Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Cleaning Up My Act; Radix is Two Today

It is very uncharacteristic of me to restrain myself from opening my Christmas presents until this late in the year.  I've always considered delayed gratification to be one of the most overrated virtues and have acted accordingly.

So how I managed not to harvest my indoor ulluco plants until now is nothing short of remarkable.  I wish the same could be said of the yields I obtained.  Ulluco does seem to be infuriatingly fickle: it doesn't like to be too hot or too dry and slugs seem to enjoy it more than the average ex-pat Andean tuber crop. Then there's its steadfast refusal to form tubers at anything like a sensible time of year. That's why, in sheer desperation, I've taken to growing it on the windowsill in a cool room.  Hopeless - but oh, those tubers are so exquisite.

Another black mark against its name is its susceptibility to viruses. Virtually all the plants I've seen are loaded with viruses.  Which brings me on, rather neatly, to a post which I was intending to publish on ulluco last year, but didn't, for reasons that will become obvious:

Cleaning Up My Act

Not the brisk rub down with carbolic soap that some have suggested I need, but more of an attempt at a bit of in vitro cultivation of ulluco, that iconic Crap Crop of the Incas. The intention of the exercise is to see whether its crap cropping might be ameliorated a tad by eliminating all the nasty viruses that lurk inside both tubers and plants. I've enlisted the help of a friend employed at a local institute of learning - let's call him "M" for the purposes of this post. He's got the requisite technical skills and is keen to help. He's also pretty nifty at fixing gadgets, cars and assorted technical paraphernalia. Maybe "Q" would be a better name: my Aston Martin has never run so smoothly......

This is a virus laden leaf of Ulluco "Cusco Market", with blotches of some sort of mottle virus clearly illuminated by the light behind.

Like potatoes, this is no good at all for the plants and reduces their vigour. Weak plants give reduced yields; in the case of ulluco this frequently leaves you staring blankly at the empty soil in disbelief, like a horticultural Old Mother Hubbard. Viruses are the bane of tuber crops and should be driven from their hosts and put to the sword at every opportunity. Like now.

There's a well-established protocol for this in some Andean root and tuber crops, but firstly we opted for the squint and slice method, which involves the removal of the miniscule growing tip of the plant, known as the meristem. This is usually virus free, as the cells are dividing so rapidly that they outrun the viruses. If said meristem is placed in a sterile growing medium with the right levels of plant growth regulators and vitamins -bingo - you get a new virus-free plant. That's the theory anyway. At least we now have the plants growing under aseptic conditions - the Andes in aspic if you like.

Here are some ocas:

These are ullucos:

Viruses can be defeated in other ways, including the addition of antiviral compounds into the growing medium (which is usually agar based) or by subjecting the plants to higher than usual temperatures, which zaps the viruses, but leaves the plants themselves unharmed. Being of a cautious and sceptical demeanour, I decided that we should, in addition to meristem tip culture, attempt at least one of the other options to give those vile viruses a double whammy that would surely leave them homeless............ Communication ends here. 

In one of those charming little volte-faces, I lost all of the above plants when I opted for an impromptu stay in the local infirmary. At that precise moment (and not a million miles away) the incubator where the plants were stored chose to fail; the combination of several weeks darkness and low temperatures killed the whole lot. I almost cried when I finally managed to struggle in and survey the carnage.  

Tissue culture of plants is not that difficult to do (I managed it) and can be carried out quite successfully at home, using bleach, a pressure cooker and a few other bits of equipment. Sinner, lay down that Sabatier and pick up your scalpel.  So although this experiment ended in failure, I have at least shown that it can be done - should be done.

Oh, and by the way, today is Radix's second birthday. The "terrible twos" await.  No one ever said this was going to be easy.......

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


The cold snap has abated and 2011 is here. Time to see what effect some exceptionally cold weather has had on the poor old ocas, which I was unable to lift at an appropriate time.  I fear the worst.  Now it's time to see whether those fears have been realised.

I spent a pleasant few hours on my hands and knees at Oca Acres the other day, rescuing what remains of my oca crop. There's something truly life affirming about plunging one's hands into icy, wet soil. Maybe the pain it causes reminds me that I'm still alive and this isn't a nightmare, it's real.

Avid readers will know that I've been using open-ended pots plunged in the soil to enable me to pack more plants in while keeping their tubers conveniently separate.  I had reckoned without the ferocity of the frost, which seems to have penetrated all above ground soil or compost located in pots, with predictable results for any frost sensitive plant structures.

To compound my annoyance, those plants with nice, tightly clustered tubers around their stem base have taken the worst hit of all.  Let's just say that I'll be adjusting my growing methods in future.  I can see two options:

1) Harvest at a reasonable date before the onset of hard frosts, say the beginning of November.

2) Find another site where I can conduct trials on a more appropriate scale, without recourse to pots.

The third possibility, to disappear on the back of water buffalo and forgo any further contact with humanity (or alternative root crops), is currently in reserve if I mess up again.

Here are some of the tubers from seedlings raised in 2010. Many other quite promising looking ones have been reduced to mush, unfortunately.  I don't think any taste testing will be going on this year.

I rather like the shape and colour of these.
To the best of my knowledge, neither of its parents had this tuber colour, but the riotous pollination free-for-all back in the heady days of 2009 makes it impossible to be sure.

Due to differences in pot configuration, location and maybe some other unknown factors, all the tubers from my reference collection, along with the tubers from last year's seedlings have been frozen - they are all dead. This is kind of like last year, when a spell in intensive care prevented me acting opportunely to harvest the tubers, only worse; I pulled through that experience, as did most of my ocas, but this lot won't. When you see the words "crop failure" in a seed catalogue, this is what it means: wailing banshee growers condemned to wander in a twlight world, their spirits unable to rest.

Actually, I'm bloodied but unbowed.  I'm reminded of Galvarino, the 16th century Mapuche folk hero, from Chile.  Captured by the Spanish invaders, both his hands were chopped off and he was sent home to his compatriots as a warning. Undaunted, he returned to fight again, with two knives strapped to his wrists in place of his missing appendages.  The interwebs describe his attitude as "badass". Following his never-say-die example, I will rise again, a trowel in each hand and crack the small matter of locating a day neutral variety of Oxalis tuberosa. Up from the ashes grow the ocas of success.  Happy New Year.
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