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.

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