The Backyard Larder

A place to explore and buy perennial vegetables and other food plants.

The Guild of Oca Breeders seeks new members!

Towards the end of 2014 I received an email from Rhizowen inviting me to be part of an oca breeding club.

Oca Flowers

I know Rhizowen from ‘gardening Twitter’ as the source of knowledge on all things botanical, plus sender – to my delight – of rare edible plants. In fact his tweets have probably influenced my gardening efforts as much as reading Lawrence Hills’ Organic Gardening or the little yellow booklet I bought from Chase Organics in the 1980s which got me growing in narrow beds rather than traditional vegetable rows. Amongst other things, it is Rhizowen I can thank for the field beans we grow both as green manure and as food, for the beautiful duck potatoes and water hawthorns that blossom in the pond and for my attempts to grow hopniss and yams.

Flowering oca

In Rhizowen’s blog you can read many posts about oca and see that his idea for an oca breeding club goes back many years. At the moment oca grown in temperate zones stubbornly refuses to begin making tubers until after the autumn equinox, leaving only a short time for tubers to develop before a plant-destroying frost may occur. But a day-length neutral oca variety could appear and be selected for – just as a day-length neutral potato once was! Such an oca would form its tubers earlier in the year and so give bigger harvests. The basic idea of the club is to get hundreds of gardeners around the country (and beyond) to grow out the thousands of new oca varieties that Rhizowen has bred so that an early tuberising variety can be identified.

The Guild has come to fruition now, is in its third year and is ready for new members.

I used to think of plant breeding as a ‘difficult thing’, probably one which required me to understand very complex genetics or own a lab or spend hours holding a little brush transferring pollen from flower to flower. It turns out that it doesn’t have to be like that! It can be a simple matter of planting lots of genetically different plants and examining them carefully to choose the best ones to save. As a member of the Guild I have planted the tiny oca tubers I was sent in pots, planted them outside in late spring, cared for them through the summer (noting down little details such as when they first flowered and the colour of their leaves and stems etc), harvested the plants at the end of the year, counted and weighed their tubers and then entered my results into a table and returned them to the Guild.

I should admit at this point that my oca harvests for the Guild have actually been very bad for two years in a row, probably the worst in class! But no criticism has been forthcoming from the Facebook group where members chat about their oca progress, just supportive comments and sensible discussion of where the problem may lie.

oca tubers

The Guild is in its third year now and is ready for new members. There is a subscription to pay but in return you receive tubers to plant, have the fun of the group breeding effort and get to keep most, if not all, of your harvest. Or you can be a supporting member by paying to receive a tuber mix of productive Guild varieties to grow simply for your own consumption without returning any records. More experienced oca growers can give a larger subscription and take part in experiments to investigate other important oca characteristics such as drought tolerance. (The tubers are distributed to all members under the OSSI pledge, which means they are for free use, unrestricted by patents or licenses etc, and in receiving them members undertake that the pledge accompanies any material they pass on).

oca tubers

You can read more about it all on the Guild’s website. Email members@ocabreeders.org if you would like to join in!

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