Sunday, 18 January 2009

Rooting around

There's something about roots and root crops. You plunge your hands into the soil and there, behold, a little subterranean nest, twinkling in the earthy firmament. Those pristine tubers or roots see the light of day for the first time. It's like witnessing a birth. Somehow this satisfies within me some deep and primeval instinct to forage, to dig exultantly into the flesh of Mother Earth to obtain sustenance.

I have a particular interest in exploring the potential lurking in some of the lesser known, or not currently cultivated plants with edible roots, rhizomes, bulbs and tubers. Seeing as all crops started off as wild plants and all crops were minor before they became major, why not acquire, cultivate and breed new, different, crop species? It's a way of experiencing and celebrating crop biodiversity. It's fun.

Fellow gardeners, it's both the best of times and the worst of times (apologies to Charles Dickens). I'm personally gutted that the Yangtze river dolphin is in all probability extinct; that the magnificent eucalypt forests of East Gippsland are still being felled. Yes, I'm sorry to report that crop diversity continues to plummet. Yet we as gardeners have access to an unprecedented range of plants (take a look in the RHS Plant Finder or Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook to see what I mean). Carpe diem.

Most plant breeding over the last 10,000 years has been done by enthusiastic amateurs (a.k.a. farmers and gardeners). Their enthusiasm may have stemmed from the hunger pangs that most of us fat cats in the developed world have thankfully avoided for a few generations. We're lucky. For now.

So, while the opportunity is allowed us, let's scoop our hands through the sweetie jar and sample what's on offer. There's more than potatoes and parsnips out there. Not that I have anything against either of those esteemed vegetables. Root crops are often among the easiest vegetables to grow, the highest yielding and can be converted into delicious nosh with minimal fuss. Climate change? Peak Oil? The answer lies at your feet. Root crops for resilience.

As a fully paid-up phytonerd, I'm interested in exploring alternative root crops for our cool temperate climate in the UK. In fact I've been interested in these plants for years and have grown many in my time. I'm intending to share some of my experiences with you on this blog.

2 comments:

Mimi said...

Have you had a chance to cook with them yet?

Rhizowen said...

Hi Mimi

Do you mean oca?

Oca grows quite well up in San Francisco and Mendocino County CA and can be used in the same ways as potatoes - it's good baked, roasted, fried etc. Some varieties have a lemony taste due to the presence of oxalic acid, others don't. Freshly dug they are so attractive it seems a shame to consign them to the cooking pot. They are tasty and seem to be fairly resistant to slugs, which if you live round here is a good thing. You might be able to find them in south american food markets in your area. Good luck

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