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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