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).
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