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.
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