Friday, 7 May 2010
Now this is good customer service ...
Always looking to explore unusual heritage varieties and seek out material for breeding experiments, I was pleased to see that AlanRomans.com were stocking minitubers (that is, small laboratory-grown seed potatoes) of an old and hard to find blue potato called Congo. I'm interested in Congo because it's blue-fleshed - blue all the way through - and I have a strong interest in vegetables that bear this colour pigment because of its nutritional benefits as well as its glorious beauty. As well as being historically interesting and quirky, Congo has a reputation for being a good berry setter. That would make it an excellent variety to experiment with in breeding work, because it would ensure a good supply of TPS. I could have some real fun crossing it with other varieties, but also growing out its own self-pollinated TPS, which would in itself yield some interesting segregation for different traits (if you've read my article about TPS below, you'll know that the tetraploid arrangement of the potato genome gives it something of the nature of a genetic fruit machine).
So I ordered a pack of five Congo minitubers - not the kind of quantity that would give a good yield for the dinner table, but plenty enough to get the variety established in my garden and see what it has to offer. When my order arrived a couple of days later it contained not one minituber pack but two. The handwritten note explained that they only had 15mm-ish tubers left in stock rather than the 20mm-ish ones they preferred to supply, and so they sent me 6 rather than the 5 I ordered. Additionally, they sent me a pack of 5 minitubers of another rare and special variety, Red Craigs Royal, as a freebie. The Red Craigs Royal tubers had already started to chit and were at a stage where they really needed to be planted. This is really good customer service - it's a great way to keep people like me happy, because I get to add another precious heritage spud to my inventory and ensures that I will want to order from them again next time, and it shows that their attitude to heritage varieties is well motivated, in that they would rather give unsold stock to a good home.
As far as I'm aware, nobody in the UK is doing more than Alan Romans in conserving and promoting heritage potatoes. You may have seen these varieties making an appearance in Thompson & Morgan's catalogue, and in Waitrose - but all that is down to him. And it's not a simple case of reintroducing them on a whim either ... the laws and regulations relating to the sale of seed potatoes (and culinary ones) are complex and restrictive, and he's had a heck of a lot of bureaucracy to struggle against. It wouldn't be legal to sell field-grown potatoes to gardeners without an expensive process of certification, and minitubers are his latest solution to this obstacle. They are produced in a laboratory environment from disease-free plants held in vitro. Although they are small, they can be grown on and will soon build up a decent yield. The sterile environment in which they're produced may make them a little vulnerable when you plant them in the unfettered ravages of the soil, but they seem to cope and I've managed to grow laboratory-raised plants under organic conditions without too many problems. The bottom line is, if it wasn't for the laboratory process these rare and interesting varieties simply wouldn't be available at all.
Red Craigs Royal minitubers. The original Craigs Royal was introduced in 1947, bred in Scotland from a cross of Craigs Defiance x Gladstone. This red-skinned sport appeared in Perthshire in 1957 and quickly became extremely popular for its good yields and excellent flavour - only to be plunged into obscurity a few years later as the market moved on to other things. It's a second early type with a floury texture. As for its usefulness in my breeding projects, well, I'm not sure what to expect because the European Cultivated Potato Database lists it as a poor producer of berries but also as having high fertility pollen.
Congo minitubers. They don't look very exciting at the moment, but they are full of potential. There is a degree of confusion over this variety because there are two Congos. This blue-fleshed one is of British origin, thought possibly to have been created by a shepherd in the Scottish borders in the late 19th century. The other Congo is from Sweden and has white flesh (edit - or maybe not!). As if that wasn't confusing enough, there are suggestions that the blue version has many synonyms and may be known around the world as All Blue, British Columbia Blue, Russian Blue, Himalayan Black and McIntosh Black, amongst others - though they may be variants rather than identical clones. Congo is a very late maturing variety - so here's hoping the blight pestilence will be merciful.