Lost crops of the Incas

Consider the yacon.

I’ve been growing this for some years now.  It’s easy to grow, fairly attractive plant, at the end of the season you get these large brown tubers to eat and small nobby red parts that easily keep inside overwinter to start next year’s plants.

But we don’t eat them.  They are kind of like a water-chestnut but more juicy, slightly sweet.  What to do with them?  Me, I put them in bags or buckets and they sit around until they go bad.

So again this year I’m following this system, and we got to the stage last weekend where one of the buckets of yacon that’s been sitting in the garage since October got tossed into the compost pile Then yesterday, I ran through the pouring rain to harvest some kale to put in a salad, and I notice that the rain had washed clean the blackened, gnarly skins and they actually looked pretty good.  So I went to the not-yet-composted bag of yacon that was sitting in the den, and pulled one out and scrubbed and peeled it.  Wow… still good!  And the 5 months storage had made it much sweeter.  We sliced it and added it to the salad, where the texture was tender but juicy and a little crisp and the sweetness really came though.  It discolored a little even from kitchen to eating… but not badly enough to be a problem. This is my very first time eating yacon as part of a meal… or for that matter eating it while sitting down.

Yacon is one of the lost crops of the Incas, it’s a sunflower relative that produced tubers.  In Ashland, I had tried – and failed both times – to grow Oca, a tuberous oxalis.  I have some tubers and will try again this year.  Since last year, I’ve had mashua growing, with mixed success; mashua is a tuber-forming type of nasturtium.  And I just purchased Ulluco, which is related to Malabar spinach; you can also eat the leaves so I feel happier about the possibilities, although Malabar spinach is, well, mucilaginous.

These four tubers are among the Lost Crops of the Incas, a set of edible plants domesticated in the highlands of South America and described in a book of that name.  These plants would include the potato except that the potato is definitely not lost.  Besides many tubers, this includes Quinoa, Amaranth, Chilean Guava, Pepino and others.  The problem of growing many of them is that they are from high elevation tropics – the equator runs through Ecuador, after all – so while they are adapted to coolish temperatures, usually they don’t take frost, and day length issues can cause problems.  For example, Oca just starts to form tubers when the days get shorter in fall, and may not form anything if the frosts come before they have time to do their thing.

The Ulluco came from Fry Road nursery in Albany, who produce a lot of greenhouse tropicals.  They have a number of other interesting tubers, like taro and canna root as well as coffee plants.  But given that it’s taken me more than 5 years to go from growing to eating the yacon, and my list of as-yet-untasted lost crops; it’s better not to try to push things too much….

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