Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mauka: Unto Us A Child Is Born

Last year I managed to hoodwink my mauka plants into flowering. Those flowers produced a seed crop, albeit small, from two mauka varieties, Blanca and Roja.  I sowed the seeds about a week or so ago - cue some stirring music from Capellmeister Handel - and here's the result:


Not so much child, singular, as children, plural. Yes, this is a miraculous multiple birth at a much more sensible time of year than December - for plants anyway. They may look like small, undistinguished, generic seedlings to you, but to me they're altogether more wondrous. Hallelujah!



This is, I suppose, the culmination of about twenty years' acquaintance with an intriguing plant. I first became aware of mauka's existence when I got my grubby mitts on a copy of  Lost Crops of The Incas in about 1990. I still remember how I stayed up all night to read it. A root crop in the same family as Bougainvillea was a new one on me at that time and the fact that mauka was unknown to science prior to 1965 just added to its mystique. Thus began my protracted efforts to obtain a plant.

Eventually, more than fifteen years later, I realised that ambition. And now I've finally grown my own plants from my own seed: good things come to those who wait.

Monday, 18 April 2011

They Rose From the Dead

Easter is supposed to be about suffering and death, followed by resurrection and redemption. I try to remember that every time I tuck into an Easter egg.  But it's surely no coincidence that Jesus chose a garden in which to reappear after the crucifixion. Gardeners are well placed to experience the cycle of death and life on a regular basis.

Well, I'm glad to report that the losses and sorrows of last winter have been followed by an unexpected rebirth at Oca Acres.

I'm talking about the yacons, or rather the hybrid brood produced when a bed-hopping bit of rough from Costa Rica (Smallanthus riparius?) got together with true yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) in Frank van Keirsbilck's garden.  I sowed the seeds of this union and some impressively vigorous plants resulted.

A few days ago, I was staring at the bleached and lifeless stumps of last summer's luxuriance and decided that it was time to clear the bed - out with the old and in with the new.  Grasping the remains of the nearest plant, I levered the holy relic from the ground, ready to consign it to a nearby pile of combustible material. Blow me if it wasn't sprouting. Several of the other inauspiciously splintered twigs showed similar signs of life.

The storage roots, although very small, do show a little bit of thickening and the new shoots are issuing from something that looks quite similar to your typical yacon propagule. So maybe I've been granted another chance at backcrossing them with some of the true yacon varieties.  One thing is sure: they're considerably hardier than my true yacons - all of which were killed in situ by the particularly penetrating frosts of last December.  That extra bit of vigour and cold tolerance would be well worth transferring into the yacon genome. So when the flowers appear in the late summer, I'll be there, paintbrush in hand, ready to assist in the process.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

From Tiny Talets Towering Titans Grow

The two new varieties of talet (Amphicarpaea bracteata) are progressing well. I scarified and sowed the aerial seeds a few short weeks ago and now they're up and ready to give life their best shot. I'd better not let them down. I'd better pot them on promptly and make sure that their watering needs are met.  You'll notice that the first pair of leaves have a simple, rounded shape, unlike the more characteristic trifoliate leaves which are just starting to appear. These aren't the cotyledons, though, because germination in talet is hypogeal: the cotyledons stay underground, like runner beans.

As for towering titans, I have to admit that I'm not as interested in their final height so much as the date at which they begin flowering and the yield of those delicious subterranean beans. Never a hostage to delayed gratification, I want them big and I want them now.

Monday, 4 April 2011

A Lucky Legacy

Last year I brought you the tale of Lucky, my very first self-sown oca seedling, which (I almost said who) survived deradication at my hands during a moment's lapse in concentration with a sharp bladed implement. I managed to persuade the top to develop a new root system and I potted up the small plant as it developed slowly over the summer. Lucky lived on until the winter when both of us were caught out by the cold snap. Lucky's pot did what any pot would do under the circumstances: it froze solid. It seemed like Lucky's luck had finally run out.

Lucky's demise reminded me of The Rare Breed, a film about a Hereford bull, Vindicator, who (I almost said which) is transported to Texas to improve the local longhorn cattle. Vindicator perishes in the harsh winter and there are tears all round when his frozen body is discovered.  Then when the snows melt, some Hereford cross calves appear and it all ends happily ever after.

I wasn't quite so sure that tears of joy would balance those of grief in Lucky's case, but when I tipped out the empty pot the other day, I was mightily surprised to discover some tiny tubers where Lucky had once been. Even more surprisingly, they were apparently alive.  I'm therefore fairly confident that Lucky will get another chance on the roulette wheel of life. I've potted up the tubers and this time I'm making sure I keep sharp hoes well away.

I've also managed to unearth some deep-seated survivors from last year's seedlings, which is heartening. There are at least three varieties here, all born and bred at Oca Acres.  The conclusion is ineluctable: the oca planting season is now most definitely upon me and I must marshall my raggle-taggle army of survivors as they wake from their slumber.  Once more into the trench dear friends.
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