Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Merry Ulluchristmas

At last I think I've found a future for ulluco: not as a crop, but rather as an edible Christmas tree substitute. The plants look quite attractive with their glossy foliage and brightly coloured baubles hanging from slender threads. Very festive.  Or at least they would if I had taken a little bit more care of these windowsill specimens and kept them them neat and tidy.  I've done it in previous years and the effect was quite good when I kept one on my desk.  The tubers eventually go green, but are still edible if required and seem to make good tough stock for planting in the spring.

One thing I did discover this year was that two of the other varieties (not shown here) seemed happy to tuberise successfully at fairly cool temperatures under a prolonged daylength regime of about 14 hours.  The next step, obviously, is to try and cross these two and produce true ulluco seed.  The question is: are they diploid, triploid or just plain debilitated?   That's something that will have to wait until 2011 for distended stomachs to contract, inquisitiveness to return and days to lengthen.   Merry Christmas.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Ice Cold at Oca Acres

Oca Acres is well and truly frozen. Unlike Marvin Gaye, who famously heard it through the grapevine, I wasn't really as aware of the seriousness of the impending plunge in temperatures as I should have been.

Forwarned is forearmed; complacent gets a kicking. So, like last year, I have been caught out with my ocas unharvested. Whether this surprisingly precipitous start to winter is connected with climate change, I have no idea, although the loss of Arctic sea ice has been implicated in last year's cold snap. Then there's the not inconsequential matter of the North Atlantic Oscillation.  Rather than spend the rest of my days struggling to interpret climate science, let's just say that my plans to plant an avocado orchard may be on hold for a while.  Shame, as I like avocados.

Me and Marvin share this much in common: I'm concerned that I'm bout to lose my mind over the whole business. I wonder how deep the frost has penetrated. I wonder how much longer the cold weather will continue. I wonder how many tubers will survive and how many will be lost.  I've built up a collection of over 140 genetically unique oca varieties; to part with it through what might be characterised by the less-than-charitable as negligence - now that would be truly shameful.  And this year I can't plead extenuating circumstances, other than my innate indolence.  The secret of good comedy, is, so they say, timing.  This must be even more true in the case of gardening.  Due to other commitments, I let things slide and may now be paying the price.

Rather than an exercise in grovelling self-abasement and an attempt to elicit sympathetic comments on my blog, I see this as strong reinforcement of my gut instincts.   It is clear that I need to decide a cut off date for the oca harvest, as I've previously considered and then stick to it. The beginning of November seems appropriate in this area. This would also allow me to sort the good-doers from the no-hopers in a systematic fashion: I could weigh them in the balance and those found wanting could easily be eliminated through our digestive systems. But if you feel like sending me your comiserations and condolences, don't let me stop you. Love me, pity me, but don't ignore me.

As I won't be able to harvest the tubers for a while yet, I draw some comfort from this little packet of oca seeds, the product of pods picked in haste before the first frosts.  Lacking the necessary slaves to record their parentage in painstaking detail, I opted for the happy, mixed blend approach.  I like to think that there is strength in diversity and that the alleles for the very necessary day-neutral tuberisation response are lurking in there somewhere.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Mauka: Mission Accomplished

Determination, vision and a piece of black plastic have shown that mauka anthocarps-a-plenty can be produced right here, right now.  These are the ones that I've collected from the white flowered variety "Blanca" which Frank van Keirsbilck sent me last year as a cutting.  If they turn out to be viable, which is my fervent hope, breeding better adapted maukas should be within my grasp. Or I should at least be able to breed ones which are equally as good as the existing ones.  In the light of the successes Radix has also experienced with oca seed production, I am now envisaging a two-pronged attack on Britain's vegetable gardens in an attempt to overthrow the centuries-old hegemony of Solanum tuberosum, followed by a pincer like movement across mainland Europe.  The revolution begins here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

OK at the Oca Corral?

I think I may have given the impression that all my ocas were killed back in October. Actually, that's not strictly true.  By happenstance, I had covered up some late-maturing chillies with horticultural fleece.  This billowing gossamer drapery offered them sufficient protection throughout the cold period in October, when several hard frosts coincidentally destroyed the flower (literally) of my oca crop.  Then, the other night,  it did what fleece so often does - it blew away in the gales, exposing the chillies to the frost which followed.  I hate those fleeces to pieces!

Still, this gave me an opportunity to take a look at some of the self-sown oca seedlings which had appeared, if not in profusion, then with a surprising frequency amongst the official crop.  Conditions were not ideal, what with shade and competition from the chillies.  Nevertheless, some of these intrepid interlopers had made a reasonable amount of growth.  The frost had put a stop to that, so I decided to take a look at what the situation was on the ground, or rather, below the ground.  

It quickly became obvious that the diaphanous polypropylene sheet had done more than offer a refuge to the plants.  The friendly neighbourhood voles had been enjoying the warmth and protection provided; with typical microtine gratitude they had launched a preemptive strike on the swelling stolons, severing them before they had a chance to metamorphose into tubers.  In some cases they had bitten through the stems of the plants as well.  Little piles of julienned tubers were scattered around.

Ah, the perils of stochastic events, the term by which these sorts of randomly fatal happenings are apparently known in population ecology.  I notice that Bob Dylan opted to substitute 'stochasticity' with  'a simple twist of fate' in the song of the same title,  presumably due to the enhanced lyrical flexibility gained by so doing.  Or maybe he don't know much about history, don't know much biology.  If you're out there Bob, tell me whether you can throw any light on the four year cyclical variation in vole populations and its effects on my horticultural operations. Might make a good song.

But not even the voles had quite managed to eliminate the brave ocas and their plump, perennating propagules.  So, to all the naysayers and doom mongers out there:  this plucky Andean underdog - oca - has shown that it has the smarts to scatter its own seeds, survive rodents, slugs, incompetent gardeners and then produce a crop of tubers in one season. OK at the Oca Corral?  Yes, I think so, definitely.

As proof, I offer these pictures of some of my very first self-sown oca plants.  Had the frosts held off until this time, as is usual hereabouts, I'm sure they would have done perfectly well without protection.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Mauka - Pregnant With Possibility

Is that an anthocarp on your inflorescence or are you just pleased to see me?  Mae West's opinion of obscure root crops is, as far as I know, unrecorded, but I like to think she would have taken full advantage of the innuendos that lurk in the seedy, fecund alleyways of horticulture. Pricking out, for example, could hardly have escaped her attention.  That, in conjunction with hardening off, would surely have led to the genesis of some memorable one-liners, all delivered in Mae's signature drawl.   

In any case, it seems as though my patented mauka floral induction protocol has yielded the desired results, or soon will, all being well.  There are several significant swellings appearing on both Blanca and Roja plants where the flowers used to be.  I don't know whether my casual floral fiddling has anything to do with it, but they seem to have been pollinated somehow, by something. Yes, Mae, those really are anthocarps on their inflorescences and I'm certainly pleased to see them.

I decided to break with tradition and follow my own advice for once - I brought the burgeoning blossom bearers indoors as temperatures dropped. They have been sitting on a windowsill for several weeks now and have thus avoided the cold snap that hammered their outdoor compatriots.   

Image courtesy of Frank van Keirsbilck
Coincidentally, Frank van Keirsbilck recently sent me news of his own mauka crop.  An image will spare you the necessity of extraneous descriptive prolixity on my part, so I'll say no more than this: 3 kilos.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Iceman Cometh

I enjoy a crisp autumn morning as much as the next person.  Except that I don't, or at least I recognise that there's no pleasure to be had without pain.  A crisp autumn morning means only one thing for the grower of late-maturing Andean root crops - frosted plants.  My fervent wish was for a few more weeks of life for my plants; that wish has not been granted. I'm not exactly choking back the tears, but I can't pretend that I'm anything less than disappointed.

Looking over Oca Acres this morning, it is easy to see the devastation that has been visited on the ocas, mauka and yacons.  The latter are blackened, with the shrivelled yacon hybrid flowers hanging limply from the stems; the maukas have not just been nipped by frost, but have apparently been been frozen to the roots;  formerly lush oca plants lie slumped, with eerily bleached stems seemingly drained of blood, like the victims of a vampire attack. 

I won't dig the ocas up just yet.  I 'll probably wait a while, so that the dying stems can pump their last vestiges of life force down into the tubers, which should be forming by now.

I say "should be forming" advisedly. Reduced daylight hours, low temperatures, low intensity sunlight - that's  a recipe for disappointment if you're hoping that your tubers will bulk up quickly at this time of year.  Guaranteed.

All crops can fail; all crops do fail. The knack is to reduce the odds of failure to acceptable levels.  And yield ought not to be a dirty word when growing a crop of Andean tubers.  The remedy is simple, although not easy: breed better adapted varieties, that are actually fit for purpose at our latitude and are able to tuberise during the summer. That's the magic, not silver, bullet I'm looking for.   

I'm hoping that this year's seed crop will be sufficient to enable me grow yet more seedlings next year.   I'm also hoping that I'll be able to share some seeds with the various TOSsers who've expressed an interest in taking part in Project Oca.  One thing's for sure, there'll be no more oca flowers, seed pods or seeds from my plants this year.    

Monday, 18 October 2010

Yacon - The Kentish Connection

That gladiator's net is closing on the mystery of the yacon hybrids.  Frank van Keirsbilck told me that the unidentified pollen parent was a Smallanthus that came from seeds provided by Ulrike Paradine. These were from plants that have been growing happily for a number of years in her garden in Kent. I contacted her and she kindly gave me a few more pieces of information and some pictures of her plants. Cop a look at these:

Image courtesy of Ulrike Paradine

Image courtesy of Ulrike Paradine

There's no mistaking the similarity of these images to the yacon hybrids. She collected the seeds (OK, you pedants, cypselae) herself in Costa Rica.  I did a bit of intensive interwebbing and my trident speared three possible candidates for this unfolding paternity suit:

S. latisquamus
S. maculatus
S. riparius

All three species are found in Costa Rica. So far, so good. Of the three, S. riparius is found from Central America to Northern Bolivia and is considered to be similar to and maybe able to hybridise with, S. sigesbeckius, one of yacon's putative ancestors.  So, as far as I'm concerned, it's a possible thumbs up for S. riparius as our mystery species. Or, as toga party afficionados will never cease to explain, that should actually be a thumbs down.  If anyone out there with first hand knowledge of the genus Smallanthus would like to chip in, please do.  I could be wrong.  I usually am. 

More interesting information from Ulrike: the plants regularly set seeds in Kent and not only that, she has had self-sown seedlings appearing from time to time. Her plants have often overwintered outside in her garden. They don't have the big storage roots of yacon, unfortunately. Despite this, these strike me as exactly the kind of robust, sturdy, adaptable traits we need to incorporate into the Radix yacon breeding programme.  You didn't know there was a yacon breeding programme at Radix?  There is now.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Tussling With Talet

In the polyculture cage fight currently raging across my oca bed, it seems like the talet (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is winning.

A couple of the subterranean talet seeds popped up amongst my oca seedlings in the spring and in an act of sentimentality, I decided to allow them leave to grow.  I was also curious to see how the two plants would co-exist.  Now I know.

Oca is no slouch when it comes to suppressing the growth of other plants, but it seems to have met its match in talet.  This plant could qualify as Cornish kudzu.

The talet is straddling the ocas at a height of about a metre and has now begun flowering profusely, presumably as a response to shortening daylengths; pods will surely follow.   The aerial seeds are small and hard and although perfectly edible after boiling, they lack the big fat wow factor of the subterranean seeds.

As it is above, so it is below - hopefully.  Parting the dense mat of oca stems and foliage, there's ample evidence of rampaging talet shoots, each bearing a single cleistogamous flower at its end.  These pollinate without opening and then burrow into the soil where they swell into nice rotund beans, assuming the slugs don't graze them off first.  Like oca, they're frost tender, so, in theory at least, it would be possible to harvest both together when they've succumbed to the cold.  If your enthusiasm for plunging your hands into frozen soil begins to wane, I'm wondering whether a couple of chickens might enjoy scratching around for the seeds while you wait for the feeling to return to your fingers.

So there you have it, a vigorous nitrogen-fixing groundcover which produces delicious beans - it should surely be on the wish list of all aspiring polyculturists.  Free machete with every packet.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Mauka: Man Bites Dog

Being baffled, mystified and bemused is my usual state when it comes to dealings with  Inca root crops.  This is nothing new and is, frankly, hardly noteworthy.  Dog bites man - big deal.

But I'm now happy to reveal that in a spectacularly organised and executed ruse, I've managed to trick some of my mauka plants into flowering. Man bites dog - interesting.

Those with long memories and limited social lives may recall that I managed to produce a single seed - whoops - anthocarp, from a mauka plant which, like me, spent most of the winter staring out the window.

Winter is a singularly unpropitious season in which to expect most plants to flower and set seed.  I determined, therefore, to see whether some cutting-edge daylength manipulation technology might have the desired effect at a more favourable time of year.  Following a period of reflective procrastination, during which  I pondered on the practicalities of said undertaking for about a month, I leapt into action. At the end of July, I started the procedure by religiously wrapping the plants in black plastic at 7pm and shoving them into the back of a shed until 8am the following morning - vespers and matins for mauka, you could say: thirteen hours dark, eleven hours light.  There was a fair amount of genuflection, what with all the wrapping and unwrapping and fitting the pots into the available space.

Throughout this ritual, as I had expected, the plants seemed sublimely indifferent to my actions.  I continued the process, day in, day out, until the end of August, when my trip to Belgium interrupted play.  I shrugged my shoulders and left the plants outside to face ambient daylengths and light levels.

Now, both 'Roja' and 'Blanca', the two varieties Frank somehow magicked out of the air in 2009, are showing flower buds. Blanca has just started flowering, in fact.  I think it wins the runner-up prize in the Ullucus tuberosus Challenge Cup for the least inspiring floral display in an Andean root crop.  Strange, considering how impressive Mirabilis jalapa flowers are.  I'm not bothered though, as long as it forms some viable anthocarps.

I now realise that I should have started this experiment earlier, about the time of the summer solstice, but there may yet be the possibility of seed formation, especially if I bring the plants indoors to speed up the process.  I can only assume that my efforts are responsible, as the other mauka plants, spared the early bedtime, show no indications of any flower buds. That includes specimens of both Roja and Blanca.

If this simple, albeit somewhat tedious, process proves to be a reliable way of inducing flowering, it should be possible to start crossing varieties and selecting the progeny for favourable characteristics.  For that, I'm happy to get down on my knees and face towards mauka on a daily basis.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Yacon: I am Spartacus

I was shaken out of my complacent, smug, yacon breeder's love-in with Frank van Keirsbilck when I received a worrying email from him some days ago.  His yacon seedlings have begun flowering and he is now concerned that a bit of inadvertent cross-pollination with another, unidentified Smallanthus species, may have taken place. It could be that the so-called yacon seedlings are impostor hybrids.

In support of this claim, Frank cites a lemony scent to the flowers and an overall general unease about their "gizz".  That and the fact that he might have transferred the pollen from the unidentified crop wild relative while he was carrying out hand pollinations.

Actually, part of me is delighted by this news - that genes from another species may have been incorporated into yacon's genome.  This is, after all, the reason plant breeders scour the globe, concocting mashups and fiddling with their GIS in order to locate drought, cold, heat and disease tolerance genes in crop wild relatives.

The other half of me is dreading the discovery that, in addition to all those potential benefits, they'll have inherited a less endearing trait common to most other Smallanthus species: the lack of big, fat storage roots.  I fear that some embarrassing and credibility-reducing retraction will have to follow and my reputation amongst my peers will be mud.

My plants have just started flowering and following Frank's revelations I decided to take a closer look.  I can't pick up that lemony scent Frank describes. This could be a result of a phlegmish cold I picked up in Ghent and which seems to have dulled my sense of smell.  Olfactory limitations aside, there are some noticeable differences.

Left to right; white, "morado", "yacon" seedling
Leaf shape is, well, different, more toothy and feral in the seedlings than true yacons.
In fact, they remind me a bit of bearsfoot aka leafcup, Smallanthus uvedalius, a North American wild flower, with a wide distribution - but only a bit. Maybe they look like one or other of yacon's putative parents such as S. macroscyphus or S. siegesbeckius.

Looking at the stems and petioles, both species seemed to have perfoliate leaf bases and winged petioles.  This is the standard white variety on the left; the "yacon" seedling is on the right; the jury could be said to be out on this feature.  I don't happen to have access to a Smallanthus monograph, so I don't know whether the winged petioles are found in several species or are a diagnostic characteristic of yacon, S. sonchifolius. 

One very obvious difference is that ray florets and at least one whorl of disk florets seem to be open at the same time.  You may not be able to see it, but believe me, it's true.  That ain't right for yacon - the literature says so.

Looking more closely, I've noticed another striking deviation from accepted yacon wisdom: damn me if they aren't setting seeds, which is something else Frank has also noticed.  That's not normal yacon behaviour, so I can only conclude that these aren't normal yacons.  As to what they are, I have no idea as yet.  Curiouser and curiouser.

So now when I look back and forth between the true yacons and the lush growth of the  impostors, I recall that memorable scene at the end of the film Spartacus. In a show of solidarity with their leader, the other slaves claim, one by one, that they are Spartacus and in an act of splendid collective suicide are all crucified along the Appian Way.  I doubt whether the A30 would make an acceptable substitute, but Smallanthus does sound a bit like a trident and net-wielding Thracian.  It matters little: if I lift them in due course and find they're all tops and no tubers, they'll soon be pushing up the daisies.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Oca: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Over at the Radix Root Crops Facebook page, we've been gathering data on when and where oca plants have been flowering this season.  No need to be dragged into the social media maelstrom to contribute - you can post comments here on how your ocas are doing.  Then again, if you'd like to chip in - please do so.

It certainly appears that, with the right combination of stylar morphs, it is not too difficult to achieve pollination and seed set in Oxalis tuberosa. But first you've got to get the plants to flower.  That seems to be a little bit more challenging.

I derive no pleasure from reporting that, with the exception of Ian at Growing Oca's early flush of flowers in June, I seem to be the only person I know who has had flowering ocas so far this year.  In this area of the planet, at least.  I would be delighted if you, dear reader, would be so kind as to prove me wrong.

Some of my plants have been flowering for several months and are forming pods. Indeed, I have been collecting ripe seeds for some weeks already  As flattering as it might be to promote myself as a horticultural genius, I'm really not some sort of oca uber-propagator. No, some other factors must be involved in my  success.  The question is, which ones?

One observation is that big, tall, leafy plants with thick stems seem to come into flower more quickly than those which are smaller.  As usual, there seem to be exceptions to this rule.  Some of my more majestic specimens now have stems of close to a metre in length.  Seedlings with small leaves and short stems, like the one to the right of this picture, seem to be showing no intention of flowering.  I really ought to uproot them immediately, but I'm hesitating; not a case of clemency so much as curiosity: I want to know whether these scrawny runts will perk up when short days come.  Then I'll kill them. Any oca plant that can't enjoy our long balmy summer evenings really has forfeit the right to continued existence and must be catapulted to that heavenly altiplano wherin its ancestors dwell.  Alternatively I might just eat them.

Another observation is that seedlings seem to flower more profusely and earlier than tuber-derived plants.  This could be due to the debilitating effects of accumulated viruses, or a genetic tendency that only surfaces when the plants are grown from tubers - somehow linked to physiological maturity of tuber-derived plants; a similar phenomenon is often found in seedling potatoes versus their tuberous brethren.

Ian at Growing Oca suggests that rather than size, rate of growth might be a contributory factor.  Some of his plants started flowering during a period of moist weather and mild temperatures, then the hot weather and water stress set in, the plants were stunted and no more flowers were produced.  Could be.  I've certainly noticed that flowers on some seedlings seem to abort in the bud stage more readily than others.  I haven't the faintest idea why.

If my experience is anything to go by, daylength doesn't seem to be an overriding factor,  as some of my plants began flowering way back in June, when days were about as long as they ever get.

My understanding is that in the Andes, oca plants grow, flower and then die back to the tubers: they complete their whole life cycle before harvest occurs.  Here, the plants seem to continue growing during declining daylengths until they're zapped by frost.  As enjoyable as it is to be harvesting tubers so late in the season, yields are often disappointing.  My guess is that very short days, low solar intensity and low temperatures are not conducive to producing bulky crops of tubers.  No, we need ocas that tuberise at a more appropriate time of year.  Whether flowering, which in potatoes is usually associated with the start of tuber formation, is a similar indicator of incipient tuber development in oca, I don't know.  My plants have got so big and lush and tangled, it's virtually impossible for me to tell.

One final observation: I noticed yesterday that one of the self-sown seedlings has, in the axils of its leaves, the first signs of flower buds.  Whether or not these will develop and flower before winter comes, I don't know, but it is at least indicative of the possibility of sowing oca seeds directly and standing a chance of securing another seed crop.

So to conclude, my oca flowers haven't gone anywhere - they're still being produced in large quantities.  I'm just a tad perplexed that no-one else has been so lucky.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Rambling Radix

Travelling from blessed Cornwall to Belgium in search of flowering ocas sounds a bit excessive. Maybe, but like Robert Johnson, I had ramblin' on my mind.  I blagged my way onto a conference bash in Ghent, then pimped me a seat on Eurostar to get there. This was, perhaps, marginally preferable to riding the rods on the Wabash Cannonball, the default mode of transport for any self-respecting dishevelled hobotanist like me.

The mistaken assumption that the weather was set fair proved to be just that - a mistake. Sandals and no waterproofs compounded the error.  Heavy rain and umbrella-eviscerating winds seemed to have followed us from Cornwall; the latter was, by this time, basking in late summer sunshine.  Tant pis.

After a couple of days of soggy wandering around the city, sampling the chocolate, beer and mayonnaise-smothered French fries, I felt sufficiently emboldened to pursue my real motive for the journey - a visit to Frank van Keirsbilck.  Frank is a plant explorer and enthusiastic disseminator of ethnobotanical delights and he lives a short way from Ghent, in Scheldewindeke.

A twenty minute train ride took me across the pancake-flat East Flanders plain to Scheldewindeke. Large crops of maize and nursery plots of ornamental trees dotted the landscape; the edges of the track were home to vast thickets of frothy-flowered Japanese knotweed.  The Cornwall Knotweed Forum would be apoplectic.

Ambling from the station, I noticed numerous maize cobs infected with Ustilago maydis, corn smut, which produces strangely distorted galls where the cobs should be.  Unlike ergot, these are actually edible and tasty and are considered a delicacy in Mexico, where they are known as huitlacoche.  Apologies for the picture - it was raining heavily and blowing a gale at the time.

In my haste to catch the train, I had forgotten to bring Frank's instructions with me, so I spent some time wandering along his lane, soaking up the ambience, along with the frequent rain showers. I asked for directions from one of his neighbours and, in lieu of English, which everyone supposedly speaks here, we conversed in French. Actually, he said something and I caught the words "cheveux longs" and la-bas", which with the aid of a directing forefinger led me to a pan-tiled, solar panel clad house hidden amongst trees 150 metres or so away.

Frank greeted me and took me straight off for a tour of his bit of Flanders field, which consisted of patches of all sorts of plants in all sorts of combinations all surrounded by heavily cropping fruit trees.  It had been a hard summer, with temperatures up to 35C for several weeks and no rain for a protracted period. This had produced a predictably catastrophic result on some of Frank's precious plants. They had been stunted and shrivelled, some unto death. A particularly sad loss were his ullucos - all gone. A small compensation, perhaps, was a tiny plant of an ulluco variety called 'papa posa' that I had brought with me.  I got it from Frank, who got it in turn from Tom Wagner when he visited Europe last year.  I also gave him a miniscule cutting of one of my favourite chillies, 'rocopica' (said to be Capsicum cardenasii var pendulum) which grows and fruits well in sunless spots.

Back to Frank's garden; the rain had finally returned to Flanders (yes, I'd noticed) and those plants which had survived the full force of the pitiless Belgian sun were beginning to recover following a couple of weeks of steady downpours.

His ocas showed no outward indications of any flowers, although I thought I saw some tiny embryonic buds nestling in the tops of a couple of plants.  At least they were still alive, including a whole load of plants derived from seed I'd sent earlier in the year.

I was particularly taken with his novel crop combination of yacon, mauka and sweetpotato, to which the accompanying picture does not do justice.  Here's the idea: the yacons tower loftily above the intermediately-statured maukas and the whole is finished off by the creeping stems of T65 sweetpotatoes.  All could probably be harvested in one fell swoop and are sufficiently different in appearance to be easily distinguished after lifting:  polyculture just got a whole lot more interesting.

Due to the severity of the summer, the yacons were not as lofty as might have been expected and the other two were commensurately smaller as well, but the idea's certainly worth investigating further.  As for a name for this configuration  - how about Los Tres Amigos, seeing as three sisters and three brothers are already spoken for.

I was also impressed by Frank's Amphicarpaea bracteata plants - one variety was already producing flowers, whereas my own plants remain steadfastly vegetative to date.   Frank told me that the plants have pretty much naturalised in his garden and there were certainly a number of vigorous clumps in various locations.

There were many other delights, but lest I wander completely off task, I'll concentrate on the roots.  As we sat over a leisurely lunch of homemade bread and herb tea, by a slight of hand, Frank produced some potatoes from brown paper bags.  Blight notwithstanding, I do like the outrageous diversity of potatoes one can grow. These definitely looked interesting.

My notepad was a bit damp by this stage, but I think the top variety was called 'puka quitish'; the other I'm not sure of. They're certainly andigena types.

When Frank proffered some Maori potatoes as well, I thought it ill-mannered to refuse.  Judging by the success (not) of our heritage grow-out this year, I feel duty bound to re-home all of them at some stage rather than sacrifice them to death by blight - Phytophthora will be found engraved on my heart.

So I left Frank's with more than I had when I arrived, which is always a pleasant sensation.  I am able to report that no ocas were flowering in this part of  Belgium in late August and I'm hoping that fruitful exchanges of plants and ideas will continue between us in the years to come.  I call that a successful trip.  I took the train back to Ghent and to celebrate, headed out to a convenient eatery to experience another local speciality - wafel met slagroom. Delicious.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Yond Yacons Have a Lush and Leafy Look

The yacon seedlings I planted out several months ago have made steady, though not spectacular, progress.  I attribute this to their emaciated state at the time of planting, the cold, dry weather we had thereafter and the lack of space I was able to give them.  Excuses over.

Height about 1.5m
With better growing conditions, I'm sure they would now be towering above me, probably studded with flowers and magnetically pulling passing posses of hoverflies and bees. Dream on.  They are, however, showing a healthy crop of leaves and have finally taken over the bed in which they were planted with the correct yaconly aplomb.

My seeds, you may remember, came from Frank van Keirsbilck, who managed to secure a crop last year.  He must dwell in what is, compared to here, some kind of Belgian banana belt, with wall-to-wall sunshine and soaring temperatures.  At least that's how I imagined it as he described the weather in Flanders, last August, while in Cornwall, we sulked under a pall of cloud, mist and drizzle.  Seed set here was, unsurprisingly, zero.

I am satisfied, however, that yacon breeding here in Europe's Wild Wet exists within the rootin-tootin realms of distinct possibility.  Further east, on the outskirts of London town, Ian at Growing Oca has had yacons flowering for several weeks now, although only of one variety - yacon is said to be an outcrosser, so you really need two varieties  that flower at the same time.  So far, Ian's second variety has failed to oblige.  Yacon has a simple, yet somehow, dastardly, incompatibility mechanism - the disk and ray florets are different sexes and are ready at different times.  Because the females, located in the ray florets mature first, before the boys in the disk florets can produce their pollen, it is hard for self-pollination to occur. Good news for genetic diversity in yacon, bad news for would-be plant breeders.

I was all ready to bemoan the strictly stunted and non-reproductive status of my yacons, when I noticed some flower buds nestling in the tops of one of the seedlings.  It's only the end of August, so maybe there is still time for a spectacular display and a healthy yield of those coal-black yacon pips that Frank produced last year.  

Monday, 23 August 2010

Radix Reaches Out

My rooty monomania seems to know no bounds.  First step to world domination is to gather around you a bunch of fellow conspirators. Maybe I mean megalomania.   In any case,  I am cordially inviting those with an interest in alternative root crops and social media to join my Facebook group: Radix Root Crops. My hope is that this will provide you with the opportunity to escape my purple prose and act as a platform for sharing the good, bad and indifferent experiences you've had with growing (and breeding!) oca, ulluco, yacon, mashua, hopniss and the myriad other neglected root and tuber crops: there is much to be learned.

So my first question is - who's got ocas flowering at the moment and (even more importantly) who's got seed pods forming - h/t  Radix Root Crops.   Let's build up a picture of how oca behaves in a range of locations.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Friday The 13th - Yet Another Oca Shocker

Roamin in the gloamin at Oca Acres yesterday, I noticed that one of my seed catching envelopes was hanging in a somewhat forlorn manner. Closer inspection revealed the reason - the pedicel bearing the pod had shrivelled and turned black, leaving the envelope dangling like a limp wrist.  In the strong breeze, it looked precariously close to detachment. As the damn thing had obviously failed in its job, I removed it.   I could see, snug at the bottom, a shrivelled pod, just like the unfertilised ones that seem to have been dropping off the plants in depressing quantities. I was all set to consign the whole kit and caboodle to the compost heap when the dying rays of the sun revealed more: some freshly-minted oca seeds, backlit by the yellow light.  091710 has produced the first seeds of the season.  May the season be long and the harvest bountiful.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Potatoes - We've Ingested the Infested

While other parts of the country are, apparently, dry and droughty, the same cannot be said of Cornwall.  The predictable result is that, as I mentioned earlier, blight has destroyed our potato crop.  Still, it does present us with the opportunity to try a few of the eclectic mix of varieties that happen to have ended up growing here, albeit a little earlier than anticipated.  For the purposes of the taste test, they were boiled, with a little sprig of mint. Here goes:

From top, clockwise: Gloucester Black Kidney; Vales Emerald; Rote Emma; Purple Peruvian; Nicola; Robinta

Gloucester Black Kidney: a good tasting, dry and floury variety.  Lovely appearance with distinctive kidney shaped tubers - well named.  White flesh despite the purple skin.  Excellent except for the pitiful yield.  From Nip it in the Bud

Vales Emerald: huge tubers and lots of them. Firmer than the above, probably a good baker.  Flavour initially unremarkable, then left a bitter aftertaste and a harsh sensation in the back of the throat.   Nice yield, shame about the taste.  From Nip it in the Bud

Rote Emma: smooth, waxy, very pleasant.  Pink flesh.  Good yield, but wins the Mollusc Medal for its enduring appeal to slugs.  We like this one too, but somehow the slugs always get there first. Originally from Ulrike Paradine

Purple Peruvian: dry, floury, slightly "nutty" taste. Delicious, purple fleshed.  Firm, doesn't break up easily, a good all-rounder.  Just the thing before or after manual labour at 0-4000m. Brilliantly camouflaged in the soil - we always miss loads.  Horribly susceptible to blight and although they crop reasonably, tuber size is not impressive.  Despite this, we have been growing them from our own seed for over ten years now.  Purple mash will create a stir at the most staid dinner party.

Nicola: waxy, with a good flavour.  Good yield, worth growing again. From Nip it in the Bud

Robinta: waxy/ buttery flavour.  Very pleasant, would make an excellent salad potato. Good yield. Will be growing it again. From Nip it in the Bud

Some old Greek guy once mentioned that one could never step in the same river twice; so it is with the evolution of pests and pathogens. As tasty as Gloucester Black Kidney and Purple Peruvian have proved themselves to be, they are, in this area at least, no longer practical for fungicide-free horticulture. These worthy stalwarts from days of yore just don't cut the mustard when it comes to withstanding the virulence of Blue 13 and its successors.  Were Heraclitus around today, he would perhaps concur: time to move on.

Like the light from a distant constellation that's dying in the corner of the sky, these varieties are the product of another age, now past.  In the song by Paul Simon, from which those lyrics are lifted, he exhorts: don't cry, baby, don't cry. He may have a point: it's perfectly possible, in these days of miracle and wonder, to envisage an elusive affiliation of potatoheads and tomatoheads, breeding new, tasty, blight-beating varieties; they could transfer genes from these oldies to blight resistant ones, thus combining the best of the old with the best of the new. They may be old, but they ain't necessarily cold. The heirloom potatoes, I mean. Let's hear it for cross-pollination - a bit of sexual healing may yet knock Phytophthora infestans off its perch.  So join, why don't you, some of the people already engaged in this work: Rebsie FairholmFrank van Keirsbilck; Vegetable HeavenTom WagnerPatrick Wiebe; Open Plant Breeding Foundation.  You have nothing to lose but your free time.

Monday, 2 August 2010


Yes, it's that time of year again in Cornwall when the holiday hordes descend and formerly deserted beaches are suddenly packed with neoprene clad dandies jockeying for position on the surf.  More importantly, it's the season when the oca seed pods start to form.  Actually, they seem to be appearing a little earlier on this year's seedlings than on their parents, who were, of course, born and raised in 2009.   The optimist in me thinks this is due to rapid adaptation to our climate and daylength regimes; my inner sceptical rationalist would prefer to withhold judgement and gather additional data for a few more years.

Here are the first ones I've noticed this year, on 091710, a seedling from 0917, which last year was among the first to set seeds.  Pure coincidence?  Perhaps, but I'm not taking any chances and will be enveloping the pods and their precious cargo as per 2009. To paraphrase a song from Monty Python's Meaning of Life (but only just) - every seed is sacred, every seed is good, every seed is needed, in your neighbourhood.

 In my neighbourhood, I keep noticing additional small oca seedlings peeping out from the skirts of my chillies.   So far my attempts at disentangling their root systems from the overbearing chillies has proved successful;  I've planted them in any available space in the hope of getting a few tubers by the autumn.  It may be a bit late now for some of these tiddlers, but I'm keen to give them a chance, just in case one of these slowcoaches contains the elusive genes for daylength neutrality.  Once they're past the small and delicate stage and their stems start to lengthen, they can make quite rapid progress.

I'm still pondering on the exact structure of some of the flowers I've seen.  More on the myriad morphs of Oxalis tuberosa when I can get out on a sunny day, examine the flowers properly and hopefully get some shots of their generative gubbins in all their confusing glory.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Getting High with Sweetpotato Seeds

Now here's something you don't see very often - sweetpotato seeds. Not for illicit ignition and inhalation as was reportedly the fate of other morning glory seeds when I was at school. And not just any sweetpotato seeds, mind you. These are from Papua New Guinea. From the Eastern Highlands region, where they grow in diverse profusion despite the cool climate. Exciting - especially when you read the accompanying note about growing conditions: "long misty mornings and cold nights". That sounds about right.

There is the promise of more seeds at some stage. Excellent. One thing you can be sure of - I won't be smoking any of them, they're far too precious.

Imagine my surprise when they turned up, all unexpected. Last year, at about this time (which is close to my birthday), I issued the Universe a challenge - provide me with the seeds of high altitude New Guinea sweetpotatoes, among several other things. Well, it would be churlish to complain about the speed of the service and the fact that a few items on that list are still outstanding. But I've always been a bit churlish, so thanks, Universe, but what about some Ipomoea minuta, Apios fortunei and true ulluco seed of the day-neutral persuasion?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Blight is Busting Out All Over

The recent prolonged spell of wet weather has meant that potato blight has devastated our potatoes and outdoor tomatoes. Again. It's singularly dispiriting to look at the mark of the beast all over that formerly healthy foliage and it's hard not to feel that some sort of divine retribution is involved. Since this picture was taken, things have got a whole lot worse. I could wax lyrical about suppurating sores, expanding lesions and stem collapse, but I'll spare you the gory details.

Cornwall does seem to be an evolving centre for Phytophthora diversity - I suppose our moist, mild and humid climate is responsible for that. Potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) has been around for a long time, although it has recently undergone rapid evolution due to the rampant coupling of the original A1 strain with A2, which arrived in 1978. This unholy union produces oodles of oospores, the tough walled, overwintering products of sexual reproduction. These germinate to give all sorts of charming new variants, ready to attack previously "blight resistant" varieties. I'm hoping that Tom Wagner and his worldwide web of collaborators will be able to develop some new varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes to deal with this challenge.

We also have Phytophthora ramorum, the ominously-named Sudden Oak Death, which, ironically, has mainly been killing rhododendrons. Lately it has jumped hosts and is now attacking Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi), an important forestry tree hereabouts. On a recent train ride along the edge of Bodmin Moor, I could easily see the damage - trees with brown crowns, releasing millions of highly infective spores. Some 250 hectares of Japanese larch are due to be felled in this region, in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease. If it's anything like potato blight, I expect that it's already too late. And let's not forget - we have our very own Cornish Phytophthora - P. kernoviae, first described from the Truro area in 2003. Its favorite host is, at present, the rhododendron, which is plentiful, in both the wild form (Rhododendron ponticum) and numerous ornamental varieties. It also likes beech and magnolias. Owners of historic Cornish gardens must be quaking in their boots.

The Peruvian Purple potatoes were the first to go - we'll lift them a bit later. I was more interested in trying Rote Emma. This is a pink-skinned, pink fleshed variety that was given to me by Ulrike Paradine. I know very little about it, other than it tastes delicious. Unfortunately the slugs seem to agree, so an early harvest might not be such a bad thing. Thanks, Phytophthora.

Here are some Rote Emmas fresh out of the ground. Blight-blasted foliage removed for the sake of propriety.

Here they are after a bit of a wash, with a cut tuber to show the flesh colour. I expect they're full of healthy antioxidants.

And last but not least, boiled, with a pat of artery-clogging Cornish butter. Comfort eating at a time of crisis.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Mecha-mecks are Doing Swell

I wouldn't go quite that far, but swelling is what they're doing, as this shot shows. Top growth has been disappointingly minimal, but it seems like they are concentrating their energies into developing their storage roots; these appear to be a combination of swollen hypocotyls as well as roots proper. Perhaps due to the limited rooting space, they're now pushing up, rather than down. I suppose this should be my cue that it's time to pot them on. I've avoided this so far, partially through laziness, but also because I've read that they resent root disturbance.

I was hoping for bindweed type growth to issue forth from the top of the plants like Silly String and wrap itself around any available object; what I've got so far is shown to the left. It could be, as I suspected, that it's not really warm enough here for that kind of exuberance. Or, another possibility - they're storing up energy for a more impressive performance next year. One can live in hope. In either case, it doesn't seem polite at this stage to take a bite out of any of them - not just yet. I am tempted, though. In the name of scientific enquiry, you understand.

Monday, 12 July 2010

July Is Busting Out All Over

Starting to, anyway. By which I mean that the first oca flowers of the season are here - on 09081, one of the seedlings I raised from from plant 0908. It does sometimes feel like a bit of a merry-go-round, hence my scrap-salvage adaptation of the old song title from Carousel, a musical whose plot still perplexes me. I'm dizzied by trying to manage the ever-expanding oca brood and everything else that life demands. Or, switch that rotating axis from vertical to horizontal and you have another take on it - an oca treadmill. Enough free association already - let's get back to the matter in hand.

The parent 0908 produced a good yield of tubers (about 240 grams after frost wastage, according to my records and the tubers were a reasonable size). It was a big and vigorous plant, with a short styled flower.

Looking at the flower of 09081 more closely, I do feel a little confused; it doesn't seem to conform to the three morph theory of oca flowers. The anthers and styles appear to be clustered together, more or less, at the top, without the usual segregation into distinct whorls. So has oca pulled a flanker yet again, after my strenuous efforts to understand floral inheritance in this wild child of the Andes? According to my CIP descriptors and the handy illustration contained therein, it most resembles number 4, the semi-homostylous form, a slight variation on the theme of the bog standard mid-styled morph. At least I think it does.
09081 has inherited neither the same floral morph, nor the same axillary markings as its parent - below, on the left is 0908, with 09081 on the right. I wonder what other characteristics have/haven't been inherited by the daughter plant?

There are others not far behind in this floral dance. It will soon be time to get out there and assist in pollination duties. Here's a view along the bed. There are considerable differences in both vigour and habit of growth between individuals, which although not obvious in this shot, can be seen as you walk along the rows.

And here's a sneak preview of within-plot diversity, including some self-sown Amphicarpaea bracteata plants twining around the bamboo canes. Differences between the ocas can be seen quite clearly.

The mild and humid weather has encouraged the growth of many plants, but, right on cue, blight has appeared on the purple potatoes. Drat, drat and double drat. Don't think I can realistically hope for any outdoor tomatoes this year.

No blight on the ocas, but I did find this fella munching through one of the oca seedlings. Most likely it's the caterpillar of an angle shades moth, Plogophora meticulosa, a generalist feeder found on a wide range of host plants. I'd prefer it to indulge its catholic tastes elsewhere and leave my ocas alone. Result? A maiden flight before metamorphosis into a nearby patch of mixed vegetation.
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