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.
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