Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Passion for Edible Root Exploration
An Interview with Rhizowen Radix

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Photo by Radix of a selection of Andean Root Crops

There are few plant people whom I admire more than Radix Rhizowen so I was giddy when he agreed to let me grill him about his hobby of growing and eating rare root crops. I'm pretty sure that the first time I encountered this intrepid unearther of all things tuberous was when I was googling something like oca. I was transported into the hilarious, well researched and fascinating world of his blog radix4roots.

For a floraphile like myself, it is highly enabling and I disappeared down the rabbit hole of his tales for as long as my children would permit. I was also compelled to try and source some of these fascinating roots for myself - no easy task. Crops like oca, yacon (which spell check keeps trying to change to bacon by the way) and the Apios are just not commonly grown and those examples are of more well known rare root crops. However, in 2013, there were posts on Nephrolepsis cordifolia - a fern with edible tubers, Aandegopin, and Soh-phlang. That's not to leave out Mashua - the marmite of roots - as he calls it owing to its mixed taste reviews.

So where does this intrepid root explorer reside? Radix over to you.

I garden on the outskirts of Liskeard, a small town close to the edge of Bodmin Moor, which is in Cornwall, the most southerly county in the UK. We're at about 50 N, but the weather is mild due to the presence of the Gulf Stream. Mild is, of course, a relative term and it can be cool and wet on any day of the year. The defining characteristic of our climate is its unpredictability, although it usually rains a lot. Grass often grows year round in Cornwall and there is even a little tea cultivated here.

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Radix4roots - Whoopee for Wapato

I've always enjoyed growing plants and eating has an enduring fascination for me, so exploring the world of edible plants is just a combination of these two powerful themes in my life. Root crops are among the most satisfying crops to grow - something about excavating them is like unearthing buried treasure - that denouement never loses its appeal for me. Unearthing roots is probably an instinctive behavior; there's some evidence to suggest that the harvesting (and cooking) of wild roots and played an important role in human evolution.

Reading your blog is like taking a botanical world tour. Would you say that there was a region that has given you more material and if so why?

I would have to say South America. The range of edible roots tubers cultivated there seems to me to be outstanding. Anyone who is familiar with the book 'Lost Crops of the Incas' will be aware of this. Although my interest in Andean root and tuber crops predates its publication, it certainly did nothing to divert me from my chosen path. That said, there are many fascinating species lurking in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that deserve further investigation. I subscribe to the view that one should do the necessary research and try and match the plant to one's growing conditions, but you don't know until you've tried: prepare to be surprised on a regular basis. Plants and their unknowable antics are the perfect antidote to smug self-congratulation. I wouldn't have it any other way.

In the A-Z of roots that you have grown, what would you say is your most and least (can I guess) favourite, as well as the rarest and strangest root you’ve grown? Any surprising success or failures?

My list of favourites fluctuates with what has currently caught my interest. During oca season, I become ocasessive and as I hunt for the seedling volunteers; I actually find I can see them before my eyes as I go to sleep. Now that oca seed production has been cracked, it can only be a matter of time before a day-neutral plant turns up. When it does, oca's future will be assured and I'll probably move on to pastures new. .

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Radix4roots - Mauka: Expansa by name, Expansive by Nature

I like mauka for its sheer rarity, rather unusual plant architecture and surprisingly hardy disposition. It doesn't taste too bad either. Ulluco almost never fails to frustrate and disappoint. I’d love to have another go with anchote (Coccinia abyssinica) as it grew surprisingly well in an appalling summer and seemed to tuberise at a sensible time.  My dream is to create a properly reliable, hardy, cool weather tolerant sweetpotato. Correction: that's one of my dreams.

Why do you think this sort of amateur plant experimenting and development is important?

Amateurs (read enthusiasts) can make progress by collaborating to create new crops and sharing their successes and methods with like-minded individuals, wherever they may be. Take oca - growing several thousand plants from seed is well within the realms of possibility and will certainly increase the likelihood of a day-neutral mutant turning up. A group of enthusiasts can share this burden and participants can enjoy the fruits (or roots) of their collective labours.

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Radix4roots - Yacon: Don't try this at home

This must surely be a golden age for motivated amateurs to develop new varieties and domesticate new crops. How their efforts are to be protected from hostile expropriation remains to be seen.

What project is capturing your imagination at present?

I suppose oca is.  Other interests are hybridizing squashes and developing reliable chillies for our climate.

My aim is to have a wonderfully rich, diverse and productive suite of crops that will thrive here with minimum intervention. Nothing new or original in that, but I suspect that in the future we'll need a wider range of food plants as climatic fluctuations make old stalwarts less reliable. This may involve developing new varieties of old crops (like oca) or domesticating new ones.  There's no point waiting for commercial concerns to do this, we need to act now.  Aside from anything else, I find this work feeds my intellect and my imagination in a way that few other activities do.

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Radix4roots - Achote: Out of Africa


Interested in getting to know roots and their enthusiasts better? Come on down to Radix Root Crops on Facebook.


Bill W. said...

Thanks - the world needs a little more ocavangelizing.

This quote may prove enduring:
"Plants and their unknowable antics are the perfect antidote to smug self-congratulation."

Ain't that the truth!

Ottawa Gardener said...

For those of you that would like a better look at Ulluco, go no further than Bill W. ^^^'s blog:

Alison said...

As a fellow admirer I enjoyed this Ottawa Gardener - thanks! - and you have a great blog too, so much to interest me.

Anonymous said...

Hi I am looking for to get some seeds to grow oca. Do you know where I can buy seeds or tubers anywhere in Ontario? I notice you live in Ottawa. I live in Toronto city, thanks! :) ---Jane

Ottawa Gardener said...

I am growing out oca this year but won't have any until 2015. Are you on Radix's group on Facebook? That's a valuable resource. Contact me via email please.