Friday, 25 December 2009

Jingle Bells This Ain't

'Tis the season to get all poetic, so here's a thinly veiled, angst ridden autobiographical composition, Derriford Infirmary Blues (with apologies to Johnny Cash)

I hear that ambulance coming, arriving at my door, it's taking me to Derriford,
I need their help I'm sure
Now I'm stuck in isolation with drips all in my arm
Bilateral pneumonia's done me some real harm

It started with a temperature, a cough and now it's worse
I surely need a doctor, or failing that a nurse
Cos I didn't see it coming, low O2 in my brain
Doc, please whup that lung infection, so I feel right again

Staring at the ceiling, I cannot sleep at night
Nosebleeds, nausea, breathlessness, doctor is this right?
Have faith in antibiotics, they will see you through
Son, take your Doxycycline and Amoxicillin too

I've left the Derriford doctors and three weeks have elapsed
It seems like bloody ages since my poor lungs collapsed
But now I'm doing better and I'm back on my on my feet
Just a little while longer and I can walk the street

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

OCAsional Update 4) Cabin Fever Cure

I'm still currently confined to barracks, but at least I no longer have to stare at the ceiling and listen to Radio 4 repeats all day long. I can now shuffle about and am even able to climb the stairs without going on my hands and knees as I had to until recently. This is a merciful relief after more than a month of prostration. I'd like to thank my friend Chris's dad, Norman Heatley, for his pivotal, albeit long-deferred role in my recovery.

What better way could there be to celebrate my recuperation than with a bit of Radix-directed occupational therapy?

So, for the first time in weeks, I step into the front room and see drifts of small glassine envelopes scattered across the floor and furniture. A momentary panic-induced relapse seems a distinct possibility. But no, faint heart never bred fair oca. If I'm well enough to sit up and have fully functional opposable thumbs, then I'm well enough to open the envelopes and sort the seeds. Time for my very own pre-Christmas presentfest, tempered somewhat by the knowledge that I know exactly what's inside. Still, that doesn't make their contents any less precious. Here goes.......

Later that day
Glad that's done. All I need to do now is a few calculations. Tomorrow, perhaps.

Even later the same day
I am, for the moment, limited to living vicariously on past oca glories. I await, anxiously, impatiently, the opportunity to disinter what remains of my oca tubers, as well as the mashuas and maukas. The recent sub-zero temperatures are causing me some alarm. Let's hope that at least some of the tubers escape destruction. In the meantime, I may as well share some of my as-yet-unrevealed observations from 2009. These were recorded back when I was allowed to roam outside to my heart's content, with nary an oxygen line nor antibiotic to restrain me. Although sketchy and anecdotal, they may be of interest to some of you. If they read like excised segments from one of James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness novels, my apologies. Publish and be damned.

Firstly, looking through my smudged, smeared and mud-encrusted notebook, I see the list of oca seedlings and their stylar arrangements. Out of the 25 seedlings, my records show that 16 flowered between August and October with stylar morph ratios (short:medium:long) of 9:5:2. I think another couple were due to flower towards the end of October, but I didn't manage to check them out in time.

I did notice that the long styled flowers seemed to be generally smaller in size than the other types and I've got a suspicion that they weren't produced as abundantly. I'd like to investigate this further next year.

I managed to collect seeds from a total of 15 of the 16 varieties that formed pods - only 0919 escaped me completely. In terms of productivity, there was wide variation, both between varieties and between pods of the same variety. Like I say, when I've done the calculations, I'll let you know.

Back in the days when the ocas were flowering, I saw two insect pollinators working the flowers: Bombus pascuorum and Platycheirus clypeatus. Both are widespread, generalist pollinators, the latter being a hoverfly, while the former is the common carder bumblebee. Judging by the numbers of pods which seemed to set without my assistance, I can only assume that they were doing a fairly good job. This is good news and tends to support the theory that, with the synchronous flowering of different stylar morphs, pollination and seed set is not that difficult to achieve. Long term Peruvian resident and oca watcher, Eilif Aas, tells me that pod formation is quite common there too.

The biggest, most vigorous plants were the first to flower, notably 0916 and 0917. These were also the first to show a definite yellowing of their foliage at the beginning of November. Shame I missed what happened next.

Peduncle length was quite variable between varieties, from nice long ones (about 10 cm in length) as found on 0912, 0908, 0916 and 0917, to much shorter ones (as little as 5 cm) found on some of the reddish calyx specimens, such as 0924. The latter's pods were often almost hidden in the foliage - not so convenient when it came to bagging.

0913 showed signs of fasciation. This is something which I have never noticed in any of my ocas before, although it is referred to in some of the literature I have seen. It still managed to flower and form pods, however. You can see the typically flattened stem with leaves clustered at the top in this photo:

What I really want to do now is sally forth, spade (or maybe pickaxe) in one hand, camera in the other and rescue the tubers, record their vital statistics and bag them up in a frost free place. The spirit is willing, but the body protests. Don't suppose Santa's little helpers are up for a bit of moonlighting?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

By which I mean, of course, the arrival of hopniss (Apios americana) in Cornwall, legendary home (supposedly) of King Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon and all the rest. While I was languishing in my hospital bed, Bryan Connolly very kindly sent me some seeds he collected near his home in Mansfield Center, Connecticut, which must be pretty damn close to the most northerly spot at which diploid hopniss grows. Unless, of course, dear Massachusetts resident, you know different.......By all accounts, New England had a pretty indifferent summer in 2009, so the fact that these plants managed to set seeds is encouraging. A tasty, nitrogen fixing, northern-adapted root crop - now there's a Christmas present worth unwrapping.

It seems like the Universe has risen to the challenge I set it back in July: provide me with hopniss seeds from even further north than New Jersey. Not only that, but the seeds arrived before Thanksgiving, just as I had requested. Shame I wasn't in any fit state to acknowledge their receipt until now. So, belated thanks Bryan, Radix's very own Mr Universe.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Magical Mystery Tour

The best laid schemes o' mice an men
Gang aft agley
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy!

- Robert Burns

By rights I ought to be regaling you with news of my freshly lifted oca tubers, radiantly diverse in colour and form. I ought to have weighed each variety and drawn some conclusions about yields, tuber size and perhaps, done a taste trial.

Just as I was about to embark on all of this, I started to develop an annoying dry cough and found it hard to sleep at night due to an elevated temperature. Flu, I thought and took to my bed with plenty of cups of honey and lemon to keep me hydrated. Batten down the hatches and weather the storm - that's my usual response to these sorts of illnesses. After about a week, I was still unable to sleep at night and found myself becoming confused and disorientated. We called the doctor out and he took my temperature and blood pressure and then did an oxygen saturation test using a finger monitor. The next thing I knew, I had an oxygen mask on my face and was in the back of an ambulance on a midnight run to hospital. In addition to oxygen, I was put on a drip and given loads of antibiotics intravenously. The diagnosis was pneumonia, not flu. I've now been out of hospital for a week, but the process of recovery is taking a lot longer than I was expecting, so bear with me if posts are a bit sparse for a while.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Mauka: Might is White

Here's a quick update on the two mauka varieties that Frank van Keirsbilck sent me as cuttings this summer - mauka blanca and mauka roja.

The mauka blanca cuttings rooted straight away and have grown vigorously. The mauka roja took much longer to root. I suspect that this was not necessarily due to inherent differences in vigour, but, perhaps, a result of the differing age and nutritional status of the stems from which the cuttings were taken. Although mauka cuttings usually root very easily, it took a bit of bottom heat and artificial illumination to get the mauka roja going. For a while it just sat and sulked. Now that it's grown roots, though, I'm expecting it to be fine.
Roja is on the left, blanca on the right.

For another look at these varieties, go to the Homegrown Goodness forum, where Frank has uploaded some infinitely better and more informative pictures - they're towards the bottom of the page.

What puzzles me is how to get mauka plants to flower. Frank van Keirsbilck and Jean-Luc Muselle have both managed it, using plants overwintered in greenhouses at different locations in Belgium. All of which is proof that Belgium is so much more than the sum of its stereotypes: beer, chocolate and micturating mannequins. The fact that the flowers appeared in spring may mean that flowering is initiated by increasing daylength. Alternatively, some physiological change caused by stem maturity may be involved. Perhaps our growing season is just too short for the plants to get big enough before winter sets in. Looking at the massive, sprawling stems and dense glossy foliage of my two seedlings makes that seem unlikely. Actually, I'm simply doing the doggy paddle in a sea of unknowing: I have no real idea. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else. So, there's another addition to the list of mysteries to be solved in 2010.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

OCAsional Update 3) Blow the Wind Southerly

To the fans of Kathleen Ferrier, the Lancashire lass with the moving contralto voice and sadly curtailed life, my apologies - follow this link for starters.

No, I'm actually referring to the mild airflow that has been caressing these shores of late. In truth, it's more of a south westerly blowing up from the Caribbean, courtesy of the Gulf Stream. After a nip of frost a couple of weeks ago, which left the yacon tops scorched and made me cover the ocas up with fleece, it's been remarkably balmy of late. So, a bit like "Klever Kaff" Ferrier, who hoped that a southerly wind would bring her sailor lover back home, I too am keen to see the winds bring us that blessed grey, drizzly, gusty weather for a little longer. I want to get more oca pods ripe and maybe obtain my first ever outdoor crop of mashua seeds.

You could say it's unseasonably warm, but glancing through the pages of "The Wrong Kind of Snow" will surely convince you to expect the unexpected. Due to a peculiar accident of geography we're jammed below four competing air masses that slug it out in a non-stop free-for-all-fight: there's a helluva heavenly struggle going on up there. Britain is the world capital of weather and here in Cornwall, we're pretty much in the downtown district. Still, at the moment the gods are smiling: the wind and rain comes blasting through, followed by brief intermezzos of sunshine and the oca pods live on to swell for a few extra days. Mustn't grumble.

I've managed to obtain a few seeds from Frank van Keirsbilck's very own Belgian-bred oca, Pink Dragon. So we're now looking at a potential second generation of European varieties, assuming the seeds germinate. I am intending to repatriate them when the harvest is all in so that Frank can repeat his success with Pink Dragon's offspring.

Frank had previously mentioned that Pink Dragon was particularly floriferous. The picture below, which I took recently, seems to support his assertion:

I've plucked a few pods from various oca plants and brought them indoors in the hope that they'll ripen faster. It's mild out there, yes, but not exactly warm. Plus I don't want the pods to be rattled loose or blown open by the next storm that heads this way. I've put them in a small 'vase", with water and I'm hoping they'll ripen.

So I now have a little autumn pod arrangement gracing the table. I picked pods which looked reasonably mature. Due to their penchant for casting themselves into the void at inopportune moments, I've got them safely imprisoned behind bars, or rather glass:

Ocabana isn't a patch on ikebana in terms of composition and I'm not expecting any prizes in any flower shows, but this arrangement has allowed me to study the pods a little more closely at my leisure. I had already noticed that a couple of pods on RX0901 and RX0924 had reared their heads in the last few days before releasing their volleys of seeds. That was outdoors and I caught them in the nick of time. It now seems that this same "if you've got it, flaunt it" tendency may be occurring in other individuals. Since their incarceration, several of the trapped pods have pointed skywards and then hurled their seeds in vain against the glass. Gotcha. You may be able to make out one or two seeds in the above picture. At least you can see some pods beginning to lift their necks, just like an alpaca does before spitting.

If I can find a white sheet and sufficient floor space, I think I'll try a little experiment to see how far the seeds are actually thrown. I suppose I ought to add non-shattering to the list of desirable characteristics to select for. Let's get the harvest home first.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Come on Kumara!

The connection between a convolvulaceous tuber bearing crop, a folk-blues artist and a cetacean may seem somewhat obscure, but let me elaborate. I used to enjoy working my way through my dad's old records; he seemed to think it was all part of the process of a liberal education and was content to let me wear out the stylus in the pursuit of musical enlightenment.

The link is Leadbelly's 1944 recording of "Tell Me Baby", which my dad had on an old LP. In addition to Leadbelly's 12 string guitar, he was accompanied by a funky zither, or more correctly a dolceola, played by one Paul Mason Howard. The song includes the following lines:

"The whale begin to wiggle and Jonah begin to scratch,
The whale throwed Jonah in somebody's sweetpotato patch".

Intrigued by this botanical reference, I duly trotted off to the Oxford Book of Food Plants to learn more about sweetpotatoes, so that I could fully conjure this absurdist image in my youthful mind's eye. Back in the antediluvian days of my childhood, sweetpotatoes were a rarity in the shops in the UK and I certainly hadn't eaten one. Still, at least I now knew what they looked like - both above and below ground.
Sweetpotato availability has improved immeasurably since those days and although I haven't had more sweetpotatoes than you've had hot dinners, I have enjoyed them in numerous hot dinners myself.

The logical next step is, of course, to grow one's own , although they are generally considered a warm weather crop and warm weather is the exception, rather than the rule in the UK. When Ulrike Paradine sent me a picture of her crop in, I think 2003, it was obvious that Radix could ignore the potential of sweetpotatoes no longer. You don't get many of these to the pound missus:

Kumara is the Maori name for them and might possibly be a better one than sweetpotato. I remember Kay Baxter of Koanga Institute in New Zealand showing us her collection of Maori varieties on a particularly wet and windy Northland afternoon. Kay told us that some varieties were particularly favoured as food for the elderly or infirm; others were grown in baskets then moved around by canoe as offerings to various gods. I forget the exact details - rain stopped play.

So this year I decided to have a go at raising a few sweetpotato varieties. 'Tainung 65' is acknowledged to be the best grower in our climate and is available from a number of suppliers. I got mine from Ulrike, who also supplied me with 'Beauregard' another supposedly superior variety, along with a variety she bought in Beta, a German supermarket; Frank van Keirsbilck also chipped in with a donation of a red fleshed variety, whose name is unknown, so I'll just call it Frank's. I didn't manage to get hold of 'Georgia Jet', which is a highly regarded short season variety. Maybe next year. Wandering aimlessly in a local supermarket, I found myself strangely drawn to the stand with the sweetpotatoes. There I found a variety called 'Kumara', with visible sprouts. I couldn't resist giving it a go, remembering, fondly, our encounter with the Maori varieties in Aotearoa. On perusing the packet, I found that they were not from New Zealand as the name suggested, but the USA. A friend gave me a plant she'd got from a friend, no idea what variety it was, but known henceforth as 'Claire's'. Six varieties in total.

As we've had another wet, cool, sunless summer, this might be a good time to sort the men from the boys. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: "if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere". Due to other commitments, I was also very late in getting them planted out. What better way to test their suitability for our climate? In addition to my as yet unfulfilled desire to grow the high altitude New Guinea sweetpotatoes (are you listening Universe?), I'd also like to try culina (Ipomoea minuta). This is a high altitude Andean species, with pleasant tasting tubers; I'm still hunting for a source. I'm not entirely clear as to whether the evocatively named Huachuca Mountain morning glory (Ipomoea plummerae) from the mountains of South Western USA, is a variety of, or synonym for I. minuta; it too is edible and hardier than the average sweetpotato, Boo Boo. Don't know if it's found in Jellystone Park as well as Arizona.

I'm wholly ignorant of Frank Sinatra's horticultural exploits, if any, but if I may misquote again from Ol' Blue Eyes' canon: now the time has come and so they face the final curtain. I can delay their harvest no longer. If the frost don't get 'em, the rodents will.

Brace yourselves: here are the results:







The last can be excluded on the grounds that it arrived as a rooted plant which I hastily thrust into the ground: the impressive looking tuber probably represents two seasons' growth rather than one, which kind of knocks it off its pedestal somewhat.

It seems that our indifferent summer has got the better of the sweetpotatoes this year. They can join the ranks of the heroic failures and also-rans that have punctuated my horticultural career. Had Jonah been thrown into my sweetpotato patch, I don't think he'd have had a particularly soft landing as the vines were a bit thin on the ground; he'd also have been one small meal from starvation. We just didn't have enough warm and sunny weather at the right time. Living in the southwestern extremity of Britain, on a bony finger jabbing defiantly into the Atlantic swell, I can hardly expect any better. Frank and Ulrike tell me they have had more success. Still, I haven't given up - yet.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Merry Month of Ocatuber

I might be, as my grandmother would have put it, a little previous in declaring October as the official oca lifting season. I'm actually hoping that the frosts will hold off for a good few weeks yet, which will allow the tubers of the ocas, ullucos and mashuas to swell properly. If we do get a killing frost this month, you can scratch the "merry" from this post's title. Now that days are shorter than 12 hours, the oca, mashua and ulluco plants seem to realise that it's time to perk up and face facts: perennate or perish.

After a prolonged period of dry weather, the rain has returned in what we refer to in this household as "mashua weather". This is the kind of drizzly, cool, cloudy weather that encourages lush growth in the mashua patch and provides the slugs and snails with 24/7 buffet opportunities. So the very weather that slaughtered the spuds earlier in the season is now back: it was only a matter of time. Still, the quicksilver droplets on mashua leaves are a partial compensation:

I've just noticed the first signs of flower buds developing on some of the mashua plants.

I can't tell which variety though, as they have all grown together into a dense weed suppressing blanket as shown below, with my size 11 boot and shapely leg to give a bit of scale.

Some are ascending into the yacon plants. This might make for a pretty effect if the chill holds off for long enough and the mashuas flower. If they do, I'll be shutterbugging the results.

One year, with particularly late autumn frosts, I actually got seeds forming on some of the mashuas, but they succumbed when we got a proper cold snap. So near, yet so far.

I've managed to harvest some oca seeds, all in their little envelopes, but I'm doubtful as to whether rather flimsy cellulose packets will survive more than a couple of cycles in the Atlantic front washing machine. You may be able to make out two seeds in the bottom left hand packet labelled 0908.

I'm considering using some grip-seal bags as replacements. Perhaps a bit of extra warmth courtesy of trapped solar radiation might hasten the pods' maturity. Another possibility is that the combination of warmth and moisture could produce parboiled pods like a vegetable version of boil-in-the-bag-chicken. Still, I'm willing to try anything - once - to get the harvest home. It's not a matter of life and death - it's far more important than that.

Since writing the above, I took the opportunity between showers to try out a couple of grip-seal bags as glassine replacements.
Here's what I did:

Come in, I said, I'll give ya, shelter from the storm. Notice those nice red oca pods.

If bagging works for bananas, why not ocas?

Monday, 21 September 2009

OCAsional Update 2) Podzapoppin

A week of high pressure fortuitously coincided with a week's holiday which I spent engaged in some lazy botanising far from the oca pods and the rest of the Radix menagerie. As I suspected, those oca pods, like time and tide, wait for no man. On my return, a quick glance amongst the lush trifoliate foliage revealed the characteristically nondescript appearance of spent oca pods. Just a few, but it hurt. Those accursed pods may go out with a bang, albeit little, but there's precious little evidence to show for it - just tatty little bits of desiccated calyx. This won't do. I'm not spending all those hours exercising my droit de seigneur without the satisfaction of raising the offspring as my own.

So as an interim measure I harvested the pods that I deemed closest to detonation. I'll be damned if I let any more seeds escape me.

As I may have mentioned, oca pods are annoyingly small structures, hanging either singly or in small clusters from a single stalk. I have previously tried making my own little bags out of horticultural fleece for the purpose of catching the seeds before they disperse, but my needlework was so shockingly hamfisted that I gave up.

I have since read a paper describing the use of pergamine envelopes (AKA glassine) to cover the pods and prevent the precious seeds going AWOL. Beloved of philatelists as well as phytologists, they are ideal for storing small quantities of tiny seeds. Somewhere in the makeshift Svalbard vault where I store my genebank (currently a cupboard under the stairs), I recalled secreting a box of said glassine envelopes. A bit of concerted fossicking yielded up that which I was searching for. Excellent. I took a few envelopes out to the plants. To my chagrin, they were a bit too large for the purpose and my first attempts produced an effect somewhat like a tea clipper under full sail. I feared that the poor plants might be bodily uprooted with the next blast from the Atlantic. A few moments of head scratching (half an hour passes very quickly when problem solving) and I decided to cut the bags in half.

This gave me two for the price of one, as the top end, with the sealable flap could be closed to produce a mirror image of the bottom half.

Now, with the aid of my trusty electrician's tape, I was able to fold the bags and hold them in place at the junction of the peduncle and pedicels.

I'm hoping the tape will act like a little roof, preventing the bags filling up with water. I think it might rain all through September.

Tree dressing is curious custom that persists in parts of Britain as well as in numerous locations worldwide. My oca plants now look like a leprechaun or Cornish pisky has been decorating them, or maybe a Buddhist sect has taken up residence. I just hope that the method works like it did for the researchers in Ecuador. I suppose I could always leave a votive offering for the little people............

Monday, 14 September 2009

OCAsional Update 1) To Bee Or Not To Bee

I think I made mention of the clumsy and unsophisticated pollination technique that I have used thus far on my ocas. As promised, I wandered the tractless wastes of the internet in search of enlightenment and inspiration. Well, I think I now understand a little more about the birds and the bees from the standpoint of my oca plants. In fact I have been keeping a tick list of pollinators I've seen on the flowers - no birds, but I have seen bumble bees and hoverflies along with a number of small dipteran equivalents of the twitcher's little brown bird.

My new technique involves what I can only describe as deflowering the maiden buds in the first bloom of youth. As unfortunate as this procedure is, I'm quite gratified by the results. There seem to be a number of pods setting and I can't help feeling that it's me and not the bees who deserves the credit.

Before I outline the whole sordid process, I suppose a few clarifications and caveats are in order.

1) An oca flower's season of youth is short. Flowers open between 9 and 10 in the morning here. Anthesis -that's to say pollen ripening - seems to occur a couple of hours later, around midday or in the early afternoon. The flowers then close up in the late afternoon. This is pretty much the same in many other Oxalis species. If they're not pollinated, then they open again the following day.

2) If it's too cold or dark or wet, they keep schtum - choose a nice sunny or bright day, if you're afforded that luxury. It can be hard to distinguish between a fertile flower and an unripe one when their petals are tightly furled.

3) You need to reconnoitre your plants to identify which plant has which stylar morph. Having ascertained which plants are which, tag or label them.

OK - let's pollinate some flowers.

Here's a short styled flower, which has the stigmas right at the base of the flower, with two whorls of stamens above it.

You also need to find a flower of another type, in this instance a mid-styled one, which has the stigmas in the middle, with stamens both above and below it. Good.

Now gently squeeze the base of the mid-styled flower with one hand so that the petals separate. Then grasp the bottommost petals with your other hand and gently pull. With luck and practice, you'll find that the petals come away.

I leave the top ones on as a bit of a rain guard, but if the whole lot come off, no matter. When I said deflowering, I suppose I meant depetalling. You should now be able to see the stigmas quite clearly and more importantly, gain access to them.

Make a mental note of the flower's position or mark the flower stalk with some coloured string. Wander over to your short styled flower and, repeat the process.

You now have two flowers, with different stylar arrangements and easily accessible stigmas.

The aim is to transfer pollen from one flower to the other. Easy, you say, with tweezers at the ready. Yes, but you need to transfer pollen from the anther which is at the same height as the stigmas in the corresponding flower. Like this:

And then reciprocally like this:

Confused? Let me put it another way. Take pollen from the bottom anthers in the mid-styled flower and put it on the stigmas of the short-styled flower. Take pollen from the anthers above the......

"If a picture paints a thousand words" - Could it be that dear old Telly Savalas was right when he sang those immortal lines? Let's see whether this helps. Here's a diagram:

It shows the possible permutations of what are called "legitimate" pollinations - the ones most likely to produce oodles of viable oca seeds. Illegitimate pollinations (you can work those out) are less likely to give rise to any viable seeds, but may be worth attempting when you're short of correct pollination partners and feeling tired, frustrated and hungry. It happened to me, folks.

So that's what you've got to do to ensure maximum seed set. I've yet to find a brush that's suitable for transferring the tiny quantities of pollen that oca produces, so I just pull off a stamen and rub the anther over the surface of as many of the correct
height stigmas as possible (five in each flower). If I can afford to be profligate, I'll do the same with another stamen. Sometimes I get a bit keen and the anthers haven't quite dehisced when I pick them. I'll give them a bit of a squeeze or stroke them very gently with my fingertip. If I see pollen grains on my finger, I'm satisfied that they're up and running.

I've just had a look at my friend Sarah's oca patch. She's not attempting any cross pollination of her ocas and yet I notice several pods are forming on her plants. I could choose to see this as a total invalidation of my pollination efforts. Actually, I consider this revelation to be encouraging. It means that when the right pollinators occur and the right varieties are grown under suitable conditions, then fertile seed can be produced. My suspicion is that oca pod formation is probably a more common occurrence than has been noted previously. The pods are, in all honesty, charismatically speaking, dull little structures, that might easily fail to impinge on the consciousness of any self-respecting grower. Here are some I found on 0917, which has styles in the mid position, hence the 2 in brackets.

That's oca pods at their most exciting. They fade to a dull yellowish brown and then treacherously flick their seeds out when you least expect it. You have been warned.

Friday, 4 September 2009

If it Wisnae for the Wark o'the Weeders

As I was tucking into a delicious spud-based meal, the other evening, I was thinking about the massive debt we old worldies owe to the agrobiodiversity of the New World.

Avid followers of this blog (if they exist), can't have failed to notice the preponderance of both South and North American roots and tubers featuring in my quixotic search for increased production and underground resilience in our charmingly overcrowded islands.

I seem to remember an old Scottish song titled If It Wisnae For The Wark o' the Weavers. It celebrated the contribution of the weavers to keeping people clothed -
"If it wisnae for the weavers, wa would we do? We wouldna hae clathes made o wool".

Only a brave soul would have tried living in Scotland without their woollen clothes - nae central heating dae ye ken?

Well, if it wisnae for the work of the weeders and breeders who wove the rich cloth of agricultural biodiversity in the Americas we would be without:

Runner and French beans
Chillies and sweet peppers

That's not an exhaustive list by any means, but I for one feel eternally grateful that I don't have to exist on tough old turnips, mushy peas and gristly field beans, washed down with a little barley gruel as in days of yore.

As terrible as the consequences of the conquest of the Americas were to both the ecology and native peoples, the resulting biological booty has certainly improved our cuisine over here no end. So here's a heartfelt thanks to the untold millions in the western hemisphere whose crop selection, breeding and cultivation efforts have given us such a varied and tasty diet.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

A Flurry of Flowers

It's now over a month since the first flowers appeared on one of my oca seedlings - RX0916, to be precise. The weather has been against us (that's me and the ocas), but has now improved to the point at which wan sunlight filters through leaden skies on occasion and allows me to see my own hand at arm's length. Poetic licence, maybe, but cloud cover has been unusually dense over the last two months and the rainfall exceptionally high. We've just been slapped by the dying gasps of Hurricane Bill as the final hurrah to a supremely indifferent August. There's a distinct autumnal chill in the air these mornings; this is all very well, but it would have been nice to have had a bit more of the azure skies and blazing sunshine that we associate with summer before slipping inexorably into the no man's land of November and beyond.

No matter - an increasing number of the other oca seedlings are starting to flower, so I've decided to try and ascertain what kind of stylar arrangement each individual has. This should make it a little easier to cross pollinate them and produce more botanical seed, ready for a further round of sowing, growing and selecting.

As of yesterday there are 15 seedlings in flower, with another four likely to do so in a few days.

Of the flowers I have examined so far, two stylar morphs are present. Consulting my CIP oca descriptors I find these are 1) brevistilia and 2) mesostilia - that's short-styled and medium-styled. I haven't seen any long-styled flowers yet, although I'm pretty sure that some of the potential parents in my possession display this trait. The following image will hopefully make apparent the differences.

The flower on the left has the stigmas positioned at the base of the flower, below both whorls of stamens and is thus short-styled. The flower on the right has the stigmas between the whorls of stamens and is therefore mid-styled.

Breathless update: I've now discovered a seedling (0905 to be precise),with the third type of flower, called in CIP lingo "longostilia", or long-styled. I didn't have my camera with me, unfortunately.

So far the short styles outnumber the medium styles by roughly 2:1, which seems strangely significant and will no doubt prompt me to go and do some research on the mechanisms of inheritance of heterostyly in oca. What better way to spend the August Bank Holiday weekend?

Due to the attention lavished on my little darlings, (perhaps I should call them ocarinas), I didn't get round to planting the tubers of the other varieties until a bit later. So, although some are starting to form flower buds, they're not as precocious as my own little brats. I've got a fairly good idea of which varieties are the likely parents of my brood, so I'll be interested to see what floral arrangements they have (and I'm not talking ikebana or wedding bouquets).

Some seedlings have reddish sepals, as seen in the following photo:

Another distinguishing characteristic is the presence or absence of little blotches of purple at the base of the leaves where they join the stems. In my other varieties this seems to be carried over into the tubers as dark marks around the eyes. Oca tubers are, like potatoes, modified stem tissue rather than true roots.

Some of the plants with the red sepals have the purple blotches, others don't. From this I deduce that the two characteristics are inherited separately. Whether sepal colour has any influence on tuber colour remains to be seen. If I can avoid my notebook going mouldy or being devoured by slugs, I should have an answer to this by late autumn.

Here's a stem with purple marks at the leaf axils and reddish sepals (honest).

The reclining pose is due to the effects of wind and rain and the twine is an attempt to stop it flopping any further over its comrades. What is it they say about the British climate? Ah yes - one of the best for growing crops and the worst for harvesting them. I'm not even sure about the growing bit any more.

And this is one without blotches, but possessing purplish sepals. Still vertical - so far, thanks to the sheltering embrace of the maukas.

I've noticed what appear to be a couple of fertile pods developing on 0916 and 0917, so I'm keeping a close eye on them. If there's anyone out there who is studying their own pod-laden ocas with similar excitement, it's worth sharing a few tips. The first thing to be aware of is that oca pods are explosively dehiscent, that's to say they pop open and forcefully scatter the tiny seeds. You can forget trying to find them afterwards. Like an overprotective parent, I feel they are a bit too precious to be allowed out on their own. The only answer is to individually bag the pods or harvest them when the seeds are ripe, or nearly so. Oh for the simplicity of big, seedy potato fruits.

Back in 2007, I found bagging the pods individually exceeded my levels of dexterity, raised my blood pressure and expanded my range of expletives. It also threatened to damage the very pods I sought to protect. I decided to opt for the nick-of-time harvest method instead, storing the almost ripe pods in a Petri dish. By placing said Petri dish close to my ear, I was able to hear, on more than one occasion, a Liliputian ping, as a pod ripened and then shattered before my very eyes - I mean ears. If, as I hope, a multitude of pods are formed this year, I may revise my options and try and bag the flowers.

Here's a ripening pod on 0916. Sometimes the seeds are visible through the walls of the ovary and persistent calyx as little bumps. Each bump consists of a seed wrapped in a pale green fleshy aril. Looking at this makes the seed appear under ripe, but the pod may actually be close to dehiscence. Beware!

Just after this picture was taken, we were hit by more wet and windy weather. I could hardly believe it when this little pod, pregnant with possibility, was from its mother plant untimely ripped. Oh calamity. A bit of diligent searching revealed the squashed and soggy pod lying beneath a pile of sprawling oca stems. And there, like a pearl in a pulverised oyster, sat one tiny seed.

You can forget about your new season Beaujolais and associated hullabaloo - to me this event has much deeper resonance. Excuse me mixing my drinks, but here's to Chateau Mouton Radix 2009 - let's hope it's a good vintage.

From what I've read, the original Radix pollination method, involving shoving one flower into another, can be improved upon. I shall go away and see whether I can develop a method with a little more finesse and a little less, well, brutality. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 14 August 2009

My Maukas Just Multiplied

I have just received, courtesy of fellow conspirator Frank van Keirsbilck, cuttings of two new varieties of mauka. The two varieties come with simple, yet profoundly descriptive Spanish names: Roja (red) and Blanca (white). Roja looks similar to CIP 208001, the variety which both Frank and I grew from seed last year. Blanca lacks the redddish coloured stems of Roja and 208001 and has noticeably paler leaves. I wonder whether the flowers will be white, rather than the pale purple of 208001.

I like a good picture as much as the next phytophanatic, but I think I'll restrain my snap-happy tendencies until the new starlets are a little bit bigger and more photogenic. For now I've got them in intensive care until they're properly rooted. When they've got a good crop of leaves, I'll host a suitably glitzy coming out party. You are cordially invited. RSVP.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Achira - You Can with a Canna

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. So my achira, which looks like a bog standard purple canna, is indubitably a canna, just like the ones gracing a roundabout near you. Mine came with the moniker "achira morada", purple achira. I've had it for years. At one time achira was afforded the honour of species status, Canna edulis; now it seems to be considered a variety of Canna discolor or Canna indica. It comes from - you've guessed it - the Andes.

For some peculiar reason I haven't managed to kill my achira, despite letting it dry out, get frosted and most recently, leaving it in a greenhouse to cook at about 48 degrees Celsius for several days. I wouldn't say that achira thrives on any of this treatment, but it is remarkably tough. I haven't yet tried it underwater, but I've got form, what with the mashua and oca waterlogging debacle last year.

The most shameful aspect of all this is the fact that I have never, despite ample opportunity, actually got round to eating its rhizomes. This year I intend to remedy that oversight. By all accounts they have a pleasant sweet taste and go well with roast guinea pigs, although they take a while to cook - the rhizomes, I mean.

Achira is famed for having the largest known starch grains in the plant kingdom, ones that are visible with the naked eye. It's cultivated in SE Asia, particularly in Vietnam for the production of transparent noodles and also in Australia where it's known as Queensland arrowroot. Because the starch grains are so large, it's easy to grate the rhizomes in water and collect the starch grains with simple home made equipment and produce a high grade starch. My infamous crumpled shirts may be a thing of the past....

I think it might be worth dashing into the local park's undergrowth to explore the edibility of various other ornamental cannas. William Woys Weaver has been doing the same with dahlia tubers, although I think he's growing his own rather than raiding other people's flower beds. Yes, dahlias are perfectly edible. While you're at it, why not try the same with amenity plantings of sweet potatoes such as Blackie, which definitely form useable tubers. Not so much guerilla, as gorilla gardening. You could always beat your chest and pant-hoot if the authorities try and stop you.

Here's my achira, just prior to me lopping off a chunk to send to Frank van Keirsbilck. The keen eyed among you may notice a hog peanut seedling has insinuated its way into the pot. That spell at 48 degrees Celsius seems to have done no permanent harm.

And here's proof, if proof were needed, that this is none other than a canna, with a typical canna's physiognomy:

Those rhizomes look promising, if somewhat stunted and, er, a bit tough. Still, I've eaten mashua and survived, so achira ought to be sweet confection in comparison.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

It Might As Well Rain Until September

Well, the sun has yet to return in any meaningful way, but I did manage to get a photo of one oca seedling's flowers, hanging somewhat disconsolately in a shower-induced sulk. They were a bit too wet and tight-lipped to determine what kind of stylar arrangement they had, but I suppose I can wait until the rain subsides and the sun returns. There is talk on the radio about a possible improvement in August - maybe, then again maybe not. Too late for the potatoes - we hacked off the blight-blasted foliage the other night.

Glass half full moment: at least we're not growing cereal crops as a subsistence staple - I might fear for my expanding waistline if we were. Phytophthora notwithstanding, tubers as a staple make a lot of sense in our fickle and vacillating climate. Hence the Radix project....

Here's a view along the bed full of babes, showing some of the variation in size among the seedlings.

And here's a shot of one of the maukas, all trussed up with nowhere to go. They seem completely unfazed by the weather, be it dry or wet. Nor are they bothered by their incarceration in my hastily constructed makeshift pots. This plant is a proliferating mass of shoots about a metre across.

As I was snapping away merrily (a career in photo journalism, you'll notice, just got even more unlikely), I remembered something I'd read by Tom Wagner. Tom is a tomato and potato breeder in the USA and has created loads of the varieties that grace the gardens of the heirloom tomato brigade. Hell, I've even grown Green Zebra tomatoes myself.

In his potato breeding he is very careful to select for potatoes with superior berrying abilities - no seeds, no new varieties; a similar goal must surely be at the top of my list. Most breeders choose sparse-berrying potato varieties as female parents of crosses, because it's easier to cross pollinate these without having to emasculate the flowers. The result, according to Tom, is that their progeny go on to be poor berry producers. He advocates an alternative approach, selecting parents that are able to self pollinate as well as outcross. As oca is, apparently, an obligate outcrosser, this is going to be a little tricky to achieve. And yet.......

There is a small amount of self fertilisation in oca. A paper I read a while ago suggested that the mid-styled morphs (weren't they headlining at Glastonbury this year?) are able to self-pollinate to a limited degree. They can then go on to produce fertile seeds. Should we be scouring our collections in search of these in order to up the likelihood of producing more new seed grown plants? Are the "crosses" I'm presuming took place merely the result of favourable conditions at the time of flowering and nothing more than self pollinations? Are our plants raddled old workhorses, riddled with viruses which are rendering them incapable of sexual reproduction, hence the aborted flowers? More flowers will soon be on their way - time to crank the starting handle on the Radix oca database, whip out the hand lens and get down, serious and dirty, in pursuit of data.

PS. Tom Wagner is coming to Europe this autumn.......

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Thanks, Universe

Or, more correctly, "Thanks, Bryan".

Arrayed before you are some seeds of hopniss (Apios americana) gathered from the area around High Point, New Jersey. Their arrival was certainly the high point of my day.

They were collected by Bryan Connolly, a seed saver, plant breeder and chicken farmer from Connecticut. Bryan also happens to be the Massachusetts State Botanist and is a scientist with a long standing interest in Apios americana. That's what I call multi-tasking.

High Point is, surprise, surprise, the highest point in Noo Joisy, "The Garden State" and has the coolest climate in the vicinity, lying close to the border with New York State. That ought to increase the odds of some better adapted plants for the UK compared to those from further south. Could this be the start of a northern adapted hopniss breeding programme? Time will tell. In any case it will be fun growing them and comparing them to my other accessions.

I am now presenting the Universe with a further challenge: deliver to me seeds from Apios plants growing even further north than New Jersey. These are to arrive on my desk by Thanksgiving, or failing that, Christmas: decorate my desk with hopniss, tra-la-la-la-la-la -la- la-la.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Blooming Beautiful Babes

Of the plant kind, that is.

I've just noticed that a couple of my oca seedlings are starting to flower. I'll have to get up close and personal to see how they're hanging with regards to stigmas and stamens. This would at least allow a slightly more systematic approach to breeding new varieties, although the serendipitous production of seeds and the subsequent rearing of the seedlings has been entertaining and educational in itself. What's really important is a reliable way to get lots of different varieties to flower simultaneously so we can maximize the potential for fortuitous genetic recombination. When I say "we", I mean you too.

I have tried stem girdling as a way of stimulating flowering in the past - all that happened was I got a lot of extra cuttings - the first bit of windy weather snapped the brittle stems. I have seen references to pruning being used to encourage flowering, but that seems to consist of little more than lopping the top off the main stem to encourage side shoots. My plants have plenty of those already.

Another possibility would be artificially shortening day length - a bucket over an individual plant would probably suffice, but I've never yet managed to do this systematically enough to produce good results. Even if it didn't stimulate flowering, it might well encourage tuber development a bit earlier than usual. A more sophisticated approach would be to use gibberellin, but getting the dose right could be tricky.

Anyway, back to my seedlings. There are distinct differences in vigour, leaf hairiness, anthocyanin on the petiole and probably a whole host of other characteristics I'm not aware of. The simple, yet strangely tedious truth is that I really ought to do some proper characterisation of them. I should power up the Radix oca database and record in exhaustive detail the general appearance, flower morph, tuber size and colour, yield, taste and disease resistance of each variety in my possession. Somewhere, buried in a cardboard box, is a list of oca descriptors from CIP which I could use to assist me in this work. Maybe if I make a public declaration of intent on this blog, I will be shamed into action. So I'd better not then.

Post Script: a few days of wet and windy weather (summer!) have washed away the first flowers, but I notice more buds lurking in the leaf axils. I shall keep an eye out for the next batch and take some pictures in the glorious summer sunshine that will soon, Insha'Allah, illuminate the land once more.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Go Ahead, Make My Day

As my birthday approaches, it seems like a good time to send out my root crop wish list, just in case a potential benefactor or patron would care to make me very happy. I'll limit myself to a few simple things, hoping that the Cosmic Ordering Service is immune to my scepticism and will deliver, or failing that, perhaps you, kind reader, will be able to assist.

OK Universe, this is what I would like for my birthday this year:
  • High altitude sweet potatoes from Papua New Guinea - seeds from varieties found at the edge of cultivation at around 2300-2700 metres above sea level. Let's start with Lian Morea, WHCK 005, PRAP 219, PRAP 469, WBS 010 Munibmam, SSYK 019,Lipulipu, PRAP 546 and WHCK 007.   I've got  a lot more interested in sweet potatoes since I discovered that they are able to fix nitrogen and  I've just made a delicious soup containing sweet potatoes and can't get them out of my mind. 
  • Ipomoea minuta aka "culina", a high altitude Andean sweet potato relative said to be sweet and tasty and hardier than I. batatas.  
  • Ipomoea pandurata - the North American bigroot morning glory or mecha-meck. Winter hardy, big root, should grow here, might be useful for breeding or selection, although excavating a torso-proportioned root out of the ground with a crowbar might be a bit too heroic, especially seeing as, like me, it is often bitter and twisted.
  • Apios fortunei - the Asian version of hopniss
  • Seeds from the most northerly growing diploid Apios americana; Amphicarpaea bracteata from Canada - how about  Prince Edward Island provenance seeds for starters.
  • Day neutral ocas and ullucos, or at least ones from the southernmost part of their ranges; a bagful of oca and ulluco seeds from which to select new varieties more suited to the lazy, hazy, crazy days of our summers (or do I mean misty, moist and miserable?).
  • A purple fleshed yacon; black ocas and mashuas. That's probably enough germplasm for now, unless you can provide: ten acres; a few polytunnels; an independent income;a laminar flow cabinet; undying devotion..........
So go ahead, Universe, make my day, you know you want to.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Happiness is a root called Hopniss

What's long and pink and gets stuck in tarts? Rhubarb, of course. Who says old jokes are the best? Let's move on - sharpish. So, what root crop is long and thin with bulges like a pet-swallowing python and tastes really good? That's a bit more difficult for the uninitiated. The answer, as zealous enthusiasts of future foods may have already guessed, is groundnut (Apios americana).

This twining legume with tasty tubers was a mainstay of the Pilgrim Fathers as they struggled to survive their first few years in North America. It was a staple of the native peoples for centuries before this. It may even be the "potato" that was supposedly introduced to Britain by Sir Walter Raleigh from the Virginia colony in the 1590s.

Once seen, the swollen lumps scattered on the sinuous rhizomes make for easy

identification. Not only does it taste nice, it will survive our winters (and summers) and is nitrogen fixing. This must surely be the most uneglected of the shamefully neglected potential new root crops. I mean to say, down in Deputy Dawg Country, or a little over the border in Louisiana, they had a university department actually trying to domesticate this species. Just as they was making some progress, the darn funding got pulled from under 'em and they was left high and dry, doggone it.

I've done a bit of research into alternative names for groundnut - Apios - blame it on long winter nights and few friends. Some of the most colourful lurk in a yellowing copy of the Apios Tribune from back in the days when the plant's future as a new crop was assured - supposedly. Yes, Apios had its own enthusiasts' newsletter, produced under the aegis of the Louisiana State University team at Baton Rouge.

Check these out: nu-nu, chicamins, maskoseet, chiquebi. These are all derived from native languages, although the article doesn't specify which ones. To us Brits, "groundnut" means peanut, Arachis hypogaea. If we're serious about promoting this plant, then we don't want to confuse Arachis with Apios. Sweet potato and potato are bad enough, especially seeing as "potato" is a linguistic flea that jumped from its original host Ipomoea batatas (sweet potato) and latched onto Solanum tuberosum. To avoid confusion, Americans sometimes call Ipomoea batatas "yam"; what they call yams (Dioscorea), I'm not sure. Just when the waters are getting a little turbid in Lake Etymology, up steps plucky New Zealand with the idiomatic use of "yam" for oca (Oxalis tuberosa). The moral of this diverting digression? Learn scientific names and use them. It’s not that painful and can be an effective chat-up line.

There's another reason. To us Brits, groundnut is also a name that reeks of incompetence, obstinacy and downright stupidity, from the dying days of the "empire on which the sun never sets" (huh). I'm referring of course, to the infamous "Groundnut Scheme", or should I say debacle, of the late 1940s, in which vast areas of Tanzania were ruined by the inappropriate cultivation of peanuts at the behest of the British government and all funded courtesy of war-weary tax payers. So, rather than finding Apios guilty by association with that name, I propose that we find an alternative moniker. Apios, by the way, is derived from apion, Greek for pear, a reference to the ovoid shape of the tubers - information all aspiring slumdog millionaires should stash for future reference.

It seems that the root word for Apios americana in the Algonquin languages of the eastern USA is "pen". This occurs in various forms such as openauk, penak, etc. "Hopniss", as in this post's title, is derived from the same root word too: o-pen-iss. For some reason "hopniss" seems to have broken out of its original Delaware boundaries and expanded its range above and beyond nu-nu and all the others. It's not such a bad name, having currency among wild food enthusiasts such as Sam Thayer, whose article on Apios americana is here. He provides plenty of interesting information, as well as some recipe suggestions. The climbing, winding stems also have a passing similarity to hops, so perhaps the name is reinforced by this happy, I mean hoppy, coincidence.

Anyway, I mentioned the work of the Louisiana team from Baton Rouge, who seem to have had some success in breeding improved Apios varieties - son of a gun they found big ones on the bayou, or at least they bred them. That’s as maybe, but they won't be the best for growing up here. The climate's just too different - like it's a lot cooler, a lot less sunny: our summer = Louisiana winter. Perhaps I jest, a little, but only a little. I was sent some seeds from the Louisiana project, but not a single seedling showed any promise in our climate. None of the Louisiana selections ever flowered, nor did they produce worthwhile tubers. It seems that this is no mere coincidence. Further trawling led me to a paper by some Japanese researchers. According to the authors, Apios starts producing the long rhizomes early in the growing season, but they don't swell much until after the plant has flowered.

Luckily for us, hopniss has a massive range, from the Gulf Coast right up into Canada. The future's bright, the future's brown.

Less fortunate is the fact that these northern adapted plants are almost always sterile triploids and thus difficult to use in any breeding programme I'm likely to be able to undertake. The northern-adapted triploid varieties, which flower every year, seem to do much better here in terms of yield, which is after all, what we’re all interested in, or at least I am. Ironically, the fact that they are sterile probably helps, as the plant doesn't waste time producing those resource hungry seeds. That still leaves me up a bit of breeding blind alley with defective sat nav if the destination is a new crop for cool temperate regions. There are, however, some fairly northerly locations in the USA where diploid plants can be found; if anyone knows anyone living in these areas who might be able to go out and collect seeds from these on-the-edge diploids, I'd be very grateful. Calling the citizens of the following locations: Oneco CT, East Otis, MA, Erving MA and anywhere else in New England where the distinctive big pods follow the attractive pink or burgundy flower clusters.

I've also discovered a Dutch seedsman by the name of Geralt Joren who runs Allseeds and has been breeding Apios, sorry, hopniss, for a few years. I'm very keen to try out his seedling selections in the future. He’s got some other interesting stuff too.

Excuse me while I get all misty-eyed for a moment. My first hopniss plant came from Ken Fern of Plants for a Future back in the days when I was young and rhizophilia was at its most intense. Happy days and great expectations.......

I've mellowed a bit since then, but I've also gained a few more accessions, purchased from various nurseries in the UK , or gifted by other enthusiasts. They vary in the colour of their flowers and the degree of hairiness shown by the leaves and stems. The tubers seem to vary in shape as well. Ken’s is still one of the best. One day, when a mysterious benefactor secretly deposits some serious wonga in my coffers, I'll get round to doing proper characterisation of them all, measuring emergence date, vigour, yield and taste of this eminently edible, high protein, nitrogen fixing root crop. Then comes the breeding work – I can’t wait. Details of my Pay Pal account are available on request, Mr Magwitch.

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