Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Numb Fumbling 2: Sagittarias Rising

The weather has been slightly cooler of late, so what better time to plunge my hands into the icy cold, muddy waters of the Sagittaria buckets to examine the yields. This is considerably less pleasant and more painful than oca harvesting. Perhaps the only thing in its favour is the natural buoyancy of the Sagittaria tubers*, which once released, bob to the surface and can be scooped up; ocas tend to stay put and require sifting, no easy task in our sticky clay soil. I'll hold fire on that manicure until the harvest season is well and truly over.

This year I grew two varieties of arrowhead, S. latifolia, the wapato and chi gu 慈菇, a  Chinese arrowhead variously described as S. trifolia var. edulis or S. sagittifolia var. edulis - the taxonomy seems somewhat confused. In any case, the latter is a cultivated variety, which showed no signs of flowering, but was noticeably bigger in all its parts. It could be that it's a triploid, with an extra set of chromosomes; this might account for its larger size and apparent sterility. This is a not-uncommon occurrence in the world of root crops, being found in varieties of achira, hopniss and ulluco as well as some types of potato, to name but a few of my target species. The main advantage of this is that the plants wastes no time and effort on producing seeds and concentrates on vegetative reproduction; this is great if it leads to big fat tubers. The problem comes when conditions change and you want to breed varieties to meet the challenges of new pests and diseases, for example.

Other research suggests that the application of GA3, a plant growth regulator, will encourage flowering and seed set in some varieties of Chinese arrowhead. I can foresee some great fun crossing and selecting various arrowheads to create my very own locally adapted variety. All I need is time, space and an independent income. Or perhaps you'd like to take the project on?

I grew my plants in builder's buckets which are probably a little too small for a decent crop, but the chi gu tubers are noticeably bigger than the wapatos. To be fair, I didn't thin out the wapatos very much much this spring, so they were probably a little congested and starved of room; as the old refrain goes, next year is going to be different.

Here are the biggest of the chi gu:
Chinese arrowhead

And some wapatos for comparison:

Chi gu is a favourite New Year's food in China, often being served in the form of deep fried slices. Lovers of rude vegetables will be delighted to discover that the Chinese consider the tubers with attached sprouts to resemble a baby boy's genitals and this is apparently auspicious for family fecundity. I shall bear that thought in mind next time I'm harvesting them and accidentally knock off a large, firm shoot.

2013 may have been the unofficial (and unwelcome) year of the horsemeat scandal in the UK, but I notice that the Chinese Year of The Horse is galloping towards us at the end of January 2014. I'm thinking this might be a good time to explore culinary convergence of an "everything with chips" kind, using my wapatos and chi gus as a spudstitute. In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

*Rather than practice my usual boretanical pedantry, I have elected to use 'tuber' for what are, technically speaking, turions.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Numb Fumbling 1: A Tale of Two Talets

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is over. It is now chilly and the soil is saturated from weeks of rain. It's time once again to plunge my hands into the ground and see how the talets are faring. I find gloves to be an encumbrance when sifting through sticky soil or compost for seeds and small tubers; my hands at least must be naked when harvesting talets.

Amphicarpaea bracteata aerial chasmogamous flowers
For those unfamiliar with this plant, talet is Amphicarpaea bracteata, an excellent wild edible from North America. It's commonly known as hog peanut, but native people of my acquaintance tell me that they consider that particular name to be derogatory; it was an important food source for many tribes. For more information on this fascinating and delicious geocarpic legume, you could take a look at this. Talet means, perhaps somewhat prosaically, "ground bean" in Nahuatl, but you can't fault the impeccable logic employed in its naming.

As evidence of its wide adaptability, I cite its successful cultivation outdoors at 64°N in Norway by Stephen Barstow, the leading edimentalist. It even survived the winter there.

I've been collecting varieties for a few years now and have about half a dozen, including yabumame, the Asian cousin of talet, which looks very similar and is sometimes considered to be a variety of Amphicarpaea bracteata. I've yet to do any controlled assessments of their differing yields, though. Perhaps if I make a public declaration of my commitment to do so in 2014, then the support of well-wishers will strengthen my resolve and see me through the rocky patches. It works with marriage, doesn't it? As the voles have been dining like kings on the crop over the past few years, I decided to transfer my accessions to pots until our bright-eyed and tiny-tailed chums have declined or decamped. I'm glad I did, because not a single bean came up this year.

Amphicarpaea bracteata differing varietal senescence
My latest acquisition is a Canadian variety, originally offered by Gardens North an excellent company with an interesting range of North American natives. I got my seeds via Mark Robertson, a fellow amphicarpaphile who kindly passed them on while he was living in the USA. I'm glad he did, because they no longer offer them.

There seem to be marked differences in maturity between the varieties, with this photo from early October showing the fully senescent 'Gardens North' in all its shabby glory, while my original variety, provenance unknown, only hints at dying back. Early maturity ought to be a good thing in our climate, with its cool and unpredictable summer weather. 

Time to take the plunge. Compare and contrast, as they say.

Amphicarpaea bracteata yield variationsAfter a bit of fiddling, I came up with two harvests from the two varieties, with 'Gardens North' on the left, just above my authentically grubby thumbnail and the original variety to the right. It seems as though the original variety gave fewer, although larger beans, but I haven't actually compared their masses and fear I might be ejected from the kitchen if I attempt to use our domestic scales. One of the original variety's beans was exceptionally large, but on further investigation, it turned out to be a double yolker, something I've not encountered before.

Amphicarpaea bracteata double seeded subterrnanean pod
Amphicarpaea double yolker 
So that's two talets looked at. I think it might be a week or two until my fingers have regained full mobility and sensitivity and I'm ready to look at the others; typing this just after the event is proving challenging enough. Numb fumbling indeed. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Wapato: The Seedy Side of Sagittaria

I'm a bit of demon for sowing interesting things and then forgetting about them. This has advantages and disadvantages. Many of the plants that fascinate me have seeds with dormancy mechanisms; in the absence of information on unlocking these, it's easiest to just sow them and hope that the spinning tumbler of fluctuating ambient temperatures finally cracks the code and allows them to germinate.

The disadvantage is the large number of pots and seed trays knocking around, which sometimes generates some criticism from my nearest and dearest.  And if the labels and pots become separated, as has been known to happen, things can get a little baffling.

Back in the spring (I think) I sowed some wapato seeds which I  had gathered from my plants in 2012 (I think). This is a signal lesson in why appending the sowing date on the label is a worthwhile undertaking. The seed tray was placed in a shallow receptacle which was topped up with water, in an attempt to create the kind of conditions most likely to encourage wapato germination. The months rolled by and nothing happened. The heat wave in July kept me busy watering other pots and I abandoned the wapato in favour of more deserving cases. The compost became completely desiccated and I presumed the wapato seeds had perished.

Then came the rain - lots of it. One day, in between torrential showers, I was dutifully following my instructions to create order out of chaos in the back yard and rediscovered the wapato tray.

Wapato, Sagittaria latifolia
I picked off a few small bittercress plants and was all set to reassign the compost as soil conditioner, when I noticed some small seedlings in one corner of the tray. At  first I thought they were pink purslane (Montia sibirica) a pretty (and pretty invasive) introduced wildflower. This aggressive beauty self seeds with great enthusiasm in our garden and any unguarded pot is soon infected with the pink plague.

And yet there was something alismataceous in their cast that made me pause. Wapato, unlike pink purslane, is a monocot, so I checked the next batch of emerging seedlings; they were wholly lacking in the paired cotyledons you'd expect to see in dicots like Montia sibirica. The wapato germination code has been cracked, although I can't help feeling that it would have been better for them to have waited until next spring. And probably better for me, because they don't look as though they're ready to survive the rigours of winter without my intervention.

Just as I was about to post this, I noticed a comment on the Radix Root Crops page from Tycho Rosehip. It turns out he has managed to sow and grow wapato this year. I've got a feeling his plants are now bigger than mine and I may ask him to reveal his secrets. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Yabumame: Hot Stuff From Hokkaido

Yabumame (Amphicarpaea edgeworthii) is the Asian version of talet (Amphicarpaea bracteata), one of my favourite  underutilised legume crops, whose many virtues I've mentioned on several occasions previously. If you're looking for a cunning botanical strategist, which is also tasty to boot, look no further than Amphicarpaea.

Yabumame's status as a separate species seems to be under question and it appears that we should all be calling it Amphicarpaea bracteata subsp edgeworthii. It does look very similar to A. bracteata proper.

I've already grown yabumame, but that variety came from seeds I collected myself around Tsukuba, Japan. They did OK, but I couldn't help feeling that plants from further north would be more suitable. Luckily, Paolo Gaiardelli came to my rescue when he brought back seeds from Hokkaido and graciously passed some of them on to me.

As with hopniss, sourcing northern provenance seeds makes a lot of sense for those of us foolhardy enough to live at high latitudes. Plants are somewhat more likely to tolerate our temperature regime and get on with the business of flowering or tuberising during our long day summers. So runs the theory, anyway. Hokkaido summers are cooler than the rest of Japan and the winters are snowy and cold. Cooler is of course, a relative term, but as yabumame grows in woodland habitats in its native range and talet has done well here, it seemed safe to assume that it would also thrive.

Yabumame, Amphicarpaea edgeworthii
The glorious top growth of yabumame
I sowed some seeds in the spring; they germinated and grew, although not enthusiastically, it has to be said, with foliage and habit of growth more or less a dead ringer for talet. When the puny amount of top growth died back in August, with nary an aerial pod in sight, I was disappointed. Perhaps the growing medium lacked the necessary rhizobium, or they got too hot, cold, dry or wet at some stage and never recovered. I cursed my horticultural ineptitude yet again and resigned myself to sowing some of the remaining seeds next spring.

Subterranean yabumame seeds(Amphicarpea edgeworthiii)
Yabumame beans: small but full of eastern promise
Before recycling the compost, I tipped it out into my hand and was surprised to discover some rather small, but reassuringly plump, subterranean seeds. If a sickly slip of a plant can deliver the goods, imagine what a fine, strapping individual might have achieved. Assuming these seeds survive the winter, they should grow away well next spring. Underground seeds tend to give much bigger plants, with higher yields in my experience, so perhaps everything is unfolding as the universe intended.

Having spent several years amassing Amphicarpaea varieties, it must now be time to start doing some comparative trials, with a view to breeding a super talet. In my mind's eye I can see it now, with its neat, bushy habit and handfuls of tasty beans easily accessible just below the soil at the base of the plant. While I work towards this goal, I know that eating those which fail to make the grade will be no hardship: Amphicarpaea is one of the best wild foods out there.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Ocas Pop Up Apace

Oca seedling Oxalis tuberosa
Oca seedling June 2013
During the hot dry spell in July, I was concerned for the safety of the oca seedlings which had appeared, almost magically, earlier in the year as an intercrop amongst the beetroots.

Luckily, the beet leaves offered some shade to the tender seedlings and the majority have made steady growth. Those that found themselves exposed in the full glare of a surprisingly fierce summer sun, I protected with handfuls of grass; it seemed to do the trick.

Oca seedling Oxalis tuberosa
Oca seedling, August 2013
The intense sunshine has since been replaced by some equally intense rain and the vegetable beds are sprouting impressive numbers of weed seedlings. Not to be outdone, yet more oca seeds are germinating and with the warm temperatures and plentiful soil moisture, they're shooting away quite vigorously. Whether they will make sufficient growth to tuberise before the autumn is anyone's guess, but I'm giving them leave to remain just in case.

Now I'm alert to this new development, I've abandoned casual hoeing in favour of scrutinising the crevices and irregularities of the bed surface for yet more oca seedlings. It seems that those who seek will be rewarded - yesterday I spotted some tiny tell-tale cotyledons amongst the leeks. So if you happen to be passing Oca Acres and see me bottoms up like a dabbling duck, I'm merely doing what any other certifiable oca enthusiast in my position would.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Flemingia procumbens: Soh-phlang from far-flung Shillong

That's Shillong, capital of Meghalaya, a state in North Eastern India, nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas, in case you didn't know. Sometimes it's nice to escape the gravitational pull of the Andes as the one true source of unusual roots and tubers. In that contrarian spirit, meet soh-phlang, a bona-fide root crop which most people have never heard of.

Meghalaya is a fascinating state, with all sorts of interesting edibles, both wild and cultivated. Strangely, the area is mainly Christian, thanks to the efforts of Welsh missionaries who arrived in the mid 19th century. Meghalaya means, apparently,  "abode of clouds". I don't know whether it was the familiarity of the area's heavy rainfall that attracted the Welsh - Cherrapunji and nearby Mawsynram vie for the title of  wettest place on the planet; their annual rainfall totals of over 12 metres make Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales' wettest town, seem positively parched in comparison.

I first became aware of soh-phlang in my undergraduate days, when I was frequently to be found between the library shelves, reading copies of Economic Botany. I still reckon it was a better use of my time than lurking behind the bike sheds for a surreptitious cigarette or some other nefarious activity. I forget what I was supposed to have been studying at the time, but the memory of soh-phlang remained; in the decades that followed, I saw the odd tangential reference to its cultivation, both in its heartland  as well as other places - Vietnam springs to mind.  It's worth mentioning that most of the literature associated with this species uses its old name, Flemingia vestita. Those meddling botanists - they just can't leave well alone. 

Soh-phlang is a small trailing legume with crisp, white root tubers, which are usually eaten raw and have a nutty flavour. They're often dipped in a sesame paste before consumption and have a high protein and phosphorus content. Their skin, which is easily removed by hand, has a reputation as an anthelmintic; should you be troubled by flukes, just reach for the soh-phlang peel - it's all about the genistein, apparently.

Until fairly recently, soh-phlang was collected from the wild, but it has now become quite a popular crop and has been incorporated into the jhum shifting cultivation which is practised by the Khasi people who live in this area. It fixes large quantities of nitrogen courtesy of its root nodules and has extensive mycorrhizal associations; with these abilities, soh-phlang helps maintain soil fertility, as well as providing farmers with a valuable source of income.

There is precious little information on how soh-phlang is cultivated, although I seem to remember reading somewhere that small seed tubers are usually planted in the spring and yields of up to 3000 kg/hectare can be obtained. Maybe if the summery weather holds, I can try intercropping them with potatoes as is done in Meghalaya. Or, perhaps, better still, with oca. The plants themselves do seem a little like diminutive ocas, with neat trifoliate leaves.

The best illustration of soh-phlang available to mere mortals seems to be this one. It certainly gives a sense of the trailing stems which account for the specific epithet, procumbens. I'm indebted to Anne Patrie, an ethnobotanist who is conducting research in Meghalaya, for drawing my attention to it.

But that's the wild type F. procumbens; domesticated plants tend to be more bushy and upright, which is how mine appear.  Flowering usually occurs after the monsoon season, sometime in the autumn, which suggests that day length sensitivity could be an issue if seed production is required. I haven't yet seen any nodules on the roots, which might indicate that the correct rhizobia are missing. The plants aren't exactly romping away either, perhaps a further indication that the roots are lacking the right symbiont.

Whether soh-phlang will prove to be productive in our climate remains to be seen.  Although the weather is warm and humid at the moment, it has been downright cold for months and I haven't dared try my plants outside. I suspect that our usual frequent rainfall will suit it fine, but maybe average summer temperatures are too low. That's a pity, because I've been been doing some fusion food fantasising: I just can't erase the image of soh-phlang dipped in Cornish clotted cream from my mind.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Oca - The Plot Thickens

I spent this morning planting out oca varieties at a secret location in the Tamar Valley. Secret in the sense that I doubt I'll be able to find my way back there again without assistance. I'm not renowned for my infallible sense of direction and it gets worse when I'm driving. I was merely tailgating Dave, my guide and assistant for this escapade. Luckily he knew where he was going. I'm borrowing a plot on the field that Dave and fellow members of HaMAS (no, not that Hamas) use for their community supported agriculture project.

They're a motley bunch (the ocas I mean), mainly ones I've grown from seed, plus a few old favourites and others raised by Frank van Keisbilck and Debs & Carl Legge. I thought there were about 120 of them, but it turns out there were 133.  This probably makes this the most biodiverse patch of oca in the whole of the Tamar Valley. And there's still the small matter of a few more as-yet uncatalogued tubers sitting outside my back door - the fruits (or should I say roots?) of the volunteer seedlings of 2012. The grand total must therefore be approaching 150. This is far too few to really get oca breeding off to a flying start, even though I struggle (read: fail) to maintain them properly and keep accurate records. If some philanthropist with a horticultural bent would like to support my efforts, I'm open to offers; I would certainly be delighted to adopt a more systematic approach to record keeping and give oca breeding the attention it so richly deserves.

I'm intending to lift all the varieties together in the autumn, but earlier than usual, to see whether any of them show signs of precocious tuberisation. I keep saying I'll do this every year and then I don't manage it. I'm pretty sure I've come up with various other excuses to over the years, some of which may even have been genuine. I'm blaming my failure to do so last year on the very wet weather. When I finally got around to harvesting the 2012 crop, scenes reminiscent of the Somme ensued. Intellectually I knew that I wanted a day-neutral oca, now I know it in a damp, numb-fingered and mud-caked sort of a way - I'm not even sure that I've got the mud out from under my fingernails yet. No, the fact is, we need varieties that tuberise at a sensible time of year. The simplest and possibly best way, to my mind at least, is to sow thousands of seeds and select the best plants for further evaluation: my efforts are just the beginning of the beginning as far as I'm concerned.

What 133 oca tubers look like planted in a field. 
Dave kindly offered to dig the trenches (oca, not Somme-sized), which he did with great enthusiasm; my job was to place the tubers carefully in them, backfill and label them. I suggest that, should the gods be kind and a harvest obtained, Dave be served a splendid ceremonial oca meal in recognition for his heroic efforts; if it weren't for him, I'd be out in the field right now, planting ocas in the pouring rain, which if you haven't tried it, is surprisingly unenjoyable. In fact, just as the last tubers went in, the rain began to fall in the kind of quantities that make gardening thoroughly unpleasant; what had been fine tilth quickly transformed into sticky, boot-clogging clay - the plot literally thickened before my eyes and beneath my feet.  My work being done, I retreated to the car; Dave had left a short while earlier due to another engagement. A good morning's work and I eventually found my way home - which in itself is something of a result.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Yacon: Don't Try This at Home

If you thought I was late harvesting the maukas, get a load of this: the 2012 yacon harvest only just being lifted. This really isn't the done thing and I cannot recommend it as a sensible course of action if you want to keep your yacons going from season to season. Nevertheless, they seem to have survived. It was also an opportunity to have a look at the roots of the hybrid yacons (Smallanthus x scheldewindekensis), whose story is told here and here. True yacons are on the right, hybrids on the left. That's a matchbox for scale.

The hybrids have produced long, carrot sized and shaped storage roots, which fan out horizontally in all directions, somewhat like an iron-pumping Eremurus bulb. They're much smaller in diameter than proper yacon roots and not as sweet, with a slightly more resinous taste. Oh well. It was probably a little unrealistic to hope for anything better, but there's no reason why they couldn't be used in a yacon breeding programme to add some new qualities to the genepool. In the Grand Yacon Winter Wipeout of 2010 for instance,
Hybrid yacon roots
they survived, whereas the true yacons didn't, perhaps indicating some extra cold tolerance not found in the true species; that would be well worth having. And unlike the Jerusalem artichokes, they don't seem to blow down all the time when it gets windy - quite impressive considering their stature. Maybe those horizontal storage roots act like guy ropes and give them extra stability.

Small but perfectly formed proper yacon root
In any case, they are enormous plants, towering at three metres or more in height. I put this down to heterosis - hybrid vigour - which often occurs when plants are crossed. No seeds have been set to date, sterility being another common occurrence with hybrid plants; they certainly flowered profusely though, despite the miserable weather last summer. But this summer is going to be different, right?

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Apios americana: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Hopniss

Although the weather outside is frightful, sowing seeds is so delightful - especially when they're hopniss seeds. These recently germinated. Due to an administrative error involving germplasm leakage over the floor, they're a mix of two varieties - 'High Point' and 'Deerfield River', which have featured previously on this blog. Although the triploid varieties occur further north than the diploid ones and are generally more vigorous, they're sterile, which leaves the would-be breeder up a bit of an evolutionary cul-de-sac. With these (relatively) northern adapted diploid varieties, it might be possible to come up with something better suited to our climate and then start crossing and selecting the progeny. While I have life and liberty, I will do my best to pursue the goal of productive hopniss.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Bulbous Belly Border 2) Triteleia laxa: a Basketful of Brodiaeas

On a recent visit to west Cornwall, the weather turned particularly nasty - with  a powerful, chilly wind and heavy, horizontal rain, punctuated by stinging hail showers.  Rather than walk the dunes near the appropriately named town of Hayle and enjoy the warm spring sunshine as had been our intention, I took cover in a large garden centre. With the rain steadily drumming on the roof above my head, I wandered over to the bulb stands, where all sorts of exotic (and insanely cheap) bulbs were displayed in brightly coloured packs.

My rooty radar immediately picked up on the presence of copious quantities of Brodiaea 'Queen Fabiola' a pretty blue-flowered Californian bulb, or more correctly a corm - and an edible one at that.  As the voles saw fit to devour the entire 2012 camas crop, I felt as though I deserved a consolation prize. These fitted the bill nicely.

This plant, more correctly known as Triteleia laxa, was an important food source for many native peoples in northern California. It seems that mixed bulb gardens of this and other edible species were carefully managed to maximise their productivity. Regular harvesting and soil disturbance increased the rate at which the plants produced offsets: a well-stocked bulb garden benefited from human intervention. I bet they looked beautiful too - imagine a veg garden composed of a glorious mix of  Dichelostemma, Perideridia, and Brodiaea, all in full flower. How they achieved this without mousetraps is anybody's guess.

Although on the small side, I've read that the corms are delicious, with a sweet, nutty taste, both raw and cooked. They are still gathered by the Kashaya Pomo people, who boil them, although in the past they were cooked in leaf lined earth ovens in a similar manner to camas.
Aside from numerous native names, Triteleia laxa has a few colourful English ones too: Ithuriel's spear, triplet lily, wally basket and grass nut. 'Indian potato' is also  a name applied to this and a host of other bulbs and roots too.

As all scholars of Milton's Paradise Lost will know, Ithuriel was an angel sent by Gabriel to unmask Satan in the Garden of Eden. The horned one was incognito as a toad, whispering bad stuff in Eve's ear. Ithuriel prodded him with his spear and he was forced to drop the disguise and hightail it out of Eden. And the link with Triteleia is? Perhaps something to do with the spear-like appearance of the unopened flower stalk. That and a vivid Victorian imagination, I suspect. 'Grass nut' is a more practical, if somewhat more prosaic name, as the thin foliage does look quite grass-like. As for 'wally basket', I'm at a loss to explain its derivation. Maybe someone can help me. I think I'll stick with púuchu, the Miwok people's name for it.

The variety most commonly available, in Europe at least, is 'Queen Fabiola', with attractive dark blue flowers. The name commemorates the Dowager Queen of Belgium, who has recently been embroiled in a tax evasion scandal that has rocked the nation. No more heroes anymore.... Fabiola is also the patron saint of divorced women and nurses - and why not? They need a patron saint as much as anyone else.

There are other varieties, which I've yet to see, but might gladden the heart of the avid corm consumer: take 'Sierra Giant', for instance - said to be polyploid (bigger corms as well as flowers, perhaps?) and 'Humboldt Star', which produces very few offsets, resulting in "huge" corms (yes please!). All of this suggests that there is enough variation occurring in the species to consider a programme of sowing and selection to come up with a fab new variety specifically for eating, assuming they are as good a food as the reports suggest. The packet promotes them as "miniature agapanthus", which is probably pushing it, but as well as being edible, they make good cut flowers. In fact, removing the flowers might lead to the formation of bigger corms. Unlike camas, where the main storage carbohydrate is inulin, Triteleia corms are starchy, providing the eater with useful calories with every thrust of the digging stick.

When the weather allows, I'll plant them in a little patch of their own at Oca Acres. As pocket gophers and various other tunnelling critters seem to enjoy them in their native habitat, I fully expect our voles and mice to quickly add them to their diet. I'll keep a few in a pot in the back yard, where the voles at least don't dare to show their faces.  I'm also considering planting a few amongst the cacomitls to see whether I can create my very own mixed species bulb garden and to hell with the clashing colours.

When it comes to reports as to the edibility of various obscure roots, bulbs and corms, I tend towards the scepticism of Missourians with their homeland's unofficial title as the "Show Me State". Before instigating a run on 'Queen Fabiola' stocks around the country, I felt I really ought to put the claims of their palatability to the test.  Please don't try this at home, because, as the packet says, "do not consume this product". But it also clearly states that "the bulbs (sic) are not chemically preserved". So, in the interests of science and with a spirit of enquiry,  I took a corm and peeled it. I then cut it in half; one half remained raw, the other half I boiled until it was fairly soft. I chewed on both and can categorically state that both halves seemed to be edible. The raw piece tasted like a raw peanut, not too bad; the cooked half was very similar to a potato and was deliciously moreish. Maybe Indian potato is an appropriate choice of name after all. I'm just hoping I get to dig a basketful of them this coming autumn.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

March of the Maukas

It's March, so it must be mauka time. Not time to plant maukas as you might expect - no - time to lift them.  I didn't quite manage to accomplish this task before the torrential rains of winter took hold; the water table seemed to be lying close to or above the soil's surface for months and at one point the gate disgorged a babbling brook. As proper farmers with proper kit have experienced similar difficulties in lifting their potato crops in this area, I felt a little less humiliated by my deficiencies.

The rainy season has abated for the present, its replacement being a cold, dry, easterly wind, which has been blowing for a couple of weeks. As the ground now no longer resembles a waterlogged sponge, I thought a little bit of exploratory digging was in order, to ascertain the whereabouts and health of the mauka crop. I pulled back the fleece, which I'd draped hastily over the patch in a half-hearted attempt to protect them against the cold and took my spade and dug where the label (barely legible) suggested the first plant lay.

The first object that turned up was this decidedly impressive piece of swollen mauka stem, looking for all the world like a bloated, jaundiced witchetty grub. It's a chunk of CIP208001, my original variety which I grew from seed obtained from Centro Internacional de la Papa some years ago; coincidentally this was the most expensive seed I have ever purchased, mainly due to the very low viability they showed.  But I don't regret the expense and the 15 year wait: I finally have a mauka stem like the ones in the books.

I should point out that this wonder worm represents two season's growth - I also failed to harvest the plants at the end of 2011. A bit more digging yielded up this collection of pieces. Not bad, all things considered.

Mauka continues to impress me with its tenaciousness and good behaviour; I really ought to taste check it again to see whether I still like it as much as I did previously.  It seems probable that there will be enough for a proper meal of mauka if the yields from this plant are anything to go by - one up another ten to go.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Why Buy a Bayabang?

To which my witty retort would be - why not? Bayabang is a fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia, which has been on my wish list for decades. Also known as the tuber ladder fern, or sword fern, it is a relative rarity - a fern with edible tubers. The plant itself isn't rare, being found in a broad swathe of the tropics and subtropics from Hawaii and the Philippines to India and Nepal. It's a close relative of that well-known houseplant, the Boston fern (N. exaltata); where the climate is suitable, like Florida, it can become established outside its native haunts and be quite invasive. It's described by the RHS as half-hardy, so it might pull through a mild winter here in Cornwall. I like the name bayabang, which originates in the Philippines; other names include kupukupu (Hawaii) and pani amla (Nepal).

My recent interest in bayabang was rekindled when the paucity of quality television viewing led me to flick through one of my old notebooks from sometime in the last decade of the 20th century. My gaze fell on the page where I had scrawled N. cordifolia. In those distant pre-internet days, I had been unable to locate a plant, but I was pretty sure things would have improved in the brave new world of electronic communication. The same cannot be said of my handwriting, which, I'm sorry to report, has remained unchanged.

I hurried away to the interwebs to secure the biggest bayabang for my bucks. My first attempt failed, as eBay's hive mind seemed to think that "Sword Fern" showed I was a maladjusted loner with a penchant for plunging offensive weapons into innocent people; the transaction was denied. I suppose someone could be whipped to death with a frond, or crushed by a falling tree fern, but I doubt that Nephrolepis really constitutes much of a threat to the public. In fact, bayabang has a long history of use as a folk medicine and has many beneficial properties.

The value of its tubers has been investigated by researchers at Kathmandu University. They concluded that they are a rich source of carbohydrates and calcium. Seeing as they are a favourite snack of children, this is obviously a good thing. With bayabang, the portions are conveniently child-sized, with the tubers resembling small, scaly grapes. Perhaps tuberlets might be more appropriate a name. They're designed to help the fern survive periodic desiccation - N. cordifolia being frequently epiphytic or even epilithic.

I confess that I am a little chary of fern consumption. Bracken has a long tradition of being eaten, both its young unfurled fronds as well as the sinuous, starchy rhizomes.  I've never managed to extract the rhizomes in anything like sufficient quantities to justify cooking and eating them. The ground has always been far too rocky and unforgiving. As for the fronds - the dread word ptaquiloside rings in my ears, not just for its impenetrable pronunciation, but its fearsome reputation as a carcinogen; its presence has apparently been linked to higher incidences of stomach and oesophageal cancers in bracken-eating populations.

My bayabang plants duly arrived. On opening the box, I was assailed by that strange ferny odour that reminded me of the summer afternoons of childhood, whooping and charging through towering bracken stands. The sun did seem to shine a lot back then and ticks and Lyme disease were seemingly unknown. Happy days.

I potted up the offsets and I'm hoping that the little croziers unwind and ferny foliage fills the house before too long. Come the summer (soon, please!) I will try them outside.

As I manipulated the root sytems into their pots, I couldn't resist plucking one of those shaggy little grapes and trying it. It was crunchy, sweet and tasted distinctly brackeny. If not exactly epicurean in quality, I can see how kids might rehydrate themselves by devouring them as they tear through the forest. Trust me, I've tasted a lot worse in the world of edible roots, I really have.   

And as everyone knows (I hope!) ferns reproduce sexually by means of spores, which they produce in vast quantities. It wouldn't be too difficult to select for a fern with outsize tubers - there are already several horticultural varieties of N. cordifolia available commercially, suggesting that new forms appear quite readily. With such plants, the Radix project can spread indoors, onto the windowsills, into the bathroom and beyond. When the plants get too big, I'll knock them out of their pots and divide them, not forgetting to eat the tubers as I go.

Terms such as "edimental" are now all the rage - so I have no compunction in coining my own: pteridedible - a fern fit for food. I shall look forward to growing and harvesting my bayabang and exploring other edible ferns, of which there are a surprising number. And maybe I'll head out to the woods one day, crowbar in hand and have a go at harvesting some bracken rhizomes.

In a coincidence reminiscent of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace's independent work on evolutionary theory, as I was researching this post, I came across this article on N. cordifolia on the Eat The Weeds website. It predates mine by several years, so it's far too late for a joint publication like Messrs. Darwin and Wallace's 1858 classic. I suggest you head over there and read what Green Deane has to say. You even get a video.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Many Roots to Bedroom Bliss - Part One

It's Valentine's Day; in my youth this was an occasion on which tokens of affection were given to one's beloved - flowers and a card, perhaps. Nowadays the store windows seem to focus more on sexy lingerie and erotic fiction. Attitudes towards love and sex change over time and this may merely be a return to a more overt and honest celebration of an important aspect of human existence before the prudery of the Victorian era stifled it.
Arum maculatum Wikipedia

In the not-so-distant past, people were obviously not in the least bit coy about giving objects from the natural world suggestive or bawdy names. Plants did not escape their attention. Take cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum) for instance. This is also called lords and ladies, because of the apparent resemblance of the flower to male and female genitals. And the aformentioned pint is not what the milkman is supposed to deliver to your door on a daily basis: it refers to none other than a penis. The fact that a cuckoo doesn't actually have a penis should not hinder our enjoyment of the symbolism of the arum's upstanding member. Oh and if you're so minded, you can dig up the root and cook it: properly prepared, it's edible.

This amusing habit of naming plants for their resemblance to intimate parts of the human anatomy is not limited to our own culture - take that marvellous Mexican fruit, the avocado. The name is derived from the Nahuatl "ahuacatl", meaning testicle, which, let's be honest, has some validity as a comparison, colour not withstanding; their tendency to hang in twos only adds to the association - avocado pairs indeed. Strangely enough, the avocado is claimed to have a positive effect on sperm production. It's all about the folate, apparently.

So it comes as no surprise that various plants have been credited with helping to ignite or rekindle sexual passion. In fact, it seems that pretty much every plant has been used as an aphrodisiac at some time or other - even mashua! By aphrodisiac, I mean something that gets you aroused and enables you to stay physically and emotionally equipped for action until such time as you are able to seek relief in the arms of another. Or words to that effect.

And the often suggestive shape of roots, recently beloved of photographers, bloggers and TV producers, has led many of them to be considered aphrodisiacs down the ages.

So let's start with that standard component of the meat and two veg dinner: the potato. Next time you tuck into a spud, consider this claim, made by herbalist William Salmon in 1710: "they nourish the whole Body, restore in Consumptions and provoke Lust".

Lust - with a capital L. I was tempted to respond thusly to Mr Salmon: "cease forthwith this idle prattle, Sir, for which there is not one shred of Evidence",  but then I came across this:

Officials in Jersey have discovered an annual baby boom linked to the Jersey Royal Potatoes season. Since 1997 the Jersey Registry Office, which records births on the island, has recorded an average of 170 more babies a year born between January and March. The increase has been directly linked to the Jersey Royal Potato season, which runs from April to June, nine months prior to the baby boom peak.

Aphrodisiac expert, James Sotte, explains the phenomenon:

"Throughout history potatoes have been considered an aphrodisiac. Amazonian women ate them to stimulate their sex drive and in late 16th century Europe sweet potato tarts were recommended to increase sexual desire. The reason is that potatoes have the same affect on the body as chocolate; they increase serotonin levels. Insulin is produced when digesting potatoes, affecting the movement of amino acid from the blood to the brain, which stimulates serotonin production. Serotonin is the chemical that makes you feel happy and is similar to the feeling of being in love."

He continues:

"Jersey Royal Potatoes are a particularly powerful aphrodisiac for women because they have a smell from their unwashed, earthy skin which is redolent of the musky aroma of the male. They also contain complex carbohydrate, which is a great source of energy for the body. Energy is fundamental to sex drive in that tiredness and lack of energy deflates the libido. "

The cynics among us might be inclined to reach a different conclusion: increasing temperatures, day lengths and light intensity might have more to do with it than potato consumption. Yes, potatoes contain complex carbohydrates and these are a good source of fuel for activity both in and outside the bedroom, but the same could be said of crumpets. And could it be that most women would rather their lovers didn't smell like a pile of rotting seaweed, the favoured fertiliser for Jersey Royals? No, this is an amusing, not to say audacious, piece of marketing, but it can hardly be taken as proof of the potato's efficacy as an aphrodisiac.

And what about another pert stalwart of the dinner plate, the carrot? Carrots, famous for enhancing the eyesight of airmen on WWII night bombing raids, turn out to do even more good things for you after the sun goes down by "inciting coitus". Do my eyes fail me - is that a typo? Do they mean exciting coitus? Nurse, fetch me my glasses and a pint of carrot juice - I had no idea that carotenoids were so damn potent. No wonder I've always enjoyed growing Chantenay Hard Core carrots.

And now the humble beetroot has burst onto the scene as the latest love aid, to be swallowed in liquid form - small shots at regular intervals. Come on, you're kidding me, not beetroot?  I'm afraid so. Not only does it improve stamina for athletes, both horizontally and vertically aligned, but the cyclic Guanosine monophosphate it contains is just what hard-pressed men need to maintain turgor so they can walk tall and stand proud. Who knew? The Romans apparently - beetroot-themed murals have been discovered in the brothels of Pompeii, for example.

Most of the supposed hard evidence for plant aphrodisiac efficacy is nothing but flaccid anecdote pumped up with wishful thinking. Still, if you're prepared to stiffen your resolve and ride out some more of the absurd claims made by the promoters of these plants, come again - I'll be posting more on this subject at a future date.

Monday, 28 January 2013

January Time is Tigridia Time

Despite the best efforts of bleak midwinter to dampen our spirits with repeat cycles of wet, cold and wind, there's no denying that spring will surely arrive in due course. Various phenological cues lead me to believe this - I was quite surprised to see frog spawn in the pond last week. An even more reliable indicator is the appearance of bargain packs of Tigridia bulbs in the supermarkets. A tour of the Windy City last week (I mean Plymouth, not Chicago) revealed several cacomitl suppliers with an abundance of bulbs on their shelves; fool that I am, I succumbed. I notice that some quite serious price inflation has occurred: last year 20 bulbs cost £1.98, whereas 2013 prices have reached the dizzying heights of £2. All the more reason to grow your own.

This reminded me that I hadn't even sampled the 2012 crop yet, so I was spurred on to dig up a few bulbs at the weekend and bake them - very nice they were too. As even the most hardened cacomitl lover will admit, however, yields are not good. As I tucked into my plateful, I resolved to try and increase the future cacomitl harvest by encouraging the production of bigger bulbs. I have collected a reasonable quantity of seed as shown above and if I sow it, I can then select for the biggest, fattest bulbs and maybe over time produce an elite strain of giant cacomitl. I'm thinking of something with the size and replication capacity of a decent shallot for starters. As seed production and vegetative ability are often inversely proportional*, another approach would be to prevent the plants setting seed, which might direct all energies towards increasing the size of the bulbs, a bit like the reproductive pruning carried out by ahipa growers. The most effective way to do this would be to chop off the flower stalks as they emerge, but there is something so preposterously defiant and beautiful about the flowers, that I will delay decapitation until they've faded.  I may have once claimed that the heart doesn't crave flowers when the belly lacks bulbs, but I seem to be mellowing in my dotage.

*Try telling that to the creeping buttercups.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Aandegopin: The Rough Guide to Wolfing Down Bugleweed

One of the joys of plant exploration is that there's more than enough possibility to fill a lifetime of avid investigation - there are simply so many plants and so little time. Even within the somewhat limited field of edible roots and tubers, new possibilities keep popping up on my radar. Take the genus Lycopus, for instance, so named because of the apparent likeness of their leaves to a wolf's foot. Can't see it myself, but perhaps in dim and distant pre-PlayStation days, people had more vivid imaginations.

Our native plant, L. europaeus, gyspywort, is quite common in wetland habitats. My last sighting of it was on my birthday - a specimen grimly clinging to life in a crevice along the Bude Canal. Unfortunately, grim is the operative word, as the tubers it produces only appeal to those for whom starvation is the alternative. For this reason I tend to leave the plants unmolested.

When Steve Dupey in Washington State, USA recommended L. asper, the rough bugleweed for the quality of its roots, my curiosity was piqued. I knew nothing about North American Lycopus and their edibility, but L. asper couldn't be any worse than L. europaeus, so I decided to give it a go.

L. asper itself is not so dissimilar to our own gypsywort and grows in similar places. It has the square stem typical of members of the Lamiaceae, serrated leaves and small white flowers which various pollinating insects seem to enjoy visiting. The foliage has an aromatic smell and a slightly sticky texture. I've seen reports that when dried, it makes a serviceable tea with a flavour reminiscent of Earl Grey. It produces tubers which look like slimline versions of Chinese artichokes (Stachys sieboldii), to which it is related. As a plant, it's not exactly arresting in appearance, which probably explains why I haven't taken many pictures of it.

Seeds seem to germinate quite easily and the resultant plants produce extensive rhizomes, so there must surely be potential for the plant to spread in the wild here. As this is something to be avoided, I would recommend limiting its planting to garden situations where you can keep a watchful eye on its ambitions.

'Rough bugleweed' doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, so I did a bit of research and came across a native American name for the plant: aandegopin. I'm not sure that this Ojibwe moniker is exactly catchy either, but it places L. asper first in The Radix Encyclopaedia of Useful Root Crops*, just ahead of aardaker, the very delicious Lathyrus tuberosus. So is this ranking justified in terms of taste and yield? Read on.

In 2011 the plants didn't do much. I grew them in aquatic plant pots which sat in a container with a few inches of water sloshing about in it. Occasionally this dried up, occasionally it overflowed. At the end of the season I had a few tubers which resembled emaciated Chinese artichokes. Optimist that I am, I put this down to late planting out, along with the acclimatisation and establishment issues that new arrivals often undergo.

2012 was going to be different, I decided. Water levels were maintained thanks to the unprecedented summer precipitation and I employed the same fertiliser regime I used on the wapatos; the results were equally dramatic - much bigger, lusher plants developed and I was hopeful for a good yield of tubers.

The plants died down at the end of the season and I eagerly tipped out the pots to reveal a mass of slender tubers, twisted and tangled together like a Gorgon's bad hair day. I set to and washed off the adhering silt to reveal a not inconsiderable haul of bone white tubers, some of which are shown here.

I hurried indoors with the biggest, washed them properly and then boiled them for a few minutes. They softened quickly and were, as Steve had reported, very tasty, like Chinese artichokes, but perhaps even better. I wolfed them down, naturally. More adventurous cooks could, no doubt, come up with all sorts of ingenious ways of preparing them.

Aandegopin seems to have as-yet unrealised potential as a food: it's certainly easy to grow and unfussy as long as its preference for rich, damp soil is taken into consideration. Given its ability to produce viable seed, it should be possible to select plants with bigger tubers and less extensive rhizomes. And it's not just a lone wolf - Steve also recommends trying some of the other North American bugleweeds such as L. rubellus and L. uniflorus. Like I say, plenty of plants, not nearly enough time.

*Expressions of interest and advance payments welcomed.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Taste of Tropaeolum: Mashua is Like Marmite

The lousy summer and indifferent autumn do not seem to have bothered the mashua one jot. The haul of tubers is just as large as in previous, less challenging seasons. Clearly mashua likes a cool maritime climate. So it's a crop with definite potential, apart from the small matter of one thing which tends to get overlooked in the excitement of armfuls of tubers: its taste. In order to get some idea of the opinion of others, I've set up a short questionnaire; I invite everyone who has placed mashua in their mouths to make their feelings known regarding its suitability as a food. Like the infamous yeast extract paste that some people smear all over their toast, mashua seems to evoke strong reactions.  Where do you stand on this issue?

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year, New Yampah

It's a brand new year and right on cue we've been blessed with some very welcome sunshine. The low angle light has picked out something unexpected - new growth emerging from the yampah pots.

I have struggled to understand the habits of yampah for some time now; this merely confirms my ignorance of its phenology. I don't know why I'm surprised -  I have some other rooty umbellifers which are also sprouting at the moment, as are the wild cow parsley plants in the hedgerows. Whether this precocious growth will be destroyed in any forthcoming freezes, I've no idea, but I'm taking it as a good omen of hope and renewal in 2013.  Happy New Year.
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