Thursday, 4 December 2014

Mauka meets Sweden, take one

I was not actually being very correct last time when I wrote that my tuberous adventures in 2014 were entirely restricted to sweet potato cultivation. There is one other rather exotic crop that I got my hands on this year. In fact, this is probably one of the most exotic tubers out there, eclipsing the humble sweet potato by lunar magnitudes. I am speaking, of course, of mirabilis expansa aka mauka, miso or chago, an Andean root vegetable that is as deliciousy mysterious as its multiple names suggest.

Mirabilis expansa
Since my ambitions in growing Andean root vegetables far outweigh my patience in actually acquiring the plant material, I have recently gone ahead and purchased Lost Crops of the Incas, the 1989 standard work for aspiring cultivators of unusual and long-forgotten plants from the Andes. The book contains some intriguing facts about mauka. Believed to have been a staple crop of the Incas, mauka was completely unknown to scientists (a fate that many an animal and plant species would probably benefit from) until the beginning of the 1960s, when it was found being cultivated in remote parts of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Growing at altitudes above 2700 meters, it is said to be particularly tolerant of harsh conditions, which of course makes it a promising plant to try in more Northern latitudes. Its alleged ability to grow to mythical proportions over the course of one or sometimes multiple seasons (it appears to be a perennial though its frost tolerance is uncertain) has inspired some people to describe it as some kind of Andean cassava. Frank Van Keirsbilck told me they tend to weigh 800g to 2kg after one growing season in his garden. As most tuber crops, mauka is believed to be very nutritious, and, more importantly perhaps, is also reported to be delicious. Descriptions on the internet place the taste somewhere in between potato, parsnip, and sweet potato. Now, these just happen to be three of my favourite foods in the world, so there was plenty of reason here to make me very excited indeed.

Harvesting mauka
I was then quite pleased last spring when I managed to acquire two cuttings of the CIP208001 variety (courtesy of Rhizowen, and actually also of Frank, who is the original source of the plant in Europe and who also sent me cuttings, though these didn’t survive the onslaught of the Belgian/Swedish postal system). Since this was probably one of the first times that mauka graced these parts of the world with its presence, I first pampered the cuttings on my balcony until they seemed strong enough to stand their own in the real world. For space reasons (read: I’m horrible at planning) they ended up in the border of my garden, where they soon took off and seemed happy enough. Nothing really seemed to disturb them very much, not even the vole invasion in the nextdoor sweet potato patch or the biblical floods in early autumn that temporarily turned my garden into an miserable wetland. Though apparently not daylight-sensitive like many other Andean crops, Mauka roots seem to bulk up fairly slowly, and it was therefore good fortune that the first frost came fairly late this year, just a few days ago in fact. The frost was very mild and killed just the top leaves, leaving much of the foliage undamaged, so I could probably have left the plants in the ground for a while longer. Impatient gardener that I however am, I didn’t want to wait any longer so I harvested the rest of the leaves for salads and ommelette-fillings (and pretty tasty they were too!) and dug up the roots. Amazingly, I already found some new growth sprouting from the top of the roots, so this certainly is a plant that wants to grow.
The two underwhelming tubers... on a piece of A4...
I hope this does not turn into a trend on this blog, but the harvest, dear reader, was not exactly something to write home about. The two tubers weighed about 150g each. My plan was to eat one, and save the best one to resprout next year, but at 150g that seemed somewhat premature to say the least. I’ve therefore postponed the taste test to next year and stored both of the roots on my unheated attic (for lack of a better option), where I hope it will be cold enough to keep them from sprouting too soon. I’ve previously also taken a dozen or so cuttings that are happily growing new leaves at the moment, and I have received at least one new variety (mauka blanca) to try next year. Together this should give me plenty of plant material to carry out a proper trial next year, in the absolute best spot my garden has to offer. It’s all uphill from here for mirabilis expansa!

The 2015 mauka babies