Friday, December 12, 2014

Yacon: How yacon can help you to lose weight

This post is dedicated to all of the yacon spammers trying to put comments on our blog and Youtube videos peddling their pills and potions and stealing our images.

Yacon can help you to lose weight and make you happier!  I am certain of this.  Here is the secret:

1. Get yourself a yacon plant, or a piece of rhizome, or a cutting from someone who has a yacon plant.  Yacon plants are attractive and easy to grow.

2. Plant it in your yard.  (Here's how.)

3. Tend it.  Keep it weeded, remove any pests that attack it, stand out in the sun for a while and enjoy your plant.  (Leave your phone inside.  You are probably just getting emails from yacon syrup spammers anyway.)

You will probably lose some weight and you will probably be happier too.

Once you harvest the plant, eat some fresh yacon tuber.  It is tasty.  It is filling.  It has few calories.  It might give you some gas, but it's all good.

Save the rhizome from your plant and grow ten new plants.  You will lose ten times as much weight, have ten times as much yacon to eat and, who knows, maybe you'll even be ten times happier.

The initial expense will be small and the ongoing expense even smaller.

Alternatively, you can buy some stupidly expensive boiled down yacon juice in a jar, made God-knows-where, using who-knows-what, replacing a tiny bit of sweetener in your diet.

Grow things.  Cook things.  Lose weight.  Stop spam.  There is no magic that comes in a jar, but there is plenty of it in your back yard.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mauka: First year results

I was lucky enough to get a few mauka seeds this year and had good results growing them out.  We grew a few in the greenhouse and others in an unskinned hoop house, planning to skin it before cold weather arrived.  But, cold weather arrived unexpectedly, so that didn't happen.

I dug the eight unprotected mauka (Mirabilis expansa) plants today.  The foliage was killed in our November freeze and they need to be transplanted to the field for next year, so it was a good time to take a peek.

I must admit to a little disappointment in the size of the roots.  I had hoped to be able to eat one of them, but there is really nothing worth attempting there.  (That plastic lid is about three feet wide, so the roots aren't tiny, but they wouldn't make a meal.)

This is what the plants looked like in early September, before they grew so large and sprawling that it became difficult to take a good picture of them:


Given the very large plants, I thought that the roots might be larger, but I've read that it usually takes 2 or 3 years to get large roots and stems, so I'll just have to be patient.


Most put their energies into forming a stout central root.


Others seemed to distribute their efforts more equally among the roots.


Clearly mauka doesn't have much (any?) dormancy, as they are all sprouting again just a week after they lost their foliage.

Mauka certainly seems to hold up to its reputation is a pretty hardy and undemanding plant.  Obviously, it is frost sensitive, but temperatures of 25F and a couple inches of frozen soil didn't seem to do it any harm.  The plants in the greenhouse are still growing, so hopefully I'll be lucky enough to see them flower this winter.

I found growing mauka from seed to be much easier than growing from cuttings, so I hope to be able to produce more seed.  We're considering building a combination greenhouse and black-out house this year to both extend the mauka growing season and to try to produce seed earlier in the year.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ulluco: From seed

Last year I was surprised to find that a few of my ulluco plants were setting seed.

This year, I improved on that by producing a much larger amount of seed.

I've learned some interesting things along the way, such as the fact that 86% of the ulluco seeds do not contain fully developed embryos and therefore will never germinate.  The viability of those that do contain an embryo doesn't appear to be too great either.  None of this is unexpected; it jibes with the findings of the Finnish researchers who produced ulluco seeds and grew out some seedlings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Understanding the poor odds hasn't made it any less frustrating that none of my germination attempts have succeeded.  Happily, while I slaved away with blotter paper, gel sowing, heat pads, experiments with lighting intensity and periods, and a variety of germination enhancing hormones and chemicals, nature went ahead and did the job for me.  (Not really an unusual outcome, by the way.)

Back in July, I found a volunteer growing in the ulluco bed where we collected seed last year.  I was pretty careful to get all of the ulluco tubers in last year's harvest, but many are small, so it is unrealistic to think that I got them all.  I carefully dug up the small ulluco plant and found no signs of tuber attachment.  I then moved it to a pot on the chance that it might be a seedling... and waited until yesterday, when I pulled it and found this:


At first I was really excited, but then some doubts crept in.  I have no white ullucos, so that is a good sign.  I've seen a lot of color variation in ullucos, though, so it could be a mutation in an otherwise conventionally asexual tuber.  One of the parent types has a cylindrical form like this one, so it could be a mutation that has caused that variety to lose all color.  Luckily, I keep pretty careful records, so I went back and looked at what was growing where I found the volunteer.  And the answer was Pica de Pulga:


Pica de Pulga is most definitely not white but, more importantly, it is also not cylindrical.  Color mutations are pretty common but shape mutations aren't.  Both in the same tuber in a single generation seem very unlikely.  So, my conclusion is that this must be a new variety from seed.

It may not be the most visually exciting ulluco ever and the yield leaves something to be desired (the small plant produced only a single tuber), but I'm pretty thrilled anyway.  Hopefully it will survive to sprout and produce a larger crop of tubers next year.  The real test will be to find if it sets seed and if those seeds are any easier to germinate.  That's the hope anyway: undoing decades or maybe even centuries of accumulated reproductive defects arising from unbroken asexual reproduction.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Oca: New ocas from seed

Here is a slideshow of new oca varieties harvested in 2014.  I'm pretty happy with the results so far.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Yacon: Stem Cuttings

I have something of a love/hate relationship with yacon.  I love to eat the storage tubers, but I hate dealing with storing the crown.  I lose a lot of it over the winter no matter what I do.  I can leave it outside here, but a lot of it rots in the wet soil.  I can bring it inside, but almost always lose a large portion to some combination of rotting, dessication, or early sprouting.  This year, we finally have a walk-in cooler, so I hope that will make a difference, but that is obviously not a solution for the casual yacon grower.

If you live in a mild climate, where you can overwinter potted yacon in a tunnel or a greenhouse, you might consider taking stem cuttings.  They root pretty easily and give you a head start in spring.  This is obviously also a good way to multiply up a variety.  Between stem cuttings and rhizomes, you could pretty easily turn one yacon plant into fifty.

I take two kinds of stem cuttings from yacon: vertical cuttings on the lower part of the stem where it is still solid and horizontal sections from the upper parts of the stem that are hollow.  The reason for the difference is that I had problems with the hollow stems rotting before they would root and the horizontal sections expose the cut interior of the node for rooting, which seems to help.  I noticed that lodged yacon stems sometimes reroot on their own, but only where the stem has cracked and split.

I don't usually take tips for cuttings, although this might be the most tempting approach.  The only reason for this is that I try to preserve yacon flowers as long as possible in the hope of getting some seed.  Even with lodged plants, I can remove the lower parts of the stem and the put the upper part with the flowers in a bucket of water while they finish.  By the time that is done, the stem isn't in very good condition for taking cuttings.

These are certainly not the only ways to root yacon and they may not even be the best ways.  If you have a method that works better, please let us know.

Here's a brief video that demonstrates both techniques:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ulluco: 500

This has been another exciting year on the ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) front.  Last year, I was able to collect almost 100 ulluco seeds, which is a rather rare event.  The last published work in English that reported production of ulluco seed was in the early 1990s, although there are some publications in Spanish that at least suggest that more seed has been produced in South America since then.  Anyway, you get the idea: ulluco seed is not all that common.

As of yesterday, I have collected more than 500 ulluco seeds in 2014.  The news is even better than that, because I collect entire inflorescenses with seeds forming and wait for them to mature.  I have eight small jars of ulluco inflorescenses that should conservatively yield another 300 seeds and there are still many seeds forming on the plants.  It seems likely that I will collect more than 1000 seeds and it is not inconceivable that I could end the season with a total in excess of 2000.

500 ulluco seeds
So, this year has shown that we can repeatably produce ulluco seed here and potentially in quantities large enough to support a substantial breeding effort.  I have also collected seeds from nine varieties this year, which is a big increase over the two varieties that set seed last year, although most of those varieties have produced a very small number of seeds.

That is the good news.  The bad news is that the majority of these seeds will never grow an ulluco plant.  A few weeks ago, I dissected 100 ulluco seeds and found the majority of them empty or nearly so.  Only 1 in 7 seeds contained an apparently mature and well-formed embryo.  So, these 500 seeds will probably yield no more than 70 mature embryos and, given the great length of time since ulluco has commonly reproduced sexually, many of those are bound to fail.

Ulluco embryo undergoing a simple paper towel germination test
Knowing what I know now, I plan to try to start the majority of the seeds this year through embryo culture.  If you aren't familiar with the idea, it is pretty simple: You cut open the seed and remove the embryo.  You then put the embryo in a sealed container on a gel medium with some basic vitamins and minerals and a little bit of sugar.  The only tricky part is keeping things sterile so that you don't instead end up growing a fungal or bacterial culture.  If you do everything right, you have basically produced an artificial seed.  Although it is more work up front, it eliminates the waste of trying to grow empty seeds and allows me to see what is going on.  Observing the response of the cultured embryos to conditions may help to determine just what the proper growing conditions are.

(Incidentally, the 14 well-formed embryos that I found in the first 100 seeds have been deposited into both sterile cultures and simpler wet paper towel tests and I hope that they will eventually grow.  They have certainly imbibed and increased in size, but no further development yet.)

I'm feeling pretty confident now that I will be able to get some ulluco seedlings.  Hopefully I can get some to grow over the winter and have plenty of material to plant out next year.  Cross your fingers!

(Update: Just 5 days later, September 17th, we passed 1000 seeds.  That means about 140 seeds that at least have a shot a germination.  The odds just keep getting better!)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Carrot: Ox Cart F3

Back in 2009, I set out to breed a new carrot variety out of the ashes of the Oxheart carrot, for which I could only find poor quality seed.  Oxheart is a good variety for growing in hard soils, as it is short and stout.  Unfortunately, it seems to have been grown by few people in recent decades and the sources of seed that I was able to find had evidence of in-breeding depression in some cases and crossing in others.  The result was a jumble, with less than 20% large, good quality Oxheart type carrots and a lot of smaller, off-type carrots.

So, I grew out and selected the best and then crossed in two other varieties that we grow: St. Valery and Parisian Market, plus a small amount of a variable orange carrot that we started from a mix several years back.  St. Valery is too large, but has the right shape, right maturity, and good flavor.  Parisian Market is a small, stubby carrot.  Between the two, I hoped to get a good mix of different genetics from which to select.

We're calling this carrot Ox Cart, a clear pointer back to its heritage.  Even though the goal is to produce a carrot as much like Oxheart as possible, it will be genetically distinct, so we have to give it a new name.

We've now gotten to year four, the F3 generation, and I had hoped to have a reasonably consistent harvest this year, but it is clear that we are probably still several years from that, although we're making progress.

Here is a sample:

Ox Cart F3: No cracking, but still a lot of variability
The traits that we are selecting for fall in the middle of the picture.  Toward the left we have probably too much St. Valery with longer form (although we've mostly gotten the long carrots out this year) and sloping shoulders.  Toward the right, we have stubbier carrots that favor Parisian Market.  In the Middle, we have stout carrots with broad shoulders.  We want them more triangular and less cylindrical, so that rules out some of the middle carrots as well.

Cracking appeared in the first year and has persisted until now.  Unfortunately, the cracking appears mostly in the carrots that have the form that we want, which means that we're having to eliminate a lot of carrots that otherwise look very good.

A monster carrot, but a bit too monstrous for this project
This is a nice big carrot, but bigger than we want for this project.

Almost perfect
This one is just about perfect.  Broad shoulders, strongly triangular, short, clean, and free of cracking.  Hopefully a couple more years of selection will yield a crop that looks mostly like this.