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.
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.
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.