Traditional Andean food crops are hardy to the local climate and quite often thrive without much maintenance in our mountainside gardens. One of our favorites is yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolia), a sunflower relative that is native to Ecuador, Peru & Columbia.
Yacón is in the Compositae family and is commonly known as jicama, despite having no relation to the Mexican root crop known by the same name (Pachyrhizus erosus).
Yacón was one of many crops cultivated by the Incas. Legend tells that Incan messengers would carry yacón with them on long journeys to to help quench their thirst. The name comes from the word llaqon, which means “watery” in Quechua — the Inca’s original language.
Yacón produces large, edible tubers that are crisp, lightly sweet, and refreshing. They are typically peeled before eating and often enjoyed raw. We often eat it on it’s own, simply cut into slices, but topping it with a little salt or lime juice is also quite nice. Yacón makes a great addition to salads, lending a deliciously sweet crunch. The tubers can be boiled, baked, or stir fried, as well. Yacón syrups and powders have recently become increasingly popular in commercial markets.
The main stem of the plant can also be cooked and eaten. Reportedly the leaves can be used to wrap food during cooking, like banana or grape leaves. Additionally, the leaves can be used to make a tea, which is said to help reduce blood sugar.
Tubers that aren’t damaged keep well for some time, depending on the conditions in which they are stored. We’ve found that keeping them in a realtively cool, dark place helps them to last longer. Locals say that exposing the tubers to the sun will improve their sweetness.
Yacón is mostly carbohydrates. The solids in a tuber may be as much as 60-70% inulin, a soluble fiber that occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Inulin promotes healthy digestion and boosts the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, which also helps to inhibit harmful bacteria. The tubers are also rich in potassium and the tubers + the leaves are good sources of antioxidants.
The human body can’t metabolize inulin, so the tubers don’t provide many calories. Despite being quite sweet the tubers are also sucrose-free, making them an ideal treat for diabetics.
Yacón can be used as a fodder crop. The leaves have 11-17% protein (dry weight) and sprout back from the stem when cut. According to the book, Lost Crops of the Incas, the tubers can be fed to cows, as inulin is apparently metabolized quickly by ruminants.
Yacón is a fairly low maintenance crop. It is drought tolerant and once planted requires little care. After flowering, the tops will wither back and the tubers are ready to be harvested, which usually happens in 6-7 months.
Each plants produces many large, roundish tubers off of a central crown. After harvesting, the crowns can be replanted for the next crop. Our most recent harvest provided enough yacón tubers to enjoy them raw, deep fried, baked into casserole, shredded on salads, & stir-fried. We also had plenty of combs to re-plant and share with friends.
This low-maintenance plant is now a staple in our gardens. We love how easily it grows and the abundance of tasty tubers it provides.
We’ll be featuring more unique Andean crops in upcoming posts. These hardy plants are often under valued, especially by local expats, who often struggle to grow plants that are much better suited to Northern climates. Shifting to growing well-adapted natives allows for higher yields with much less effort — something every gardener can certainly appreciate.
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