonal can be found in all parts of the alfalfa plants and beeswax. I recommend alfalfa sprouted seed tea for triacontanol. 

Salicylic acid– Triggers a plant’s defenses and contributes to the process of systemic acquired resistance (SAR). SAR is like the plant’s immune system, helping it fight off a pathogen. It also volatilizes and signals nearby plants, triggering a stress response that will boost resistance to pathogens. Salicylic acid will help fight off infections. My favorite source of Salicylic acid is Aloe Vera.

Indol 3 butyric acid- An auxin precursor and contributes to auxin homeostasis. It is also the most common rooting hormone. If you went to a garden store and grabbed a rooting product, most likely its active ingredient is I3BA. I3BA can be found in the fresh green bark of any willow tree. I recommend steeping this bark in water and letting it sun-brew for 24 hours.  

 Nature provides us with everything we need. From nutrients to biology and even growth hormones, we can look to nature and natural sources for all the components required to grow large healthful plants. Harness the power of fermentation, osmotic extraction, seed sprouts, and teas. Observe what is growing around you. Read the land, and use what is in your local environment to best nurture the soil and plants in your garden. Don’t underestimate the potency of compounds in the surrounding flora; approach nature with respect, and you’ll find that it has more than a few things to teach you. Maintain a curious, open mind and watch your skills as a cultivator grow.