Some quick updates

I have found very little time for blogging this spring and I don’t anticipate much change through the summer.  We’re growing more than ever and trying to manage it on top of having a “real” job.  As it happens, my real job is not likely to continue for much longer, so I may become a full time micro farmer just as the growing season comes to an end.  Although there may seem to be more than a little irony in that timing, being free around harvest time in Nov/Dec wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome as it is going to be a big job.  Anyway, this may not prove to be much of a blogging year, but there is still a heck of a lot getting done.

I am spending a lot of time updating the Andean Root and Tuber Crops Wiki, which has replaced some of my blogging.  What it lacks in style, it more than makes up for in data value.  I’ve said a few times that the most important thing that we’re growing this year is information and I become more convinced of this every day.  I’m now able to query for data about many varieties of plants and investigate potential correlations that would be very laborious to investigate otherwise.  New answers lead to new questions, but I am hopeful that even the more genetically complex Andean plants will yield some patterns that will be useful in breeding efforts.

Oca bed #1
All 2014 seedlings – every plant is unique

Oca

The oca crop is coming along nicely.  We have at least one sixteen foot row for each of 64 established oca varieties.  On top of that, we have another 44 rows in which we are growing this year’s seedlings and mini tubers of last year’s.  This comes in total to about 800 new oca varieties, despite our early season loss of about 20% of the crop.  We will keep only a small fraction of those.  I’m not sure what the number will be, but probably not more than a quarter of them,  Whether we keep them or not, of course, I hope to collect a full set of data for each plant.

Flowering began early this year, with our first flower from the variety Pale Pink coming in on June 1st.  We’ve since had another 12 varieties flower.  You can keep up to date on flowering by checking out our Flowering Report.

I’ve done about two dozen crosses, but have not yet harvested any seed.

I hesitate to mention the most ignominious oca development of the year, but this blog certainly magnifies successes and minimizes the failures, so it is good to add in some of the humbling details on occasion.  I was very excited to have the opportunity earlier this year to swap for some oca seed produced by a researcher in Bolivia.  That was a chance to introduce a lot of new genetics at once.  I received about 200 seeds, started them all and, although the germination was a lot lower than my own seed, I had almost 80 seedlings going.  Then, overnight, some kind of mold swept the trays.  The seedlings all went fuzzy and many of them died before morning.  They looked healthy when I went to bed and were dead in the morning.  In horror, I sprayed everything down with dilute hydrogen peroxide and, either due to or despite this quick action, saved eight seedlings, of which six ultimately survived.

I was rather distraught at the time, but now I have six healthy plants adding to our growing gene pool, which is six more than I had before.  So, not a total loss and, in fact, still a considerable gain in diversity.  The moral of this story is that it is probably a good idea to surface sterilize oca seeds.  I bake my potting soil in the oven, so the mold probably came in either on the seeds or from the air.  The widespread nature of the event suggests that the seeds were the source of contamination.  I can’t do much about floating spores, but I can at least try to clean the seeds before sowing.

Survivors of the Great Bolivian Oca Massacre of 2014

Ulluco

I get more inquiries by email about our ulluco seeds than anything else.  I wish that there were more news about my favorite Andean crop.  A few of the ulluco seeds that I harvested last year have burst open, looking promising, but have then failed to develop.  I am now uncertain if this had anything to do with germination or was just some mechanical process.  I console myself that many of the seeds in the Finnish study took more than a year to germinate, so I’ll just keep waiting.  Meanwhile, I hope to be able to get a lot more seed this year, which would give me the opportunity to do some experimenting with different germination strategies.

We are growing 18 varieties this year, about half of which I started from tissue cultures over the winter.  The plants are looking good and flowering began about two weeks ago.  I head out with my paintbrush to do pollinations whenever I can find the time.

I am also undertaking an experiment to try to produce octoploid ullucos as described by Viehmannova et al. in Induced polyploidization and its influence on yield, morphological, and qualitative characteristics of microtubers in Ullucus tuberosus.  I have treated ulluco cultures as described and have sixteen survivors.  Now I just have to wait until they grow large enough to check for chromosome doubling.  The odds aren’t that great with only sixteen plants, but if it doesn’t work, I’ll keep trying.  It could be a route to improved fertility.  Or none at all.

Mauka

Mauka Blanca plant

I am very excited to have a third try at mauka.  I have twice managed to kill cuttings that I was assured “root easily in wet soil.”  My experience was more like “collapse readily into piles of corruption in wet soil.”  Well, this time things seem to be going better!  I purchased a rooted plant of ‘Blanca’ from Sacred Succulents and while it hasn’t exactly erupted into new growth, it looks healthy and has survived well past the two day period in which I have previously killed mauka.  Yay!

Even more exiting, a friend was able to obtain some mauka seeds and was kind enough to share them with me.  They germinated pretty easily and are now working on their first true leaves.  I believe that these are self-pollinated seeds of the variety Blanca.  They will probably be true to type, because mauka is a diploid (kind of unusual for an Andean crop).  So, I may have taken two routes to get to the same variety of mauka.

By the way, I soaked the seeds for three hours in water and then surface sowed on saturated potting soil on a 70F day / 60F night heat mat.  I had germination within a week and ultimately got 12 out of 15 to germinate, so I can recommend that method if you find yourself in possession of mauka seeds.

Mauka Blanca seedlings
All lopsided, with one cotyledon larger than the other

Those of you uninitiated in the mysteries of obscure Andean crops may be wondering what mauka is.  Nope, it is not the same as mashua nor maca.  Try to keep it straight, will you?  Mauka is probably the rarest of the Andean crops, having been known only from historical descriptions until it was rediscovered in some garden plots in the 1960s.  It was unknown to science, that is; I’m sure the people tending the gardens knew that it was there.

Anyway, I’ll skip recapitulating descriptions that are available elsewhere and refer you to The Vegetable Garden for an intro to mauka.

Now I just need to find a plant of the variety Roja and I’ll have the makings of a mauka breeding project.  Of course, that takes for granted that these plants survive the rest of the year, which may be tempting fate.

Arracacha

I am only half as good at killing arracacha as I am at killing mauka, but that is probably only because I have had half the opportunity.  My previous arracacha lived its whole life in the greenhouse, an unhappy looking plant the entire time, and slowly faded away over the first half of winter, leaving no trace.  I bought a plant from Sacred Succulents this year, giddily potted it up in a bucket, set it in partial shade to adjust, and watched all of its foliage turn yellow and develop brown spots over a few days.

I was philosophical about it.  While I expect mauka should be successful in this climate, arracacha is probably a stretch.  It is grown a bit lower in elevation in the Andes and expects probably a bit more warmth.  It will be hard to get it through the winter.  My best hope of growing arracacha is to get a plant to set seed and try to grow some better adapted plants (or perhaps to find a Peruvian variety, but those seem to be quite difficult to locate).

Anyway, looking at a probable loss of the plant, I cut it back to nothing but the cormel and shrugged my shoulders.  When a plant looks that sick, you might as well try desperation tactics.  To my surprise, it grew anew and the yellowing affliction has not reappeared.  This is a Puerto Rican variety, whereas the variety that I previously killed was probably Brazilian.  I really have no idea what the climate conditions are like where arracacha is grown in Puerto Rico, but I imagine it is probably fairly warm compared to this cool maritime climate.  I will continue to cross my fingers, but I’m not counting on bringing in an arracacha harvest any time soon.

If you now know mauka from maca but aren’t so sure about arracacha, here is a good article that covers the basics.

There is a lot more growing, not the least of which are weeds that must be pulled before the jungle closes in on us.  So, until next time, good growing!

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