Thursday, 23 June 2011

Oca: Solace at the Solstice

Flaming June? No, not exactly - more dripping, when it isn't blowing a gale, that is.  We prayed for rain for two long months and now we've got it; my mother was always telling me to be careful what I wished for.  While the stunted vegetables that gasped in the dry spell are now mostly plump and perky, the slugs that feed on them are also looking pretty sleek.

Many of last year's oca seedlings were annihilated when the winter's early cold snap caught me out. The majority of my original varieties copped it as well - not good.  All is not lost, however: thanks to the generosity of Frank van Keirsbilck and Graham aka MyBigHair, I have managed to source most of the missing varieties as well as get some new ones which they raised themselves - I get by with a little help from my friends.

I've only been able to produce a paltry thirty oca seedlings myself this year; you could say I've been feeling a little underwhelmed by my success. But now the gentle rains of summer (huh) have caused an impressive flush of oca seedlings to appear - I've discovered around twenty popping up spontaneously in various beds.  This means I must now be close to having the 100+ varieties I had last year - a cause for minor celebration in the Radix household. We may have failed to see the sun setting on the longest day - the lowering black clouds saw to that - but things seem to be looking up.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Have Hopniss, Am Happy

Seeing as I am already in possession of several hopniss varieties, I ought to rephrase that: more hopniss makes me happier. I'm talking about the pleasure I'm experiencing from sowing the seeds of northern adapted plants and savouring the resultant increase in the genetic diversity of my hopniss collection.  Aside from anything else, it's always exciting when seemingly inanimate seeds burst into life. These diminutive seedlings seem to be vigorous and healthy. In fact, they're actually a little too vigorous and are now spiralling (always anti-clockwise) out of control.  Untangling this lot could prove an intellectual challenge and it ought to sharpen my hand-eye coordination as well.

It's not the first time I've grown hopniss from seeds.  Back in the early 1990s, I obtained a batch from Bill Blackmon at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.  They had themselves a serious breeding project, which was going great guns and was all set to catapult this plant into the mainstream when, horror of horrors, funding was withdrawn; Apios slithered back into the swamps of Louisiana and beneath the waters of oblivion.

To be honest, the Louisiana seedlings grew very poorly for me.  This is hardly surprising considering their provenance: more Clifton Chenier and crawdads than clotted cream and pasties. But the lure of a nitrogen fixing root crop proved too much and well, here I am again, sowing hopniss seeds and hoping for a different outcome. Madness - perhaps, but fun - certainly.

Unlike the LSU seeds, these are from plants in various parts of New England and therefore might be more suited to our climate. In fact, the "Deerfield River" accession was collected at what is currently the world's most northerly known location of wild diploid plants; this is a clean fifty miles further north of any other sites, near Charlemont MA and not far from the Vermont border. Thanks are due, once again, to Bryan Connolly, who very generously keeps me supplied with seeds and site information.   Triploid plants occur right up into Canada, but these are sterile, so present Radix with some problems when it comes to a breeding programme. They are, however, hardy and particularly vigorous, as polyploid plants often are.

As to these diploid seedlings, I have no idea as to whether their northerly origins will equip them any better for the rigours of our climate, but it might just make breeding better varieties a possibility. There's only one way to find out - so come on now hopniss and let the bon temps rouler.
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