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?

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