Sunday, 30 December 2012

Mauka, I salute You

During a brief let-up in the endless deluge that has been December, I took stock of some of the plants in the back yard today. My attention was drawn to the maukas, sheltering in reserve, lest their brethren in the ground succumb to any or all of the following down at Oca Acres: rodents, rot, frost, flood.  

The leaves have survived some mild frosts here, along with hail, howling wind and lashing rain. A hard freeze will certainly see them off, but the foliage does seem to be remarkably tough. For aficionados of botanical nomenclature, they are described as coriaceous - leathery - a few seasons out in the wind, rain and sun here did the same to my previously flawless complexion.  Unlike my face, I notice that the plants are even showing signs of tender new growth. It's quite mild at the moment, but I'm impressed with their regenerative inclinations, given that days are short and light levels pitiful.

Mauka seems to hold plenty of potential as far as I'm concerned and I'm glad that my patented seed production system has allowed me to send viable seeds to far flung parts of the globe, where others are now experiencing the wauka factor.  I hope that 2013 will see the March of the Maukas continuing apace.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Whoopee for Wapato!

With the amount of rain we've been having lately, the soil here can truly be described as saturated. Not all root crops enjoy these conditions - most don't; over the years I've lost oca, mashua and ulluco plants to soggy soil and rain rot.

Soil at Oca Acres tends to be on the heavy side anyway and so rather than bemoan this misfortune, perhaps it's time to embrace its wet and watery tendencies and grow plants that actually enjoy these conditions. Or maybe that's the best way to ensure we have a drought next year.

In fact, the aquatic environment provides a number of useful foods of a rooty persuasion. I may post about some others in the future, but for now I'll concentrate on one of my favourites: the wapato (Sagittaria latifolia). Wapato is the Chinook Jargon term for this North American arrowhead species, which can be distinguished from our native plant (S. sagittifolia) by the golden bosses in the centres of its white three-petalled flowers; S. sagittifolia has a dark eye. Both species have characteristically  arrowhead-shaped leaves. Wapato is now quite widely available as an ornamental from aquatic nurseries in the UK and I have seen it naturalised on several occasions. Bear this in mind when you grow your own plants and don't allow it to escape.  Nutrient rich, slow moving water is what it likes and where conditions are suitable, large colonies form. You have been warned.

The plants overwinter as small tubers, technically referred to as turions. These have the obliging characteristic of floating to the surface when severed from their runners. First Nations women used to collect them in the autumn by wading chest-deep into lakes with a canoe by their side. They would loosen them from the mud with their toes and scoop the bobbing harvest into the canoe. Some people get all the fun jobs.  

Cruising up Highway 101 from San Diego to Olympia WA sounds like the storyline from  pretty good road movie. It was certainly picturesque as the cliffs, dunes and tall trees rolled by.  The main problem was the necessity I felt to pull over at every likely looking body of water to hunt for wapato - it was hard to get up the proper momentum for such a long haul and my travelling companion became a little tired of my antics. Worst of all, I am ashamed to say that over a stretch of more than one thousand miles, I failed to locate a single wapato plant. Still, those redwoods weren't bad.....

Back in the days when I was a bona fide seed merchant, I imported some wapato tubers from Wisconsin, where they are sold as game food for waterfowl: duck potato is yet another of their names. I'm still unsure what the UK plant health authorities thought about a bag of muddy arrowhead roots with organism-filled ooze entering the UK, but I received their official blessing nonetheless.

So what are they like as a food? Surprisingly good, which explains why they were widely traded over a large area by native peoples. They are usually peeled and cooked before eating and prepared in this way have a slightly mealy, granular quality that soaks up the flavours of whatever sauce they're sitting in. And various forms of S. sagittifolia and S. trifolia have a long history of cultivation in China and other East Asian countries. In the beatnik-botanical peregrination described above, we stopped off in Chinatown, San Francisco for oriental arrowhead tubers. Despite extensive searching in a number of shops and supermarkets, we drew a complete blank. Eating bucket-sized portions of Ben and Jerry's while strolling through Haight-Ashbury helped make this disappointment easier to bear.

As for dimensions, my wapato tubers have always been on the small size of useful, although I have had ones approaching the magnitude of a golf ball on occasions.  A good hot summer and plenty of nutrients will probably help to fill them out; the latter I can do something about, but the former is currently beyond my control.

So, armed with this knowledge and back story, this spring I decided to put an end to the duck potato deficit of the last decade and welcome wapato back onto our plot. I obtained three turions and planted them in a watertight container filled with some silty soil I had collected from a nearby stream.  I kept the container topped up and watched as the first thin leaves pushed through the mud, pierced the water's surface and unfurled their trademark leaves.

After a while I became slightly concerned that the leaves were more angustifolia than latifolia - narrow, not broadleaved, gracile rather than robust. This I took to be an indication of nutrient deficiency.  I rectified it by adding some liquid feed in a time-honoured manner, the details of which are available on application. The plants responded rapidly to my fertilisation activities and their leaves grew broader and more lustrous. As well they might: Sagittaria species have been used to purify eutrophicated water prior to its discharge into rivers and lakes.

The invigorated plants went on to throw up more leaves and shoots, although the slugs seemed to enjoy grazing off any leaves that they could reach.

 In late summer, the flowers appeared. Wapato reproductive biology seems a little complicated, with some plants being dioecious (male and female on separate individuals) and others monoecious (male and female plants on the same individual).  My plants proved to be dioecious, with both male and female plants present.  This is a good thing because it means that in future I'll be able to collect the seeds, select the progeny and produce a brand new improved wapato for our conditions. That's what I tell myself, when, like the wapato tubers, I'm feeling in a buoyant mood. It may even be true.

As the autumn progressed and turned into early winter, the plants decayed away to nothing.  I knew it was time to harvest. The water was freezing and the smell not pleasant. I was not keen, but it had to be done - I thrust my hands into the mud and loosened the tubers, which floated to the surface just like they were supposed to. After the harvest, as I waited for the feeling to return to my fingers, I counted my self lucky that it was my digits of my hands and not the phalanges of my feet I was using.

Although the tubers were fairly small, there were lots of them. Not a bad return on the three I had planted in the spring - enough to eat and plenty to plant. Welcome back, Wapato.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Anchote: Out of Africa

Africa, is, as we all know, humanity's original home. At least I hope we do. In my enthusiasm to explore the subterranean delights of the Americas, I've shamefully neglected those roots which our ancestors may have munched on before setting off for pastures new. A good breakfast of roasted roots is just what you need before instigating a campaign of world domination. That is certainly the opinion of Richard Wrangham, a primatologist who believes that the incorporation of cooked roots and tubers into the diet of proto-humans reduced the time and effort spent on digestion and provided them with the energy boost necessary to foster brain development. The rest is, as they say, history.

And Africa has plenty of suitable candidates to choose from, with yams (Dioscorea), the marama bean (Tylosema esculentum) and the so-called African potatoes in the genus Plectranthus chief among the underground plant foods available to hungry hominids. I'm happy to try any or all of the above should African readers of this blog care to get in touch with me.

One of the more intriguing root crops of African origin, is anchote (Coccinia abyssinica).  It's grown at altitudes of around 2000 - 2500 metres in - you've guessed it - Ethiopia, not a million miles from the cradle of human evolution. It's a cucurbit, with the family's trademark trailing stems and tendrils.

I was discussing the relative paucity of edible roots in the family Cucurbitaceae with Emma Cooper, gardening writer, blogger and eminent podcaster, last year. She expressed surprise that any existed. I assured her that they did and being keen not to concede the argument, I decided to see whether I could finally locate and grow anchote.

To be fair, she had a point: one of the Cucurbitaceae's less appealing traits is that its members are often laced with cucurbitacins - nasty, bitter compounds which act as antifeedants. They really work.  I have vivid recollections of tasting the root of buffalo gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima. I gingerly applied the cut surface of a root against my tongue; immediately my mouth was filled with the most retchworthy bitterness. Try as I might, I could not get rid of the taste. It was, I can say with complete authority, a once in a lifetime experience.  This undesirable characteristic has been bred out of the cucumber and squash varieties we know and love, although the occasional bitter-flavoured throwback appears, to the consternation of the eater. Previous research indicated to me that anchote is consumed without laborious processing - a good thing as I didn't want to have to go to the trouble of hosing my mouth out after every morsel.

So when I managed to obtain some seeds of Coccinia abyssinica in the spring, I knew I had to try them.  Perhaps the best known plant in the genus Coccinia is C. grandis, the ivy gourd, which is cultivated for its fruits; these are eaten cooked when immature; fully ripe ones go an attractive bright scarlet and are eaten raw. It also has a bit of a reputation as an invasive weed in the tropics. As I find getting alternative root crops to grow can sometimes be a bit tricky, I was hoping that anchote might share the rambunctious attitude of its close cousin.

I planted the seeds indoors; they germinated quickly and proceeded to develop into rather attractive little plants with a distinctly cucurbitaceous appearance.

I planted them out in Kaukau Corner at the same time as the sweetpotatoes - late. Planting any earlier would have been pointless due to the exceptionally cold, wet and cheerless weather that had set in during April and mocked us throughout
spring and into the summer.

As a result, I was forced to pot them on at home and didn't manage to get them into the ground until July. The potted specimens had that slightly tired, yellowish, weather-beaten look by this stage - the equivalent of the muffled cries of protest that otherwise mute plants in my care tend to make when conditions are not to their liking. So when I finally wielded my trowel and gave them their freedom, I was hardly surprised that they didn't grow away rapidly.

More surprising was the amount of tunnelling the local vole population chose to carry out around and below them. On several occasions, I had to push the plants back into the ground after the voles left them high and dry on spoil heaps. I feared for their survival, I really did, but maybe the abundant rainfall and low temperatures kept them hydrated long enough for the roots to regrow. Good news, bad news, who can tell? To the right you can see them in their "prime". At least they eventually greened up a bit.  

On a thoroughly filthy day in late November, I decided to lift the plants and see whether Cornwall 2012 had trounced the anchote like it had the sweetpotatoes. As I squelched in the hog wallow where the bed used to be, I reflected on the fact that some of the foliage was still alive, months after the sweetpotato leaves had succumbed. This I took to be a good omen in terms of cold tolerance. The stems were, however,  pitifully short - not three metres as seemed to be quite common in descriptions of the crop in Ethiopia. No - more like 30 cm, at best.

I decided I'd better eliminate rambunctiousness from my lexicon, at least in association with anchote. And in that spirit, I stuck the fork into the soil and prepared myself to be utterly underwhelmed.

More than once in my root growing career, I've had to revise my expectations downwards; rarely do I revise expectations upwards. But this was one of those occasions. Admittedly, the anchotes were far from large and impressive, but in terms of root to shoot ratio, they were up there with the best. Unlike the ocas and their habit of flaunting their lush tops while the tubers have yet to develop, the anchotes seemed to have adopted the opposite tactic. I think I can live with that as a lifestyle choice. I would have preferred the smooth skinned, conical roots which are apparently the usual shape, but in the Realm of Radix, it pays not to be too picky - a yield of sorts was obtained.

Remaining cautious, I carried out the buffalo gourd test, but no, my mouth did not pucker and neither did my gorge rise. Raw anchote tastes similar to a raw potato, with perhaps a hint of turnip. Unremarkable, but not unpleasant and in any case, anchote is eaten cooked, not raw.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Knowing nothing about anchote preparation, I boiled the root for about twenty minutes and then rubbed off the skin, which came away fairly easily.

We shared a root. It wasn't bitter. The faintly turnipy flavour had persisted, but now with something slightly sweeter and vaguely reminiscent of chestnut. It was  palatable, pleasant even. In the world of wacky root crops and unverifiable ethnobotanical accounts, I consider that to be an unqualified success. Are you satisfied now, Emma?

So, I'm a happy hominid and glad that I managed to track down one of the world's more obscure root crops; it's particularly gratifying to extend the grasp of Radix into the highlands of Africa for the first time. I'll certainly grow anchote again and maybe the weather will be kinder and the voles less abundant when I make my next attempt. I wouldn't mind the roots being several times larger, either.

It turns out that Cornwall is not the only place outside Ethiopia where anchote cultivation is being attempted. I recently discovered that there's a grower in Wisconsin (and why not?) who is far more experienced than I am and he tells me that he gets his seeds from southern California; just like Homo sapiens, it seems that Coccinia abyssinica is ready and able to move beyond its ancestral home in Africa.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Crop from Kaukau Corner?

The summer of 2012 seems set to enter the annals of infamy on account of the low temperatures, low sunshine levels and abundance of rain - it's been the wettest one for 100 years. As might be expected under these circumstances, the slug population has proliferated to a degree that even seasoned hands like me find hard to believe. Blight has thrived too - leaving a trail of devastation in the potato patch. As for outdoor tomatoes - don't ask. The warming Atlantic and an errant Jet Stream are apparently responsible for our woes. There are even dark murmurings that we may be in for a run of such summers, perhaps for years to come.

These are not the weather conditions generally conducive to sweetpotato production, but, fool that I am, I decided to plant my kaukau slips anyway. Kaukau is the Tok Pisin name for sweetpotato and my plants were raised from seeds from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the weather tends to be cool and misty for at least part of the day. My reasoning was that this might increase the likelihood of a finding a seedling with superior cold tolerance and an ability to tolerate our otherwise unsuitable climate. They say you should be careful what you wish for, but this summer provided an ideal opportunity to test the validity of my hypothesis.

The plants themselves grew quite well after a very slow start and as last year, were noticeably different from one another, varying in leaf colour and the bushiness or vininess of their habit.  Surprisingly, perhaps, slug damage was not too severe. I took these pictures back when exposed toes were not likely to cause  frostbite and the sun shone occasionally.

When the first frost blackened the tops recently, I knew the time for harvest was nigh; the other day, with a degree of eternally springing hope, I lifted the plants. Nothing. Not a single thickened root was to be seen. I almost cried. As is usual in these cases of heightened emotion, I sought desperately to apportion blame. The vole activity this season has been nothing short of incredible, with virtually every bed undermined by their tunneling. But they usually leave a trail of destruction and there was no sign of any root fragments or droppings near the kaukau plants; a more likely explanation is that the weather was just too cool, wet and cloudy and no storage roots had formed. After several thousand years of adaptation to northern European conditions, some of us still struggle with conditions here and dream of our ancestral homeland in sunnier climes. There's no reason to suppose that the sweetpotatoes wouldn't be feeling anything other than utterly bereft and homesick.

So the simple answer is no, a crop was not had from Kaukau Corner this year. It may be a case of back to the drawing board: there are many other edible ipomoeas worth investigating. I'm still keen to obtain seeds of culina (Ipomoea minuta) a high altitude wild relative of sweetpotato which apparently tastes good. If some of its hardiness could be transferred into sweetpotato, all these years of heartache and false dawns on the road to sweetpotato acclimatisation could well be over. Looking out at a lowering, leaden sky, with rain imminent, this is the unreasonable hope that keeps me going.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Host of Golden Oca Flowers

The cool, wet and windy weather we've been having lately doesn't seem to have deterred the ocas from flowering. If anything, their flower power seems to have intensified.  For some reason, I thought of Wordsworth's daffodils as I surveyed the host of golden oca flowers. My clouds, unlike his, weren't lonely though and it pelted down soon afterwards.

I expect the current crop of flowers will cope with a bit of rain, although the clear and present danger of frost makes me fear for their safety. If weather permits, I shall await their maturity and glean the ripening pods when the opportunity presents itself. My oca seed repository (an ice cream tub, empty) must contain several hundred seeds by now.

As is usual, the ocas seem to be managing quite well on their own: here's yet another volunteer seedling, flowering merrily, a short distance away from the main bed. As it was on its lonesome ownsome, I took the liberty of transferring some pollen from one of its neighbours; there were probably sufficient pollinators around for this to be another case of unnecessary interference on my part, but it helps give me the illusion of indispensability.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Yampah: My Cup Runneth Over

The yampahs reprieved from Death Row haven't taken much notice of the clement intercession I made on their behalf - their development continues at a glacial pace. Unlike an iceberg, however, 7/8ths of their volume does not appear to be located below the surface.  If anything, the shoots and leaves outweigh the roots by a wide margin.  If this suggests lush leafiness, forgive me; the majority of the plants produced just three or four delicate leaves in the spring and then grew no more.  A few individuals looked marginally more vigorous and then blew all that stored rooty goodness by going on to develop flowering shoots.  Only one amongst them somehow survived the rasping radulas of the slugs and is now bedecked with small, frothy parasols, with a faintly parsley-like aroma - not unpleasant. This development has coincided with yet another period of very heavy rain. Under these conditions, a parapluie is much more useful than a sun shade, so I have brought the survivor indoors and am attempting to hand pollinate the flowers using a small paintbrush. If I can't feast on the roots, I might at least get to try the seeds.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Ocaupy Everywhere

Here's something I wrote a while back and then failed to publish. Life got in the way, as life so often does. 

The Occupy Movement created a bit of a stir a few months ago, with mass protests and encampments.  Even Plymouth, our nearest city, had a tent hamlet for a while.

Although Radix is firmly apolitical, the ocas in my charge seem to be staging their own takeover.  I have well over 150  genetically distinct varieties now, the majority of which were raised from seed either by me or Frank van Keirsbilck.  Of this total there are  perhaps fifty seedlings sown this year and had circumstances been different, I might have managed to grow many more.

The first of these seedlings are now starting to flower, which will hopefully lead to another abundant seed crop.

A few seedlings have appeared spontaneously again this season and Carl Legge has several dozen, maybe fifty by all accounts, the progeny of a mixed bunch of tubers I supplied to him in 2011.

The relative ease by which this total has been achieved seems to bode well for the future of oca breeding. The next step is to crank up production by an order of magnitude or two and apply a more systematic approach to the selection of better-yielding varieties. Our best hope of discovering a day-neutral plant is by letting this riotous assembly cross with promiscuous abandon; the breeder's job is then to eyeball the progeny and pick out those whose ample charms mean they stand out from the crowd. Think A Chorus Line for ocas and you won't go far wrong.

The more I ponder on all of this, the more this apparently harmless horticultural hobby seems to be expanding to fill all the available space and time. My available space and time, that is.   Maybe I should consider turning oca breeding into a mass movement and enlist help (yours?) to scale up operations.  Let's see whether we can get oca to occupy its rightful place in our gardens and on our tables. Can I rouse a rabble of gardeners to raise new roots?

I'm pleased to say that I am now harvesting seeds from my 2012 seedlings. The cycle continues.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

I Tampered with my Yampah

There's a lot of anxiety these days about the perils of nanotechnology. In the case of my yampah roots, I seem to have managed to reduce yields to a comparable scale - any smaller and they would be non-existent.  This may be great for those with very small appetites or trying out low carb diets; as far I'm concerned the calories in, calories out equation is way too far into the negative to be worth bothering with: I'm greedy and I'm lazy.  That said, there does seem to be a trend towards micro-greens and micro-herbs, so it could be that the world is now ready for yet another novel marketing trend: micro-roots.

I rather despaired of said yampah even surviving, so tiny were the food reserves the roots contained.  I kept them stored at room temperature in some vermiculite and gave them no further thought.  In the autumn, during a periodic clear out of plant-associated detritus, I rediscovered them, lodged beneath an item of furniture.  To my surprise, I could see that tiny buds had appeared at the top of the marginally less tiny roots.  Curiosity piqued, I checked for signs of further bud development over a period of several weeks.  There was no discernible change in size or shape of the buds in what seemed to be yet another false dawn on Planet Periderida.

I seriously debated whether I should chuck them unceremoniously into the compost bucket and forget all about this queen of prairie provender.

In the end, I bunged them in the fridge. Vernalise or die! I cried, as I consigned them to the chilly last chance saloon for an unspecified period.  

I'm not sure whether my imprecations or an extended sojourn at 4C shocked them into growth, but something did.  A few months later, a polite (but firm) request was made that I remove some unidentified festering objects from the bottom of the fridge; among them was the yampah time capsule.  I immediately noticed thin, spidery radial roots emerging from just below the now plump and swelling buds.  I potted them on with some alacrity and while not exactly romping away, they seem to be developing at a faster rate than they did last year.  I tampered with my yampah and some good came out of it - this must surely be classified as a success of sorts.

They have a feathery, graceful ephemerality about them which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in their productivity, but I'm prepared to give them a second go - I'm a lachrymose old softy when it comes down to it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Green Shoots of Recovery

This is an oft-used, or should I say over-used phrase, beloved by practitioners of that most dismal of sciences, economics.  I'm not actually referring to double dip recessions, stagflation or GDP in this instance. When I say green shoots and recovery, I mean just that. These are the newly emerging growths from one of the mauka plants I left unharvested last autumn. I could claim that this was a deliberate exploration of their ability to survive in situ, but that would be a deep tissue massaging of the facts worthy of any economist. No, I simply failed to harvest them when I had the opportunity and have been regretting it ever since.  Usually this kind of laxity ends in disaster - but not this time.  I have been scratching away at the stumps where their luxuriant growth used to be and it turns out that the cold snap we had in late winter hasn't killed them like I expected it to.  Or not all of them - the jury is still out on some of last year's seedlings, which turned this little patch of Cornwall into a secondary centre of mauka diversity of Vavilovian proportions. Maybe.  The plant shown above was looking more impressive the previous day.  The pigeons then saw fit to defoliate it, which rather reduced the dramatic effect I had been hoping for.

It's been a typically atypical spring, with unusually warm weather in March followed by unusually heavy April rains and a particularly chilly May, with a frost just last week.  Now the weather has suddenly turned hot.  Whether this is all part of the instability some claim will be the precursor to serious climate change or just another one of those periodic perturbations in the Jet Stream's trajectory, I'm not sure.  It doesn't make gardening any easier though.

Plants that can put up with this sort of thing are however, very welcome, which is one of the reasons why I am exploring the untapped potential in these root crops.

Unlike the ocas, which proved to be a real hit with the resident vole population last year, the maukas seem to have resisted rodent attack. There are clear signs of their bolt holes  emerging from the centres of the plants, but I see no evidence of gnawing.  Mauka is known to contain ribosome inactivating proteins which  have both anti-feedant and pathogen suppressing properties. Perhaps the voles recognised this and eschewed rather than chewed for a change.  Frank van Keirsbilck tells me that he lost some of his plants to rodents this winter, so this hypothesis is, at best, open to further testing.

I also failed to lift my yacons when I should have done and have been fearing the worst ever since.  I now see some new growth appearing at the base of a couple of the varieties, so it may be that, for once, I've been spared the consequences of my inactions.  Just like those as-yet unharvested yacon tubers, life is sweet sometimes.

Somewhat greener than the mauka shoots, this is one of last year's self-sown oca seedlings which escaped the voles and is poking its head up defiantly.

And this is, of course, a taleteer coming up in the potato bed.  Bean there, done that.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Anredera: It's Binahong Time

Binahong, just in case you didn't know, is a South American climber, Anredera cordifolia, usually known in English as the Madeira vine.  In fact, it has been quite a long time since I grew a successful crop of it.  Bad luck, bad weather and bad health in various combinations have all conspired against the binahong harvest over the last few years.

Anredera cordifolia is a member of the Basellaceae, the same family as ulluco and bears a passing resemblance to some of the more viny types of that exasperatingly unproductive Andean tuber. It's even more closely related to Malabar spinach, Basella alba,  which is also known by the Indonesian name binahong. It seems like the two plants have become entwined in popular consciousness and the name is now applied to both species.

Twining and tangling is, in fact, binahong's main claim to fame, or should I say, infamy.  I mentioned previously the invasive potential of the Chinese yam in certain parts of the world.  Anredera cordifolia shares and in fact exceeds the yam's exuberance, spreading in a similar way by means of aerial tubercles; if conditions are right, ulluco's alter ego is exasperatingly overproductive.  The aerial tubers can form massive concretions which swing in the tree branches like wrecking balls - until the bough breaks and the baby falls, shattering and scattering its brittle pieces; these then go on to establish new plants.  In warm climates, it is  a very destructive invader, festooning and killing trees, reducing species diversity and making a thorough nuisance of itself.

And yet and yet... Like most things, Madeira vine isn't wholly bad.  Its leaves are edible raw or cooked, although a little mucilaginous.  It produces large quantities of tubers - at ground level - which are edible when cooked, with a mild taste, unlike the often earthy quality that assails the tastebuds of ulluco eaters. It differs from ulluco in another significant way: tubers seem to form very happily when days are long.  Even in our noticeably cool temperate climate, I have had surprising crops of what look a bit like miniature Jerusalem artichokes - knobbly ones -  all clustered together at the base of the plant.  The tubers share the sticky quality that yams have when they are broken or cut, with long strings of mucus hanging between the pieces.  I've heard of people eating them raw, but I'm not yet ready for the experience.  Baked, they are a lot less slimy and are perfectly acceptable, if unremarkable.

I should also mention that big plants produce creamy white flowers in long racemes, which are actually rather attractive and have a scent. In fact I saw a plant in the scented garden at Trelissick, Cornwall, still  flowering profusely in late November 2011, although, in true Madeira vine style, they were way up beyond the reach of my nose.  Others have described them as "almond-like" or "spicy".

So a hated and feared weed or a useful edible or ornamental plant - take your pick.

Before condemning the plant just yet, it's worth considering its virtues as a medicinal herb, under the guise of its alternative name of binahong: wound healing, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, cardiovascular tonic, liver cleanser, blood pressure regulator, anti bacterial - like the vines themselves, the list goes on and on.  According to this paper it's packed full of saponins, flavonoids, polyphenols and alkaloids - no wonder it's so hard to kill.

I'm more interested to know whether its snotty demanour may have some practical applications in the kitchen. There seems to be precious little information about binahong cookery, although my original source described it as being a legitimate food plant.  Might it be possible, for instance, to use it to bind ingredients together in lieu of wheat gluten? If I can keep my plant alive until next harvest, it should be fun to explore yet another facet of binahong's slippery character.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Radix at Three - a retrospective

Looking at the calendar, I realise that Radix: The Blog has been going for an astonishing three years.  For those of you who have slogged through my prose, I expect it feels longer.

Due to work commitments over the next few months, it will be hard for me to post as often as I'd like, so I'm taking this opportunity to look back (not necessarily in anger) at the highs and lows of root crop exploration. And eat that cupcake.


  • Producing some decent crops of oca seeds which I have been able to distribute to others.
  • Getting said seeds to germinate, grow and produce an interesting range of new oca varieties.  I'm still waiting for that elusive day neutral one, but it can only be a matter of time.....

  • Setting up the Radix Root Crops Facebook page - I've learnt a lot from this kindly bunch of alternative root crop obsessives.

  • Obtaining seeds from the most northerly growing diploid hopniss plants in the USA (read: the world) - which may or may not yield something better than the average hopniss; time will tell.

  • Growing sweetpotatoes from seeds produced in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.  OK, yields weren't great, but they grew.  


Losing virtually all my ocas - twice, thanks to illness and unusually cold weather. And my yacons and virtually any other frost tender roots.  Nearly dying myself didn't help much to improve my mood either.  Unlike George Michael, I wasn't required to give an emotionally charged statement to the thronging press as I left hospital.  I was quietly whisked back to Cornwall in a VW Polo.

The crushing disappointment of the underwhelming performance of yampah - previously considered contender for the carrot's crown. No longer.

Mashua - it grows well and yields abundantly here - I just can't overcome my aversion to the taste of it. Damn.

Ulluco - oh so pretty but - oh no - so temperamental.

So, I wonder what the next three years will bring?  One thing's for certain: the world of the unabashed rhizophile will continue to throw up challenges and delights, success and failure.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Cornwall's Tiny Little Oca Cook Off 2012

Belated Happy New Year.

Due to circumstances beyond my control (serious illness, cold snaps, congenital horticultural ineptitude), we haven't had the chance to eat very many ocas over the last few years.  It's clearly high time to right this appalling transgression of the natural order of things. Conservation through consumption - that's my motto.

So when I was feeling rather peckish the other day, my thoughts turned to the recently lifted oca crop; bake off programmes seem to fill the airwaves these days -  I thought I'd stage one of my own.  Reaching into my characteristically disorganised oca store, I grabbed the nearest and largest tubers available - the ones which the voles, mice, rats and other assorted rodents hadn't yet reduced to fragments. It turned out these were varieties I got from Frank van Keirsbilck over in Belgium, although some of them were raised from seed I sent him.

I gave them a quick wash and popped them into the oven.  Before that, I took these farewell pictures, which catch their comely proportions quite well.  I suspect that the long, mild autumn gave them plenty of time to bulk up.

Flesh colour varied according to variety, with the large one above being white, despite the colour of its skin; the pale yellow ones were yellow (d'oh) and  Frank's excellent variety 'Pink Dragon' (far right) also had yellow flesh, with dark red staining.

None of them were overpoweringly acidic as is sometimes the case with ocas - they all tasted very pleasant.  There were differences in texture, with the big stubby one having a slightly more floury texture than the others; the long pale ones were almost buttery in texture.  Others more competent than I are exploring the delights of oca cuisine - check out Carl's recipe for warm oca salad.

Although oca was introduced to Europe in the 19th century as a potential replacement for blight prone potatoes, I think it has its own distinctive taste and a bold, attention-grabbing appearance.  I reckon it makes very good eating and fits well into contemporary foodways here. If we can just knock a few months off the production cycle, we'll have ourselves an excellent new carbohydrate source and an eye-catching one at that.  The Radix quest for a day neutral oca continues; you can be part of it.
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