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.

2 comments:

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Ohhhhhhhh ... lovely potatoes!

I love Flanders too, so I imagine a combination of both must be delightful.

Incidentally I've got a batch of potatoes which is presently proving blightproof (though I should cross my fingers when I say that). They are a stenotomum type from Tom Wagner, a cross between two Bolivian landraces. Some are showing beautiful markings not dissimilar to those andigenas.

Rhizowen said...

I'll take that as an expression of longing, shall I Rebsie?

If you'd like to try them, I'm happy to pass some of them on to you.

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