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.

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