Friday, February 27, 2015

Ulluco: Seedling Progress

On February 6th, I noticed that our first ulluco seed had sprouted in the greenhouse.  In the three weeks since then, it has grown pretty rapidly, judging by the results reported by Lempiainen in 1989 in the paper Germination of the Seeds of Ulluco.  As of today (day 21), the seedling has opened 3 sets of true leaves.  It became alarmingly top-heavy and bent over almost to the soil, so I shored it up with some additional potting mix.  Normally, I wouldn't provide such a detailed blow-by-blow for a single seedling, but ulluco seedlings don't happen every day, every year, or even every decade.  Hopefully, this is a first step toward changing that.

Day 1: cotyledons just breaking the surface
Day 3: cotyledons open and hypocotyl lengthening
Day 6: hypocotyl reddening

Day 10: Red blotches developing on underside of cotyledons
Day 13: Developing epicotyl just visible
Day 17: First true leaves open
Day 21: Multiple sets of true leaves

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ulluco: Seedling Success

Today I spotted something in the greenhouse that made my heart skip a beat: a tiny bit of green rising from the surface of a flat of ulluco seed.  Of course, weeds do occasionally make it into our potting mix, so I carefully removed the sprout and confirmed that it was indeed coming from an ulluco seed.  Woohoo!

Ulluco seedling on day 3

Although it is probably not the first new ulluco that I have gotten from seed, this is the first that has definitively grown from a seed that I sowed.  This batch of seeds is from the BK10425.2 x Pica de Pulga cross, made in 2014, although there is the possibility of open pollinated crosses mixed in.  The seeds were sown in October in a flat in the greenhouse, watered only when the soil became dry, and otherwise ignored.

The seedling has been transplanted to an individual pot and moved indoors, drastically increasing the odds that I will kill it with kindness.  Hopefully it will survive to produce tubers, but even if it doesn't, I am now certain that some of the seeds are germinable, which is really great news!

So far, I have sown a total of 1044 seeds in 2013 and 2014 and obtained 1 seedling.  That is a success rate of 0.09%.  In the frequently mentioned research at the University of Turku, they experienced very long germination times (often in excess of 1 year) so there is reason to hope that we'll see some improvement in the germination rate through the end of 2016.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Projects

Plant breeding takes a long time, so 2015 projects will look a lot like 2014 projects, and 2013, and 2012, and so on.  I make it my policy to bite off considerably more than I can chew each year while imagining that it will be different this time.  2015 will be no different, as we are going to clear an additional acre or two in order to expand.  When not slashing through an acre of old growth blackberries, these are the projects that I will be focusing on this year (not an exclusive list, of course).

Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza)

I had about a 50% success rate with arracacha offsets, so it looks like we'll be coming out of winter with six plants.  Two will be grown under optimal conditions in order to produce more offsets.  The remaining 4 will be starved, dehydrated, and flogged on a regular basis in the hope of forcing them to produce seed.  This climate seems a bit too chilly for arracacha, so the hope is that seed will unlock some more favorable phenotypes.

Acquiring new varieties and especially seeds would be a big help.

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia)

My most Quixotic project, I suppose.  I have seeds obtained from my 2013 mass cross.  I couldn't afford the space to grow them out last year, but I hope to this year.  This will probably be a very slow project, but I hope to someday have a bitter melon that can grow outdoors in our cool, foggy climate.

I think I actually have enough varieties to work from, having amassed more than 40 bitter melon varieties.  Unless of course there is a more northern bitter melon that I'm unaware of.  That would be exciting.

Camas (Camassia quamash)

My camas project needs reevaluation.  Is bigger roots really the right goal?  I don't really have a problem with the average size of Camas bulbs.  It occurred to me last year that what I really would like is fast growth from seed.  I had the same thought about Turnip-Rooted Chervil.  I would like a Camas that grows to reasonable size in a year and sets seed.  So, I may set aside current work and take a different approach.

Carrot (Daucus carota)

I'm getting close to a stable result with my improved Oxheart carrot project.  I lost a lot of the carrots to geese last year, so I will have to sow more 2013 seed.  Baker Creek brought back the original Oxheart this year, so I bought some for comparison purposes.  It will be very interesting to see how different mine is after a few years of work.

Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea)

One of the reasons for clearing more land is so that I can resume my overwintering cauliflower project. Cauliflower is big and in the ground for a long time.  Since I have probably years to go before a final product, I've had to scale this project back, but I'd like to scale it up again.

All this project needs is time.  How much, I have no idea.

Chilean Guava (Ugni molinae)

There is only one selection criterion with this plant at the moment: freeze resistance.  They rarely die, but often take damage here.  Some young plants show less damage than others, so this project is just a matter of collecting seed, sowing seed, and waiting to see what happens in early winter.  Slow going.

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)

I almost lost my cloudberry plants due to neglect last year.  Seed crop was almost zero.  I am making up for this by propagating a large number of cuttings this year.  Berry yields are low and seed yields are worse, so I need a larger planting.  The wetter areas of the land that we're clearing should be good for cloudberry.  Cloudberry and skirret may actually prove to be good companion plants.

I badly need more diverse germplasm.  My original seeds come from a very small patch near Queets, WA and some collected near Victoria, BC.  I would like to find more seed from coastal Alaska, BC, and especially Vancouver Island.

Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)

I have a lot of open pollinated dahlia seeds to grow out this year, so that should be fun.  I should also be able to produce good quantities of a couple of better edible varieties.  I'm not sure where this project is headed, but this year will probably give me a better idea.

I would like to acquire more dahlias that have good qualities as edibles to work from, but it is extremely difficult to find any information on the subject.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)

One of two new projects this year.  (What am I thinking?)  I have experimented with embryo rescue with horseradish seeds and although I didn't get any seedlings, I did get some growth, so I am encouraged to keep trying.  I need to find more horseradish varieties to maximize our gene pool.  It turns out that there are actually quite a few horseradish varieties.  Tracking down more than three of them is very challenging.

Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

I suppose that I should include the fartichoke.  I haven't killed them yet.  I keep growing a few from seed.  I want to like this plant.  With more space, I might be more inclined to try to sort out the tangled mess of varieties and evaluate them more carefully.  Also included in this project is Helianthus strumosus, which seems to grow reasonably well here and may offer hybridization possibilities.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

This plant is a nightmare to cross - higher than 99% failure rate - but I'll keep working on it.  It tastes good and sometimes grows well, so the right genes are in there.  On the plus side, it takes up very little space and is difficult to neglect.  It does make tons of seed; they're just all self pollinated.

I suspect that there may be better sources of seed out there.  It seems that maca is now grown mostly for the nutraceutical trade and therefore may be deteriorating as a food crop.  That's my guess anyway.

Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum)

Although I lost most of my mashua seed crop last year, I did manage to get about 70 seeds and have so far gotten about 60 more in trade.  I will grow every one that I can get to germinate.  I'm optimistic about the possibilities for improving mashua.  The idea of a mashua breeding project has become very exciting to me; we'll see if the results can live up to the anticipation!

I do think that I need to find more mashua varieties.  There seem to be very few available outside the Andes and I have most of them.  The plants must set seed easily in the Andes so, unlike oca and ulluco,  which require complicated import of tubers, perhaps there is some way to get true seed.  That would be ideal.

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa)

Just getting started with this plant.  I haven't even tasted it yet, so maybe I'll hate it.  That seems unlikely though.  I'm hoping to see some seeding in the greenhouse plants this winter, but that may be overly optimistic.  I will likely build out some greenhouse space for this plant as well.  Mauka is a diploid, so expectations from breeding should be rather humble, but it would be good to at least get gradual adaptation out of self-pollinated seed.

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa)

2014 was a year of huge progress with oca, with several hundred varieties grown from seed and the size of our heirloom collection expanded to more than 40 varieties.  2015 will be similar, with room for about 400 new seedlings and 50 varieties chosen from last year for further trial.  If our land clearing proceeds quickly enough, I will also give more of last year's new varieties a second try.

For the first time, I feel like I have enough oca to work with, although that won't stop me from searching out more.  Now it would be most interesting to find new ocas from the extreme portions of its range, like Chile and Argentina.  Those might offer different levels of day length sensitivity.

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

Trying to stabilize a parsnip with long seed life (3 years at 70%+ germination).  The seed life was actually achieved in the first year simply by starting a lot of really old parsnip seed.  Not much else about the plants is uniform, so it is now a matter of selecting back to a more consistent root without losing the seed life in the process.

Potato (Solanum spp.)

I grew almost no potatoes in 2014 due to space constraints.  That sucked.  One of the greatest motivations to getting the rest of our land cleared is to be able to get back to growing large numbers of potatoes from seed.  I have a lot of my own lines to play with and a considerable stash of Tom Wagner seed that I haven't gotten around to growing yet.

Although I usually dedicate a lot of space to them, potatoes are my most aimless project. I don't really have goals; I just grow a lot and wait for interesting and unusual spuds to appear.  I would like to spend more time unlocking varieties that are difficult to obtain seed from.  This climate is very good for producing potato seed and, as with the other Andean crops, I know that it is possible to get seed from very difficult potatoes here.

Potato Onions (Allium cepa)

I am uncertain whether or not the world needs another potato onion variety (not that I would ever be slowed down much by such considerations).  The existing ones seem to do the job very nicely and Kelly Winterton has been producing fantastic new varieties for a few years.  The plant does show some pretty interesting variability and there is really no such thing as too many onions, so I will continue to work on this as a small scale project.  Perhaps crossing up potato onions and shallots would move the project in an interesting new direction.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

I have the beginnings of an interesting project with rhubarb.  I'm exploring the variability on offer from seed and it is much greater than you might expect.  This is another large plant that I haven't been able to dedicate enough space to.  Hopefully that will be resolved this year.  Rhubarb is a bit like horseradish in that there are a lot of varieties out there, but tracking them down is nearly impossible.  I think that rhubarb has suffered from lack of understanding about its polyploid nature and that there are consequently a lot of inferior (and probably a few superior) seed grown varieties masquerading as heirlooms.

Sea Kale (Crambe maritima)

With more space, my sea kale projects will fork.  I have been trying to do too many things with this plant in too little space.  The first project is the more serious one: increasing the size of the florets for use as a perennial broccoli.  The second project is improving the size, flavor, and texture of the roots.  These are not compatible goals, so the plants need to be separated and our two separate plots will now allow for that.

Skirret (Sium sisarum)

Last year was a very disappointing year for skirret.  Some kind of disease swept the plants that cause the roots to yellow and go soft.  On the up side, there were survivors!  What could be better than kicking off the next phase of a breeding project with the few survivors of a slate-wiping disease?  The land that we're clearing has some natural swales, which is ideal skirret territory, so hopefully 2015 will be a comeback.  The primary goal of the skirret project is increased root size.  I think that is what everyone who is working with this plant is trying for.

Stachys tubers (Stachys spp.)

I played around with Stachys affinis (Chinese artichoke or crosne) and S. palustris (Woundwort) last year.  S. palustris actually seemed like the more promising plant.  I got a little bit of seed from both and I understand that a cross between the two is likely, because S. affinis doesn't set seed easily.  They're tasty enough, although not high yielding.  They also don't take a lot of space and are undemanding, so I imagine I'll keep experimenting with them at a low level.

Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris)

I still have more varieties to trial and a few crosses to grow out from last year.  I also need to do more experimentation with processing the beets.  My goal is to produce (or identify from existing varieties) a reasonably good sugar beet for cool climates where honey bees struggle to survive.  Mine, for example.    If wanting to produce sugar, most subsistence farmers would first turn to honey, but that doesn't work everywhere.  Sugar beets have been almost exclusively an industrial crop, farmed in monoculture with everything that implies.  I'd like to find or produce a variety that is well suited to small scale growers in cooler climates.

Turnip Rooted Chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum)

I finally figured out what I want from this plant last year: I want it to be an annual.  The roots are never that big.  The plants that occasionally bolt in the first year actually tend to have the bigger roots.  Biennial breeding is a pain.  So, although it flies in the face of convention, I think I will begin to save seed from bolters with reasonable root size.  I'll grow a small plot of the existing seed as a backup plan.

Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus)

This has become the most exciting of all the breeding projects for me.  We are now maintaining 20 heirloom varieties and obtained more than 1000 ulluco seeds last year.  The focus for 2015 will be to get some of those seeds to germinate.  If we can clear land quickly enough, I will significantly increase the ulluco planting in order to try to produce more seed.  Last year's single new ulluco variety is growing indoors and I hope to have it sliced and diced into at least ten plants before spring arrives.  I'm very hopeful that it will set seed and that the seed will show even slightly improved germination.

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius)

There are two challenges with yacon breeding: first, get seed; second, get it to germinate.  Neither step is easy.  To accomplish the first, I need a way of extending the yacon season, so I will build a greenhouse specifically for growing yacon in the ground.  We have enough varieties that there should be some possibility of getting seed.

I am also interested in the possibility of inter-species hybrids, since there has been some success with that.  I have a few other Smallanthus species to work with.  No idea if they have remotely compatible chromosome configurations, but I can give it a shot.

That's it!


Thursday, January 15, 2015

GMO Potato Concerns

We sold out of potato seed very quickly this year.  Normally, people buy one packet and that is usually done along with a larger order.  This year, we had a lot of orders for nothing but potato seed and in quantities of 4 packets or more.  That's a lot of potato seed!  A lot of questions came along with those orders and the questions revealed the reason for much of the interest: GMO potatoes.

If you haven't heard, the USDA approved a new line of GMO potatoes last year.  Although these aren't the first genetically engineered potatoes, they are the first on the market in over a decade.  The previous GE line, NewLeaf, was introduced in 1995 and discontinued in 2001.  Due to both the way that GMOs are licensed and the way that potatoes are grown, it is unlikely that anyone kept any in cultivation past 2002 outside of research plots.

The new line of potatoes are named Innate.  Presumably, this name is meant to help convey the idea that these potatoes have been created by the insertion of genes from a different potato species, rather than from a more evolutionarily distant source.  These genes suppress the expression of other genes through a process known as RNA interference (RNAi or "gene silencing").  This results in two novel traits for the Innate potato: it resists bruising/browning and produces less acrylamide, a suspected but unproven human carcinogen.

A lot of people are afraid of GM foods. Fear makes people overreact sometimes (in my estimation, of course), as illustrated by an email I received from a customer in January:

I tried to add qty 50 potato seed to my cart and it would only let me add 39.  Do you have more... i want to make sure I have a life time supply before the GMO potatoes ruin everything.

Correspondence with the customer (who gave permission for the quote, by the way) revealed that she gardens in an urban back yard and grows about 40 potato plants each year.  She had also never grown potatoes from seed before.  50 packets of seed would have been about a 250 year supply and coincidentally would have cost $250.  I talked her down to 20 packets and recommended no more than five.  Even then I felt a bit like I was taking advantage; I like to sell seeds, not fear.

So, if you're feeling anxiety about GMO potatoes, let's look into the details a bit.  Knowledge gives you the ability to make better informed decisions, which will hopefully reduce stress and save you money.  There are three areas that I will cover: The first is the difference between the new GMO potatoes and most other GM crops; the second is the ramifications of interaction between GMO and conventional potatoes; and the third is strategies for identifying and avoiding GMO potatoes.

If you are strongly anti-GMO and just don't want to read anything positive about GMO potatoes, you can skip over this first section.  I know this subject makes a lot of people angry and the purpose of this post is to reduce stress, not increase it.

1. Innate vs. Most Other GMOs

The Innate potatoes are interesting because they are kind of an intermediate between traditional plant breeding and transgenic engineering.  The Innate potato uses genes from other potato varieties and species to stop the expression of genes in an existing potato variety.  So, this result might have been achieved through traditional plant breeding; it would just take a long time (and probably too long to make it a profitable endeavor).  We still don't really know what additional, as-yet unobserved phenotypic changes might result from the alteration.  (More tritely expressed: we don't know what we don't know.)  However, we never really know with conventional breeding either.

The Innate potatoes are even more interesting because they are one of very few GMO varieties that have traits that directly benefit the consumer rather than the industrial agriculture system.  Most GMO crops have been altered to either poison pests or to tolerate poisons.  I can't think of anything less compelling to the consumers of those crops.  They make it possible to maximize profits by suppressing nature as thoroughly as possible.  The reduction of acrylamide in Innate potatoes probably makes them healthier to consume when we cook potatoes in less healthy ways.  Yeah, not exactly a resounding endorsement, I guess, but it is a step in a better direction.

Of course, this trait goes hand in hand with a resistance to bruising.  That is probably the money-maker in these varieties and, as you might expect, it offers a potential profit bump to industrial agriculture, but very little to consumers. While trimming up potatoes, I've never found myself thinking that we must find a high tech way to avoid ever having to cut bruises out of potatoes again.

So, does it solve real problems for people who eat potatoes?  Maybe a little.  But even a little is a big change from most varieties that offer the consumer nothing but a lower price and a heap of poisons.

The tragedy of genetic engineering is that it has fantastic potential, but we mostly use it in ways that have no conceivable benefits to the people who consume the crops.  We could be increasing nutrition, improving yields, adapting crops to harsher climates, and to perform better without any pesticides or herbicides.  Instead, we have focused on keeping plants alive as long as possible while soaking them in poison.  So, whatever else it is, at least the Innate potato is not that.

2. Interactions Between GMO and Conventional Potatoes

One of the major objections to GMO crops is that they may cross with conventional crops and transmit their foreign genes into traditional varieties.  Although I think this concern is overblown, there is no question that it can and does happen.  It is, however, much less of a concern with potatoes than most crops.

Potatoes are almost exclusively propagated vegetatively by replanting tubers, which are clones.  They don't differ substantially from one generation to the next and cannot incorporate genes from other potato varieties, because there is never a stage of sexual reproduction.  Potato breeders use true potato seed to produce new varieties, but almost nobody else other than hobbyists uses true potato seed to grow potatoes.  Many potato varieties don't flower or set seed at all in most climates.  Most potatoes are harvested before any berries that are formed actually mature and the harvest of potatoes, which typically involves killing the plants and then running a harvester through the soil, leaves almost no possibility of volunteers from seed.  Even if, by some miracle, you got some volunteers from seed, what would they cross with in the midst of a massive monoculture of potato plants?  So, I'd rate the odds of Innate's wild potato genes creeping into conventional potatoes as very low.  But not zero.  Zero happens in the lab, but rarely in nature.

I can envision a scenario by which these genes escape.  It isn't from an industrial monocrop, but more likely from a home garden.  The first requirement that we need to satisfy is the growing of an Innate variety and other conventional varieties in close proximity.  Potato pollen doesn't travel very far, even with abundant insect pollination.  By 100 yards, the odds are probably asymptotically approaching zero.  (This is not based on any hard information, just my observations as a potato grower.)  The second requirement is that the varieties present actually flower and set seed successfully.  This is actually not all that likely in most climates.  The third requirement is that the grower is intentionally saving true potato seed or is a lazy enough weeder that potato berries will fall and remain on the ground to germinate in the following year.

Let's say that Bob the frugal gardener wants to grow some potatoes and save a bunch of true potato seed.   Because he is so frugal, he buys his seed potatoes at the grocery store.  Not being aware of GMO potatoes or not paying close attention, he buys an Innate variety.  One of the Innate varieties is based on the conventional variety Desiree, which flowers and sets seed pretty easily in favorable climates.  Bob's neighbor is probably not affected, even if he saves true potato seed, but Bob's closely spaced potatoes get thoroughly crossed up with the Innate version of Desiree.  It will probably end there, with Bob growing out his potato seeds, none the wiser.  But, if he shares them with his friends and family, the crossed up varieties start to spread.  Again, it isn't likely, but unlikely things happen all the time.

There are some simple things Bob could have done to prevent this situation, but he needed the right information.  That is the focus of the next section.

3. Identifying and Avoiding GMO Potatoes

If any of the above left you feeling depressed, I'm happy to report that avoiding GMO potatoes in your garden will be pretty easy and in your diet only a little more difficult.

Roughly 99.99% of people who grow potatoes in their garden will do so from tubers and never give much thought to growing potatoes from true seed.  If you're one of them, life is easy.  Buy your seed potatoes from a reputable supplier like Potato Garden, Moose Tubers, Irish Eyes, or Maine Potato Lady (others as well; those are just the ones that come to mind immediately).  They are providing standard varieties that are maintained as clones and there is no possibility that they will be crossed with new GMO varieties.  If you are really paranoid about GMO contamination, don't buy potato varieties that didn't exist before 1995.  (I think that is unnecessary, but it is as certain as you can get.)

If you are one of the .01% that might grow potatoes from true seed, know your grower.  Don't swap seeds with Bob's cousin's wife.  Don't buy potato seeds from China on eBay.  Most people who are breeding potatoes and producing true seed will know what they are doing and will avoid working anywhere near a GMO potato field.  Talk to your grower.  If he got his potatoes from the grocery store and asks you what a GMO is, run away.  Otherwise, you're likely to be talking to a very well educated, alert, and careful practitioner of traditional plant breeding who won't steer you wrong.

What about store-bought potatoes, processed foods, and restaurant fare?  First, as far as I'm aware, the Innate potato has not yet been picked up by grocers.  So, for now, you're unlikely to see GMO potatoes at the grocery store but that may not last forever.  There is a foolproof method of avoiding GMO potatoes at the grocery store: buy Organic or Naturally Grown.  It is really that easy.  You will also be voting with your dollars for more Organic potato production.  Better yet, buy from a farmer's market or farm direct where you have the opportunity to talk to the person who grew your food and can tell you where it came from.

What if you're suspicious though?  Is that penny-pinching grocer trying to foist GMO potatoes on you, while fraudulently claiming that they are Organic?  This seems really unlikely, but you can test it!  The Innate potato resists bruising, but tied into that trait is a resistance to browning on exposure to the air.  Cut some slices off a potato and leave them on a plate overnight.  If they haven't browned, you have cause for concern.  Most will have browned noticeably in less than an hour at room temperature.

Processed and restaurant foods are more challenging.  When it comes to processed foods, one solution is: don't eat them.  Seriously, GMO or not, most of that stuff is not good for you.  If you must eat processed foods, look for those labelled by the Non-GMO Project, a voluntary association that certifies processed foods.  At restaurants, the best policy is to ask if their potatoes are Organic.  If not, odds are still very good that the potatoes are non-GMO, but this is another opportunity to vote with your dollars; there are plenty of restaurants out there that serve Organic food.

In conclusion, please don't panic.  You can avoid GMO potatoes with some pretty simple investigation.  They won't contaminate traditional varieties, unlike more challenging crops like corn and rape, for which contamination is a more serious concern.  You don't need to spend a bunch of money on a supply of doomsday potato seeds (not for this reason anyway, but keep an eye out for asteroids!)  The brains that you were born with and a little information will keep GMO potatoes out of your garden and your diet.

(By the way, we ran out of true potato seed in a month this year, so if you are still determined to lay in a supply, I highly recommend that you head on over to Tater-Mater Seeds.  They haven't opened yet for 2015, but they'll have plenty of TPS on offer when they do.)

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.