Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Worra Lorra Oca

Just a quick picture post - an update on the progress of my oca seedlings.  

I lost a few to damping off - they went flaccid and floppy and a gentle tug revealed them to be rootless.  I felt a bit legless myself at that moment.  After the horror had subsided, I cut off the roots and sliced back further  into healthy looking hypocotyls. I then  potted them into vermiculite and they have since started to grow new roots.  So maybe I didn't lose them after all.   The ones below have escaped intensive care so far. 

Monday, 16 February 2009

Crap Crops of the Incas: My on-off-on affair with high altitude Andean root crops 2) Ulluco

Are you sitting comfortably? Time for a quiz. What tuber is small and round and yellow and grows in the Andes? Answer: ulluco. What tuber is long and pink and grows in the Andes? Answer: ulluco. What tuber is long and yellow with red stripes and blotches and grows in the Andes? Answer: ulluco. OK, enough already. You get the drift. Ulluco tubers are amazingly diverse in appearance. As if to prove the point, 
look at these, which don't really fit into any of the above categories.


Diverse as they are, they seem to share at least one vital characteristic - charisma. By that I mean you'd have to be a fairly stony hearted individual not to want to grow and harvest objects of such exquisite beauty. The tubers seem to glow with a subtle intensity, as though illuminated from within. They're the Ingrid Bergman to oca's Marilyn Monroe.

So that's why I started growing ulluco. It's an infatuation that began even before I became obsessed with oca. I think my first tubers came from Ken Fern of Plants for a Future. Then HDRA actually offered the lemon yellow round variety in the year following the oca members' experiment I mentioned previously.

Although they are both in different families, oca in the Oxalidaceae, ulluco in the Basellaceae, they are perhaps alike in all the wrong ways. Unlike oca, ulluco flowers during the long days of summer and does so regularly. Like oca, however, it tuberises during short days and yields are usually disappointing - very disappointing. Unlike oca, the flowers aren't exactly showy. They're small and to use estate agent speak, "quaint".  Cross pollination involves getting down on your hands and knees with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. I've tried this, but I gave up after about my thousandth attempt. So seed production is unheard of? Yes, except in Finland. Finland? Yes, Finland. Back in the 1980s some researchers at the University of Turku managed to produce the first documented ulluco seed crop. They also managed to get some of them to germinate.

So how did they achieve this major coup, while I grovelled, arse in the air, transferring pollen from one flower to another with zero success?

There are two main factors that conspire against those of us who would breed new ullucos. Firstly, the plants are usually riddled with viruses. A brief inspection of most ulluco foliage reveal obvious signs of viral infection, the curse of vegetatively propagated crops. Some plants look thoroughly peeky, with pock marked or mottled foliage and yields decline towards zero with the passage of the years. Suddenly pot noodles seem like the easier option. In fact there a group of viruses which are shared by oca, ulluco and potato which have all been rubbing shoulders in the same fields for thousands of years. So maybe my original plan to transplant a diverse and sustainable tuber polyculture from the Andes to the UK could prove a little bit more challenging than I originally envisaged. Virus infection often renders plants infertile. Those hundreds of ulluco flowers I lovingly pollinated were in all probability firing nano-blanks.  Luckily getting rid of viruses is not too difficult.  I plan to have a go  later on this year. 

Another stumbling block that the Finnish researchers highlighted was that ulluco often exhibits polyploidy, where additional sets of chromosomes get incorporated into the nuclei of the plant's cells. This may confer advantages on the plant such as increased vigour and environmental tolerance, but does nothing for aspiring plant breeders like yours truly. Some ulluco plants are diploid, that is they have the normal two sets of chromosomes, which divide up nicely when pollen and egg cells are formed, each containing half the original genetic complement. In theory at least, these may able to produce fertile seeds. Most seem to be triploid, which means an extra set of chromosomes has crept in and during meiosis (remember that from school biology classes?), the chromosomal equivalent of a collapsing rugby scrum breaks out. The upshot is that these plants are functionally sterile. This sometimes works to our advantage. Diploid bananas, for instance, have large and extremely hard seeds, but I doubt you've ever found any in the fruits you've eaten. Cultivated bananas are sterile triploids. Great for the Windward Islands, perhaps, but a conundrum for banana breeders. Likewise for budding ulluco obsessives. It's possible that tetraploid forms may exist as well. You can't tell which is which just by looking. This ain't going to be easy........

Perhaps Edith Piaf would not have sung "Je ne regrette rien" with such passionate conviction had she taken up ulluco breeding as a relaxing pastime to while away the long summer evenings. The French, of course, being keen vegetable growers, have experimented in the past with this and other Andean crops. Consult The Vegetable Garden by MM.Vilmorin-Andrieux for a plus ca change moment, tinged with the sobering realisation that these plants often fare no better now than they did then. Courage mes amis! Together we can crack it.


Ben Gabel of Real Seeds has been selecting ullucos for several years and his efforts are definitely yielding results, yield being the operative word in all dealings with ulluco. This is one of his selections, 'Cusco Market', which has given crops of 2.5 kilos per plant. Believe me, that is impressive progress. Most of the time 25 grams would be closer to the mark, maybe less. Maybe none. 

So anyway, what was the fate of the Finnish ullucos? All gone, I'm afraid. When the Finnish research finished, the Finns bade their ullucos a fond farewell. When I contacted the University of Turku, it turned out that none of the original plants, seedlings or seeds survive. Perhaps some wacky veg enthusiast from Suomi would like to prove me wrong by declaring that they smuggled out the last plants and seeds and have been growing them in a secret location for the past 20 years. They are now well along the road to creating a new, long day adapted variety and are ready to share their efforts with the world. Would that individual please contact me immediately!

So there you have it, a wonderfully diverse crop plant, which rarely if ever sets seed, is infected by debilitating viruses, gives improbably small yields and is, in its diversity, exquisitely beautiful.  Why do we put ourselves through this grief?  I think this picture, kindly provided by Frank van Keirsbilck sums it all up:



Although ulluco breeding sometimes feels like Mission Impossible, I believe we should keep trying; a pot of steaming ulluco might one day be a rib-sticking repast for hungry Brits.  Our current food supply system will self-destruct in the next five seconds. Good luck Jim.

Monday, 9 February 2009

A Mouthful of Mauka

As lost crops go, few are more obscure than mauka (Mirabilis expansa).   I mean this is a crop that was unknown to science before 1965, though that's a bit like saying Columbus discovered America.  It's probably been cultivated for thousands of years.
Anyway, it's not the best known Andean root crop.  

Last year I managed to get hold of seeds of two varieties from CIP in Peru.  One variety failed to germinate, whilst the other, 208001, produced two small seedlings.  

Frank Van Keirsbilck managed to get a whole load more to grow.   His roots also grew much bigger than mine. I think mine got slightly stunted because I was growing them in pots.   Still, it wasn't a competition (was it?) and to grow a plant I've been wanting to meet for decades was very, very exciting.  The quality of my photography seems to be inversely correlated with the level of excitement I'm feeling at the time, hence the low-fi images presented here. I'll do a more extensive post on mauka some other time. 

About Christmas time the pots froze pretty much solid and the tops were killed.  As we've been having some more cold weather recently , I thought it was time to rescue the plants and eat the roots. I've cut off the top sections for replanting


Anyway, this evening we tasted a root for the first time.  It was good.  Very good, actually, with a pleasant blend of potato,turnip and chestnut flavours.  Not an acquired or peculiar taste, but a nice one.   I boiled the bits we tried for about 15 minutes.  I then put a bit of butter on them. We ate them, then we went "mmmmm".  You can't say mauka without saying "mmmmm". 

Friday, 6 February 2009

Yackety Yack, Yacon's Back

I like yacon. I like it a lot. So does Jeremy. He wonders in his comment below whether failing with yacon can be counted as a major achievement.

Time to fess up: I am an experienced murderer of scarce germplasm. I'm not ashamed to list yaconicide as one of my achievements. It comes with the territory, like the old adage of keeping livestock and ending with deadstock. Or all political careers ending in failure. Persevere long enough, with any crop and you will fail. The hidden subtext is, therefore: grow a diverse range of stuff - you might end up actually eating something.

Yacon likes a nice warm, sunny climate. It didn't get that here in our last, so-called summer in 2008. That said, the yacon grew and produced a reasonable crop whereas other, supposedly hardier crops did much worse. Perhaps it is merely more resistant to the kinds of horticultural abuse I hurl in its direction than are other plants.

Yacon failures I have experienced include: offsets for replanting rot, shoots get frosted off, slugs bore bloody great big holes in the stems which then keel over. I think some sheep ate it one year, but I forget.....

The offsets for replanting can be a tad temperamental. If they dry out fully, they die, pure and simple. Keep them too wet and they rot, which is merely a slow, lingering death involving slicing soggy flesh from the end furthest from the buds, checking daily and repeating the process until, hey presto, nothing is left.

I find the best way of storing the offsets is to dig a hole into some well-drained ground, deposit them below the level to which frost will penetrate and then exhume them in the spring. They seem to stay healthier that way. Don't tell the resident vole population and you might have nice plump shoots ready to be potted up in the spring. This stunning innovation which I developed over a couple of seasons of trial and error (I forgot to dig them up), was independently discovered a few thousand years ago by Andean farmers.

So to answer your question Jeremy, failing with yacon is neither easy, nor is it particularly difficult. If you haven't failed yet, keep practising and I guarantee you'll succeed.

SMALLanthus it ain't. A Cautionary Tale of Yaconquest

Like the anxious mother who fears for her daughter's ruin, I humbly beseech you to consider the following email I recently received from Gill Faiers of Bangors Organic before you plant yacon in your greenhouse:

Hi Owen

Neil has just dug up the Yakon

Oh my God! JCB was about right. I have no scales big enough to weigh the tubers but we estimate that it yielded about 20kg plus!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! from one plant

I do believe it could take over the world with this level of self generation

I am actually quite scared

Gill


You have been warned.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Rock on Yacon!

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is, of the Andean "Lost Crops" I have grown, the least trouble and the most successful. It seems to like growing here. Picture the bastard offspring of a Jerusalem artichoke and a dahlia on steroids, with big triangular leaves and yes, even in our indifferent climate, big tubers and that sums up yacon. You cut off the big dahlia tubers and replant the Jerusalem artichoke rhizomes the following year. Lift them carefully though, because those big tubers are brittle and make an audible crack if extracted carelessly, which will delight naughty children of all ages, but does nothing to prolong their keeping qualities. As for storing them, I find they keep quite well in a cool room as long as their skins are dry.

Give it a good sunny position and good soil and both the plant and the tubers can get seriously big. Stick it in a greenhouse as Neil and Gill Faiers of Bangors Organic B&B did and you'll need a machete to get through the door and a JCB to harvest it. This is only a partial jest. Their plant, well over two metres high, looked ready for a walk-on part in Day of the Triffids and was frankly, a bit intimidating. Funny, but I don't remember them thanking me for the small offset I gave them a few months earlier.

The tubers, unlike the starchy tubers of oca, ulluco and potatoes, are crisp and watery, with a sweetish flavour. If you leave them to shrivel a bit, the sweetness is accentuated and unlike most other root crops, you can eat them raw. In the Andes this curing process is carried out in the sun; sunlight tends to be in rather short supply in the late autumn here, but they'll shrivel on a windowsill. They also do a good job as water chestnut substitutes in stir fries. I know this has echoes of the iguana, crocodile, bullfrog tastes-like-chicken syndrome, but it happens to be true. They keep a pleasant crunchy quality even after cooking. This sweetness is a function of their high fructo-oligosaccharide content. In fact yacon is supposed to be the best producer of these in the plant kingdom.

Fructo-oligosaccharides, henceforth abbreviated to FOS, are credited with all sorts of benefits. They are composed of individual glucose molecules linked to multiple fructose molecules in such a way that they pass undigested through the human digestive system and into the colon. Here they are gleefully consumed by your resident probiotic bacteria. So, it's a buy one, get one free situation: a sweet taste, yet negligible effect on blood sugar levels and a powerful boost to your gut's good guys: a prebiotic for your probiotics.

The combination of its low glycaemic index, beneficial effects on gut flora and high antioxidant levels have led to yacon being aggressively marketed as another of the indespensible superfoods all health conscious citizens should be consuming. I laughed out loud on spotting recently, in a somewhat down market purveyor of health foods, yacon and goji berry muesli. My guess is the endorphin release I experienced as a result probably outweighed the benefits of eating it. It was a darn sight cheaper anyway.

As fascinating as I find the discussion of a plant's therapeutic benefits, I can't help feeling a four letter word rising in my throat - hype. Anyway, you won't need to be gulled by all their propaganda, you'll soon be growing yacon successfully in your own garden, with a smug, self-satisfied smirk on your face.

I made some quite successful pickles by cutting the tubers into dice-sized chunks and soaking them in brine, adding a bit of whey to get those lactobacilli working. The trick is to keep the chunks weighed down so that anaerobic fermentation occurs. The result is a sweet and sour pickle. It might be fun to shred a bit into sauerkraut at same time as the cabbage is being chopped.

Of the two variteies I've grown, 'morado', which came from Eilif Aas of Norway/ Peru, has a purplish skin with a purplish cast to the leaves and produces smaller tubers with yellower flesh than the standard variety, whose real name is unknown. There's a difference in flavour too, although I can't quite pin it down. There are also varieties with purple spotted flesh. In fact I had one of these many years ago, but, unfortunately it succumbed to rot before it even put forth a shoot.



Something I haven't tried yet, but would like to, is making yacon syrup. Ivan Manrique, Adelmo Paaraga and Michael Hermann of CIP (Centro Internacional de la Papa) have produced an excellent booklet on this: Yacon Syrup: Principles and Processing. This will tell you all you need to know (and maybe a bit more) about making yacon syrup on a large scale. Seeing as my attempts at beekeeping have always yielded less honey than the bees required in sugar to stay alive, a source of sweet syrup could be very useful.

The leaves have been touted as a blood sugar stabilising tea. I tried this, but found the flavour a bit too resinous and overpowering. I suppose you could cut your Darjeeling with a bit, then try it out on some unsuspecting tea heads.

For a plant so big and butch, the flowers are a bit of a disappointment. They are small yellow or orange sunflower jobs. I have never managed to produce any fertile seed from my plants, although the Japanese, who have taken to yacon in a big way, have bred new varieties such as one called 'Sarada Otome'.

I saw plenty of plants growing there in 2007, often in home gardens. The leaves were certainly different from the plants I am familiar with. With uncharacteristic restraint, and in deference to Nippo-British relations, I eschewed the delights of an al fresco yacon meal in any number of gardens as I cycled by.

Anyway, even if you don't eat the damn thing, you should certainly put it in your garden as a summer bedding feature. It's a big bold plant that looks just as good as a lot of the other stuff being promoted for tropical style gardening. Impress your friends by darting into the undergrowth and returning with a huge yacon root which you then proceed to peel and devour.

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