Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Kaukau v Cornwall - the Results

At about the same time as I harvested those oca seedlings, I decided to lift the kaukaus, the New Guinea sweetpotatoes, which I grew from seed this year.  As per usual, I was a bit late in doing this; sweetpotatoes don't like frost and don't grow at low temperatures - why would they? They're a warm weather plant and express their disapproval of our  conditions by producing piffling crops.

Papua New Guinea is located in the tropics, of course, but has extensive areas of sweetpotato cultivation in the cool highland regions.  The idea was that plants from high altitude areas might show some increased tolerance to the cool weather we tend to have during the months laughably referred to as summer.  Sweetpotato is well known to be a frighteningly heterozygous outcrosser; favourable combinations such as cold tolerance could theoretically pop up each time the random gene generator shuffles the deck and seeds are produced.  Over time, the plants best able to cope with cooler weather produce more seeds and this characteristic increases in frequency in their offspring.  Yes, folks, I'm taking about evolution.

Being a paid up member of the sow-it-and-see brigade, I decided to put this theory to the test.  And what of the results? Mixed - just like the genetics of the seeds themselves.

These are the Teptep roots, three of which showed some thickening; the other two didn't.  I quickly consigned those to the compost bin.

The Gwarawon brood all had beautiful red skins, or at least the ones that actually developed thickened roots did, only two in this instance.  As previously, I shoved the runners up into the compost.

As these pictures capture the awesomely paltry nature of the yield, I decided to take a few close-ups.

I think the string of sausages effect shown here is due to the cramped pot conditions prior to planting out.  That's my excuse.

The white Teptep might make a decent snack. I console myself with the knowledge that it's bigger than the average ulluco.

Some may brand me a simple-minded  apologist for the inadequacies of my kaukau plants - but I don't think so.  In their defence, I would point out that they withstood some fairly unfavourable conditions - stunted by my neglect, they were planted out late, during a period of drought in which our water supply dried up.  This did not exactly aid their establishment. Nor did the unsummery weather during the summer, when long days ought to have joined forces with higher temperatures and plentiful sunshine to get those roots swelling, but didn't.   It's remarkable that they did anything at all.

OK, so you think I'm being unduly kind to these feeble specimens?  What's clear is that it isn't beyond the wit of humble horticulturists to sow and evaluate sweetpotatoes in the privacy of their own gardens. I managed it, under distinctly suboptimal conditions. Come to think of it, suboptimal conditions are exactly what's needed to locate those exceptional individuals with the ability to shrug off the worst our weather can throw at them.
I may even have another go next year.

If you think you can do better, I hereby throw down the Radix gauntlet and challenge you to breed a better sweetpotato for British conditions - and then share it with me.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Fistful of Ocas

Spurred from my lethargy by the signs of recent vole activity and a couple of mild frosts, I decided to lift two of the volunteer oca seedlings.  I had already received indications that there were tubers to harvest, so I wasn't surprised to discover these beauties.
While not exactly fist-filling in their dimensions, they aren't too bad considering their origins as spontaneous eruptions in the regimented realm of the rocoto bed. Who knows - maybe they would have been even bigger without competition from the chillies and the attacks of the voles.

This is the total yield from the two varieties, minus the numerous stolons and baby tubers chomped by the voles before I stepped in. Not too bad for a couple of young ragamuffins from the wrong side of town.

The Cornish Crest shows a fisherman, a tin miner and an oversized chough, which seems to have flapped in from the Lord of the Rings franchise. I'm wondering whether the miner would be willing to stretch out a hand and display what could, potentially, become another local symbol: a shiny oca tuber.  It does seem perfectly possible that oca might be established as a successful niche market crop here in the far south west, if shorter season varieties can be bred.  I've established (I think) that oca seedlings could theoretically be grown en masse outdoors and selected carefully for relevant traits; I am currently exploring the best ways of ensuring that this happens as soon as possible.  I am also proposing, somewhat immodestly, that the count(r)y's name be changed to Ocarnwall as part of a rebranding exercise culminating in a twinning ceremony with Peru.

After soaring whimsically with the choughs, gravity demands that I return forthwith to the ground and face a few facts. My days as oca's wrinkled retainer may be numbered; this Andean adventive is settling in rather well and seems quite capable of pursuing its own independent destiny with precious little input on my part. If the voles let it.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

I Think, Therefore I Yam

I'm not misquoting the late, great Rene Descartes, natural philosopher and mathematician, whose phrase cogito ergo sum has been spouted ad nauseam by have-a-go intellectuals for years. Nope, that's not what I mean.  Neither am I using the word yam as an obscure verb to describe my penchant for eating in a manner famished, nor as an indication that I am spouting nonsense in an animated fashion. It is true, however, that I can and will do both of these if circumstances demand it.

What I mean is that all right thinking people, gardeners and natural philosophers ought to investigate the edible potential of the Chinese yam (Dioscorea polystachya). This is a member of the great and still thoroughly extant genus Dioscorea, which inludes many other edible species.

The Chinese yam comes from temperate areas of, you guessed it, China, along with Korea and Japan.  It's also found as an introduced (read: highly invasive) plant in the USA and should not be planted in those parts where it is likely to be a problem. It's a dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants) climber and not unattractive. It's also vigorous, as this picture taken last year at Frank van Keirsbilck's garden shows: estimated height 4 metres. The lack of a suitable pollination partner doesn't bother it one little bit. In lieu of true seeds, the Chinese yam produces large quantities of bulbils, or more correctly, tubercles, in its leaf axils. These drop off and establish new plants, hence its potential as an invasive weed.

My understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) is that the majority of plants under cultivation are male, so true seeds are rarely formed. If and when they do develop, they're probably produced in seed pods that look something like these on  D. caucasica, which I took in Ghent last SeptemberAs well as being consumed as a root crop, it is also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for numerous complaints.

Strangely, Chinese yams have attracted the attentions of a philosopher of an altogether different ilk: Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, the founding father of Biodynamics, thought very highly of the Chinese yam, due to its unique ability, in his opinion, to store light ether in its roots. According to Steiner, this made its cultivation in Europe essential to maintain human health. He envisaged it replacing the good old spud as a staple, due to the latter's tendency to make both people and animals materialistic. I think he meant the opposite of spiritual rather than an atavistic compulsion to hang around shopping malls.  So what on earth is "light ether"?  To me, all this is not only etheric, but esoteric.  The fact that Usain Bolt, sprinter extraordinary, is supposed to attribute his speed to the Trelawny yams he grew up eating in Jamaica, just adds to the peculiar allure of this plant.  But surely the Trelawny yams aren't  D. polystachya, as some reports I've seen suggest, but D. cayensis. 

Image courtesy of Dr Markus Heyerhoff
The Germans seem to have taken Steiner at his word and are now growing the Lichtwurzel (light root) on a limited scale, particularly in the Bodensee region.  Cultivation practices look somewhat elaborate, involving greenhouses and wooden boxes.  Several companies are now marketing the roots and products derived from them.

I contacted Dr Tobias Hartkemeyer at the University of Kassel, located in the raccoon heartland of Germany, where they have been running a research and development project on the Chinese yam: Lichtyams.  I was keen to know whether they had been able to breed any new varieties. Tobias told me he had managed to get a female plant, but this had failed to thrive and he has been unable to produce any true seed so far.

The young shoots resemble those of black bryony, (Tamus communis) the only native British climber in the same family, the Dioscoreaceae. This seems to occur in every hedgerow hereabouts and has attractive glossy leaves and in the autumn, on female plants, bright red berries.  I really like black bryony, but confusing the roots of the two species is the kind of mistake best avoided. Black bryony's roots, yam-like in appearance though they may be, are powerfully irritant and likely to send the diner on a trip to the local hospital.   Luckily, perhaps, the bryony emerges many weeks earlier than the yam and is unlikely to be confused with it.  I do wish the yam showed the same early growth as the bryony, though - it might yield much better.

I'm no stranger to the Chinese yam, having grown it several times in the past, but, if I'm honest, I've hardly ever eaten it. This is probably a shame as it really is supposed to have beneficial effects on one's intellectual, cognitive and spiritual development - according to Steiner that is. It's also very tasty, something which tends to have a greater influence on my choice of food than considerations of continuing spiritual evolution. The biggest intellectual stimulus I have had from from growing it has always occurred as I attempt to figure out how to extract the long, thin, brittle roots from the soil without breaking them.  As you normally have to wait several years before they reach a harvestable size, they also provide you with ample opportunity to develop reserves of patience.

So with all this in mind, I got myself some yam bulbils - two varieties, species even, described as Dioscorea batatas and Dioscorea japonica. These names are doubtless obsolete synonyms which some obliging taxonomist will delight in pointing out to me in due course. On the left are the somewhat smaller bulbils of D. batatas, on the right those of D. japonica.

I'm not much of a party animal, but it's often possible to pick up a few plastic cups at such events; these make serviceable pots for long rooted plants, at least in the early stages of development. Judging by the appearance of what might be politely described as finger-like protuberances from the bottoms of these cups, potting on is now required. My finger is on the right, in case you're confused. The only discernible difference I can see between the two types (species?) is the greater vigour and precocious bulbil development on the D. japonica plants.

Some American polyculture enthusiasts have abandoned the shovel and are now harvesting the yam bulbils as the main food instead.   The 'yamberries' as they are calling them, seem to yield very well in their climate in New England  giving 3-4 US gallons per plant (I think that's around 12-15 litres) in Holyoke MA.  They're certainly miniscule compared to the the fist size ones produced by the air potato, D. bulbifera, but they seem to make up for this by being produced in large quantities. Lightly toasted on a skillet, or in the oven, they are apparently very good eating. A root crop that doesn't require digging - is there no end to the diverse talents of Dioscorea polystachya?

This is an intriguing plant, with delicious roots and all sorts of associated mystique, half-truths and misinformation.  Aside from the necessity of mining the roots rather than harvesting them, the main problem, in our climate at least, is their late emergence in the spring and subsequent slow maturity. If plants of different sexes can be located, it might be possible to set up a Dioscorea dating agency and breed varieties that are better adapted to our climate.  There are, apparently, numerous sorts found in China, with varying shape, size and number of roots.  So, to any Chinese yam enthusiasts who have male and female plants in their possession, Radix awaits your call.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Profusion of Pods

The mild weather over the past few weeks has led to a bumper crop of oca pods. There are many hundreds, if not thousands of them adorning my plants at the moment.  It may be a bit optimistic to harvest them all before frost strikes, but I'm going to give it my best shot.  There's no way that bagging them individually can be achieved, so I'm just gathering those that are close to ripening and storing them as described previously; it seems to work.  I'm not the only one experiencing success either - Ian at Growing Oca reports similar success, as does David Taylor, who has been contributing to a discussion about oca seed production on the Radix Facebook Page.

Here's an oca tuber from one of last year's seedlings, looking plump and well developed.

The flip side - literally - tells another story: vole damage.  Not content with eating fully formed ones, they also enjoy severing the stolons to which the developing tubers are attached.  In addition to this outrage, they've conducted some impressive pumpkin carving on our squashes, many of which are scarred by hundreds of tiny incisor marks. Ah, the joys of wildlife gardening.

While I was collecting the pods from the volunteer seedlings, I couldn't resist tunneling beneath the surface, just like the voles.  And this is what I found - a quite impressive cluster of tubers, all things considered.  So it's possible for oca seedlings to appear spontaneously, flower, produce seeds and tuberise - all within one growing season.  I think this is what they call progress.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Who Tampered With My Yampah?

I have a guilty secret. You're looking at it, or rather, them. Magnifying glasses at the ready - these are my yampah roots. I've been debating for several months as to whether I should reveal them in all their maddeningly minute glory. That time has now arrived.

Although yampah roots are spoken of very highly as a wild food, this rate of growth really doesn't bode well for their general productivity as a garden crop.  Let's just say the potato can lie in its bed a little longer without fear of being usurped.

As so often follows failure, a period of doubt and self-recrimination ensued. Was it the compost, the temperature, transplanting shock? Insect damage perhaps? Something or someone was to blame. Maybe I'm an even less competent horticulturist than I ever realised. I have had them stashed in some vermiculite, hidden from view, while pondering on all of this.

Then last night, I was idly perusing a document from the USDA Forest Service on a related yampah species, Perideridia erythrorhiza, when I came across this quote:

Work in the greenhouse indicates that juveniles will senesce 8-12 weeks after emerging, even if kept well watered, and will not flower the first year. During this early period of growth, a single small tuber 1cm or less is developed, which then remains dormant until the following spring. 

That's it. That's exactly what happened.

So roast yampah roots won't be on the table this Christmas, but I might get another stab at growing this queen of North American wild foods. And it's really not my fault.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Mauka Makes My Day

I don't know what's up with my biorhythms at the moment, but I seem to be rather accident prone. I managed to poke myself in the eye with a branch a while ago. It hurt like hell and I had a brightly bloodshot eye for several weeks.  More recently, I burnt my hand while getting something out of the oven. And as a result of carelessly deseeding chillies yesterday, my fingers are now a lethal weapon whenever they come into contact with delicate areas of my anatomy.  And to think only a couple of days ago, I was innocently listening to "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, without the least intimation of what was to follow. True.

So I'm feeling in need of a little cheering up.   Mauka, bless it, has provided me with a welcome late October fillip. Here it is, a mauka anthocarp, freshly harvested from the Blanca variety.

The plant itself looks to be undergoing a bad hair day of its own - it's a mass of straggling shoots with drooping (and dropping) yellow leaves; ornamental it is not - more like an oversize urchin gypsophila than anything else. But it is flowering gamely despite all this and even though I've abandoned my pollination attempts this year, it seems to be setting a crop of seeds nonetheless.  I brought it indoors onto the same windowsill where my winged beans once stood, fearing frost would clobber it before its moment of glory.  We've had some very mild frosts, but the other varieties, which I have left outside to their fate so far, are also flowering now; they show signs of swellings where swellings should be, from which I deduce that fertilisation has occurred.  Mauka, I think I love you.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

From Seed to Seed - Oh Yes, Indeed

This frankly unremarkable picture of some frankly ordinary oca seeds hides a portentous event. For me, that is.  These are the seeds I've just collected from the self-sown oca seedlings that sprang up unannounced and, if truth be told, inconveniently among the rocotos.  It is, therefore, theoretically possible to produce an annual supply of oca seeds outdoors in our indifferent summer weather, without recourse to any elaborate horticultural facilities. Reaping what you sow, all within a single season - that's surely progress.  I am preparing myself for the inevitable media onslaught that will ensue from this paradigm-shifting, epochal moment in the ongoing acclimatisation of oca. Don't all rush - let me comb my hair and clean my fingernails first.

Monday, 10 October 2011


I've just been collecting Tigridia seeds from the bulbs I planted back in the spring. It's been a bit wild and wet lately, which is probably not conducive to cacomitl seed health, so I've decided to delay no longer. Although cacomitl seeds can and do germinate successfully as volunteers in this part of the world, I find it hard to believe that sitting in a soggy pod for weeks on end will do them much good.

Now if I had the time and space (both physical and mental), it would be fun to sow the whole lot and then select the plants for the biggest bulbs, just like Luther Burbank did. The best bulbs would be allowed to cross-pollinate and the rest would be eaten. This would be a highly satisfactory way of incentivising plant breeding in my opinion. Cacomitl's easy and amenable nature and obvious fecundity might, with sufficient selection effort, yield up something worthwhile. With their excellent flavour, it is only the small size of the bulbs that keeps them typecast in the role of amusing ethnobotanical footnote.

Ironically, I suspect that removing the immature seed pods might have a much more immediate and positive effect on bulb size than years of painstaking selection. If the behaviour of other plants is anything to go by, this would divert energy away from seed production and into vegetative growth; you can't win 'em all.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Windowful Winged Bean

Psophocarpus tetragonolobus - not just a name to conjure with, but a useful tropical crop that's commonly known in English as the winged bean. The pods have extravagant flanges from which its name derives and pods, seeds, flowers, leaves and swollen roots are all edible. They say every bit of a hog can be used, from its tail to its squeal - the same is apparently true of the winged bean.  If you're interested in its potential, you can read all about it here in a venerable document from the 1970s.   Suffice to say, winged bean has generated considerable enthusiasm among researchers and is a member of that elite corps, nitrogen fixing root crops.

Winged bean loves heat and humidity. I've tried to grow it outside here on several occasions, but to no avail. Cornwall is certainly humid, but, although it's said to be the warmest part of the country, this is a partial truth worthy of estate agents and tourist boards.  Warmest in winter is more accurate.  Even that's not strictly true - it's just less cold than most other parts of the UK.  As a corollary, our summers are generally cooler than other areas of southern Britain, due to the moderating influence of the sea.

So growing winged bean outdoors in the UK seems to be an exercise in futility.   My guess is that if you have the kind of summers where you can lounge around in a Hawaiian shirt all night and not get in the least bit chilly, you can grow winged bean in your garden.  But, even if you are able to provide it with the right climate, most varieties are daylength sensitive and refuse to flower at a sensible time of year when grown away from the tropics.  But not all: meet Hi-Flyer, a variety bred by the USDA that has the potential to flower in our long, often-not-so-hot summer days.

I've been fooling around with Hi-Flyer on an occasional basis for more than a decade. I think I last grew it back in about 2003 in an attempt to regenerate my seed stocks.  And I was successful in this endeavour - my single plant grew, flowered and formed a couple of pods, all on a not particularly sunny windowsill, in a not particularly warm house. The sky blue flowers were attractive - big and bold and yet somehow rather delicate; I wish I'd taken a picture of them.  The pods were a sight to behold too; once again I regret failing to capture their architectural quality.

This year, I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone: replenish my supply of seeds and finally get around to eating the roots. In Papua New Guinea, the winged bean is particularly popular and is known by the Tok Pisin name of "asbin".  Asbin roots are  considered a delicacy and special sing-sings (festivals) are organised to celebrate the harvest.  I wasn't exactly envisaging a lavish shindig: there was only enough space on the windowsill for two small plants.  Opinions on the flavour and desirability of the roots vary, but seem to coalesce around "nutty" "beany" and "earthy".

I sowed seeds in about March and plants finally emerged; I potted them on and left them on the windowsill. For a while they grew well, then suddenly they stopped growing and all blandishments in the way of repotting, feeding and watering were as nothing. Not a single flower bud appeared on either plant.  Scratching around in the compost, however, it was clear that there were some thickened roots.  It's well known that other leguminous tuber crops do better when their flowers and pods are removed; perhaps this is the case for winged bean and I had inadvertently created the right growing conditions for tuber formation. I'm utterly mystified as to why they refused to flower, especially as this has never been a problem in previous seasons.

So, for some unknown reason, Hi-Flyer barely got off the ground and could be said to have nosedived, at least in the case of sexual reproduction.

I'm now debating whether I should spare both roots, plant them next season and delay gratification until fresh seed stocks have been produced, or just plough on regardless, eat the roots and repent at leisure if my remaining seeds prove unviable - Radix's reworking of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.  Let me know your thoughts: the fate of these two plants lies in your hands.  In any case, I reckon Hi-Flyer winged bean might be worth growing in a greenhouse or conservatory as an all-purpose edible plant for those closet permies out there; you know who you are.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mauka: Man Bites Dog (Again)

Yawn. Once bitten, twice bored. The shove-'em-in-a-shed technique of inducing flowering in mauka that I first used last year  has worked again.  Same 11 hour day, for about a month - same result.  Frank van Keirsbilck has been trying his own version of this technique and he tells me that his plants are also in bud.

The first up is Blanca, with flowers opening now.  Both 208001 and Roja are snapping at Blanca's heels, with the beginnings of inflorescences easily discernible at the ends of their stems.  I hurried out specially in my pyjamas, before the sun was up, to get this shot of Blanca in all its understated glory.  As I mentioned before, the flowers seem to open, not in the afternoon as might have been expected from the behaviour of other members of the genus Mirabilis, but at night. Four o'clock flower indeed.

Although this is far too late in the autumn to reasonably expect the flowers to be pollinated and produce a viable crop of anthocarps outdoors, it at least shows that mauka is amenable to this sort of unsophisticated daylength manipulation.  All you need is a shed, a mauka plant and a fairly accurate timepiece. Interested?

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Mauka: Expansa by Name, Expansive by Nature

As the nights draw in, it feels like the right time to be taking stock of the various successes and failures at Oca Acres.

Let's start with a success story. This is me modelling a young mauka seedling a few months ago.  For some unaccountable reason, I seem to have clean fingernails - apologies for the oversight.

These same mauka seedlings have matured into vast, hydra-like monsters, bulldozing all in their path. Usually mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) can hardly be described as a good neighbour, what with its unabashed delight in strangling its bedfellows. This year, though, things are different and I feel an unfamiliar wave of sympathy for it; the poor thing has been utterly trounced by the march of the maukas. This was the state of play back in the early summer - that's the mashua at the bottom left.

That was then; this is now:
The vertical object at the back is a shovel, a long handled one; the plants are now about a metre or so high and considerably more than that in total length. They're refreshingly vigorous.  Of the mashua, nothing can be seen.

The weather for the last few months has been disappointing - nothing new there: lower than average temperatures and lower than average sunshine. Apparently it's been the coolest summer for eighteen years.

The maukas, however, seem to have been wholly unconcerned by any aspect of these temperature and insolation anomalies.  About the only things to check their growth were a few aphid infestations on a couple of shoots, but even those seem to have passed.  Given reasonable levels of care at the beginning of the season, mauka does seem to be a toughie and, let's not forget, actually tastes rather good.  It should also be remembered that it is a rare crop even in the Andes, where the total area under cultivation is reported to be around 10 hectares. Scary. To the best of my knowledge, this patch is probably the biggest one between here and Belgium, where Frank van Keirsbilck grows quite a bit of it.

Frank has produced roots weighing more than 2kg from a single plant.  Mine have never been quite so large, but my main interest is in trying to duplicate those descriptions of earthed-up stems thicker than a man's forearm, which feature in Lost Crops of the Incas.  The best I've managed so far are these from a couple of years ago. There is still much to learn about this plant and how to cultivate it, but I do like its attitude. Rare it may be, but it's also raring to go. Up and at 'em, Mauka!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Will the Cycle Be Unbroken?

I sincerely hope so, because these are my very first self-set oca pods to appear on the self-sown oca seedlings that I mentioned previously.  I've been away for a while and now I'm back; seems like it's a case of absence makes the pods grow longer. With a bit of luck these may yet ripen, thereby demonstrating that the whole oca life cycle can be completed, seed to seed, outdoors, in the Cornish climate.  I know it's not over until the fat pod pops, but I'm really quite excited by the prospect of this latest development.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


I've just harvested my first few oca seeds. That's why I'm all smiles.

The pods from which these seeds were collected lay hidden in the lush foliage the plants have been producing recently. I noticed them while I was bagging up some other pods.  As I've mentioned before, oca pods are small, unremarkable in appearance and restrained in colour. It's easy to overlook them. That said, they do pack a Lilliputian punch - on several occasions I've been pelted with miniscule buck shot as a pod explodes close to my face.  It doesn't hurt, but can cause a momentary loss of concentration - not what you need when you're trying to retain your balance and insert some awkwardly aligned pods into a tiny little envelope.

Unripe pods tend to hang pendulously; as they approach maturity they raise their heads and finally disgorge their cargo courtesy of slingshot arils that catapult the seeds up and out.  Even if your oca plants aren't setting any pods, you can witness a similar effect with the common weed Oxalis corniculata. It uses the self same explosive dispersal mechanism.  What this means of course, is that seed harvest is a fiddly, not to say tedious, process, punctuated by moments of high drama and relies on due diligence on the part of the gardener; with oca pods, timing is everything. I think of it as a cross between plant breeding and bomb disposal.  Anyway, I grabbed the pods from which these seeds were about to escape and stuffed them into an envelope; within a few minutes they were out.

And here's something you don't see very often: a volunteer oca seedling flowering amongst those rocoto chillies I mentioned in my last post. With a bit of luck (and some obliging bumble bees) it should be possible to get some of these to complete the oca lifecycle, seed to seed, with zero effort on my part. Now that's the kind of plant breeding that really appeals to me.

Monday, 1 August 2011


Flower buds, I mean - oca flower buds.

The unsummery weather we've had until fairly recently, with heavy rain and strong winds, doesn't seem to have fazed the ocas at all.  They're keen to give their all in the Reproduction Sweepstake. I'll just have to follow on behind as per usual, with little envelopes to collect the output of the random oca generator.

Flowers have been appearing sporadically for a couple of weeks, but it looks like the high season is now upon us. I can see plenty of my 100+ plants with plenty of flowers. Let the riotous season of cross pollination commence.

One concern I have is the relative scarcity of bumble bees so far this season. I'm pretty sure that Oca Acres was fairly ringing to their buzzing last year. This year is different: hardly any were to be seen until the last couple of weeks.  I don't think I even glimpsed a single honeybee until a few days ago, which is highly unusual. Apart from my obvious worries about the decline of well-loved insects, I don't really want to go back to the dark (daft?) days of hand pollination if I can avoid it. The bees and hoverflies seemed to do a much better job than me without the general tetchiness and backache I experienced when transferring pollen.

I notice that one of my self-sown seedlings is now in flower. This isn't Prima, but the second plant to appear, henceforth to be known as Compay Segundo.  If this and other similar seedlings flower and set seed, the whole oca lifecycle will have been achieved alfresco - another step in the long road to acclimatising the plant to our conditions.

And here's a sight you don't see very often: volunteer seedling ocas appearing as the understory amongst some rocoto chillies (Capsicum pubescens).  If this sort of polyculture cropping appeals to you, head to the Growing Oca blog, where Ian seems to have perfected the art of oca associations in the vegetable bed. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away at finding a day- neutral, heavy yielding, tasty and ravishingly beautiful oca.  Wish me luck and never mind that it's started raining again.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Bulbous Belly Border Blooms - Beautiful

Alliteration may be the lowest form of literary wit, but why break the habit of a lifetime?

Those cacomitl bulbs, purchased from the bargain basement of a cut-price supermarket, are now producing some impressively large and colourful flowers.  Like Hemerocallis, each flower lasts only a day, or quite a bit less in the case of Tigridia; by late afternoon they're already pretty much closed. Most of the time I only get to see the withered remains, but I caught these ones at about 3.30pm, just before they started to deflate.

They're growing on top of rather stunted plants, about a foot and half tall, with interestingly pleated leaves. So far they've survived drought and the unwanted attentions of the local voles who took to gnawing through the emerging shoots. As far as I'm aware, they didn't tackle the bulbs. This may be due to the unpleasant burning sensation they cause if you eat them raw.

Pretty as the flowers are, we all know that they're merely a vehicle for plant sex. I took the opportunity to have a look at their reproductive structures more closely. I can confirm that pollen is produced in large quantities and attaches easily to the sticky stigmas. I couldn't resist giving them the Luther Burbank treatment - I cross-pollinated the flowers; this was altogether unnecessary - I saw several seed pods in various stages of formation - but fun nevertheless. It should be easy to collect the seeds as they ripen. Even if I fail in this bid (I often do), it should not matter - they're known to self seed quite successfully in our climate.  I did once have some seeds from wild Mexican plants; it would have been good to compare these cultivated bulbs with those, but I must have lost them sometime in the last fifteen years. Still, if anyone would care to provide me with replacements, I'm sure I could do a better job next time around. Por favor.

Monday, 11 July 2011

What Now, Kaukau?

If the Ipomoeophiles among you have been wondering what became of those Papua New Guinea sweetpotato seedlings, these pictures should provide an answer.

They've grown and turned into a bunch of small sweetpotato plants, just as I'd hoped.   It's interesting to see the diversity of form they show in leaf shape, leaf colour, habit and vigour. Sweetpotato is a hexaploid, highly heterozygous, obligate outcrosser, so seed raised plants are likely to show all sorts of random combinations of characters. What I'm hoping is that these ones, from stock high up in the mountains, will show increased hardiness in our climate.  No guarantees of course, but one can but try.  To help me in my selection process, I might well turn to the Sweetpotato Knowledge Portal to show me where I've been going wrong.

So the next step (late though it is) is to stick them in the ground and see how they cope with the Cornish summer; not for the first time, this seems to consist of alternating rain, gales and brief salvoes of scorching sunshine.

What now, kaukau? The answer's easy - I'll plant you out, tout de suite. But planting space at Oca Acres is running a bit low at present. Where now, kaukau: that's the real question.  

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Hot Date at Dartington

The question was: what to do with a scruffy collection of surplus-to-requirements Andean root and tuber crops? The answer, obviously, was to set up an Andean polyculture bed at Dartington - Schumacher College, to be precise.

As I have been known to pontificate incessantly about the value of conservation through dissemination, it is wholly appropriate that I should now act on my beliefs. I proposed the idea to Bethan Stagg, Lecturer in Ecological Horticulture at the college and she seemed to like it.

So it was that I rocked up at the college with some tatty looking oca, mashua, yacon and mauka plants and we wandered off to a patch of ground next to one of the college's buildings.

The plot chosen by Bethan was a sunny, otherwise unoccupied bed; just across the path, within easy lobbing distance of a blighted potato, was the Agroforestry Research Trust's iconic forest garden.  Ideal.

My comrade in the planting was Dave Hamilton, author, blogger and horticultural tutor at Schumacher College. I'd never met Dave before, so what better way to break the ice than to discuss the design of our Andean tuber polyculture and then rehome these horticultural waifs.

The theory is this: the yacon will form a tall framework at the back, which the mashua, courtesy of its prehensile petioles and scandent habit, will scramble up with aplomb. The oca and mauka, with their spreading, sprawling growth, will elbow out or smother any impertinent weeds that challenge them. I make no claims, expressed or implied about the authenticity of this combination - it just seemed to make the most sense to me.  The problem is the timing: it's late and the plants are shamefully small, no -  let's be honest here - stunted.  It's not impossible, however, that summer will return and their roots will reach into the deep, rain-recharged soils. If those conditions are met, I see no reason why they shouldn't romp away. That and a long mild autumn and perhaps all will not be lost. 

If this year's experiment proves successful, perhaps it might be possible to try something similar, bigger, involving the students.  Bethan has hinted that this is not an entirely ludicrous idea.

Following a delicious Schumacher lunch (thanks Bethan!), I bade my farewells and headed back for Cornwall, the homeland of Radix.

I may not be able to get over to Devon and check on progress as often as I would like, but think only this of it: That there's some corner of a foreign field. That is forever Radix. (Sorry, Rupert Brooke, but I couldn't resist it).

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Oca: Solace at the Solstice

Flaming June? No, not exactly - more dripping, when it isn't blowing a gale, that is.  We prayed for rain for two long months and now we've got it; my mother was always telling me to be careful what I wished for.  While the stunted vegetables that gasped in the dry spell are now mostly plump and perky, the slugs that feed on them are also looking pretty sleek.

Many of last year's oca seedlings were annihilated when the winter's early cold snap caught me out. The majority of my original varieties copped it as well - not good.  All is not lost, however: thanks to the generosity of Frank van Keirsbilck and Graham aka MyBigHair, I have managed to source most of the missing varieties as well as get some new ones which they raised themselves - I get by with a little help from my friends.

I've only been able to produce a paltry thirty oca seedlings myself this year; you could say I've been feeling a little underwhelmed by my success. But now the gentle rains of summer (huh) have caused an impressive flush of oca seedlings to appear - I've discovered around twenty popping up spontaneously in various beds.  This means I must now be close to having the 100+ varieties I had last year - a cause for minor celebration in the Radix household. We may have failed to see the sun setting on the longest day - the lowering black clouds saw to that - but things seem to be looking up.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Have Hopniss, Am Happy

Seeing as I am already in possession of several hopniss varieties, I ought to rephrase that: more hopniss makes me happier. I'm talking about the pleasure I'm experiencing from sowing the seeds of northern adapted plants and savouring the resultant increase in the genetic diversity of my hopniss collection.  Aside from anything else, it's always exciting when seemingly inanimate seeds burst into life. These diminutive seedlings seem to be vigorous and healthy. In fact, they're actually a little too vigorous and are now spiralling (always anti-clockwise) out of control.  Untangling this lot could prove an intellectual challenge and it ought to sharpen my hand-eye coordination as well.

It's not the first time I've grown hopniss from seeds.  Back in the early 1990s, I obtained a batch from Bill Blackmon at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.  They had themselves a serious breeding project, which was going great guns and was all set to catapult this plant into the mainstream when, horror of horrors, funding was withdrawn; Apios slithered back into the swamps of Louisiana and beneath the waters of oblivion.

To be honest, the Louisiana seedlings grew very poorly for me.  This is hardly surprising considering their provenance: more Clifton Chenier and crawdads than clotted cream and pasties. But the lure of a nitrogen fixing root crop proved too much and well, here I am again, sowing hopniss seeds and hoping for a different outcome. Madness - perhaps, but fun - certainly.

Unlike the LSU seeds, these are from plants in various parts of New England and therefore might be more suited to our climate. In fact, the "Deerfield River" accession was collected at what is currently the world's most northerly known location of wild diploid plants; this is a clean fifty miles further north of any other sites, near Charlemont MA and not far from the Vermont border. Thanks are due, once again, to Bryan Connolly, who very generously keeps me supplied with seeds and site information.   Triploid plants occur right up into Canada, but these are sterile, so present Radix with some problems when it comes to a breeding programme. They are, however, hardy and particularly vigorous, as polyploid plants often are.

As to these diploid seedlings, I have no idea as to whether their northerly origins will equip them any better for the rigours of our climate, but it might just make breeding better varieties a possibility. There's only one way to find out - so come on now hopniss and let the bon temps rouler.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Mauka: The Next Generation

Here's a quick update on the mauka seedlings which hatched just over a month ago. Their growth has been rapid to say the least and they are in need of hardening off and planting out.

You may not be able to see it, but the 'Roja' seedlings are developing red stems, whereas the 'Blanca' ones are green - they apparently cleave unto themselves as regards stem colour, although I've no idea about any other, more subtle characteristics. What I do know for sure is this: simple daylength manipulation is enough to get the plants to flower and set seed. The fact that the seeds show excellent viability and produce vigorous seedlings leads me to stick my neck out and say that breeding mauka is going to be one of the easier gigs for Radix.

Given mauka's ability to thrive in windy, dry areas, this is probably a good thing - we've had virtually no rain for months and a strong, cold wind has been an almost constant irritation. I could moan, but what's the point? Taking my lead from luminaries such as Sigmund Freud, Billy Connolly and Alfred Wainwright, I lay out my philosophy thus: there's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate root crops.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Don't Tamper With My Yampah

I mean that most sincerely, folks, I really do. So, what gives - why the earnest plea?  Well, this is the first time I've ever managed to get yampah seeds to germinate, despite several attempts over the years; they're precious and I want them to stay alive. You may already know that yampah (Perideridia gairdneri)  is a North American umbellifer. It was very highly regarded as a food in the Pacific North West region by native peoples where it, or closely allied species, occur. It was also traded over a wide area.

Image courtesy of Russel Barsh, Kwiaht
The best bit of the yampah plant is its swollen root, a bit like a mini carrot, which is edible both raw and cooked; not only is it edible - it's sweet and  tasty and is reckoned by some to be the nicest wild root in the region, lacking the bitter, off flavours sometimes found in other plants.   The seeds are edible too and have an aromatic flavour that has been likened to caraway.  Remembering the tale of the goose that laid the golden egg, I decided not to test this, reckoning I'd have my work cut out getting any to germinate at all. One intriguing feature is that the roots are multistelic, that is they produce both a main storage root (the carroty bit) and also lateral storage roots arising from it, an unusual feature for an umbellifer. You can see that in this picture, which is not, I hasten to add, one of my own yampah roots.  

My seeds come from Lopez Island off the coast of Washington State, which might just be the closest thing to the Cornish climate that I'm likely to find in the USA.   They were generously harvested by Madrona Murphy, a botanist who works for an excellent organisation called Kwiaht  which is studying the ecology of the Salish Sea. Aside from  persuading her to collect seeds for me, we have had fascinating discussions about the remarkably sophisticated agricultural practices of the First Nations of this area, involving camas meadows (of course), silverweed (natch) and surprisingly, woolly dogs bred for their fleeces in the days before European settlement. Who knew? Not me.

Another surprise - the Lopez Island yampah seeds germinated vigorously after a few months in the fridge. I've potted them up, passed a few on to various people and now I'm waiting.  I have to say, that after their promising start, the seedlings don't exactly exude brassy confidence at the moment. They  have very thin, almost grassy cotyledons and sparse foliage. Wild plants usually occur in grassland, so  this mimicry may offer them a bit of camouflage from grazing animals. My plants, by contrast, look naked and unprotected. They seem to be sitting and marking time, which is why I'm eager that they be protected from the attacks of  slugs, birds, voles and any other as-yet unidentified threats to their continued existence. Tampering by that crowd will not be tolerated.

I'm getting a little bit suspicious that I may be the author of their stasis: it's possible that their restricted root run in the modules has prevented the development of their tap roots. Could it be that I've inadvertently tampered with my own yampah and created the world's first Perideridia gairdneri bonsai?  Better pot them on in that case.

One of the problems I can forsee with yampah is common to other relatively slow growing, single harvest root crops: the time and effort spent in growing these things is just not comensurate with the pay back in terms of delicious food. The descriptions I have read do not suggest that yampah roots are large - about the size of an unshelled peanut is one estimate. I'm not sure that I'm patient enough to wait several years before sampling them.

But that's for wild plants; in cultivation it may be possible to boost yields considerably. Steve Dupey, a tireless and meticulous explorer of plant potential, tells me that providing the plants with decent soil can greatly improve their productivity and treble their size.  He also believes that maturity, which usually takes several years, can be speeded up by growing the plants in a greenhouse for a while. Finally, he suggests slicing off the top of the mature root and replanting it, while diverting the rest to the nearest saucepan. With their multistelic proclivities, the tops regrow and you have yourself a yearly harvest of yampah. That's the theory. My seedlings look like they've got a way to go before that could be accomplished without handlens, forceps and scalpel, but I'm happy to eat my words (and the yampah roots) if they put on a sudden spurt of growth in the next few months. Or years.

Monday, 9 May 2011

I Spy With My Little Eye

Something beginning with O.

Yes, the first oca seedling of 2011 has appeared, not entirely unexpectedly, in last year's oca bed. No squirreling away of seeds in little envelopes, no meticulous bagging of developing pods, just a healthy little plant reporting for duty. Makes me wonder whether I should just let the little darlings get on with it, which is probably the method adopted by the Andean farmers who have developed this crop over several thousand years.

Call me pretentious, but I've decided to name it Prima, the first oca of the 2011 season.

Prima's germination and growth may have been accelerated by the unusually warm April we've just experienced.  Looking back at last year's spontaneous oca eruption, I notice that it began somewhat later, in June.

It's fairly easy to distinguish Prima from last year's tubers which are also emerging all over the place: it has a lovely pair of cotyledons - small, but perfectly formed. Just like Adam and Eve's lack of navels, no shoot from a tuber produces these tell-tale appendages. And when I say small, I do mean small - take a look at the adjacent dandelion pappus for an idea of scale. Diminutive stature notwithstanding, I am quietly confident that Prima will be joined by several siblings before the month is out.

Much more obvious than any oca seedlings and frankly, rather disturbing, are the hordes of talet volunteers springing up like leguminous bindweed.  The pencil at the bottom of the picture gives some idea of their size. Will no one rid me of these turbulent talets? I'm going to have to evict them; unless someone wants to intercede on their behalf, I'll simply have to hoe them off. A shame, but it does demonstrate that this plant is a survivor and a tasty one at that.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

How Now, Kaukau?

Kaukau, in case you didn't know, is the Tok Pisin word for sweetpotato, pronounced "Cow Cow". Yes, please give a warm welcome to my my first Papua New Guinea kaukau seedlings.

Not being a kaukau expert, I'm not really qualified to say how well they're doing, nor whether they'll prove any more successful than any other sweetpotatoes in our climate.  What I do know is that they germinated easily and look vigorous. The seeds came from fairly high altitudes in the Finisterre Range in Raikos, Madang Province. The weather there is, apparently,  hot during the day, but cool to cold at night and often misty. Teptep and Gwarawon are two of the possible locations from which they were collected, but I don't actually know for sure.

New Guinea is a fascinating place, with a wide range of climates, from tropical to alpine.  The sweet potato is not a native there, but was introduced, rumour has it, about 300 years ago and is now the predominant staple food for millions of people.  Estimates of the number of varieties run into the thousands, with wide differences in flesh and skin colour.  With that amount of biodiversity knocking around, it's quite possible that varieties with superior cold tolerance may have popped up as well.

I don't have the time or space for this at the moment, but I really think the traditional  mound method of growing kauakau might catch on. It's quite similar to the "hugelkultur" type beds currently being promoted by Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer and permaculturist.  Perhaps by aligning the mound's slope correctly, a hot sun trap could be created for the sweetpotatoes, allowing me to extend its cultivation into the bleak and inhospitable foothills of Bodmin Moor. Other geographically challenged people could do likewise.  But for now, I'll just limit myself to savouring these fruits of Papua New Guinea's agrobiodiversity first hand:  kaukau, gutpela long bungim yu!
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