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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