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.