Root crops and Wild Wonderings

Last week I harvested all my late (and somewhat experimental) root crops. I'm trialing four at the moment: oca (Oxalis tuberosa), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia, or Smallanthus sonchifolius), and several random dahlias that I'm testing for edibility.

On the left, my attempt at an Incan version of the three sisters, with oca below, mashua climbing, and yacon towering overhead. On the right, the dahlias have had enough, flopping over in protest at the rain, wind, and cold.

Dahlias are another good example of multi-purpose plants. They aren't really my favorites, but they are both ornamental and edible. Sampling the tubers of modern hybrids can be a game of root roulette, though. Some are crisp and tender, some are fibrous and tough. Flavors range from insipid, through combinations of carrot, celery, and parsley, to hints of floral sweetness. I think at least a couple of these random, unidentified plants have decent taste. I might even go so far as to say they taste good, very much in the carrot/celery category with a distinct vanilla taste. It's not something I'd jump at for fresh eating, though, so I'm going to try a dahlia bread recipe like this one.
The dahlia harvest, laid out for a good washing. Unfortunately, I didn't mark all of them when they were in bloom, so three of those clusters are unidentified. For pictures of some of the flowers these tubers produced, look at this post from July.

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is an unusual crop that deserves more experimentation (if only to find decent ways of preparing it). For more information, check out this page on the Cultivariable website, a specialty nursery located right here in Washington state. Depending on the variety, the tubers contain varying amounts of oxalic acid, giving them a lemony tartness. This is the same chemical that gives French sorrel its flavor, as well as the PNW native Oxalis oregana, for anyone who has ever chewed on a leaf of that plant. I actually enjoy the crisp, lemony tubers raw on salads, sliced very thinly (caution: too much oxalic acid can have deleterious effects, most commonly kidney stones, if ingested in large amounts. So go easy on it). Cooking breaks down most of the oxalates, but tubers of some varieties can still be rather sour, taking on a somewhat vinegary flavor. My family and I weren't particularly fond of it, but then we also over-cooked them. Some varieties are naturally sweeter than others, and most can be made sweeter by exposing them to sunlight for a few days. This breaks down the oxalates and causes the starches in the tuber to convert into more simple sugars. Unlike potatoes, exposure to light doesn't render oca toxic to humans, and you don't need to worry if any of the tubers take on a green tinge. So this year I'm making sure to let them sit in the light for a few days, rather than immediately bagging them up and shutting them in the dark.
The tubers range widely in size, from pea-sized to about 5 inches long. If I had waited a bit longer, I might have found more of the larger tubers. Finding the brightly-colored tubers in the soil isn't too difficult, but they do break off easily and require a bit of searching to find them all.
 One of the new crops I tried this year is mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum). You may be familiar with the day-neutral cultivar 'Ken Aslet', selected for its ability to bloom weeks earlier than other selections, which bloom after the fall equinox. 'Ken Aslet' does produce edible tubers, but from what I've read it's one of the worst selections for flavor, which can be an acquired taste (that good old euphemism for "bad") to begin with. I didn't know what to expect from them, except for the spiciness they share with their annual relatives, the garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). Cooking removes most of the heat, caused by glucosinolates (mustard oils). I was pleasantly surprised by a taste similar to mild fennel (or black licorice, if you haven't tasted fennel). It was even more surprising that I found it pleasant, as I don't really like fennel (or licorice). The Cultivariable page on mashua has some helpful recommendations on how to prepare them. Personally, I plan to follow their suggestion and try pickling most of mine. Next year, I may try growing my mashua in a half-barrel we have by the back deck. It's more shaded than the vegetable garden, which was a bit too sunny for the mashua.
Harvest is easier than with oca. After loosening them with a garden fork, the tubers come up together, for the most part, in a single clump. I had already pulled a few off before snapping this photo. 
 The last crop may be my favorite. Yacon is in the aster family and has large, edible tubers, which are considered more of a fruit than a vegetable in South America. I guess that helps balance out our treatment of tomatoes and green beans as more vegetable than fruit. The tubers are extremely juicy, with a delicate crispness. They remind me most of jicama, though the jicama we get in stores are almost always dried out and starchy. Yacon can be very sweet, but the variety I purchased this spring has only the barest hint of sweetness. Mostly, it's just a refreshing, satisfying, juicy crunch. Sweetness increases after a little time in storage, so I'll leave the rest alone for about a month and try them again after they've sweetened up. Either way, I'm hoping for a more flavorful variety from Cultivariable, called Morado. Here's another link to a page on the Cultivariable website, for more information on yacon. I just think its so cool that there's a nursery specializing in Incan and other unusual root crops out on the Washington coast.
 Left: It was a race against the frost, but the extremely mild fall this year allowed the yacon to bloom. The flowers are comically small compared to the rest of the plant. Right: dismantling the mass of yacon tubers.

Yacon produces two kinds of tubers, the edible storage tubers and the smaller, more woody propagative tubers. These tubers have eyes from which new stems are produced. These are what you buy to grow new plants.
 Now that the harvest is done, cooking experiments will commence. Yacon is easy. Just peal it and slice it up for fresh eating. The texture and flavor are also similar to water chestnuts, so I see some stir-fry in the immediate future. The others will be more of a challenge, though I've already decided to make bread out of most of the dahlias and pickle most of the mashua.

My yield from about a 10 plants of oca (Cherry Red on the left and New Zealand Red on the right) and one mashua plant on the far right. Oca yields can be a lot bigger than this. I'm still figuring out how best to grow them. The mashua is pretty impressive, considering it was a rather sad plant in a 4-inch pot in spring, grown from a cutting instead of a tuber. 

And the storage tubers. Some of those tubers are huge, over a foot long.
Someday, I'd like to have a garden that incorporates more edibles into the landscape. I'll still have a dedicated vegetable garden, but I like the idea of adding more function to the garden. Plants like mashua can easily be grown in an ornamental landscape. I've been daydreaming a lot lately, and wanted to get a few ideas out in some form, so this post is continuing on into the land of possibilities.

In my dream garden, I have a large courtyard with a couple citrus trees and a few other select edible and ornamental plants that need a bit more heat or shelter (my dream garden is in a climate mild enough for Meyer lemons and mandarin oranges, but cool in the summer, so they need a warm wall to give them a boost). A shaded area of the courtyard by the house has a Lapageria rosea growing up the wall. tufts of sedges and herbs spring up through the floor or even out of the walls of the courtyard here and there. The sparse, simple plantings keep it open and highlight foliage texture and the architecture of both the organic and inorganic components. In my head, it's something with a similar aesthetic to the first photo in this link, Bunny Run, though not so grand. Anyone who knows me also knows that I would have a hard time not turning such a space into an absolute jungle, brimming with plants. Maintaining simplicity would be a challenge, but one I'd gladly take on.

Beyond the gate, simple, low plantings highlight a few taller, highly structural plants, tree-sized Cordyline australis and choice Eucalyptus such as E. coccifera, with paths branching out to other areas, including a dedicated vegetable garden. As one ventures further from the house, plantings become wilder. Natives intermix with exotics the whole way, but the exotics gradually begin to dwindle until they appear only as surprises incorporated into the natural landscape.

Maybe something like these plantings at the Pacific Connections Garden in Seattle closer to the house, but with some low evergreen shrubs mixed in. Gotta have my woody plants. Pure perennials doesn't work for me. I think I'd want more green mixed in, too. Like many gardeners, I've fallen for the siren song of non-green foliage. Silver, blue, bronze, orange, chartreuse. They're wonderful, but I've found that I like them best against green. In areas where these other colors dominate, I've found myself missing simple shades of green. I'm missing it even more now, since I created so much bare ground in my own yard (it reads as bare, though it's covered in tiny plant starts) and so much logging has occurred in my neighborhood this year. I really want all the evergreens I've planted to spring up and block the ugly views with their sheltering lushness.

I always prefer to have some shrubs mixed in. This planting, in particular, rises and melds into the native trees in the background rather well.

 Or this planting at Windcliff (so glad I can share my photos, now!). The plantings are incredibly diverse, but they all fit so well together. It just works, visually. It isn't too "busy."

These areas would transition into the natural areas using lower native plants like Arctostaphylos x media

and Quercus vaccinifolia,

gradually becoming more

and more wild,

until the human hand becomes virtually undetectable. Although, I'm not above slipping in an exotic here and there where it really seems like it belongs. There are, after all, a lot of plants I want to grow. But that's a long way off. Anything could happen. Dreams can change, tastes can shift, and reality imposes itself at every turn.

I'm also participating in Wednesday Vignette this week, hosted by Anna at Flutter&Hum. Do follow the link to her blog to see more beautiful photos, often accompanied by insightful musings. For my vignette, I'd like to share a scene from Humbug Mountain on the Oregon Coast. I wish I had taken a photo of the mountain from the north when I was driving down. It was a cloudy day and wisps of fog wrapped around the mountain all the way to the ocean. It was absolutely magical. If a mountain could be a spirit animal, Humbug Mountain would be mine. But, lacking a photo of that scene, I'll share instead a bit of the magic of the forest covering the mountain. Draped in moss, tanbark oaks, Oregon myrtle, and even a few Chrysolepis chrysophylla intermingle with western red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir, and bigleaf maple to form a marvelous canopy. The trees do block almost all views off the mountain, but with scenes like this, who needs to look further?


  1. I love the detail of your dream garden, as well as your spirit animal mountain. Your plant consciousness is much broader than mine.

    1. Thanks, Kris. Someday, maybe it will be more than a dream.

  2. Nice comment about mountains... we have the same feeling about the hills around the Hudson River where we live. In ann weather they look peaceful and remote...and permanent, just what you want from a mountain! Love the last photo on your post.

  3. Wonderful crops. I was amazed and amused that you'll be eating the Dahlia tubers. Just last month I transplanted my black leaf Dahlia, and was astonished at the giant yam-like tubers I pulled out of the ground. "I wish those were eatable" I said to myself. Ha! Will you not miss the flowers next year? I enjoy reading about your dream garden and court yard. In many ways you are already living your dream in the garden you are cultivating right now!

    1. I'm not eating all of them. I left a few tubers attached to the eyes so I can grow them next year. My current garden is very much a practice run for my next one. I'm testing out a lot of ideas here to use in the future.

  4. That's a nice dream garden! You'll get there, sooner than you think :) I know that right now it's a long time to wait. Thank you for the botany and 'travel tip' for Humbug Mountain. I'm inspired to get down there. Ahhhh, those beautiful madrones. Beautiful pics.

    1. Thanks! I hope you're right. Sometimes it feels so slow. Just to avoid any confusion, only the last photo is from Humbug Mountain. The madrones and the two photos before it were in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.


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