Lost Crops of the Incas

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes w …

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These days everyone takes potatoes for granted. In many parts of the world, especially Europe, potatoes are very popular and regularly feature prominently in meals. The potato is the forth most cultivated crop after rice, wheat and corn. The potato was introduced to Europe, from it’s native Peru in the Andes mountains of South America around 1700, and quickly became one of the most important crops in the world.

Just like the potato, there is suddenly a realization that many plants commonly grown in this region have the potential for cultivation as commercial crops elsewhere in the world. Listed below are several I plan to grow in my garden this year.

I’d like to thank Frank van Keirsbilck, a Belgian member of the Seed Savers Exchange, who not only gave me some yacón tubers for my garden this year but also agreed to let me use his pictures for this post. All the pictures you see below are his and of plants he is growing. He said he may put together his own blog, so hopefully we will see more from his garden.

Mashua (also called Añu)


This plant is a member of the nasturtium, and has very peppery tasting roots. It is commonly cooked into stews, where it loses it’s harsh flavor and becomes sweet. I grew this last year in a container, but got a poor crop. I will try it again this year in the garden. Lieven, who gave me this tuber, reported a very substantial crop last year.




This plant is considered to be one of the most promising for commercial production. In many parts of South American these colorful tubers are sold in markets and stores. The pictures above are of solid colored tubers, but some varieties have stripes or splotches of different colors. Most of the tubers I’ve seen have been very brightly colored.

These are supposed to taste very good just eaten raw as a snack or part of a meal. They can also be cooked and eaten similar to a potato. The leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Viruses are apparently a major issue for commercial cultivation of this crop. Efforts are under way to try to produce some virus free planting stock which is expected to be significantly more productive than what is now available.

One of the major issues concerning growing attempts in northern Europe now is no one really knows the best way to cultivate this plant in the local climate. Except for being very vulnerable to frost, they are apparently grown similar to a potato. They are day length sensitive, and produce most of their tubers in October or November when there is often frost in our area.

Growing this plant promises to be a challenge.

At the time of this post, Real Seeds in the UK were offering ulluco tubers as an experimental plant for people wishing to give it a try. Apparently Frank, the person who let me use these pictures was one of the sources where Real Seeds got their tubers from.

I have found some references on the Internet suggesting planting time is important for this crop. A study in New Zealand suggested planting closer to the summer solstice was preferred to an early planting. I also came across a UK grower who suggested starting it indoors under lights, then planting it out later.

I will divide my tubers in three groups. The first has already been planted out. The second is potted and growing indoors under a light. The third is still in storage. I will plant out these latter groups in several weeks.




Oca can be boiled, baked, fried, mixed fresh with salads, or pickled in vinegar. Cultivation is reported to be very easy, but viruses are also an issue in this crop which could impact commercial yields. According to the book mentioned above, the commercial importance of this crop is second only to the potato in it’s native Andes.

I have some Oca tubers both from my friend Lieven as well as from Real Seeds in the UK.


You can see some pictures of this plant on Søren’s blog.

This plant is related to the dahlia, and produces large tubers which store well. These tubers can be cooked, but most people say they are best eaten raw. They are very sweet, and are very high in inulin similar to Jerusalem Artichokes. This gives them a nice sweet flavor, but can also cause flatulence in some people.

Inulin can also be converted easily to ethanol, making this plant a possibly interesting source for biofuel for use in cars.

Plants normally produce heavy yields, often 10-20 Kg per plant. Many people who grow lost Incan crops report this to be one of the most rewarding for the home garden.


This plant is a variety of Lupin, and is supposed to be one of the most attractive lost Incan crops.

Similar in nutritional composition as soy beans, this plant provides a good source of protein. It can be prepared in many of the same ways as soy beans and also just eaten by itself as a snack, especially when the seeds are in their fresh mature state. The seeds contain bitter alkaloids making them initially inedible, but these alkaloids are water soluble and can be removed with several days of soaking and rinsing with water.

This plant is nitrogen fixing, and so is useful as a green manure crop.

I have ordered some Tarwi from a Seed Savers Exchange member living in Peru, which I expect to arrive in time for planting this year.


I have been eating and enjoying quinoa for years now. Also called Incan rice, it is cooked exactly the same as normal rice and is an excellent substitute in many dishes.

When you purchase commercial quinoa, it is usually treated in order to remove it’s bitter alkaloids. When you grow it your own garden, you need to do this yourself by soaking it in water overnight and thoroughly rinsing before using.

I have purchased some Rainbow quinoa from Real Seeds for planting this year.

36 thoughts on “Lost Crops of the Incas”

  1. I have grown another tuber which, although not Incan, looks similar to oca but sounds like it tastes like ulluco. Somehow I have lost its name but my son’s Chinese girlfriend says it is called ‘sea shells’ in Chinese. The tubers are tiny but the crop is huge. They are a bit like water chestnuts in texture and remain crunchy when cooked but are also delicious raw.Once you have them in the garden they come up every year and grow all summer, spreading out through the garden and between the capsicums etc – forming a lovely green, leafy mat over the soil.The leaves are small and it is really an ideal ground cover. The plant dies down late autumn and then you harvest the tubers, which are shiny white and like little jewels in the soil. I wrote about it last year and put up some photos.I don’t know how to leave a link here but here is the address. http://hillsandplainsseedsavers.blogspot.com/2007/07/chinese-sea-shells.html
    You are lucky to be able to receive plants and seeds from overseas. We have very strict quarantine here – and rightly so – but I would be happy to send you some of my ‘sea shells’ in a couple of months, if you would like to try them.

  2. Nice post. Tesco are selling a couple of thees tubers in the UK and I’d wondered about sticking a few in just to see what happens.


  3. Kate,

    Thanks for the offer! I think here they usually use the French name, Crosne. I saw it growing one year in Lieven’s garden (http://www.lusthof.org), and I meant to ask him for some. I’m not sure he has it anymore. In any case, I’m pretty sure I can find a local source, so let me look first before you go to the trouble of sending it. Around here it naturalizes and can become a nasty weed. I think most people grow it in a container or an isolated part of their garden.


    Definitely worth a try!

  4. Which reminds me of another book that I have been meaning to read. Thanks for the colourful and interesting post.

    I am pretty sure that Crosne is a plant related to mint not Oca though it shares the fat grub appearance. I grow it in my garden and its leaves are similar to lamb’s ears.

    I have been curious about growing these tubers but I don’t know much about their growing requirements. I have quinoa to try this year (with all this growing I’m doing, I think I may need a larger garden patch!)

  5. Wonderful post, Patrick! Thank you!

    The photographs are beautiful! Your descriptions informative!

    (….the leaves in the background of the Oca almost look like the oxalis…)

  6. Hi OG,

    I think I have some amaranth somewhere, and I intend to plant it too. Is it also Incan? I always have a hard time figuring out how to eat amaranth. I see it at the market here all the time, and I guess you can cook it in combination with rice, but I’ve never had it.

    Hi Cyndy and Sandra,

    Thanks for the comments and kind words.

  7. This is a very interesting and informative post-in Trinidad we have a tuber called “tipi tambo” which is boiled and eaten esp by children as a delicacy-and tastes like chestnuts. I must try to find some in the market so I can identify if it is any of these tubers.

  8. I’ll be interested to hear how you get along with quinoa. I have tried without success for two seasons to get it going but will persevere again this year. I have grown both leaf and grain amaranth but continue with just the leaf type as I don’t really know what to do with the grain either. I tried adding to porridge (as I do with quinoa) but it wasn’t very pleasing.

  9. I live in Idaho, famous for the Russet potato. As a child, I knew no other potato existed. As an adult, I have seen a number of others come on the market. But I had no idea there were all these wonderful kinds of potatoes that are ever so interesting. Thanks for writing about them.

  10. I use it with other grains in a kind of ‘mixed grain’ salad or ‘rice substitute’ mostly. I use amaranth flour more (not from what I’ve grown) in baking.

    It’s Aztec, I think, in origin.

  11. Those sound great, and they look fantastic. After meaning to for ages, I’m going to join Seeds of Diversity (Canadian national seed exchange group) right now, and see what people have available across this country. It’ll be fun to see how they do for you.

    On a bit of a tangent, have you given any (practical, philosophical) thought to taking plants out of their indigenous habitats and moving them around the world? Most of the stuff in our veggie gardens came from somewhere far away in the last few hundred years. Still, these days, with sending things off to the four corners of the planet so easy, I can imagine unfortunate things happening quite casually, as we’ve seen with “weeds”, insects, algae, animals,… More complications, but with all of our enabling technologies, we have so much more to think about….

    Yeah, as mentioned, there’s also grain amaranth (Incan staple grain)! :) I grew about 200′ four years ago, easy (it’s very like prolific pigweed, which are other types of amaranth). In the end, I harvested but didn’t thresh it. Apparently, you can grind it and use it in place of or mixed with flour, amongst other things. I was just looking at the seed again for this year…!

  12. Hi Misshathorn, Sheila and OG,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Hi Mike,

    I remember reading about amaranth on your blog. I really want to make sure you know not only do I love your blog, but I also really enjoy the comments you leave here and other places.

    I think there are lots of reasons to avoid transporting plants long distances, and you mentioned several good ones. Another is acclimation issues, as you have a much better chance of success if you grow something that’s already suited to your local climate. After all, why transport anything half way across the world when you can get it locally? Plants are no exception. It’s important to understand however, that there are few known issues of diseases or invasive species when it comes to fruit and vegetable seeds. Tubers and live plants are another story!

    On the other hand, free trade of plant genetics between gardeners is very important to global biodiversity. The Incan plants mentioned in this post are in reality endangered in their local habitat. Just like the rest of us, the Andean people can more easily go to the supermarket and buy processed foods than they can find their own local foods. If worldwide interest in these plants doesn’t develop, they will simply disappear. It’s really their last hope that they be promoted by home gardeners.

    CIP is the main organization promoting native Andean foods, and they publish a list of all individuals and organizations that have requested plant materials from them. Only a handful of requests were made in 2007. At the moment, there is simply not enough interest in these plants to ensure their survival.

    Of course invasive plants and diseases will always be an issue, but when it comes to Agricultural Biodiversity, the more places a particular plant is grown the better.

    There is also a particular camaraderie that goes together with gardeners sharing plant materials. It’s exciting and fun for bloggers to share plant materials and grow each other’s plants. There are simply not enough people growing heirloom plants in their gardens, and you are only too familiar with the issues of growing it on a commercial basis!

    Anything I can do to promote the idea of heirloom gardening or make it exciting, I will do. Even if this means sending a packet of otherwise ordinary seeds half way across the world in an envelope. We all have to make decisions about what things are important enough to do, even if they are a little wasteful of natural resources or money, and this is one thing I think is worth while.

    Sharing seeds and transporting them long distances is also a very important part of world history. Europeans brought seeds with them on the Mayflower, and until WWII they were a major part of world commerce. To me it’s not taking a plant out of it’s native habitat that’s the controversial thing to do, and it’s all the attempts to restrict or regulate people’s freedom to use any genetic plant material anywhere they want that’s the unnatural thing to do.

  13. The Oca are known as yams here in Aotearoa NZ. They are grown commercially and are a winter crop. We usually roast them – little bit olive oil, salt, hot oven, or put them around your roast. The come out soft, squishy and very yummy.

  14. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Are you sure about them being called yams? I always thought yam was another name for sweet potato. As I understand it, Oca usually stays crisp after cooking, but sweet potatoes will become soft when cooked. Are your yams soft or crisp?

  15. Patrick, Christopher,
    In New Zealand ocas (oxalis tuberosa)are indeed called ‘New Zealand yams’ or just yams. It is however a bit confusing, yam (or:coco-yam) is an other name for taro (colocasia esculenta), which is grown a lot in Polynesian Islands. Sweet potatoes (ipomoa batatas) are sometimes (or mostly?) called kumara in New Zealand. The ocas in New Zealand seem to have been selected on longer and thinner tubers,similar to the one on the right in the lower picture.

  16. Hi Frank, Patrick

    Well, when I was growing up, we had yams looking very much like your orcas seen in the second picture regularly for Sunday roasts. The yams became soft and squishy, tasting sweetish, floury and a faint woodsy flavour. Mmmmm I must roast some someday soon! The kinds of yams we get here are both the long thin tuber and the short stubby one in your picture, although the more common variety is the short stubby one.

    I’ve not seen the other kinds in the first photo.

    Taro is called taro here in NZ Aotearoa. I’ve never been to the Islands, but I suspect they would call them yams up there.

    Kumara on the other hand are another kettle of fish. A guilty treat, indulged too often, is kumara chips from the local burger place. Kumara are sweet potato. When I was a wee lad, you could only get the purple kind – grown in Dargaville – knobly and gnarly and delicious oh so delicious roasted. Now you can get orange kumara and also a pale gold one. The purple kind is still the best kind and most popular.

  17. I forgot to mention another plant: chinese Yam(dioscorea batatas) (yes, to make things more confusing?…), which is a superb climber, reaching over 3 metres, but I never managed to harvest big tubers, even after 3 years (they are perfectly winterhard), the foliage is magnificent though, autumn colors included.
    I was in New Zealand a few years ago, I saw the yams, but unfortunately I couldn’t take them (backpacking). I did search for addresses to obtain some afterwards, but I never did find a good address.
    People also told me kumara is still mainly grown in the surroundings of Dargaville (which has a splendid forest nearby:Waipoua forest with the amazing Tane Mahuta tree),
    I believe this part of the world is one of the best for growing crops, I saw bananas, cherimoyas, guava,feijoa sellowiana,grapefruits,avocados,psidium cattleyanum,…I did wonder however why there were so little back-yard gardens with vegetables, some folks told me it was because of the cheap prices of vegetables in the shop, but I have some difficulties accepting this, maybe I was just in the wrong place..

  18. Thanks, Patrick
    i just came back here to say I finally identified it, and saw that you had done it already! Great job.

  19. Hi: I’m living in Medellin, Colombia and am interested in obtaining virus free propagation material for Andean tubers such as oca, mashua and ulluco. A local supermarket carries mashua and ulluco on occasion but their source is probably not virus free. If anyone can help me with this Please contact me at phil.bunch@zoho.com .


  20. A lot of Inca crops need a long season to grow proper tubers. We had early frosts around mid October last year, which completely stopped all growth. So: hardly any mashua; only half of the yield for yacon. Remember that the original potato started making tubers only after September: so there’s room for improvement & selection here. Let’s thank Frank & other lovers of Andean food crops!

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