Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Notes on perennial and self-seeding roots

We held an open house root tasting a couple of weekends ago, to let people taste samples of more than fifteen roots. I wrote information sheets for each root, and thought it might help others if I typed up those notes and shared them here.

See also part 2

As always, refer to the Plants for a Future database for full details on plants. The information I give here is based on our experiences in our particular location.

I present the roots in approximate order of importance or desirability for us in our current yard. I'll make another post soon giving a description of our root strategy (how many of which kinds of roots for harvest in which times of year), based on our experimentation with many roots over the last 5 years.


About Inulin

I've noted some roots as "INULIN ROOT", which means the root stores much of its starch in the form of inulin. Humans (some? many? all?) can't digest inulin, so we don't get full calories from it. Good for diabetics and people limiting calories. Not so good for subsistence gardens!

Inulin does feed probiotics in our large intestines, creating a good bacterial balance there. But the byproduct of the bacteria feeding on the inulin is gas.

Dealing With Inulin

Ease yourself into eating inulin roots, starting wtith small portions. Some people seem to deal with inulin beter than others, so see how your body adjusts as you eat more.

Ways to transform inulin into more digestible sugars:

  • Wait to harvest til after hard freezes
  • Could you freeze roots in a freezer to simulate that?
  • Wait to harvest til late winter or early spring, when the plant has converted its inulin into more mobile sugars in preparation for new growth.
  • Cook a long time. Native americans steam-cooked camassia 24-48 hours. John Kallas discovered through experimentation that pressure-cooking camass for 9 hours archieves inulin conversion, consistent with other info I've found online talking about 9 hours at 200 degrees Fahrenheit to make the inulin digestible.


Skirret - Sium sisarum

Our hands-down favorite root for its taste and ease of growing. See my previous Skirret Crop Summary post for many more details.

Edibility: Roots raw or cooked. Carrot/parsnip taste, and very sweet. Crisp when raw, smooth texture cooked. Only drawback is woody core of many roots.

Growth: Clumping to 3' tall (first year plants) up to 6' tall (older plants). Foliage somewhat open, allowing some light to groundcovers beneath. Roots radiate downward from crown like octopus tentacles.

Harvest: You need not harvest each year; older plants just keep developing more, larger roots (possibly with less of a woody core than first year plants?) Dig any time from early or mid fall (leaves on some plants die down early) til late spring when new growth has sapped the energy from the roots. Requires serious soil disturbance to get entire spread of roots.

Culture: Full sun to full shade, moist soil to super dry. Quite the low-maintenance survivor.

Yield: Still pinning down numbers, but seems to range from .25 pound per square foot per year in shade/crappy conditions, to a bit more than .5 pound in good conditions.

Mashua - Tropaeaolum tuberosum

A perennial, tuberous nasturtium.

Edibility: Leaves and flowers have spiciness of annual nasturtiums, plus flowers taste sweet. Root tastes very hot when raw, like a white icicle radish, but mild when cooked. The writer at Radix hates the taste of mashua, but ours taste fine to us, and no one at our root tastings has ever complained of a disgusting taste.

Growth: Vigorous vine, can reach at least 10' high. Top growth dies in hard frost.

Harvest: Dig all tubers out after hard frost kills top growth. Tubers too close to the soil surface will probably get killed by winter cold, but plant will probably come back the next year from tubers you missed deeper down. (This applies to mild winter climates such as in Portland, OR.) Store dug tubers in a frost protected place and eat as desired.

Culture: Full sun, but might benefit from some shade during heat of summer. Provide vertical support. May work well with jerusalem artichokes in a polyculture--we'll try it this year.

Yield: We got 15 pounds this year from 3 plants, each vine occupying about 1 square foot, though they did sprawl a little onto other plants. Very high yield!

Jerusalem Artichoke - Helianthus tuberosus (INULIN ROOT)

A super productive and low maintenance perennial tuberous sunflower. This root would top our list of most useful if not for the inulin content.

Edibility: Roots raw (crispy and juicy) or cooked. Nice flavor, and can be eaten in bulk. The author at Radix describes eating blanched shoots.

Growth: Stalks to 10' tall (some varieties are shorter), with multiple sunflowers. Patches spread outward somewhat slowly.

Harvest: Dig any time from fall (after top growth has died off) through mid-spring when the tubers hollow out, having sent all their energy up into the new shoots. Harvest on an as-needed basis, since tubers store much better in the ground than in the house. You'll never find all the tubers when you dig, so the patch will come back next year just as strong.

Culture: Full sun to full shade. Drought tolerant. Super easy to grow; you'll have a hard time trying to stop it once you get it started!

Yield: Incredibly productive. One isolated plant yielded about 5 pounds per square foot (but it benefited from no plant competition anywhere around it.) We haven't nailed down the numbers yet, but it seems that our main patch in partial sun and with very little irrigation yields 1-2 pounds per square foot.

Wapato - Sagittaria latifolia

Edibility: Root raw (unpleasant taste) or cooked (nice taste, kind of like a potato.) Our friend eats the leaves and flowers. Samuel Thayer eats young leaves and flower stalks, both cooked.

Growth: Aquatic or swamp plant, growing about 2' above the water.

Harvest: Fall through early spring. Loosen the mud with your feet or a shovel, then gather the tubers as they pop up to the surface of the water!

Culture: Pond or some water-holding container, with a few inches of dirt in the bottom.

Lily - Lilium sp.

Edibility: Root raw (I generally haven't liked the taste of raw bulbs) or lightly cooked (sweet, with fine texture). Some species have edible flowers. Asiatic lily varieties supposedly have more tender and less fibrous roots than oriental varieties.

Growth: Clumpers to 3'-6' tall. Reproduces from bulb offsets or seed. Different species or varieties may spread faster than others in different gardens.

Harvest: Can dig in fall after leaves die back, but the bulb tastes sweeter after a hard frost. Leave smaller offsets behind to keep growing.

Culture: Likes full sun for its top growth, with its bulb shaded. May work well in polycultures with lower growing groundcovers.

Yield: Not sure of ongoing sustainable yield. We've harvested large bulbs from each plant, but we started with medium sized bulbs purchased from flower vendors. The determining factor will be how quickly they reproduce and grow from seed or small offsets.

Yacon - Smallianthus sonchifolia (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Root raw or cooked. Has a crispy watery texture with slight sweetness. Leaves and stems cooked; we haven't tried them.

Growth: Large clumper. Ours have grown 6' tall and wide when happy. Usually closer to 3' x 3'. Top growth sensitive to light frosts, dies completely in hard frost.

Harvest: Dig after hard frost kills top growth, but before ground freezes enough to damage roots! Must store in sheltered place; roots will die if left in ground over winter. Save knobbly tubers from root crown for replanting. Eat the larger, lower roots.

Culture: Full sun. Wilts if not kept well watered.

Yield: We got 15" pounds from one of our 6' plants, a bit more than .5 pounds per square foot. Not that large a yield, especially considering the high water content and inulin.

Yellow asphodel - Asphodeline lutea

Edibility: Shoots cooked (we haven't tried them), flowers raw (very sweet). Root cooked, with a mild nutty flavor.

Growth: Main leaves clumping and low, spreading slowly as the roots multiply. Flower stalk takes a few years to appear, then grows 3'-4' tall. Main leaves go dormant for summer drought, growing from autumn til the next summer. Fills a useful time niche!

Harvest: Any time of year, but supposedly roots are best during dormant period. Easy to divide and replant while harvesting roots.

Culture: Full sun, maybe some shade? Drought tolerant.

Yield: Seems low so far, maybe .25 pounds per square foot? Great potential though as a winter grower intercropped with plants like oca or good king heny which take over after the asphodel dies back in summer. Also valuable as one of only a few summer harvestable perennial roots.

Oca - Oxalis tuberosa

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked (we don't use them). Root raw (oxalic acid flavor, like sorrel) or cooked.

Growth: Low growing clumper, staying small (about 1' around) until late summer, when it explodes in growth and can get up to 4' diameter with dense foliage. Tops fairly sensitive to frost. Should work well as a groundcover with taller clumpers above it, or by utilizing its time niche with something utilizing space until late summer, then harvested to allow the oca to fill out.

Harvest: Dig all tubers after tops have been killed by frost, but before a hard freeze penetrates to the roots and damages them. Store roots in sheltered place, eating as desired. Replant from stored tubers next spring. (Though possibly tubers deep enough in the ground would survive the winter and regrow on their own in the spring.)

Culture: Seems to like protection from the blasting sun of the summer.

Yield: We've had pathetic yields in some years, but a decent yield of 17 ounces from our single plant this year.

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, flower stalks, crown raw or cooked. Root raw (super bitter!) or cooked about 10 minutes leaving only mild bitterness.

Growth: You know how a dandelion grows!

Harvest: Root seems good any time of year, and at any age of root, young or old. Very surprised people don't talk about this as a crop!

Culture: No need to encourage dandelions, really! Just let them grow where they like until they're in your way, then harvest the root.

Yield: Doesn't seem huge, but we're not trying to intensively cultivate it. Just harvesting the excess volunteers as bonus crops.

Scorzonera - Scorzonera hispanica (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, and flower stalks raw or cooked. Root cooked. Skin of root seems to have an unpleasant flavor, so best peeled?

Growth: Basically a giant dandelion. Leaf pattern different, but flowers very similar. Grows to 4'-6' tall. Prolific seeds, so should be able to self-seed well. Seeds germinate in spring or autumn.

Harvest: Root seems good any time of year.

Culture: Full sun or partial shade. Seems drought tolerant.

Burdock/Gobo - Arctium lappa (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves, shoots, flowering stem raw or cooked. Root raw or cooked, but older roots supposedly best cooked.

Growth: Biennial taproot, aking basal rosette of leaves in first year, then tall flower stalk (to 3'-5') in second year. Self seeds well.

Harvest: Dig first year roots after hard freeze kills top growth. Roots can grow up to 3' deep, so expect a lot of digging if you want to get it all.

Culture: Full sun to part shade.

Sea kale - Crambe maritima

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked with nice mild flavor and fairly tender texture. Roots cooked, with mildly sweet flavor, pretty nice.

Growth: Clumper to about 3' tall and wide.

Harvest: Probably best to harvest only during dormant season in late fall and winter? You can steal some roots from the edge of the plant and leave the main clump, or dig out the entire clump for root harvest and division/replanting.

Culture: The literature says full sun to partial shade, but our neighbors have a very happy plant in heavy shade.

Yield: Probably not high; treat the roots as a bonus crop when you want to divide a plant or knock back its size a bit.

Camas - Camassia sp. (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Roots cooked. When fully cooked to convert all the inulin into sugars, the roots taste very sweet.

Growth: Spring ephemeral bulbs, growing from early or mid spring through early or mid summer. Foliage generally 1-2' tall, with flower stalks a bit higher.

Harvest: Ideally dig during dormant season (summer through early spring). Leave the smaller bulbs behind to keep the patch going.

Culture: Full to partial sun. Can handle waterlogging during the winter and go dormant for the summer drought.

Solomon's seal - Polygonatum commutatum

Edibility: Young shoots cooked (basically a shade tolerant asparagus substitute). Root cooked (some sources describe a bitterness, but our first sample tasted sweet and delicious!)

Growth: Colony spreading at medium speed, growing to 3' tall.

Harvest: We harvested a small sample in the winter, after a hard freeze. Samuel Thayer only likes the roots in early spring.

Culture: Full shade to partial sun.

Yield: I wouldn't expect a large yield, especially if you're harvesting the shoots as a spring vegetable. But the roots tasted delicious enough for me to look forward to harvesting some from time to time as a means of keeping a patch in check.

Dahlia - Dahlia pinnata , Dahlia rosea (INULIN ROOT)

We grew this a few years ago, but the taste of the roots didn't excite us. The plants failed to regrow from the roots I left behind after the harvest, and we didn't care enough to seek out new starts. However, I've thought it'd be worth exploring available varieties to find some that taste better, and an article by William Woys Weaver confirms my hunch.

Edibility: Flower petals raw, root cooked.

Growth: Clumper to about 3' tall. Top growth sensitive to frost; roots may need some protection to overwinter in the ground.

Harvest: Dig roots as needed any time after top growth dies. May require serious soil disturbance?

Culture: Full sun.

Evening primrose - Oenothera biennis

Edibility: Leaves, flowers, seedpods, and seed raw or cooked. We use leaves and flowers heavily in salads. We haven't harvested many seeds, since they're small and fiddly. Root cooked.

Growth: Clumping biennial self-seeded. Makes basal rosette of leaves the first year, then tall stalk to 4'-5' tall with leaves and flowers the second year.

Harvest: Dig root of first year plant in fall or winter.

Culture: Full sun? Drought tolerant. Seed needs disturbed ground to germinate; harvesting the roots does the tirck.

Creeping bellflower - Campanula rapunculoides

Edibility: Leaves and flowers raw or cooked. I find the leaves to taste slightly unpleasant raw, so I mostly cook them. Roots raw or cooked.

Growth: Aggressive runner to about 2'-3' tall. Died down for s last year in summer drought, then again after hard freeze.

Harvest: We have not found substantial roots at the edge of a patch, only in the center. Roots may be available year round?

Culture: Full sun to full shade, though not sure how well it yields in shade. Drought tolerant (dies down.)

Unknown bellflowers - Campanula sp

I received seed supposedly of Adenophora lilifolia and A. pereskiifolia, but as far as I can tell, both turned out to be some Campanula species. They could be the same species, or maybe two separate but similar species!

Edibility: All Campanula species have edible leaves and flowers, raw or cooked, often mildly sweet. Some species have edible roots, raw or cooked.

Growth: Clumpers to about 2' tall, very slowly spreading. Make many seeds, so may self-seed well. Ours died down with the summer drought, then again with winter freeze.

Harvest: Maybe usable as a summer root? Definitely harvestale in winter.

Culture: Full to part sun. Seems drought tolerant by dying down.

Yield: Doesn't seem high for roots, though we've harvested abundant flowers.

Daylily - Hemerocallis sp (INULIN ROOT)

Edibility: Leaves and young shoots cooked (we haven't tried these.) Flowers, flower buds raw or cooked. Root raw or cooked.

Growth: Medium fast runner, about 3' tall.

Harvest: Roots during dormant season (only?). Maybe year round?

Culture: Full sun to par shade. Drought tolerant.

Yield: Low root yield, more of a bonus crop when you divide or reduce a clump.

Giant sea kale - Crambe cordifolia

Edibility: Flowers raw or cooked, leaves raw (though too tough for me to enjoy them raw) or cooked. Roots cooked, but unpleasantly bitter.

Growth: Clumper to 6' tall and wide.

Harvest: Probably best to harvest only during dormant season in late fall and winter? You can steal some roots from the edge of the plant and leave the main clump, or dig out the entire clump for root harvest and division/replanting.

Culture: The literature says full sun to partial shade, but our neighbors have an extremely happy plant on the north wall of their house.

Yield: Probably not high; grow this primarily for the leaves, with the root as a bonus crop.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Crop summaries: Indian breadroot, Psoralea esculenta and Balsamroots, Balsamorhiza sp

Indian Breadroot, Psoralea esculenta

I've tried off and on to grow indian breadroot since 2006, and have never successfully established any plants.  I direct sowed some seeds when we first moved here in 2006, into brand new beds of imported garden soil mix.  (I don't remember the seed source.)  Some of the seeds did germinate, but the plants eventually vanished.  I don't know what happened, as I didn't do a very good job of keeping track of everything that first year.

I've tried at least two years since then to start the plants in pots and transplant them out.  I know in two years I successfully started them, most recently this year with fresh seed from Praire Moon.  But every plant I've planted out has failed to thrive, and eventually withered up and died.  This wouldn't account for the first year's failure in new garden soil mix, but perhaps the current fungal-dominated nature of the yard doesn't provide the right habitat for these prairie plants?  (I did receive inoculant for the batch this year, so they should have had their necessary symbiotic bacteria.) Or perhaps the slugs, which seem to avidly eat any leguminous seedlings, keep killing the breadroots before they can establish?

Balsamroots, Balsamorhiza sp
Similarly, I've tried at least two or three years since 2007 to establish balsamroots here, trying three different species: B. saggitata (National Germplasm Repository source), B. deltoidea (Inside Passage), and B. hookeri (National Germplasm Repository.) As with the indian breadroots, every time I've planted out what seemed like successful starts in pots, they failed to thrive in the ground, and eventually withered away. This year I kept all the starts in their own individual pots, thinking maybe they needed to grow large before being set into the ground. I didn't baby the pots a whole lot, but did keep them watered and with decent sun access, just like all my nursery pots. The balsamroots never grew very large, and many or all seem to have died off. Maybe they simply died off for the summer drought season (they're adapted to dry rocky areas with our summer dearth of rain), and will resume growth in the spring. But I'm not holding my breath. Again, I wonder whether the soil of our yard and the potting soil of our pots lack some associates the plants need to thrive?

I have to say, it's a lot easier to write up the outright failures--much less to say about them! I have a lot more of them to cover, some with more interesting nuances of failure. But I'll also try to put some more time into writing up the successful plants.

Crop summary: Gai Lohn, Brassica oleracea alboglabra

I've tried two or three different years to grow gai lohn, which Eric Toensmeier in Perennial Vegetables describes as a perennial usually grown as an annual, with potential to be grown in a perennial cropping system.  I got seeds from Richters in 2008.  I might have tried some direct seeding (if so, nothing came of that), but I definitely got two or three decent starts growing in pots.  When I planted those out, only one managed to flower, and it did so as a small, stunted pathetic plant.  None of them overwintered.

I don't remember whether I tried to grow them in 2009.  If so, they failed.

This year, 2010, I started them in pots again, and got two or three decent ones to plant out.  They quickly succumbed to slugs or some other pest.

I give up for now, with the hordes of slugs in this yard.  Until I integrate ducks, tender seedlings of brassicas and legumes have a very hard time establishing.  For now I'll be content with the sea kales (regular and giant, Crambe maritima and cordifolia), tree collards, and hopefully perennial "Western Front" kale, all of which do suffer somewhat from slug attacks but have already established well enough to at least survive and give some yield.  (Our Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) plants are also doing fine, with the parent plants even making new volunteer seedlings, but I don't find their leaves very useful.  We only need to grow three of them, for their broccoli raab-esque flower buds & flowers.)