While the warm winter season has seemed odd to many of us, it’s been a great boon for some of Corvallis’ root vegetables—including some more unusual species trans-located here from South America’s Andes Mountain regions. Armed with a prolific harvest of these new-to-us Andean tubers, Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto, founders of local organic seed suppliers, growers and breeders, Peace Seedlings, are in the process of introducing significantly greater variety into our local diet—a movement they hope will be perpetuated throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Peace Seedlings is a second-generation Corvallis company, evolved from Peace Seeds, started by Dr. Alan Kapuler and his wife Linda. Peace Seeds was born when the couple began replanting the seeds from their expansive garden each year. Their seed collection now contains 10,000 to 15,000 samples, many grown in their own plots, and some the product of wildcrafting, or collecting seeds from the natural world. Peace Seedlings, like Peace Seeds, employs entirely organic cultivation and collection methods, including composting, crop rotation, biodiversity in planting, and a complete avoidance of synthetics and poisons. And, thanks to the weather, fertile soils, incredibly hard work, and probably some great karma, this year’s Peace Seedlings Andean root crop harvest has been the most prolific yet.
Andean Tubers of the Willamette Valley
Have you ever marveled at the stunning biodiversity of our beautiful, blue-green planet—only to experience overwhelming boredom on a nightly basis at the monotonous components of your own dinner? Alan Kapuler firmly believes that both our local ecosystem and our personal nutrition can be enhanced by introducing into
our daily diets crops whose niches are currently monopolized by a single plant—think potatoes, tomatoes, and grains including common corn. Often these unusual crops boast unique and alluring flavors, gorgeous colors, and distinct nutritional profiles.
“There is this possibility of other food plants that we don’t know about,” noted Dylana Kapuler. “There are all these different root vegetables in different families—really diverse, instead of having all your plants closely related, like potatoes and tomatoes and all these things.”
“[The Andean peoples] picked food plants that were prolific and productive because they couldn’t go to the store and they didn’t have much meat—it was a very profound agriculture,” added Dr. Kapuler. “The greatest root-based agriculture in the world.”
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
The yacon tuber visually resembles a potato or yam, but its texture and taste is entirely its own—plus you can eat it raw.
“After you dig them up, they turn a darker red and get even sweeter,” said DiBenedetto. “They’re really good on salads and just by themselves.”
Linda Kapuler compares the crunch of a yacon to a water chestnut, but juicier and sweeter. With its low levels of sugar, it’s an excellent choice for a sweet, nutritive snack.
“You can juice the tubers and cook them down, not even that much, and it makes a molasses, very similar in color and consistency, probably even more nutritional,” added DiBenedetto, “especially since the sugars are mostly inulin, which promotes probiotic growth in your gut.”
Stored properly, yacon crowns can be harvested each year and replanted. Peace Seedlings anticipates that these tubers will only grow in popularity, as they’ve been doing exponentially for the past five to ten years.
“It’s one of the most productive tuberous plants you can grow,” said DiBenedetto. “It’s a five- to six-month growing season; you plant it in the spring and harvest in the fall, a little longer than potatoes.”
Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum)
Mashua is another highly proliferative South American root crop (the tubers can comprise up to 75 percent of the plant’s dry weight) that grows without abandon in our Oregon climate. It also sports a beautiful—and edible—flower that you may recognize: mashua is in fact a tuberous-rooted nasturtium.
While many of the Andean root crops seem relatively impervious to Oregon’s potato-related pests and diseases (mashua, like wasabi and horseradish, contains pest-resisting isothiocyanates), some have not escaped the notice of gophers and other root-loving garden critters. So how does Peace Seedlings produce such a beautiful, blemish-free harvest?
“Mashua is hot!” explained Dr. Kapuler. “In South America, they grow all of these in the same bed because mashua tubers prevent the rodents from coming into the beds; they don’t eat the mashua at all.”
Oca (Oxalis tuberosa)
A staple in Peruvian and Bolivian diets, oca tubers grow in a stunning diversity of colors, and, like other Andean root crops, they grow prolifically in the Willamette Valley’s ecosystem.
“They’re smaller, but they definitely put off more tubers than a potato, and this has been one of our best growing seasons for them,” said DiBenedetto, as he and Dylana Kapuler unearthed an impressive mound of the tubers.
But don’t dig them too early in the season—you can harvest oca tubers as late as November or early December.
“They start tuberizing at the end of October or so, but they hold on until winter,” said DiBenedetto.
“You can interplant these with things that don’t live as long,” added Dylana Kapuler. “They live longer than most of your garden plants, and they’ll still be green.”
Eaten raw, oca has a distinct crunchy texture that works great in salads—cooked, the tubers are soft like a potato. Oca also has a diversity of flavors from sweet to tangy, and it’s easier to prepare than a potato: eat it raw, boiled, or mashed, no peeling required.
Mauka (Mirabilis expansa)
Mauka is certainly one of the most obscure of the Andean root crops, having only been “re-discovered” outside of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
“This is the first time we’ve had seeds—this is the root, and the tops here are edible,” said Dr. Kapuler. “It’s one of the rarest food plants known… It took 20 years to get seeds for this plant.”
Most parts of this plant are edible—leaves (which can be cooked or eaten raw in salads), stems, and especially the roots. The roots are often described as a tasty mix between potatoes, parsnips, and sweet potatoes.
Perhaps best of all, mauka grows extraordinarily rapidly, with extensive root mass—as shown by the success of Peace Seedlings after only one year—and the plants themselves can grow over one meter in height within a season.
An invaluable tome of Andean root crop knowledge, dive into Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation (published by The National Academies Press in 1989) for more information.
As described by Dr. Kapuler, “It’s the original reference to all of this, besides the people and their culture.”
You can find Peace Seedlings’ yacon tubers at Corvallis’ First Alternative Co-op, and their yacon and oca at Sundance, Kiva, and The Corner Market in Eugene. For a list of local organic seeds offered by Peace Seeds, visit http://peaceseedslive.blogspot.com. To grow your own Andean tubers, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 541-752-0421.
by Genevieve Weber