Thursday, 3 April 2014

Ocas Go Undercover

I meant to publish this a while ago, but tedious distractions like earning money got in the way - c'est la vie.

Received wisdom holds that there is nothing better than other people's money. I have little experience of this, remaining open to any offers you might care to make in that regard. I am, however, an enthusiastic convert to the concept of other people's greenhouses, especially when they're frost free all winter.

Back in the autumn, I pricked out a whole load of late-emerging oca seedlings into some modules; I realised there was no chance these minuscule waifs would survive the winter in situ. Although adding an extra eighty ocas to my swelling brood seemed foolhardy, I constructed a makeshift cold frame and left them to it. This was probably a mistake, as I became rather attached to them as the weeks passed. They actually grew quite well and the cotyledons were overtopped by flushes of fresh trifoliate leaves. Then, as the weather became colder, I feared for their survival.

After a bit of head scratching, I devised a cunning plan to transfer them to a greenhouse at a nearby institute of higher education, where I have sympathetic contacts. When I say nearby, I mean a train ride of about half an hour. Being true-to-form, self-contained Brits, not one of my fellow passengers commented on the trays of seedlings perched precariously on my lap as I made that journey on two consecutive days. For that I was duly grateful.

Oca Seedlings
Indoor ocas
Once ensconced in their new home, the seedlings grew rapidly, despite the shortening days of November and December.  Then, just before Christmas, they were cruelly evicted in a moment of high pathos of which Dickens would have been proud. I managed to find them alternative accommodation, however and they have dwelt happily in their second location for the last two months. The temperature inside seems to have hovered around a snug 10 ℃ for most of this time.

To be honest, it hasn't been that much colder outside during this period. In any case, this has seen the plants through the darkest days of the winter and I'm happy to report the presence of a number of oca mini-tubers. See below for selected highlights.

The largest of these started forming tubers quite early on; others have been slower to develop. I suspect that this is a result of their relative ages, some plants having been much larger than others when I saved them from imminent oblivion.

Oxalis tuberosa
Oca Seedlings

I'll spare you any more gratuitous ocaporn; suffice to say, I now have another 70 or so oca varieties to plant out somewhere, anywhere.

So it should, in theory at least, be possible to set up a continuous production cycle with a couple of generations of oca seedlings per year, if facilities are available. I am happy to take on the role of oca propagator in chief , if you could just see you way to adding some money and greenhouses.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Mauka: Making a Meal of It

A maritime climate has some benefits, most noticeably in the moderation of winter temperatures. Walking through Liskeard the other day, I noticed a full-sized potato plant, looking remarkably healthy. I'm assuming it has sprouted from an overlooked tuber and has flourished in the cool, but not cold, weather we've been having; plenty of nasturtiums in Plymouth remain unfrosted. The downside of the close proximity of an ocean is its annoying tendency to deliver incessant low pressure systems and their associated cloud, rain and wind. This winter has been exceptionally turbulent, even by our exacting standards and the coast of Cornwall and other parts of southern Britain are being re-sculpted as I write. Others face the dismal prospect of finding their homes underwater. Let's hope losses of life and property are avoided as much as possible.

Several days ago, a lull in proceedings allowed me to get out to Oca Acres and try and tidy up what the wind had scattered. Our soil, a sticky clay, was slippery and totally unsuitable for digging. Despite this, my curiosity got the better of me and I felt the sudden and powerful urge to lift one of my mauka seedlings. They have sat in the ground for three full years since I planted them out;  although we haven't had a particularly cold winter in that time, the ground surface has been frozen for several weeks on occasion. Nevertheless, they have sprouted each spring and I have repaid their generosity by doing virtually nothing in the way of weeding or feeding them. What some might call neglect, I refer to as screening for resilience. To my untrained eye, they've looked fine by the summer and have done a good job of suppressing and surpassing the weeds. Folks, this is my kind of plant.

Unsatisfied curiosity is something up with which I cannot put: I grabbed a fork and listened for the satisfying squelch as waterlogged soil was lifted; in due course I succeeded in prising a mauka plant from the ground.

Mauka root, Mirabilis expansaAlthough the tops had been frosted off, the underground parts seemed fine, bar a little bit of cracking and scarring. What's not obvious in this picture is that there were dozens of small buds, all waiting to burst into growth as soon as the weather warms up. Mauka seems not to have any innate dormancy, which given our notoriously erratic climate, might be a good thing. It certainly resprouts well after frosting.

Unlike oca, which the voles love to consume above all other roots, mauka seems not to be favoured by their attentions. While they are quite content to burrow through the centre of a plant and create underground caverns around its roots in the process, there's precious little evidence of them eating it.

I decapitated the plant and buried the top a few inches below the soil surface; with its strange dead man's fingers protruding as I shovelled back the soil, it was a slightly macabre moment.

Mirabilis expansa, mauka, raw pieces
I hurried home with the root and immediately peeled and cut it into chunks. It had very firm, white flesh, which reminded me a little of cassava (Manihot esculenta). Like cassava, the root is said to need careful preparation to remove what the Lost Crops of the Incas describes as an "astringent chemical". In the case of mauka, this is done by leaving it in the sun for a few days. I opted for immediate consumption. I could claim that I did this in the spirit of enquiry, but the truth is simple: I was hungry and couldn't wait for a peekaboo sun to work its solar alchemy. Into a pan of boiling water went the mauka.
Mirabilis expansa, mauka, cooked pieces
On cooking, the pieces lost their white colour and became a pale yellow; concentric growth rings, rather like those in a tree, became obvious in cross section. Luckily, however, the mauka morsels weren't woody, but firm in texture, with a sweet and very pleasant taste. There were a few chewy fibres near the centre of some of the chunks, but considering the root was three years old, it was remarkably good eating.

I did detect a slight ticklish irritation at the back of my throat after I'd gulped down a generous handful of the pieces. It was similar to the sensation I experience following the consumption of fuchsia berries. I suspect it was caused by the presence of raphides, little needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate which are present in both fuchsia berries and mauka. According to Lost Crops of the Incas, plants are supposed to vary in their acridity, with Ecuadorean specimens being noticeably sweeter. There is some evidence that, in the case of taro (Colocasia esculenta) at least, the raphides are tipped with a protease, which increases the swelling and irritation caused. Perhaps mauka is similar. Individuals vary in their sensitivity to these things; as I may have mentioned previously, some people will happily gulp down plants which I find thoroughly unpleasant.

Mauka is definitely a tasty root crop, raphides notwithstanding. It's also surprisingly resilient, in Cornish conditions at least. I could certainly learn more about how to prepare and cook it and I wouldn't yet describe my leave-it-alone cultivation methods as being definitive. When the rain stops and the wind subsides, I might just nip out and continue my fork-to-fork investigations into a fascinating foodstuff.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Radix: Alive at Five

Oca Mashua Yacon
I was recently reminded that Radix: the Blog has just passed its fifth birthday. Unlike Stalin, I had no five year plan when I began it. But like Chairman Mao, maybe I've achieved the occasional Great Leap Forward. Although it doesn't do to dwell on the negative, I've had a few reversals of fortune on the way too; gardening is like life in that respect.

So what has Radix actually achieved in the last five years? Here are a few highlights, in no particular order:

I've shown that breeding Oxalis tuberosa is possible with limited time, resources and talent. My ocas have been begetting in a Biblical manner - I'm now onto my 5th generation from seed, with seedlings popping up regularly where they shouldn't. Oca is well adapted to our maritime climate, but I haven't yet found that elusive day-neutral specimen which will tuberise in the summer and catapult it into the mainstream. Perhaps others will.

After decades of yearning, I finally managed to obtain seeds of Mirabilis expansa, one of the rarest of root crops. I also managed to produce a small crop of "seeds" of my own using a shed, a wrist watch and some black plastic. As a result, mauka has now been cultivated in Norway and Germany as well as North America. I feel that one day mauka will be recognised for its many virtues. And unlike a certain other Andean root crop that starts with an m and ends with an a, it's actually pleasant to eat. I'm not talking about maca....

Even in the spectacularly awful summer of 2012, my truly puny Coccinia abyssinica plants from the Ethiopian Highlands produced perfectly palatable and surprisingly large roots. What might they have done in a passably good summer?

Thanks to Frank van Keirsbilck and some inadvertent crossing with a crop wild relative, I am now in possession of an enormous, vigorous yacon hybrid, which I have named Smallanthus x scheldewindekensis. So far no one is beating a path to my door, but it can only be a matter of time. Normal yacons seem demure by comparison, although they taste better. Maybe I should make some yakraut with the hybrid and see what happens?

Although I haven't persuaded everyone to abandon 'hog peanut' and adopt the name 'talet', my respect for and interest in Amphicarpaea bracteata and its close relative yabumame remains undiminished. Talet is an outstanding wild edible and grows quite happily in Cornwall.

I obtained seeds from what is (was?) the world's most northerly diploid population of Apios americana. The plants are (hopefully) still alive. In my world, that's a success.

Bulbs a plenty
I've enjoyed the experience of growing the edimental bulbs cacomitl, camas and Triteleia laxa in my bulbous belly border project. I can confirm that they all taste good.

And, for the sake of balance, here are few a few slightly less successful projects:

Grows like a weed, looks lovely and yields abundantly; what's not to like? The small matter of its taste. Boiled, it's disgusting and even lactofermentation cannot redeem this incorrigibly unpleasant foodstuff. Yet some beg to differ, hence my mashua survey, which will doubtless yield something more interesting than the kilos of mashua I have to dispose of every year.

SweetpotatoIpomoea batatas is a delicious, versatile and vigorous crop - if you live somewhere warm. I live in Cornwall. I tried some high altitude sweetpotato seeds from Papua New Guinea (as one does) in the hope of finding something more suitable to our temperature regime. Here are the results; judge for yourselves. My foray into crop wild relatives using I. pandurata (mecha-meck) and I. leptophylla (man-root) hasn't produced anything I can eat. Downhearted? Not I!

Pachyrhizus ahipa: nitrogen fixing, edible raw. Probably needs a warmer climate than we have here. Shame.

Ullucus tuberosus, the Ingrid Bergman of Andean root crops has been reduced to side show stunts like this. Shame on me. If only she had fulfilled her part of the bargain by giving some decent yields I would never have sunk so low. Things may be looking up on the ulluco front, however.

Given my lack of an initial five year plan, maybe I ought to initiate one now. If pressed, I might suggest the following avenues of research:
  • Trawl the genus Ipomoea for potential sweetpotato substitutes and enjoy some more crop wild revelry.
  • Intensify investigations into leguminous root crops such as hopniss, aardaker and the members of the genus Amphicarpaea
  • Continue to explore the potential of oca by growing an outrageously large number of seedlings.
  • The great family Apiaceae, the umbellifers, have been heinously neglected by me, save for my not entirely successful attempts at yampah cultivation. In the hope of banishing arracacha angst, I've been growing species like skirret for a while, but haven't posted about them. This must change.  
  • Make rooty explorations of the floras of Africa, Australia and the Himalayan region. There's plenty of good stuff there.
  • And - of course - I'm open to suggestions (and germplasm) of anything you recommend.
I know for sure that I will be exhausted long before the plant kindom gives up all its riches; I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Numb fumbling 3: Aardaker: I love Dutch Meeces to Pieces

The wild weather continues, with buckshot hail salvos, slate-loosening gusts of wind and rain - loads of it. Despite the insanity of attempting any kind of gardening under these circumstances, I took my chance in a short lull the other day  to examine the yield of my aardaker plants. Although the soil is now completely saturated and any attempts at traversing the plot seem like a slightly premature reenactment of World War I, the aardakers are located in pots, sitting on the surface of the soil and thus, in theory at least, able to drain.

Aardaker (Lathyrus tuberosus) is one of the tastiest root foods out there and comes with that additional leguminous gift - the ability to fix nitrogen. It's also one of the most infuriating plants that I've grown. Like some wayward genius, it beguiles me with its outstandingly tasty roots and then, time after time, gives such a lacklustre performance that even ulluco would blush - luminous pink, bright yellow - at it.

What really bothers me is the miserly quantity of tubers it produces. This is pretty much the total yield from a 15 litre pot. Admittedly the aardakers suffered, as did much else, in the hot spell when our water supply dried up. But I've had better yields from first year seedling hopniss in 9 cm pots. And just like hopniss, received wisdom suggests that you should leave the tubers in situ for a couple of years to swell up, then harvest them. Like we all do with our potatoes, oca, yacon and other single-season-decent-cropping plants? No, exactly. For garden cultivation it needs to justify its existence by being much more productive.

I don't share the sentiments expressed by Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: why can't a woman be more like a man?  Women are fine. But why can't aardaker be more like mashua, in terms of its yield, anyway? Like that troublesome Tropaeolum, it is also a top-notch ornamental edible, but I've never yet been faced by a glut of aardakers; disposing of mounds of mashua tubers happens every year.

Lathyrus tuberosus
This is, of course, a wild plant and hasn't undergone generations of selection like mainstream crops have. It's considered to be an invasive, noxious weed in some places, choking wheat crops for instance. Those tubers, blessed be their name, allow it to resist mechanical methods of control such as hoeing - it just re-sprouts - and it's hard to kill with herbicides such as 2,4, D.  I think I have the perfect biological control in my possession, however and would be glad to furnish beleaguered authorities with it: slugs, lots of them; they seem to consume aardaker foliage with unparalleled enthusiasm and will strip plants overnight. "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the slugs of war!"

What's strange is that cultivation of a kind has almost certainly been attempted in the past. Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World (1919) cites several sources suggesting it was grown as a crop; Frank van Keirsbilck tells me that between the 16th and early 20th centuries, 'Dutch mice' as the roots were called, were grown in the the Zeeland area of the Netherlands; they were supposedly then sold in France. Frank has also found mention of different varieties in an old Flemish book, but has been unable to locate them. Maybe the interaction of soils, climate, husbandry were different; maybe they had special high-yielding varieties; maybe the story is apocryphal. I just can't believe there were no slugs in the Netherlands. It's not a native of the UK, but a very rare and declining weed. Read about the 'Fyfield Pea' here.
 Jan Kops, Flora Batava, Deel 3 (1814)

Plants seem to vary somewhat in the shape of their tubers, with some being elongated and others close to ovoid; perhaps they also vary in size, fattening speed and slug resistance. Like so much in the world of alternative root crops, we start from a knowledge baseline of next to nothing. So what I propose, Dear Friends, is that you help me to extend my aardaker accessions to encompass its Eurasian-Siberian heartland and its introduced range in North America; it would be fun to get hold of seeds from the Fyfield plants too. I've no idea how diverse this species is, but would like to find out. Aardaker has many virtues and might, with concerted effort, be amenable to improvement. And even if not, I can always eat my failures, God (and slugs) willing.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Numb Fumbling 2: Sagittarias Rising

The weather has been slightly cooler of late, so what better time to plunge my hands into the icy cold, muddy waters of the Sagittaria buckets to examine the yields. This is considerably less pleasant and more painful than oca harvesting. Perhaps the only thing in its favour is the natural buoyancy of the Sagittaria tubers*, which once released, bob to the surface and can be scooped up; ocas tend to stay put and require sifting, no easy task in our sticky clay soil. I'll hold fire on that manicure until the harvest season is well and truly over.

This year I grew two varieties of arrowhead, S. latifolia, the wapato and chi gu 慈菇, a  Chinese arrowhead variously described as S. trifolia var. edulis or S. sagittifolia var. edulis - the taxonomy seems somewhat confused. In any case, the latter is a cultivated variety, which showed no signs of flowering, but was noticeably bigger in all its parts. It could be that it's a triploid, with an extra set of chromosomes; this might account for its larger size and apparent sterility. This is a not-uncommon occurrence in the world of root crops, being found in varieties of achira, hopniss and ulluco as well as some types of potato, to name but a few of my target species. The main advantage of this is that the plants wastes no time and effort on producing seeds and concentrates on vegetative reproduction; this is great if it leads to big fat tubers. The problem comes when conditions change and you want to breed varieties to meet the challenges of new pests and diseases, for example.

Other research suggests that the application of GA3, a plant growth regulator, will encourage flowering and seed set in some varieties of Chinese arrowhead. I can foresee some great fun crossing and selecting various arrowheads to create my very own locally adapted variety. All I need is time, space and an independent income. Or perhaps you'd like to take the project on?

I grew my plants in builder's buckets which are probably a little too small for a decent crop, but the chi gu tubers are noticeably bigger than the wapatos. To be fair, I didn't thin out the wapatos very much much this spring, so they were probably a little congested and starved of room; as the old refrain goes, next year is going to be different.

Here are the biggest of the chi gu:
Chinese arrowhead

And some wapatos for comparison:

Chi gu is a favourite New Year's food in China, often being served in the form of deep fried slices. Lovers of rude vegetables will be delighted to discover that the Chinese consider the tubers with attached sprouts to resemble a baby boy's genitals and this is apparently auspicious for family fecundity. I shall bear that thought in mind next time I'm harvesting them and accidentally knock off a large, firm shoot.

2013 may have been the unofficial (and unwelcome) year of the horsemeat scandal in the UK, but I notice that the Chinese Year of The Horse is galloping towards us at the end of January 2014. I'm thinking this might be a good time to explore culinary convergence of an "everything with chips" kind, using my wapatos and chi gus as a spudstitute. In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

*Rather than practice my usual boretanical pedantry, I have elected to use 'tuber' for what are, technically speaking, turions.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Numb Fumbling 1: A Tale of Two Talets

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is over. It is now chilly and the soil is saturated from weeks of rain. It's time once again to plunge my hands into the ground and see how the talets are faring. I find gloves to be an encumbrance when sifting through sticky soil or compost for seeds and small tubers; my hands at least must be naked when harvesting talets.

Amphicarpaea bracteata aerial chasmogamous flowers
For those unfamiliar with this plant, talet is Amphicarpaea bracteata, an excellent wild edible from North America. It's commonly known as hog peanut, but native people of my acquaintance tell me that they consider that particular name to be derogatory; it was an important food source for many tribes. For more information on this fascinating and delicious geocarpic legume, you could take a look at this. Talet means, perhaps somewhat prosaically, "ground bean" in Nahuatl, but you can't fault the impeccable logic employed in its naming.

As evidence of its wide adaptability, I cite its successful cultivation outdoors at 64°N in Norway by Stephen Barstow, the leading edimentalist. It even survived the winter there.

I've been collecting varieties for a few years now and have about half a dozen, including yabumame, the Asian cousin of talet, which looks very similar and is sometimes considered to be a variety of Amphicarpaea bracteata. I've yet to do any controlled assessments of their differing yields, though. Perhaps if I make a public declaration of my commitment to do so in 2014, then the support of well-wishers will strengthen my resolve and see me through the rocky patches. It works with marriage, doesn't it? As the voles have been dining like kings on the crop over the past few years, I decided to transfer my accessions to pots until our bright-eyed and tiny-tailed chums have declined or decamped. I'm glad I did, because not a single bean came up this year.

Amphicarpaea bracteata differing varietal senescence
My latest acquisition is a Canadian variety, originally offered by Gardens North an excellent company with an interesting range of North American natives. I got my seeds via Mark Robertson, a fellow amphicarpaphile who kindly passed them on while he was living in the USA. I'm glad he did, because they no longer offer them.

There seem to be marked differences in maturity between the varieties, with this photo from early October showing the fully senescent 'Gardens North' in all its shabby glory, while my original variety, provenance unknown, only hints at dying back. Early maturity ought to be a good thing in our climate, with its cool and unpredictable summer weather. 

Time to take the plunge. Compare and contrast, as they say.

Amphicarpaea bracteata yield variationsAfter a bit of fiddling, I came up with two harvests from the two varieties, with 'Gardens North' on the left, just above my authentically grubby thumbnail and the original variety to the right. It seems as though the original variety gave fewer, although larger beans, but I haven't actually compared their masses and fear I might be ejected from the kitchen if I attempt to use our domestic scales. One of the original variety's beans was exceptionally large, but on further investigation, it turned out to be a double yolker, something I've not encountered before.

Amphicarpaea bracteata double seeded subterrnanean pod
Amphicarpaea double yolker 
So that's two talets looked at. I think it might be a week or two until my fingers have regained full mobility and sensitivity and I'm ready to look at the others; typing this just after the event is proving challenging enough. Numb fumbling indeed. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Wapato: The Seedy Side of Sagittaria

I'm a bit of demon for sowing interesting things and then forgetting about them. This has advantages and disadvantages. Many of the plants that fascinate me have seeds with dormancy mechanisms; in the absence of information on unlocking these, it's easiest to just sow them and hope that the spinning tumbler of fluctuating ambient temperatures finally cracks the code and allows them to germinate.

The disadvantage is the large number of pots and seed trays knocking around, which sometimes generates some criticism from my nearest and dearest.  And if the labels and pots become separated, as has been known to happen, things can get a little baffling.

Back in the spring (I think) I sowed some wapato seeds which I  had gathered from my plants in 2012 (I think). This is a signal lesson in why appending the sowing date on the label is a worthwhile undertaking. The seed tray was placed in a shallow receptacle which was topped up with water, in an attempt to create the kind of conditions most likely to encourage wapato germination. The months rolled by and nothing happened. The heat wave in July kept me busy watering other pots and I abandoned the wapato in favour of more deserving cases. The compost became completely desiccated and I presumed the wapato seeds had perished.

Then came the rain - lots of it. One day, in between torrential showers, I was dutifully following my instructions to create order out of chaos in the back yard and rediscovered the wapato tray.

Wapato, Sagittaria latifolia
I picked off a few small bittercress plants and was all set to reassign the compost as soil conditioner, when I noticed some small seedlings in one corner of the tray. At  first I thought they were pink purslane (Montia sibirica) a pretty (and pretty invasive) introduced wildflower. This aggressive beauty self seeds with great enthusiasm in our garden and any unguarded pot is soon infected with the pink plague.

And yet there was something alismataceous in their cast that made me pause. Wapato, unlike pink purslane, is a monocot, so I checked the next batch of emerging seedlings; they were wholly lacking in the paired cotyledons you'd expect to see in dicots like Montia sibirica. The wapato germination code has been cracked, although I can't help feeling that it would have been better for them to have waited until next spring. And probably better for me, because they don't look as though they're ready to survive the rigours of winter without my intervention.

Just as I was about to post this, I noticed a comment on the Radix Root Crops page from Tycho Rosehip. It turns out he has managed to sow and grow wapato this year. I've got a feeling his plants are now bigger than mine and I may ask him to reveal his secrets. 
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