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.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Gulag Ocapelago

pots (noun, plural):  root restricting vessels used to reduce the vigour, health and yield of plants and notorious for inducing panic attacks, hysteria and depression amongst their owners. Radix Dictionary of Horticultural Terms 2009

I hate growing plants in pots.  Maybe I should rephrase that: I don't sleep easily at night knowing that my precious plants are trapped in pots.  I know that they know that they're suffering.  There's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that plants in pots are aware of their straightened, straightjacketed circumstances.  

But pots have their advantages of course. In my case they are a useful way of keeping lots of similar plants separate.  It's a damn sight easier to be sure of the identity of the tubers from different varieties when you pluck them from a labelled pot, rather than agonising over the wayward morass of tangled, intermingling dead stems, roots and tubers come winter time.  One mud-caked tuber looks pretty much like another when excavated from the cold clay by numb fingers.  

Yet my fervent belief, shared by my plants, is that they are better off growing as nature intended.  God knows, they want to break free.  Their roots are able to forage more widely, with the corollary that feeding and watering are not so much of an issue for their indolent overseer.   You get bigger plants, bigger yields  and you don't come home after a fun-filled, sunny weekend away to find desiccated tumbleweed blowing about where your plants used to be.  Speaking from a position of enlightened self-interest, with a pan of boiling water at the ready,  I want a bonanza, not Bonsai. 

Last year, to my astonishment and for the first time, I actually had plants rotting in their pots; mashua and oca both died.  Others, located but inches away en pleine terre, grew quite happily. So, no, pots are not all they're cracked up to be - they may even represent cruel internment such as was inflicted on poor Vavilov; like him, the occupants often end up suffering from malnutrition and dying by degrees in unpleasant ways.  Gulag gardening, that's what it is. 
Now, if you gotta plant an oca or two, or in my case, a few more and space is at a premium, what's to be done?  I think I better think it out again.  

Well, this year I have attempted an experiment in which I combine the physical restraint of the pot with the don't-fence-me-in attitude of the untrammeled root systems. Could this be a winning blend of the best aspects of both methods?  I have plunged my twenty five oca seedlings into the soil, using bottomless pots, half in, half out.   I will backfill the pots with soil or compost (ah, the spud in a bin method) as they reach upwards.   Like the Manhattan skyline this should provide me with high density, high yielding real estate. My earnest hope is that the tubers will swell within the confines of the pots, rendering harvest easy, whilst allowing the roots to wander off in search of water and nutrients elsewhere.  It's a bit like the old ring culture method used by tomato growers in days of yore combined with the live burial motif so beloved of Edgar Allen Poe and now, apparently, me.  

I have attempted something similar with the mauka, using some scrappy old offcuts of woven black weed fabric and bamboo cane rather than pots. I will shovel spent compost in until they're also full to the brim.   Inelegant, certainly.  Cheap, definitely. Effective - I'll let you know. 

First grab your piece of spare weedproof membrane or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods and wrap it around a 30 litre pot.  Trim as appropriate.  

Now, with unconscionable haste, drive a bamboo stick through the side (or use a staple gun) to create a singularly unlovely, but very cheap and perfectly serviceable 30 litre tube.  Plonk mauka plant at base, tip in some additional  soil and wait for the plant to grow.  Top up at regular intervals until a fat 30 litre cylinder is created.  Pray that your efforts will be rewarded by a bumper crop of tasty stems and roots.   

Maukas peeping from their "pots", oca seedlings beyond.  Pictures taken in mid May. 

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