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?
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