Monday, 1 December 2014

Radix Alphabetical Advent Calendar

When it comes to Christmas, I'm a bit of a "bah, humbug!" sort of a bloke. I am however, a fervent believer in recycling; this extends not to just glass bottles, cardboard and milk cartons, but to previous blog posts - no point reinventing the wheel or torturing untold thousands of oca seedlings to come up with the same old tired prose. Due to a period of retrenchment (some of which has been spent with a trenching spade in hand), I haven't been able to give either our plot or this blog the attention they deserve. I'm hopeful that I will get back on track next year with more regular posts and some interesting developments. In the meantime, I offer up my Radix Alphabetical Advent Calendar, with the letters of the alphabet standing in for corresponding dates in the month. Beat that, Alan Turing!

Today is December 1st, so I give you A and the first root in the Radix lexicon: aandegopin.

P.S. I'm really worried about Christmas Eve....

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Oca: Six Degrees of Separation

It occurred to me the other day, as I evicted yet another bunch of volunteer ocas from their chosen homes, that I've been doing this for a few years now. In fact the 2014 seedlings are the sixth generation descendants of the original oca varieties that I started with. For those who love this sort of thing, the six degrees of separation theory posits that we are all connected with one another by a chain of, at most, six intermediaries; it's an intriguing idea, the likelihood of which must surely be increasing as the internet's hyphae ramify ever further across the globe. Oh and it was also a passably good film.

Here are my ocas - the great, great, great, great grandchildren of the original varieties. They're still going strong, or at least they appear to be if the above image is to be believed.  So what effect has being Generation Six had on my charges?

But before all that, an extensive caveat. I'd like to be able to say that I've made a significant breakthrough in breeding a ravishingly beautiful, delicious, dayneutral oca. Maybe I have, but due to conflicting pressures and responsibilities, I haven't been been able to devote anything like enough time to the methodical recording of tuber yields. Something or other has got in the way every time - frost damage, voles, vine weevils, midnight ambulance rides to hospital - that kind of thing. That and the more humdrum exigencies of earning money.

And when I say breed, I really mean stand and stare at the bees and hoverflies transferring pollen as they flit from flower to flower - very relaxing. Back in the early days, I rushed to hand pollinate and bag flowers individually and I think I even went to the trouble of recording parentage, but I now no longer have time or the inclination for such niceties. If you want to look at someone who's far more methodical than me, check out Bill's blog.

Proper breeders are supposed to apply some sort of directional selection pressure to their charges. I've done very little of this, I must confess. There are two reasons: firstly I started with only a few clones and I thought it wise to conserve as much variation as possible before culling ruthlessly.
Secondly, I'm a softie at heart and don't like to institute a reign of terror on my charges - I'm not Ivan the Terrible, I'm Rhizowen the lily-livered.

So as a bystander to oca's unfolding evolution, what conclusions can I actually draw? Here are a few, off the top of my head:
  • Oca seedlings are variable - leaf, stem, and tuber colour, pubescence, height, you name it, it varies.  
  • Oca seedlings generally flower much more readily than commercially available varieties.
  • There are many more of the short and mid-styled varieties than long styled ones.
  • Oca seeds germinate fairly easily and grow quite fast; they can go from seed to seed outside in one season here in Cornwall.
  • Tubers from oca seedlings are perfectly edible and not always tiny, knobbly and misshapen.
  • Oca pods require careful management - when they pop, those seeds don't stop.
  • Corollary of the above - oca volunteers will appear where you probably don't want them.
  • Voles and other rodents love to eat oca tubers.
  • Unlike the voles, I hate harvesting oca tubers in the late autumn when our soil is cold, sticky and squelchy. 

Bearing in mind that I started with so few varieties, the overriding question is this:
have I been blissfully - inadvertently - purging oca's genetic load, thus producing an oca master race, or merely subjecting the unfortunate plant to the perils of inbreeding, spawning a clutch of web-fingered banjo players?  Deliverance from these sorts of questions at three o'clock in the morning would be very welcome.

And I know it's bad form to use the c word so early in the year, but could I have the following for Christmas, please:

A bunch of ten or more people, ocaphiles to the hilt, with whom to explore some of the possibilities of oca improvement. There are so many questions to be answered, so much more work to do.
Until such time as the above dream team materialises, I will ponder and ruminate. So here's my final question, which neither Bible scholars nor oca breeders have yet been able to answer definitively: will the mistakes of the "breeder" be visited unto the seventh generation? I'll let you know - next year.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Mauka: Three Cheers for The Marvel of Peru

Mauka Man Mirabilis expansa
Mauka Man, hero.
We've eaten Mauka Man, the root I harvested a while ago. It had to happen; I'm glad it happened. According to Lost Crops of The Incas, mauka (Mirabilis expansa) is usually allowed to sit in the sun for a while before consumption. Previously I've only ever eaten it straight out of the ground. While tasty, there is usually a slight residual irritation at the back of the throat; this stops the experience from being the sensual delight it could be.

Half the battle with novel foods is figuring out how to prepare them. As we normally harvest root crops in the winter, sitting roots out in grey, wan light isn't likely to effect much positive change. Sunshine in May (when we get it) is much more intense. Clearing out the mauka bed in the spring has therefore given me the ideal opportunity to follow the preparation method favoured in mauka's Andean homeland. Not that I planned it that way. Let's just call it a fortuitous failure.

Mauka root (Mirabilis expansa)
400g of prime mauka flesh
Dismembering and preparing the poor fellow wasn't easy as the roots were twisted and as I understand it, mauka is always eaten peeled. While I was laboriously flaying the severed limbs, I noticed that beneath the skin, there was a reddish hue - a reaction to all that intense Cornish sunshine no doubt. More surprising still, was the observation that, like some Andean zombie, this root was undead: I could see some tiny adventitious shoots breaking forth on the cut surface. My previous experience indicates that pieces like this can be replanted and will go on to develop into new plants. Useful.
Pink flesh Mauka root (Mirabilis expansa)
Pink below the skin

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) adventitious buds
Not dead yet - adventitious bud appearing
Despite the efforts I was forced to expend in the peeling process, the three year old root flesh was, generally speaking, surprisingly free of fibres and woodiness, at least in its raw state. As per usual, I chopped the flesh into chunks and deposited the whole lot in a pan of water.

As I was boiling the chunks, I remembered something from Lost Crops of the Incas about the cooking water being used as a drink. After I'd fished out the cooked pieces, I allowed the cloudy liquid to cool. I tried it (gingerly at first) and can reveal to the world that this beverage is nothing like potato water in terms of palatability. Contrary to my expectations, it was sweet and pleasant, with none of the gritty starchiness I had expected. It seems that this is a nice drink in its own right and could probably be fermented into something interesting too. Or maybe the liquid could be used as a base for soups. Could quaffing mauka-ade become some sort of liquid sacrament to the ritual of mauka flesh preparation? Stick in a few songs and a bit of inebriation and Mauka Man would make a  perfect successor to John Barleycorn.

Mauka Meal (Mirabilis expansa)
Tasty enough, but less than the sum of its parts

I hastily cooked some vegetables from the rack and plonked the mauka chunks on top.  To be honest, the firm texture of the mauka did not combine particularly well with the vegetable mush I created, although it was all very palatable. Slightly chastened, I kept some of the cooked mauka chunks back and the following  evening I fried them quickly with a little bit of oil, some herbs from the garden and a pinch of salt.

As we took in a DVD (Hunger Games, as it happens) and ate our mauka chunks, I rather lost concentration on the film; savouring the delightful finger food that pan-fried mauka proved to be was a major distraction. Still, any bow-toting heroine who is named after Sagittaria latifolia gets my approval by default.

To one whose palate has been corrupted by a lifelong diet of Angel Delight, pot noodles and fish fingers, I consider this to be excellent fare. In fact, of all the Lost Crops roots I have tried, this is my favourite. With its firm flesh and sweet taste, it is a pleasure to chew. I bet it would make great chips. If my rudimentary preparation methods are anything to go by, cannier cooks than I will easily come up with numerous ingenious ways to incorporate it into the western diet.

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) drink mauka-ade
A glass of mauka-ade proved unexpectedly potable
So Mauka Man got eaten. It had to happen and I'm very glad it did.  And I'm happy to raise a glass of mauka-ade to salute his passing. Three cheers: hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Talet Will Out

Spring is sprung, Amphicarpaea style
After last year's exceptionally cold spring, this time around we're experiencing something much less chilly. This relative balminess was confirmed a while ago when I noticed that the midge season had begun. Oh joy. And then what weather forecasters describe as "unusually powerful winds for the time of year" started up and have been battering us for days. It's kept the midges at bay, but I can't help feeling pangs of sadness when I see radiant young beech leaves torn from their twigs and lying in dishevelled drifts by the edges of the lanes. Like the midges and the gales, the talets (Amphicarpaea bracteata) are also in the ascendancy. Or at least they're up and out of the ground. No matter the weather, it's a cause for celebration in this household.

I have several varieties of this noble amphicarpic bean and it occurs to me that I ought to make an attempt to compare them in something resembling a systematic way.  I already know that some die back more rapidly than others; what I've never got around to doing is actually investigating their relative productivity. Until now.

Because of the activities of the voles, I've taken to growing them in pots in the back yard. I'm told that voles in North America cache the underground beans for hard times. Our voles seem to be more of the live-fast-die-young persuasion, because they have managed to eat every single one I have planted over the last few years; they make no more attempt to put provisions aside for the winter than Aesop's grasshopper did. Not that starvation seems to threaten their population - they usually transfer their attentions to the oca crop to tide them over.

Yabumame seedlings
Enough of the voles and their villainy. When I say several varieties, I actually mean six: there's my first one, whose origins now escape me; a variety from Frank van Keirsbilck in Belgium; 'Saratoga Battlefield'; 'Gardens North' and the yabumame  from Hokkaido (Amphicarpaea bracteata subsp. edgeworthii) which Paolo Gaiardelli very generously gave to me.

If anything, 'Gardens North' seems a little small and rather late; is this because I gave the best specimens away to various people earlier in the year or just an adaptation to its chilly birthplace in Ontario? And I'm a little short of 'Saratoga Battlefield' which I collected myself in 2008. Maybe the shame of the British defeat at that location has seriously inhibited its growth, but I've only managed to get two underground beans from this
Amphicarpaea 'Nova Scotia' safe in a greenhouse
variety to date. To complete the set for this year, I have a variety from Nova Scotia, kindly donated by Edward MacDonell, a fellow amphicarpaphile from said Canadian province. These have been started from the much smaller aerial seeds, so I'm fast-tracking them under glass.

As to experimental design - well, apart from the Nova Scotian accession, they're in the same growing medium, same size pots, with between two and six replicates of each variety. That's about as sophisticated as my experiments ever get. Still, if I keep an eye on the plants, their flowering times and (breaking the habits of a lifetime) actually weigh the resultant crop, I might learn something about their relative merits; I could use that information to inform any breeding programme I susbequently develop. Talks about talks, I know, but one has to start somewhere.

Setting up the experiment
I could get smug about mounting the biggest talet grow-out ever seen in Cornwall; the truth is, however, that this probably represents a tiny fraction of the potential Amphicarpaea germplasm out there: A. bracteata is widely distributed in North America. I'd like to try the Mexican variety, the original 'talet', for starters and then there's the intriguing prospect of A. africana from montane areas of Central Africa. I know absolutely nothing about that species. Is it even edible? And let's not forget yabumame, which must exist in various forms in Korea and China, as well as in Japan.

While I'm waiting for the universe to slake my insatiable desire for additional Amphicarpaea varieties, you might like to consider this: there's good evidence that A. bracteata is actually composed of two or more cryptic species. This means that there are reproductively isolated, morphologically dissimilar lineages, which although superficially resembling each other, are actually distinguishable to the expert eye; I can see myself spending more time I don't have mastering the intricacies of this arcane art. Someone has to, I suppose. And could it be that 'Saratoga Battlefield' is one of the less competitive lineages described here? Nothing is as it seems in the complicated world of Amphicarpaea breeding.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Ocas Go Undercover

I meant to publish this a while ago, but tedious distractions like earning money got in the way - c'est la vie.

Received wisdom holds that there is nothing better than other people's money. I have little experience of this, remaining open to any offers you might care to make in that regard. I am, however, an enthusiastic convert to the concept of other people's greenhouses, especially when they're frost free all winter.

Back in the autumn, I pricked out a whole load of late-emerging oca seedlings into some modules; I realised there was no chance these minuscule waifs would survive the winter in situ. Although adding an extra eighty ocas to my swelling brood seemed foolhardy, I constructed a makeshift cold frame and left them to it. This was probably a mistake, as I became rather attached to them as the weeks passed. They actually grew quite well and the cotyledons were overtopped by flushes of fresh trifoliate leaves. Then, as the weather became colder, I feared for their survival.

After a bit of head scratching, I devised a cunning plan to transfer them to a greenhouse at a nearby institute of higher education, where I have sympathetic contacts. When I say nearby, I mean a train ride of about half an hour. Being true-to-form, self-contained Brits, not one of my fellow passengers commented on the trays of seedlings perched precariously on my lap as I made that journey on two consecutive days. For that I was duly grateful.

Oca Seedlings
Indoor ocas
Once ensconced in their new home, the seedlings grew rapidly, despite the shortening days of November and December.  Then, just before Christmas, they were cruelly evicted in a moment of high pathos of which Dickens would have been proud. I managed to find them alternative accommodation, however and they have dwelt happily in their second location for the last two months. The temperature inside seems to have hovered around a snug 10 ℃ for most of this time.

To be honest, it hasn't been that much colder outside during this period. In any case, this has seen the plants through the darkest days of the winter and I'm happy to report the presence of a number of oca mini-tubers. See below for selected highlights.

The largest of these started forming tubers quite early on; others have been slower to develop. I suspect that this is a result of their relative ages, some plants having been much larger than others when I saved them from imminent oblivion.

Oxalis tuberosa
Oca Seedlings

I'll spare you any more gratuitous ocaporn; suffice to say, I now have another 70 or so oca varieties to plant out somewhere, anywhere.

So it should, in theory at least, be possible to set up a continuous production cycle with a couple of generations of oca seedlings per year, if facilities are available. I am happy to take on the role of oca propagator in chief , if you could just see you way to adding some money and greenhouses.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Mauka: Making a Meal of It

A maritime climate has some benefits, most noticeably in the moderation of winter temperatures. Walking through Liskeard the other day, I noticed a full-sized potato plant, looking remarkably healthy. I'm assuming it has sprouted from an overlooked tuber and has flourished in the cool, but not cold, weather we've been having; plenty of nasturtiums in Plymouth remain unfrosted. The downside of the close proximity of an ocean is its annoying tendency to deliver incessant low pressure systems and their associated cloud, rain and wind. This winter has been exceptionally turbulent, even by our exacting standards and the coast of Cornwall and other parts of southern Britain are being re-sculpted as I write. Others face the dismal prospect of finding their homes underwater. Let's hope losses of life and property are avoided as much as possible.

Several days ago, a lull in proceedings allowed me to get out to Oca Acres and try and tidy up what the wind had scattered. Our soil, a sticky clay, was slippery and totally unsuitable for digging. Despite this, my curiosity got the better of me and I felt the sudden and powerful urge to lift one of my mauka seedlings. They have sat in the ground for three full years since I planted them out;  although we haven't had a particularly cold winter in that time, the ground surface has been frozen for several weeks on occasion. Nevertheless, they have sprouted each spring and I have repaid their generosity by doing virtually nothing in the way of weeding or feeding them. What some might call neglect, I refer to as screening for resilience. To my untrained eye, they've looked fine by the summer and have done a good job of suppressing and surpassing the weeds. Folks, this is my kind of plant.

Unsatisfied curiosity is something up with which I cannot put: I grabbed a fork and listened for the satisfying squelch as waterlogged soil was lifted; in due course I succeeded in prising a mauka plant from the ground.

Mauka root, Mirabilis expansaAlthough the tops had been frosted off, the underground parts seemed fine, bar a little bit of cracking and scarring. What's not obvious in this picture is that there were dozens of small buds, all waiting to burst into growth as soon as the weather warms up. Mauka seems not to have any innate dormancy, which given our notoriously erratic climate, might be a good thing. It certainly resprouts well after frosting.

Unlike oca, which the voles love to consume above all other roots, mauka seems not to be favoured by their attentions. While they are quite content to burrow through the centre of a plant and create underground caverns around its roots in the process, there's precious little evidence of them eating it.

I decapitated the plant and buried the top a few inches below the soil surface; with its strange dead man's fingers protruding as I shovelled back the soil, it was a slightly macabre moment.

Mirabilis expansa, mauka, raw pieces
I hurried home with the root and immediately peeled and cut it into chunks. It had very firm, white flesh, which reminded me a little of cassava (Manihot esculenta). Like cassava, the root is said to need careful preparation to remove what the Lost Crops of the Incas describes as an "astringent chemical". In the case of mauka, this is done by leaving it in the sun for a few days. I opted for immediate consumption. I could claim that I did this in the spirit of enquiry, but the truth is simple: I was hungry and couldn't wait for a peekaboo sun to work its solar alchemy. Into a pan of boiling water went the mauka.
Mirabilis expansa, mauka, cooked pieces
On cooking, the pieces lost their white colour and became a pale yellow; concentric growth rings, rather like those in a tree, became obvious in cross section. Luckily, however, the mauka morsels weren't woody, but firm in texture, with a sweet and very pleasant taste. There were a few chewy fibres near the centre of some of the chunks, but considering the root was three years old, it was remarkably good eating.

I did detect a slight ticklish irritation at the back of my throat after I'd gulped down a generous handful of the pieces. It was similar to the sensation I experience following the consumption of fuchsia berries. I suspect it was caused by the presence of raphides, little needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate which are present in both fuchsia berries and mauka. According to Lost Crops of the Incas, plants are supposed to vary in their acridity, with Ecuadorean specimens being noticeably sweeter. There is some evidence that, in the case of taro (Colocasia esculenta) at least, the raphides are tipped with a protease, which increases the swelling and irritation caused. Perhaps mauka is similar. Individuals vary in their sensitivity to these things; as I may have mentioned previously, some people will happily gulp down plants which I find thoroughly unpleasant.

Mauka is definitely a tasty root crop, raphides notwithstanding. It's also surprisingly resilient, in Cornish conditions at least. I could certainly learn more about how to prepare and cook it and I wouldn't yet describe my leave-it-alone cultivation methods as being definitive. When the rain stops and the wind subsides, I might just nip out and continue my fork-to-fork investigations into a fascinating foodstuff.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Radix: Alive at Five

Oca Mashua Yacon
I was recently reminded that Radix: the Blog has just passed its fifth birthday. Unlike Stalin, I had no five year plan when I began it. But like Chairman Mao, maybe I've achieved the occasional Great Leap Forward. Although it doesn't do to dwell on the negative, I've had a few reversals of fortune on the way too; gardening is like life in that respect.

So what has Radix actually achieved in the last five years? Here are a few highlights, in no particular order:

I've shown that breeding Oxalis tuberosa is possible with limited time, resources and talent. My ocas have been begetting in a Biblical manner - I'm now onto my 5th generation from seed, with seedlings popping up regularly where they shouldn't. Oca is well adapted to our maritime climate, but I haven't yet found that elusive day-neutral specimen which will tuberise in the summer and catapult it into the mainstream. Perhaps others will.

After decades of yearning, I finally managed to obtain seeds of Mirabilis expansa, one of the rarest of root crops. I also managed to produce a small crop of "seeds" of my own using a shed, a wrist watch and some black plastic. As a result, mauka has now been cultivated in Norway and Germany as well as North America. I feel that one day mauka will be recognised for its many virtues. And unlike a certain other Andean root crop that starts with an m and ends with an a, it's actually pleasant to eat. I'm not talking about maca....

Even in the spectacularly awful summer of 2012, my truly puny Coccinia abyssinica plants from the Ethiopian Highlands produced perfectly palatable and surprisingly large roots. What might they have done in a passably good summer?

Thanks to Frank van Keirsbilck and some inadvertent crossing with a crop wild relative, I am now in possession of an enormous, vigorous yacon hybrid, which I have named Smallanthus x scheldewindekensis. So far no one is beating a path to my door, but it can only be a matter of time. Normal yacons seem demure by comparison, although they taste better. Maybe I should make some yakraut with the hybrid and see what happens?

Although I haven't persuaded everyone to abandon 'hog peanut' and adopt the name 'talet', my respect for and interest in Amphicarpaea bracteata and its close relative yabumame remains undiminished. Talet is an outstanding wild edible and grows quite happily in Cornwall.

I obtained seeds from what is (was?) the world's most northerly diploid population of Apios americana. The plants are (hopefully) still alive. In my world, that's a success.

Bulbs a plenty
I've enjoyed the experience of growing the edimental bulbs cacomitl, camas and Triteleia laxa in my bulbous belly border project. I can confirm that they all taste good.

And, for the sake of balance, here are few a few slightly less successful projects:

Grows like a weed, looks lovely and yields abundantly; what's not to like? The small matter of its taste. Boiled, it's disgusting and even lactofermentation cannot redeem this incorrigibly unpleasant foodstuff. Yet some beg to differ, hence my mashua survey, which will doubtless yield something more interesting than the kilos of mashua I have to dispose of every year.

SweetpotatoIpomoea batatas is a delicious, versatile and vigorous crop - if you live somewhere warm. I live in Cornwall. I tried some high altitude sweetpotato seeds from Papua New Guinea (as one does) in the hope of finding something more suitable to our temperature regime. Here are the results; judge for yourselves. My foray into crop wild relatives using I. pandurata (mecha-meck) and I. leptophylla (man-root) hasn't produced anything I can eat. Downhearted? Not I!

Pachyrhizus ahipa: nitrogen fixing, edible raw. Probably needs a warmer climate than we have here. Shame.

Ullucus tuberosus, the Ingrid Bergman of Andean root crops has been reduced to side show stunts like this. Shame on me. If only she had fulfilled her part of the bargain by giving some decent yields I would never have sunk so low. Things may be looking up on the ulluco front, however.

Given my lack of an initial five year plan, maybe I ought to initiate one now. If pressed, I might suggest the following avenues of research:
  • Trawl the genus Ipomoea for potential sweetpotato substitutes and enjoy some more crop wild revelry.
  • Intensify investigations into leguminous root crops such as hopniss, aardaker and the members of the genus Amphicarpaea
  • Continue to explore the potential of oca by growing an outrageously large number of seedlings.
  • The great family Apiaceae, the umbellifers, have been heinously neglected by me, save for my not entirely successful attempts at yampah cultivation. In the hope of banishing arracacha angst, I've been growing species like skirret for a while, but haven't posted about them. This must change.  
  • Make rooty explorations of the floras of Africa, Australia and the Himalayan region. There's plenty of good stuff there.
  • And - of course - I'm open to suggestions (and germplasm) of anything you recommend.
I know for sure that I will be exhausted long before the plant kindom gives up all its riches; I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Numb fumbling 3: Aardaker: I love Dutch Meeces to Pieces

The wild weather continues, with buckshot hail salvos, slate-loosening gusts of wind and rain - loads of it. Despite the insanity of attempting any kind of gardening under these circumstances, I took my chance in a short lull the other day  to examine the yield of my aardaker plants. Although the soil is now completely saturated and any attempts at traversing the plot seem like a slightly premature reenactment of World War I, the aardakers are located in pots, sitting on the surface of the soil and thus, in theory at least, able to drain.

Aardaker (Lathyrus tuberosus) is one of the tastiest root foods out there and comes with that additional leguminous gift - the ability to fix nitrogen. It's also one of the most infuriating plants that I've grown. Like some wayward genius, it beguiles me with its outstandingly tasty roots and then, time after time, gives such a lacklustre performance that even ulluco would blush - luminous pink, bright yellow - at it.

What really bothers me is the miserly quantity of tubers it produces. This is pretty much the total yield from a 15 litre pot. Admittedly the aardakers suffered, as did much else, in the hot spell when our water supply dried up. But I've had better yields from first year seedling hopniss in 9 cm pots. And just like hopniss, received wisdom suggests that you should leave the tubers in situ for a couple of years to swell up, then harvest them. Like we all do with our potatoes, oca, yacon and other single-season-decent-cropping plants? No, exactly. For garden cultivation it needs to justify its existence by being much more productive.

I don't share the sentiments expressed by Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: why can't a woman be more like a man?  Women are fine. But why can't aardaker be more like mashua, in terms of its yield, anyway? Like that troublesome Tropaeolum, it is also a top-notch ornamental edible, but I've never yet been faced by a glut of aardakers; disposing of mounds of mashua tubers happens every year.

Lathyrus tuberosus
This is, of course, a wild plant and hasn't undergone generations of selection like mainstream crops have. It's considered to be an invasive, noxious weed in some places, choking wheat crops for instance. Those tubers, blessed be their name, allow it to resist mechanical methods of control such as hoeing - it just re-sprouts - and it's hard to kill with herbicides such as 2,4, D.  I think I have the perfect biological control in my possession, however and would be glad to furnish beleaguered authorities with it: slugs, lots of them; they seem to consume aardaker foliage with unparalleled enthusiasm and will strip plants overnight. "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the slugs of war!"

What's strange is that cultivation of a kind has almost certainly been attempted in the past. Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World (1919) cites several sources suggesting it was grown as a crop; Frank van Keirsbilck tells me that between the 16th and early 20th centuries, 'Dutch mice' as the roots were called, were grown in the the Zeeland area of the Netherlands; they were supposedly then sold in France. Frank has also found mention of different varieties in an old Flemish book, but has been unable to locate them. Maybe the interaction of soils, climate, husbandry were different; maybe they had special high-yielding varieties; maybe the story is apocryphal. I just can't believe there were no slugs in the Netherlands. It's not a native of the UK, but a very rare and declining weed. Read about the 'Fyfield Pea' here.
 Jan Kops, Flora Batava, Deel 3 (1814)

Plants seem to vary somewhat in the shape of their tubers, with some being elongated and others close to ovoid; perhaps they also vary in size, fattening speed and slug resistance. Like so much in the world of alternative root crops, we start from a knowledge baseline of next to nothing. So what I propose, Dear Friends, is that you help me to extend my aardaker accessions to encompass its Eurasian-Siberian heartland and its introduced range in North America; it would be fun to get hold of seeds from the Fyfield plants too. I've no idea how diverse this species is, but would like to find out. Aardaker has many virtues and might, with concerted effort, be amenable to improvement. And even if not, I can always eat my failures, God (and slugs) willing.

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