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The Kumera or Sweet Potato.
The sweet potato was far better known in Sydney fifty years ago, than it is now. It was, up to about the year 1840 quite a common vegetable in our market, being grown in the gardens, and brought from New Zealand in the trading vessels, along with the fibre of the Phormium Tenax incorrectly called “flax,” and sometimes, quite as incorrectly, New Zealand “ Hemp.” In a small work on Horticulture, by Thomas Shepherd, which was published as early as 1835, this root is mentioned as follows : “ Tre Sweet PoTAxa” —We cultivate two kinds in this country—one is a native of New Zealand, the other of Moreton Bay (Queensland) ; they are both excellent vegetables. They are generally boiled till they are soft and are eaten with meat. The New Zealanders bake their sweet potatoes, and they are very good ; they also dry them upon a string after being baked, and they will keep good for many months. The sweet potato produces large tuberous roots, and its cultivation ought to be encouraged as much as possible, as the roots are very nutritious, and produce excellent crops. The sweet potato from Moreton Bay deserves the greatest attention—the tubers are much larger and the crop more abundant, than the sort cultivated in New Zealand. The Maoris are very particular in the culture of their sweet potato ; they generally plant it upon a light sandy loam, in August and September, in rows about eighteen inches apart and about nine inches apart in the rows, and as soon as they have planted a piece of ground they cover the rows over with about two or three inches depth of sea sand, which they say encourages the growth of the tuber, and they afterwards keep the crop perfectly clear from weeds. The Moreton Bay sort will require two feet between the rows. Both sorts are propagated by planting their tubers. Any rich sandy soil, well sheltered from cold winds, upon a northerly aspect, will produce good crops of sweet potatoes, they cannot endure frost.” The author of this book was the founder of the well-known Sydney Nursery the Darling Nursery—now carried on by his sons. He had spent the whole of the year 1826 in New Zealand, being the superintendent of a colonizing expedition consisting of 60 Scotch mechanics and farm labourers, besides the crews of the two vessels, Rosehannah, barque, and Lampton, cutter, which remained with the expedition until they sailed for Sydney in 1827, having abandoned the project of forming a settlement.
The sweet potato is a native of tropical South America, and had been early brought to Australia and New Zealand by navigators, who, on their way from England, in those days usually touched at Rio in Brazil, to procure fresh provisions, amongst which these tubers were included. The mistake made as to the plant being indigenous to New Zealand and Moreton Bay was very natural, in those early days, especially, as the plants when left in abandoned ground live for many years. They are occasionally met with now in an apparently wild state on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, where they had been cultivated in those old times. The difference in the size resulted from the more natural climate of Queensland, other differences are accounted for in the same way while there are many varieties, as with common potato, which, by the way, are known amongst the Islands where both plants are cultivated as the Irish potato, and other plants that have been long in cultivation in various climes.
“ Irapomaea Batatas,” is the name now generally accepted by botanists, though some adhese to “Batatas edulis.” It will not yield such large tubers in our climate, as it does in tropical countries, where tubers 50 lbs. in weight are sometimes produced ; but still it is worth cultivation. Five or six tons to the acre may be harvested from good land, while as many tons of the vine herbage may be utilized as fodder. It is, as a tuber, more nutritious than any other root, and very palatable. Much of the so-called arrowroot brought from the Islands is the produce of this root. The further north we go the better the crops may be expected to lie. The culture is exceedingly easy, a few rows of the tubers planted in spring will furnish any amount of young shoots, for making cuttings. These can be pulled off when about six inches long, in moist weather, and planted with a dibber, after the manner of cabbage plants. These will soon form tubers and produce as good a crop as the plants raised from tubers, a great saving as compared with the culture of the “ Irish ” potato, in which the seed or sets is so heavy an item in the costs. The principal food of the Pitcairn Islanders, at Norfolk Island, is the sweet potato. It is cooked in various ways, but plain boiling is the most common : and, thus, it is placed on the table at every meal, just as bread is with us. Cooked otherwise, it is looked upon as something extra, Cut into very thin slices and baked in a pie dish with a little milk, and whisked eggs it is a favorite dish. Grated down and baked with milk it forms a blanc mange called pilli, which may be kept good for months. The best land for the sweet potato is an alluvial flat with good under drainage. It will not answer on a flat bottom with a cold impervious clay subsoil, but will do well in strong clay soil on a good incline when there is sufficient rain. December and January are the best months to get in the main crop, and the method already explained is the best one to adopt. As soon as the shoots are long enough—they should be just through the soil, the tubers being six inches beneath the surface, and planted in October or November would be all the better, so that the cuttings would be ready in time. If January be dry it will not do to wait for rain—the cuttings must be put in and watered until rain comes, or until they have struck.
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