Monday, 28 March 2011

It's Not Too Late For Talet

Last winter was, as people in these parts never fail to mention, unusually cold. My talet seeds sat in small pots, exposed to the elements and were frozen solid for several weeks. I was a little concerned that this might have killed them, so I tipped out the various caches with some trepidation the other day.  But, no - they were unharmed and had, in fact, started to germinate. Respect.

If you're not familiar with this excellent plant, you can read all about it here.

Talet has the obliging ability to form the big succulent subterranean seeds that people (read me) like to eat, as well as small hard aerial seeds which are less immediately appealing if you value your teeth, although they're perfectly edible if properly cooked. Their enamel-shattering quality means that they can sit in the soil for years before germinating and this makes them a good life insurance policy for the plant if conditions get tough. They're also pretty handy for the gardener as I've found they'll store happily with minimal attention for years, perhaps decades.  You can see the difference in size between the two seed types. Same plant, two types of seeds: amphicarpy in action.

Unlike those big fat ones, the aerial seeds take a bit of persuading to germinate. You need to scarify them prior to sowing; I use a bit of sandpaper to scrape a tiny hole through the seed coat on the edge furthest away from the hilum, the plant equivalent of the navel, which is close to where the root and shoot emerge. That way the delicate bits are protected from my clumsy manipulations and once that hard shell is breached, they usually swell up and germinate fairly quickly.

I have a new variety of Amphicarpaea bracteata to try out this year.  Mark Robertson very kindly sent me seeds of a variety sold by Gardens North in Canada.  Sounds promising. I'm also going to see whether I can resurrect some I collected from New York State a few years ago.  This is what I shall henceforth be referring to as Amphicarpaea bracteata "Saratoga Battlefield", because I collected them at the site where the British under General Burgoyne were defeated by American forces during the War of Independence in 1777.  My American companions felt this was an opportunity for some gentle humour at my expense. I smiled and replied, without the slightest hint of irony in my voice, that the British, as the world's top nation at the time and bona fide bloated imperial power, had it coming. They seemed satisfied with that.   

If both these new varieties grow successfully, it will be interesting to compare them in terms of vigour, yield and flowering time.  The resultant plants will be smaller than those formed from the subterranean seeds, at least initially and will need a bit more cosseting in the first season to ensure that the underground crop matures successfully.  I'm happy to devote that bit of extra care to guarantee success.  In that case I better get on with it today, so I'm not too late starting the Radix Grand 2011 Talet Trial.  Fetch me my sandpaper. 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Mecha-meck: In Memoriam?

Last year, in a moment of rash enthusiasm, I sowed seeds of mecha-meck, (Ipomoea pandurata) a "hardy" sweetpotato relative, along with those of Ipomoea leptophylla, the manroot.  Mecha-meck  has a fairly wide distribution along the eastern side of the USA, where winters are usually far more severe than the ones we get here.  Manroot is found in the Great Plains region and the high deserts of  New Mexico and Colorado, where once again, the winters are much colder than we experience.

Last winter's cold snap has proved a challenge for plants which I would usually consider to be fairly hardy.  Mecha-meck has turned out to be a casualty too.

Somewhat cautiously, I tipped the mecha-meck roots out of their pots.  Several had disappeared altogether.  This is one of the disarticulated cadavers I discovered.
The root resembled sweetpotato in texture, with none of the appeal: the rank smell emanating from its decaying flesh dissuaded me from putting any in my mouth. Wimp.

I am now left with (perhaps) one survivor. I've potted it up and brought it indoors in the hope that it will live to see another summer.

The manroots (menroots?) to the left of the single mech-meck, have apparently fared much better, apart from the odd slug hole. This seems surprising considering their supposed predilection for desert habitats.  Not exactly man-sized, they are a bit puny.

All this goes to show that hardiness is a fluid concept and is dependent on more than simple thermometer readings.   I suspect that our combination of excess soil moisture, suddenly followed by sub-zero temperatures, simply confused the cellular processes which protect plant tissues from freezing.  None of which is much consolation when I think about it.

So whatever else it is, mecha-meck is not as hardy in our slushy, wet and occasionally cold winters as I had hoped. Manroot seems somewhat hardier.  As mecha-meck is an obligate outcrosser, the one remaining plant, if it survives, will flower its heart out and still remain barren.  Poor thing.  But maybe I can snatch some sort of victory from this defeat. It  turns out that I. leptophylla and I. pandurata are very closely related, so it might be possible to combine the best qualities (whatever they are) of both species by crossing them. Any seeds developing on the mecha-meck plant would be interspecies hybrids and that could lead somewhere interesting. Or not, of course.

The fact that the high altitude I. leptophylla has overwintered more successfully than mecha-meck suggests that I should continue the hunt for the seeds of Ipomoea minuta, which grows at even higher altitudes. Then there are also those New Guinea sweetpotato seeds, from the chilly highland region.  I really ought to try some of them too. Now where did I put them?
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