Blight plight.

In a rather roundabout way, I recently received a bulletin from the Government of Alberta regarding Late Blight disease, and as this is something that can potentially affect gardeners all across the province this season, I thought I would post the gist of the message in the hopes that we can stem the spread of this extremely nasty problem.

Last autumn, a handful of lines in a local rag proclaimed “Rotten tomato season in Alberta.”  And you’ve probably noticed that Alberta-grown tomatoes and potatoes have been kind of scarce for awhile now.  The culprit is Late Blight disease, caused by a fungus called Phytophthora infestans (it even SOUNDS ghastly).  It’s actually the same thing that caused the Irish potato famine in the mid 1800’s…well, combined with the poor idea to plant only one potato variety, which was subsequently completely wiped out.  (Monocultures are bad, folks!).   We haven’t had a major outbreak of Late Blight disease in Alberta since 1993, and while the fungus usually sticks to attacking potatoes, for some reason in 2010, tomatoes were severely affected as well.  (Tomatoes and potatoes are part of the same family:  Solanaceae or nightshade, so it naturally follows.  Veggies and flowers such as eggplant, peppers, and petunias might also be harmed).   Late Blight can occur whenever conditions are just humid and cold enough, and the weather of last summer definitely co-operated in that regard.  Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t detected early enough, either, and spread rapidly and rampantly.

Phytophthora infestans cannot survive freezing temperatures, so any spores left in the soil will not have overwintered, BUT infected potatoes in storage may still be carrying the bacteria.  If these potatoes are used for seed (or are stored near new seed potatoes), there will be a problem.  Watch for lesions on potato tubers (and on tomato fruit over this summer.  If you still have fresh tomatoes left over from last year, I have some other questions for you).  Plants growing in the garden this summer may exhibit lesions around the tips of mature leaves that promptly turn yellow and then brown and crispy – these lesions are patchy and aren’t contained within the veins of the leaves like another disease called Early Blight.  Leaves might also show evidence of sporulation:  fuzzy white goop on the undersides, spores that easily transfer by wind or rain down into the soil and subsequently infect plant tubers.

The key is not to panic, and not to avoid planting nightshade crops altogether, but to watch for the signs and symptoms of Late Blight disease and take action if you notice it.  The Government advises burying or freezing affected plant parts (I’m a little bewildered by the “burying” tip – I guess you have to make sure you bury the infected bits well away from healthy plants in the garden so that the spores don’t spread around).  If  you feel you have to compost the pieces, you’re going to have to forgo use of the entire compost pile for awhile and cover it completely with a tarp so that it doesn’t give the spores a chance to spread.  Once the pile has frozen over the winter, it is safe to use it again.

Oh, and hope for a hot, dry summer.  That’s our best ally against Late Blight.

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Check agriculture.alberta.ca – FAQs for more information.  Remember that this disease isn’t only affecting commercial farmers and market gardeners – many cases last year were found in urban residential gardens.  Community gardens may also be at risk.  Be vigilant!

Civet coffee and red celery.

It’s hilarious that the only things remotely “botanical” that warrant recent coverage in the media concern an incorrectly-dubbed “cat-poo coffee” and a freaky red celery hybrid created by a team in Florida, while much more important stuff like the Tomato and Potato Late Blight Disease that was wreaking havoc with any crops of the family Solanaceae in western Canada late last summer only got about two lines in our local rag.  It’s all about the art of attracting interest – and what could possibly be more fascinating than a twenty-five dollar cup of coffee that has its origins in an exotic furry creature’s fecal matter?  Fresh, locally-grown tomatoes?  Bah – who needs ’em?

Yes, well, let’s have on about the coffee, shall we?  I can’t help myself.  Coffea is a genus in the family Rubiaceae comprised of about ninety species of trees and shrubs, of which Coffea arabica is likely the best-known (and best tasting!).   Obsessively coffee-addicted North Americans owe our current “coffee culture”  mainstay to the Arabs, who originally cultivated coffee plants (which are native to parts of Africa and Arabia) and discovered how to make the perfect roast way back in the 11th or 12th centuries.  Europeans began to partake of the luxury beverage about three hundred years later and now, it seems, you can’t walk a single block in a major city in Canada without passing a Starbucks or a Timmies.  The plants are extremely gorgeous, with large, shiny, dark green foliage, fragrant white blossoms, and beautiful red or purple “cherries” (botanically called “drupes”) that house the ever-so-precious beans.  Most of the time, coffee cherries are harvested when ripened right off the tree (some types by mechanical means, some, such as the famed C. arabica, by hand), washed and dried, then shipped off to various international markets.

But for cat-poo coffee, enter the civet.  Civets are small, really prettily-striped and spotted long-tailed creatures of the families Viverridae and Nandiniidae.  They are not cats, and they are not weasels or foxes, or any other similar-looking critter that people seem to want to associate them with.  They are native to regions of Asia, and most North Americans have only a vague idea of what they are.  Up until a few years ago, the scent glands of these animals were “harvested” for the musk used in some high-end perfumes (this is now considered inhumane and not in wide practice any longer).  And, oh yes, there is also the controversial idea that a particularly good-eatin’ type of civet, the Masked Palm Civet, hunted in Asia for its meat, might have been partly to blame for the SARS outbreak in 2003.   At any rate, a type of civet called the Asian Palm Civet is primarily responsible for the coffee that bears its name (“Luwak”).  It seems this civet really, really likes to eat the mesocarps (pulpy innards) of coffee cherries, which apparently taste really sweet and kind of grapey.  (If anyone has eaten a ripe coffee cherry, please enlighten me on the taste and consistency.  I’m curious!).  Of course, the civet also ingests the whole coffee beans inside the cherries, and there is some kind of interesting chemical protein-enhancement process that goes on inside the creature’s stomach that…well…yields a superior bean once they are unceremoniously returned to the earth.

And then workers go around and manually collect the beans from the civet excrement.  (And you think YOUR job is bad!).  The beans then go through much the same process as for regular coffee beans (I sincerely hope they are really, really well-washed), except now they’re worth about sixty dollars (Cndn) per 50 grams, or even more than that in some markets.  Apparently the coffee tastes “sweet” and “earthy” (YUP!), lacking any bitterness that other types of coffee may have.  It is said to make a mean iced capp.  Hmmmm…would you give it a go (if someone else were paying, that is)?

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For information about Coffea, consult the book Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees, edited by Steve Cafferty (2005 Firefly Books Ltd., New York) as well as recipes.howstuffworks.com/coffee1.htm.

More facts about Kopi Luwak can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak.  Or, if you’re a big spender with a taste for the exotic, you can order some through many online retailers, including the hilariously-monikered catsasscoffee.com. (THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT; I haven’t been to any of these retail sites.  As usual, use at your own risk).

If you’re interested in civets, consult en.wikipedia.org/wiki/civet.

The results of a University of Guelph, Ontario study that documents the process that coffee beans undergo while inside a civet’s digestive tract can be found at uoguelph.ca/news/archives/005780.html.

The Edmonton Horticultural Society has a very good write-up about the Tomato and Potato Late Blight Disease at edmontonhort.com/gardeningalert/index.php.

And, last, but certainly not least, if you want to find out about the red celery, check out the story at firstcoastnews.com/news/florida/news-article.aspx?storyid+172059.