Friday, 30 April 2010

Can I Mess With Some Camas?

Cruising idly down the aisles of a local garden centre, my eye was suddenly drawn to the remaindered bulbs. I always feel sorry for these poor shrivelled critters, randomly scattered in sawdust-lined open coffins, in a state of incipient mummification. Sometimes I take pity on a few and buy them.

On this occasion some forlorn camas bulbs impinged on my consciousness. Oooh. The bulbs of Camassia species were an important food source for native Americans in western North America and are also eaten by bears, gophers and deer. I've been meaning to grow them for years, but somehow have never got round to it. Tell a lie, I have grown them before, but when it came to harvesting and eating them, I flunked.

There I stood, presented with the opportunity to purchase two of the most important culinary species, C. quamash and C. leichtlinii. I knew I had more than enough on my plate, I knew I shouldn't, but my heart went out to these benighted bulbs (plus I was more than a little curious to grow and taste them).

So I bought a few of them. I suppose I ought to issue a warning about not trying this at home - don't do as I do, do as I say. Camas bulbs are definitely edible, but can be mistaken for death camas (Zigadenus venenosus),which definitely isn't. Luckily, death camas flowers are white and have a different appearance to the true camas. I will be checking the identity of this lot scrupulously before consuming them. I chose two blue flowered varieties to further eliminate the chances of misidentification. On the left are the bulbs of C. leichtlinii; those on the right are C. quamash. Having failed to provide a more accurate means of measurement in my photo, I'm reduced to comparisons with other bulbs: C. leichtlinii are about the size of daffodil bulbs, whereas the C. quamash are similar to onion sets. Yeah, a ruler would have been better.

They are supposedly edible both raw and cooked and like Jerusalem artichokes, their carbohydrate reserves are stored in the form of inulin. I bet this has all sorts of advantages for the health of your gut flora. How long before someone starts marketing them as, for example, "the Wonder Food of Washington State, sustainably harvested" ?

Although these ones were looking a little soft and sorry at the time of planting, I have no doubt that they'll recover and I'll get my chance to try this taste treat in due course.

Those First Nations camas harvesters took considerable pains to keep favoured patches free of extraneous objects and brush, often maintaining the camas meadows by burning. It was gardening in all but name. They lifted the bulb-bearing turf in chunks, removed the biggest bulbs and then replaced it. This kind of disturbance favoured the growth and spread of the bulbs. Once harvested, the bulbs were pit roasted, often for several days, using hot rocks in a deep hole lined with seaweed, fern fronds, tree branches and other plant material. In went the camas bulbs and the pit was sealed with more branches, sand and soil. This slow cooking broke down the inulin into fructose, producing a very sweet mass, supposedly tasting a bit like baked pear. I can't yet validate this claim, but it sounds good.

Camas grows well in this part of the country and there's no reason why some of our otherwise unproductive lawns couldn't support a crop of it; in terms of edible ornamentals it's definitely in the first rank. If a bluebell wood meets with your approval, then a camas meadow like this should be a welcome sight. Photo by Jenny A. Moore.
So, in answer to the question posed in this post's title - I can and I will.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A Precocious Talet

Here's a shot of my first crop of talets for 2010. This very small and exceedingly early harvest results from the concatenation of events beginning late last year. Frank van Keirsbilck, purveyor of all things seedy and exciting, sent me the underground beans from one of his Amphicarpaea bracteata varieties in November. As I was otherwise detained in hospital, I was unable to rescue the seeds from a warm room and they promptly germinated. By the time I had recovered sufficiently to care about such things, the majority of them had exhausted themselves in their padded envelope prison and rotted. A few however, seemed to be alive, so I potted them up and put them on the windowsill with the maukas I mentioned previously. This was in late January, or maybe early February. They started to make the typical vine-like growth, but then rapidly switched to reproductive mode: the stems stopped elongating and flowers began to appear.

Now the leaves have yellowed and are dropping off, revealing a small crop of blackish pods. Presumably the short daylength was enough to arrest their usual vegetative development and initiate flowering and seed formation. Put it another way - I inadvertently tricked them into flowering at the wrong time of year. If nothing else, it's a fairly graphic illustration of how profound the effects of daylength can be on plant development.

It's also made me think about the kind of characteristics I'd like to see in a domesticated talet plant. For our climate we want a plant that makes rapid growth during the early stages of the growing season and then switches over to intensive reproduction in late summer, laying down large quantities of fat seeds for the winter. Realistically, this will need to begin before the equinox, as temperatures and light levels have often fallen too low for acceptable growth after this time and the spectre of an early killing frost frequently stalks the land.

It is apparently the case that yabumame (Amphicarpaea edgeworthii), talet's Asian cousin, shows variation in time of flowering according to latitude; northern latitude plants begin flowering more quickly after sowing and continue for longer than their soft southern counterparts. It's a fair bet that the same is true in the case of Amphicarpaea bracteata. So the hunt is on for northern provenance seeds. This can mean only one thing - Canada.

One particular place in Canada with a climate at least vaguely reminiscent of ours would be a good place to start: Prince Edward Island. Like Anne of Green Gables, whose resolute optimism saw her through the trials of life, I'm positive that another citizen of Canada's 'Garden of the Gulf ' will be able to supply me with some seeds and maybe throw in a tuber or two of Apios americana for good measure. Step forward please.

Other than that, I'd like to see an Amphicarpaea plant that doesn't aspire to be the kudzu of my vegetable patch. All the plants I've grown send out rangy, tentacular shoots and sparse leaves with long flower stalks in their axils. A similar sort of growth habit is common to many other wild beans and is, no doubt, highly adaptive. While hunting for the scattered beans may be OK for wild food afficionados armed with digging sticks, rush baskets and plenty of time, it does rather hamper the gardener's attempts to harvest meal-worthy quantities. It also contributes to the impression that the plant is more trouble than it's worth and should be evicted at the first opportunity. Exit stage left, pursued by a hog.

Leaf spacing is a function of internode length: shorten the distance between leaves and you get leafier, bushier plants with a more manageable habit of growth. Perhaps these plants would, as a result, focus more effort on producing the bit we want, the beans, rather than those serpentine shoots with the insatiable wanderlust. The result? More beans per square metre. As short internodes are produced by recessive genes in other legumes, I suspect the same is true for Amphicarpaea. I have a nagging suspicion that I could be waiting a while for a homozygous bushy plant to appear. Nevertheless, like Anne of Green Gables, or more particularly, Mr Micawber, I'm confident that eventually something will turn up.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Blooming Marvellous Maukas

I've been studying, with a degree of anticipation, the development of flower buds on the mauka 'roja' plants which Frank van Keirsbilck gave me last summer. They spent the winter confined to a windowsill in a fairly cool room; a few weeks ago I noticed that some of the stems were elongating into what I optimistically took to be inflorescences. Daylength at the time was probably a bit less than 12 hours, which suggests that mauka requires short days to initiate flowering.

The waiting is now over - a couple of flowers have opened in the last few days. The 'blanca' plants, located in a warmer spot, have grown much bigger and show no signs of flowering. I'm pondering on the significance of this observation.

The flowers are not the most photogenic objects I've ever pointed a lens at, but like those Elizabethan miniatures, they repay closer investigation. I just wish I hadn't mislaid my hand lens when I needed it most; like as not, it is lying buried beneath a pile of festering oca stems and tubers and will resurface via the compost heap at some future date.

I won't be entering this image for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, but at least you get an idea of the flower's petite, pink appearance. The anthers have, relatively speaking, whopping great big pollen grains. I tried to shift them onto the stigma, but I fear my clumsy fumblings did more harm than good. The buds themselves are covered with sticky hairs. Imagine my horror when an unopened bud adhered itself to my shirt sleeve, then detached itself from its mother and left this world an uncorrupted virgin. I suppose that's what you could call coming to a sticky end. My clumsy fumblings were certainly counterproductive in this instance.

Mauka's glamour-puss cousin, Mirabilis jalapa, the Marvel of Peru, has big colourful, fragrant flowers, which featured in pioneering studies on Mendelian inheritance of flower colour in the early 1900s. It also took a leading role in the first conclusive case of cytoplasmic inheritance, where genes outside the nucleus were shown to affect the plant's possession (or not) of variegated leaves. The genus Mirabilis as a whole are also known as the four o'clock flowers, this being the time in the afternoon at which they usually open and begin releasing their heady fragrance. The apparent cause is the decline in air temperature as the sun's rays weaken, rather than any direct association with a particular hour of the day.

Mauka, by contrast, seems to be a bit of a shrinking violet, with small flowers and I've yet to catch them in fragrante delicto. On my windowsill, the flowers seem to open at night, followed by closure early the following morning. Could it be that four o'clock actually refers to 4am rather than 4pm? I'm not sure if I can face staying up into the wee hours, headtorch, tweezers and paintbrush in hand in the hope of effecting a successful pollination. I need my beauty sleep.

Many species of Mirabilis are facultative outcrossers, that's to say they prefer to cross-pollinate, but are able to self-fertilise if a better pollen source isn't forthcoming, or if the moths which usually pollinate them are prevented from flying by low temperatures. It will be interesting to see whether this is also true in mauka's case. I'll be looking out for swelling anthocarps, the distinctive dry fruits which are characteristic of the family Nyctaginaceae to which Mirabilis and Bougainvillea belong.

The case for inducing flowering in mauka by daylength manipulation grows ever stronger. Let's hope I'm man enough to remove and replace light excluding covers over a few plants for a few weeks this summer in the hope of tricking them into flowering. Then I can let the moths do the rest.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Up Come the Ocas

The next generation of ocas are on their way. The seeds I collected last autumn seem to be fairly viable, without recourse to any potassium nitrate or other germination stimulants. I did give them a bit of a clean in a dilute bleach solution though.

From tiny seedlings big tubers grow - that's my earnest hope. This little fella may be one of the gifted and talented who will be fast-tracked to glory in the months to come. Or not.

As I think I may have mentioned previously, breeding is basically a game of numbers and probability. As well as sowing seeds collected from my better performers (I hesitate to use the term elite germplasm just yet), I've also sown seeds from the mixed bag of early pods I collected and whose provenance is unknown. Some seem to pop up vigorous and enthusiastic, others languish and sulk. The latter tend not to make it up through the compost, succumbing before emerging. No doubt I could mollycoddle them more and increase the survival rate, but I actually want robust plants, with an enhanced ability to reproduce from seeds. I also want plants which tuberise under long days, or at least start to get on with it well before the frosts come.

The genetics of all of this are not clearly understood, not by me anyway. Most likely, there are parallels with the potato, where insensitivity to daylength has been linked to reduced levels of Phytochrome B (PHYB) a photoreceptor pigment that plants use to regulate growth and development. In fact it's night length that counts from the plant's point of view, but no matter, the term daylength is in common parlance and I'm sticking to it.

PHYB deficient potato plants have longer stems, with paler leaves, which are broader and flatter; below the soil surface they have reduced stolon formation, so tubers are not widely dispersed, but are clustered close to the parent plant. Crucially, they produce tubers during the long days of summer. If oca tubers form in the same way, I will be looking for tall, pale plants this year. Come to think of it, the best of the 2009 seedlings were tall and pale.

Lavish seed production will hopefully increase the odds of favourable mutations or recombinations appearing. I'll step in again as pollinator-in-chief and come the autumn, I'll select the best and discard the rest. I noticed that the feeblest plants from last year's crop of seedlings gave puny yields; their defective alleles must be deleted from the gene pool forthwith. Exterminate! Exterminate!

Some call it plant breeding, but really it's just vegetable eugenics. I get to create an all-conquering master race of ocas which will go forth and occupy vegetable gardens up and down the land. Megalomania was never so cheap, entertaining and - legal. I'm nothing but a Dalek in dungarees.

Friday, 2 April 2010

I Pot on My Yacons

Those yacon seedlings are motoring. I turn my back and they're fair busting out of their pots; they need potting on - already; I need more space - now. I suppose I should have seen it coming.

Unlike Baden-Powell and his boy scouts, who are trained to expect the unexpected, I find that the unexpected catches me out every time.That might be because I dodged intoning the pledge: there was never any dyb-dyb-dybbing or dob-dob-dobbing for me. As a consequence, I know next to nothing about woggles and my whittling skills aren't much to write home about either. It could also explain my failure to foresee the germination of those seeds and their subsequent rapid development.

Seeing as how space is running out rapidly, I may as well drop another gentle hint to the universe about that ten acres and associated infrastructure which I asked for in 2009. Last time it sent me respiratory failure and intensive care instead, but hey, isn't faith all about hope in the teeth of adversity?

The logistics of horticulture have always baffled me, but as I'm supposed to be orchestrating this rite of spring - in and out, sowing and growing on - I was hoping for andante non troppo from the yacons rather than prestissimo. They certainly can't go outside yet - the weather is truly atrocious, with wind, sleet, hail and the kind of rain that numbs your forehead and sticks your trousers to your thighs - a typical spring day in other words. If I won't go outside, I can hardly expect my delicate flowers to brave it.

Did I say delicate? They seem to be imbued with the kind of vigour described by the boozy bard Dylan Thomas as "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower". Frank van Keirsbilck, who gave me the seeds, didn't mention anything about lighting any touch-papers and standing well back. Some might call it schadenfreude, but he tells me that he now has twenty yacon seedlings of his own to house. I wish him luck. Honest.

So, as delighted as I am by the sight of these new yacons brimming with life force, I'm hoping I can arrest their development a little bit in order that they remain in their new detached des reses until I can plant them out. Now look here you lot - behave yourselves!
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