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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