Thursday, March 26, 2015

Oca: What does it taste like?

Sunset oca tuber interior
Sunset has low acid, medium sweetness,
and medium density, traits that combine to
produce a flavor a bit like carrot.
I get asked a lot of questions about oca, but one is asked more commonly than all of the others combined: how does it taste?  Most people don't want a long answer, so it is easy to fall back on the standard descriptions like "lemony potato" or "potato with sour cream."  These answers satisfy those who aren't planning to grow oca and just want a general idea of how it can be used, but they fall far short of exploring the spectrum of flavors and textures offered by oca.

Bolivian Red oca tuber interior
Bolivian Red has low acid, medium
sweetness, and high density, traits
that combine to produce a flavor very
much like winter squash.
I've tasted a lot of oca, particularly through this winter as we evaluated several hundred new varieties grown last year.  I think that there are three important components of oca flavor: sweetness, acidity, and density.  These combine to produce very different results.  A variety with high sweetness, high acidity, and low density will be sharp and crisp, evoking comparisons to pie apples.  A variety with medium sweetness, low acidity, and low density may taste a lot like carrot.  A variety with low sweetness, low acidity, and medium density can be quite similar to a potato, particularly if it also has some bitterness.  A variety with medium sweetness, low acidity, and high density can be a lot like winter squash, with some developing strongly nutty flavors.

Hopin oca tuber interior
Hopin is medium acid, low sweetness,
medium density, traits that combine to
produce the classic "lemony potato," or
"lemony turnip" flavor.
The matter is complicated further by the change that oca undergoes after harvest.  When exposed to sunlight for a couple of weeks (or when simply left in storage for about a month), oca undergoes biochemical changes that reduce acidity and, to a lesser degree, increase sweetness.  So, a variety that comes out of the ground powerfully sour may be just pleasantly lemony in about a month, while a variety that is slightly sour may lose that character entirely.  As a consequence, some varieties are best when freshly harvested, some after a period of storage, and others have great (but different) flavors before and after.

Redshift oca tuber interior
Redshift has low acid, low sweetness,
 medium density, and a slight bitterness,
 traits that combine to produce a result
very similar to potato.
All of these combinations have their charms, but the range can also be a challenge; different oca varieties aren't necessarily interchangeable.  A really acidic variety of oca (White, for example) can be used in a German style potato salad without adding any vinegar.  It is a pretty unusual substitute for mashed potato and the acidity doesn't pair well with every dish.  The higher acid ocas are a somewhat unfamiliar combination of flavors compared to many common vegetables (sometimes, they are more akin to fruits) and so require a little more planning to incorporate into recipes.  On the other hand, the low acid ocas are relatively versatile and slot right into recipes calling for ingredients as diverse as potato, carrot, sweet potato, and squash.

So, what does oca taste like?  That question is about as easy to answer as "what does wine taste like?"  I have made some generalizations, but the spectrum of flavors in oca is wide and I feel like I have only just begun to explore it.  New seedlings routinely turn up new combinations of flavor that I haven't encountered before.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Know Your Andean Root Vegetables: Part 1

We have been very lucky to find an artist who can translate my crude scribbling into a beautiful finished product.  Here is a handy introduction to the major Andean roots.  There is also a two page flier with the same information attached below.

Click here for the two-page PDF.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mashua and Ulluco: Rainy day seedlings

Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) is one of the few Andean root crops that is reportedly easy to grow from seed.  It is happy self- or cross-pollinating and produces lots of flowers which grow into clusters of 3 to 4 seeds.  The seeds are regarded as easy to germinate.  They come up sometimes as volunteers in mild climates.  They are said to have low or no dormancy.  You won't find much more information than that on the subject.  It's "easy," but apparently not many people haven't really tried it or written much about it if they did.

I agree that it is easy to get mashua to start making seeds.  My plants have done a lot of that.  The problem is getting them to mature.  Mashua starts making seeds relatively late in the year and they take quite a while to mature.  Around here, they need to make it to about mid-December.  The plants are frost sensitive, and several times now I have almost made it to mature seed, only to be surprised by a frost that wiped them all out at the last minute.

Last year, I spent quite a bit of time making crosses, planning to skin a hoop house over the plants before cold weather arrived.  Unfortunately, we were surprised in November by a hard freeze on a night with a predicted low of 40 degrees and that was the end of most of my mashua seed crop.  I had picked a few dozen seeds early as a bit of insurance.  I wasn't sure whether they were sufficiently mature, but I sowed them and a few dozen more received in trade back in December.  And waited.

By the time March came around, I started to despair that my seeds were not going to germinate.  I put the tray on the lowest shelf of the greenhouse, where seedling trays go to die.  A couple weeks ago, I saw a mashua seed pushed up from the surface of the soil and pulled it out to find a radicle emerging.    More careful examination revealed 5 more, so it looks like I am going to have some new mashuas this year.

It still took quite some time to see any growth.  Two weeks later, the first bit of green appeared.  Mashua cotyledons remain below ground, so it takes the plant a while to form a true stem and leaves. By the time a mashua seeding breaks the surface, it has probably been growing for 2 or 3 weeks.

This mashua, a Ken Aslet x Orange cross, is the farthest along.  It looks happy enough.  I have high hopes for mashua breeding.  At minimum, I would like to see a mashua with the size and color of Orange, but the early flowering and tuber formation of Ken Aslet.  Even that would be just an intermediate step, because my mashua breeding project has one simple, overarching goal: improved flavor.

In other news, ulluco seedling #5 arrived today:

This makes two with red cotyledons and two with green (plus a volunteer, whose cotyledons I never saw).  It will be very interesting to see if seedling color is reflected in tuber color to any degree.

I've been keeping the ulluco seed flats very wet and heated to 70 degrees during the daytime and 55 at night.  I don't know if that is the best approach, but it seems to work.  Because wet soil is better for germinating hard coated seeds than it is for keeping seedlings alive, I remove the seedlings to individual pots as soon as I spot them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ulluco: If you're not bored yet, I'll keep working on it

Well, it appears that we have cracked the ulluco code.  Since our first volunteer seedling last year, we have now sprouted three more seeds under controlled conditions.  I couldn't be more pleased.  In addition to being one of my favorite plants, I've spent more time in the pursuit of ulluco seed than anything else that I've ever grown.  A quick and dirty calculation revealed that each seed that has sprouted so far is the result of nearly 110 hours of work.  Hopefully more are still to come, which would make that number look a bit less obsessive.  ;)

Here is the state of ulluco in the last days of winter, 2015:

My new ullucos tray is filling up.  I'm multiplying plants in preparation for planting out sometime in April.  There's no particular rush to get the ulluco in the ground, which gives me some time to make more plants and hopefully increase the yield.

These pots contain OC-14-CB4x01, our volunteer seedling from last year.  It produced only one tuber, which has been reluctant to sprout.  I was able to coax a single sprout and have since split that plant four ways.  I'm trying to get two more sprouts from the two halves of the tuber at the right of the photo.  I'd like to have a dozen plants of this variety by the end of April.

OC-14-CB4x01 looks very similar to its parent variety, BK10425.2, but can be easily distinguished by the very red undersides of its leaves.

Some ulluco varieties exhibit very strong apical dominance in the tubers, meaning that they tend to form a single sprout and will not form others without stress or increased physiological age.  This variety appears to be a good example of that.  I eventually cut the tuber and treated with gibberellic acid in order to encourage sprouting from lateral eyes.  Now we're starting to see a little sprouting.

These pots contain OC-15-CB2x02, our first variety that germinated under controlled conditions.  I took a cutting last week, which established easily and has already doubled in size.  I hope to have four plants by the time that we plant them out in April.

In comparison to OC-14-CB4x01, this variety has very pale green leaves, top and bottom.  Interestingly, the cotyledons are spotted with red underneath, but the true leaves are not.  I have a guess that the tubers of this variety will also be blotched with red.

Here is a first look at OC-15-GF6x01, which appeared yesterday. It has red cotyledons, which is quite a contrast to the completely green cotyledons of OC-15-CB2x02.  It has been freshly transplanted to a new pot from its algae and insect-larvae infested flat.

And here is OC-15-GF6x02, which also appeared yesterday.  It hasn't yet lost its shell.  Also freshly transplanted and taken inside to be coddled with the rest.

There is no guarantee that any of these plants will make to to fall, or that any of them will produce tubers even if they do.  There is really not much that we know about the probabilities with ulluco.  Of course, that is what makes this so much fun.  Nature doesn't give up her secrets all at once.

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!