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.

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