These are not the weather conditions generally conducive to sweetpotato production, but, fool that I am, I decided to plant my kaukau slips anyway. Kaukau is the Tok Pisin name for sweetpotato and my plants were raised from seeds from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the weather tends to be cool and misty for at least part of the day. My reasoning was that this might increase the likelihood of a finding a seedling with superior cold tolerance and an ability to tolerate our otherwise unsuitable climate. They say you should be careful what you wish for, but this summer provided an ideal opportunity to test the validity of my hypothesis.
When the first frost blackened the tops recently, I knew the time for harvest was nigh; the other day, with a degree of eternally springing hope, I lifted the plants. Nothing. Not a single thickened root was to be seen. I almost cried. As is usual in these cases of heightened emotion, I sought desperately to apportion blame. The vole activity this season has been nothing short of incredible, with virtually every bed undermined by their tunneling. But they usually leave a trail of destruction and there was no sign of any root fragments or droppings near the kaukau plants; a more likely explanation is that the weather was just too cool, wet and cloudy and no storage roots had formed. After several thousand years of adaptation to northern European conditions, some of us still struggle with conditions here and dream of our ancestral homeland in sunnier climes. There's no reason to suppose that the sweetpotatoes wouldn't be feeling anything other than utterly bereft and homesick.
So the simple answer is no, a crop was not had from Kaukau Corner this year. It may be a case of back to the drawing board: there are many other edible ipomoeas worth investigating. I'm still keen to obtain seeds of culina (Ipomoea minuta) a high altitude wild relative of sweetpotato which apparently tastes good. If some of its hardiness could be transferred into sweetpotato, all these years of heartache and false dawns on the road to sweetpotato acclimatisation could well be over. Looking out at a lowering, leaden sky, with rain imminent, this is the unreasonable hope that keeps me going.