Monday, 27 September 2010

Inky Oca Lands in London!

I've just received a sudden and unexpected surge of oca germplasm direct from darkest Peru!  Thanks to friend, Joel Carbonnel for giving me the pick from his box of mixed Andean tubers.
Pride of place must go to this almost-black oca.

It seems different to any of the other varieties I have; quite apart from the colour, the bulges below each eye are more defined and scale-like, and its overall proportion is longer.  The sprouts showing in the eyes are dark purple, and careful investigation with a scalpel reveals pale purple flesh.
Its rarity (or non-existence?) in these latitudes may be a sign that it will not tuberise well here, but even so, it could still be valuable as a breeding partner for the development of new varieties if it can be persuaded to flower.

The second tuber was nearly ignored, being a variety that I already have, but...
...then I noticed that one end was striped with a contrasting pale pink. If I discard the non-striped end, the remaining eyes should produce all-stripped tubers.

And finally this gold-coloured Mashua. I don't think it is a rare variety, but it's new to me, and next year I'll be trying it alongside the white variety that I have already.

The tubers will be seasonally confused, having just gone through winter in another hemisphere, and they are showing signs of sprouting. I need to get them into cool storage straight away where they can recover from their jet-lag before next spring. I know from experience that they should be tough enough to survive 'til then, as long as they don't get too dried out.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Oca's day-length thing

Mashua, Yacon and Oca catching low autumnal sun.

It's the autumnal equinox today - the day that nominal night length overtakes day length, and apparently the first day of the year in the agriculture-based French Republican Calendar.  More importantly, it's the time of year when the Andean-tuber grower's attention begins to stray underground.

It's well known that Oca is day-length sensitive - that is, it will only form tubers during short days in autumn. However the various authorities on the subject do not present a completely uniform front on the subject when it comes to specific timings. Here are a few quotes from respected sources:

"The common Andean types generally require days shorter than 12 hours to initiate tuber formation..."

"The optimum day-length for tuber formation in oca is 9 hours..."

"...a few researchers think that low temperatures might sometimes be more important than day length for stimulating tuberization."

" ...the ones in New Zealand (most likely originating from southern Chile in the 1860s) are apparently unrestricted by daylength."

Day length vs. Latitude vs. day of year.
But Oca is grown in Ecuador, where days are constantly just over 12 hrs (depending on how you want to define sunrise and sunset) so in this special case day-length cannot be the trigger for tuberisation in the locally adapted varieties. With no astronomical seasons, perhaps meteorological seasons are significant, for example, the onset of a annual dry period.
It's never simple. Different varieties of oca along the length of the Andes will have evolved in response to different local conditions - so there is bound to be some variation in tuberisation triggers from variety to variety.

The furthest from the Equator that Oca is traditionally grown is about 42ºS, whereas I'm growing the crop at 51º30'N. Using the chart above, and taking say 10 hours as a threshold, my location has an earlier threshold date, but the days carry on briskly diminishing to about 8 hours, whereas at 40º latitude, the days diminish more gradually to a minimum of about 9.5 hrs. In practice, this means my location only gives a short period for tubers to form before the frost-risk of the very short days in mid winter.

Oca plants in mid-winter, with top-growth recently killed by frost.

So just like the potato when it was first brought to these latitudes, Oca needs to be given favourable microclimate conditions or protection to keep it growing into winter, well past the date when tuberisation begins. The (originally day-length sensitive) potato was adapted to European local conditions by breeding and selection, and Oca can be too, but until then it will not be reliable here as an unprotected field crop, as there is always a good chance that an early frost will finish them before the tubers are a usable size. See Oca versus Frost post.

And if the experts cannot agree on tuberisation conditions, what about my own direct observations:

-I notice tubers start to form here from about 20th October (day length c. 10.5 hrs).
-My 9 hour day-length threshold is around 13th November. Tubers do seem to be developing fairly quickly by this date.
I intend to check more thoroughly for tuberisation dates this year to see if there is any variation between varieties.

Come on tubers, what are you waiting for?

There's a whole-world daylength calculating calendar here if you want to check your own day-length dates.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Flowering of Oca

If you are lucky enough to have had Oca flower, you can probably contribute valuable information to help solve a mystery. Let me explain.
The most promising method to obtain day-length neutral strains of Oca is to look for the trait in the variable plants grown from true seed rather than clones grown from tubers.
Seed can be obtained if you can persuade more than one variety of Oca to flower simultaneously, but that is more easily said than done as Oca may, or may not oblige in that department depending on unknown mystery factors.
One gardener in one location cannot see the factors, or at least not this gardener. Observations on flowering periods are needed from a wide geographical and climatic range - then hopefully a pattern will be evident when viewed overall.

Do your bit for the Oca breeding effort, push back the frontiers of the Oca-unknown - join the Radix Root Crops facebook group, and contribute to the discussion 'Flowering Ocas: Where and When'.

Even knowing that Oca is not flowering in a certain location is useful information.
If you're not into facebook, leave a comment here about your flowering (or non-flowering) Oca. Dates, location, recent weather... anything that you think might be relevant.

Come on Oca flowers out there  - show yourself!

The tiny flower buds grow from leaf axils near the growing tips of stems.