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.
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 September. As 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|
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.
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.