Growing yacon

Lots of people seem to be harvesting, eating, or thinking about buying or growing yacon, oca and other weird rooty things at the moment. We’ve grown both and are surprised that they aren’t more popular as they both have quite a lot going for them, not least looks and ease of cultivation.

However, I’m in no way an expert, but as I get a number of hits on my old post about yacon, I’m going to put together a couple of posts about our simple experiences, some links to places to find out more, and a few details about where you can source oca and yacon material to try them for yourself. I’ll start with yacon today and follow up with oca next.

Yacon from young plant to edible tuber

Yacon from young plant to edible tuber

Yacon

I’ve posted about this quite some time ago and my better half wrote up our experiences of our first year of growing this unusual tuber on http://growwhatyoucan.co.uk/yacon/yacon.html (yes, I have blatantly nicked some of his photos. I have a special dispensation).

We started on a poor, thin soil on solid chalk, very exposed so we grew several yacon (yacons? clones of the same plant, and I think of them a bit like sheep or deer, it’s can’t possibly be yacons) in pots and a few in the ground. In spite of the wind and the dryness we found them to be quite robust and pulled through what little damage they suffered well. In 2011 we moved to a new home where we have more clay soil; less exposed in some ways but also potentially wetter and windier, it’s hard to be sure what it will really be like. We’ll grow some in pots anyway and I have no doubt the yacon will outlive us…

Yacon growing tips on stem

Yacon growing tips, attached to the old stem

We’ve had very little trouble saving ample material to keep the plants going, and indeed shared a good deal of the stuff with other Strange People Off the Internet. Each year you remove a few of the growing tips, the bits you don’t eat, and pot them up – providing you keep them just moist (not wet, and definitely not dry) and frost free they grow rapidly in to handsome plants and the harvests are heavy. That’s when the problems kick in: what on earth do you do with the blighters?

They are indestructible in liquid dishes like stews. They have a mild, sweet taste, and the texture is crunchy but easy to bite – I compare them to a fast grown radish in construction. We tried frying them once – I could not learn to love the sweet, caramelised taste, but I can understand that some people do. We also juiced one when we were lent a juicer; an amazing amount of slightly greenish liquid resulted and I’m sorry to say not much of it was drunk; if anything it was a bit of an anti-taste – not horrible, just..not much. The Real Seeds people have reduced this to a syrup which they say is maple-like – it could be worth a go if you have a stove running anyway. The best use we’ve found is stir fries where both the taste and texture is welcome and not a million miles from the benefit you get from water chestnuts in my opinion. From what I read, they may be rather good for you; we’re going to try dehydrating them next, and coleslaw has also been recommended to us.

Find out more about yacon online

One of my favourite blogs, Radix’s adventures in Andean and other root crops are the epitome of the phrase “informative and entertaining”. You may want to tie a piece of string to your little toe and leave a note for your nearest and dearest before you head in there as it may be some time before you return and you may have a list of “things you could just try one day” when you do: http://radix4roots.blogspot.com/search/label/Yacon

Soren at In The Toad’s Garden was one of the first places I read about yacon – he has had some trouble over-wintering crowns in the past, but then being based in Denmark he does have slightly more weather to contend with, I suspect: http://toads.wordpress.com/?s=yacon

Another of my regular reads, Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots, has been growing yacon for several years and has even written up a PDF to download for new growers – explore his posts on http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/index.php?s=yacon

Frank Van Keirsbilck seems to be the source of many of the plants available and his site also has a detailed introduction to this vegetable: http://thevegetablegarden.be/yacon.html

The hard stuff…books that cover yacon

I’ve never regretted spending some hard-earned pennies on Growing Unusual Vegetables by Simon Hickmott. Every time I go to look something up in it I find information I’d forgotten was there – my little brain couldn’t possibly hold that much information, so I’m glad there are books like this around to help. Mr Hickmott was a proprietor of Future Foods, a grower of unusual edibles which I regret never having been able to buy from as they closed some years ago, sadly.

More glossy, more recent and with more recipes, is A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono. Now, I will be honest, I only know this from the preview on Amazon, but I’ve heard good things about it from people who do own it, and the only reason I haven’t bought it, really, is that I have more books than I really need for a lifetime and can’t really justify the frivolity. Feel free to convince me otherwise, I’m open to reason, suggestion or threats. There’s a substantial extract and a couple of sample recipes on http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/dec/13/how-grow-and-cook-yacon – he also seems to have found a use for Vietnamese coriander which I’m still convinced is a practical joke rather than a herb.

Rather than direct you straight to Amazon for these books take a look at Emma Cooper’s reviews to help you decide which one to buy first…

http://emmacooper.org/blog/book-review-growing-unusual-vegetables

http://emmacooper.org/blog/book-review-a-taste-of-the-unexpected

Where to buy yacon plants

Real Seeds, the source of our plants, fell under the curse of the were-rabbit in 2011, so don’t hassle them for any until December 2012.  Do however use them for your other seed needs; they are lovely people providing really sound seeds.

Otter Farm offers three plugs for what sounds a very reasonable price of £4.50 – http://shop.otterfarm.co.uk/products/yacon– I’m not clear on whether they mean rooted cuttings or growing tips but I suspect you’ll be getting a bargain either way.

Edulis offers it at £8.50 although it’s unclear what you get for that and they don’t seem to have online ordering yet. They do have a great picture of what I assume is a boy dwarfed by the plants, but if they have the right soil could well be a strapping 6 foot rugby player in raised shoes http://www.edulis.co.uk/product/?pid=42046

Finally, Peter at Jungle Seeds thinks he may be able to supply yacon plants later in spring and suggests contacting him in April/May. I’ve not bought plants from this company but did place a seed order with them once and was happy with the quality and price. His newsletters convey passion and knowledge and I expect it will be worth checking out what he has to offer, especially if you are short on frost protection as in May you’ll only have to baby your plants for a month or so. Take a look at http://www.jungleseeds.co.uk for contact details and don’t blame me if you find you need another garden after your visit.

Edit 18 Jan 2012 – via Ian Pearson’s Growing Oca blog I have  come across www.yakon.co.uk which is offering a red skinned type. You have to agree to their t&c before seeing prices for either growing tips or edible tubers, so I can’t offer any more information.

A reasonable bet for obtaining some plants is to check seed swaps on forums and blogs – gardeners are generous folk and many are happy to share. If you do ask for, or get offered, plant material through this method please make sure you really want to and can grow the plants you request. For me as a donor in the past nothing is more frustrating than joyfully sharing your plants or seeds only to meet with a resounding silence as to whether it even arrived, let alone thrived or died. When someone does take the trouble to share what happened however, it’s, for me at least, much better “repayment” than a swap or refunding the postage. I’m not talking about producing a monograph or entering in to a lifelong correspondence, just a comment, reply, photo, tweet, email etc, is surprisingly welcome.

Speaking of which, the lovely Jean of http://visionsphoto.co.uk kindly gave me permission to use this photo of a whopper she grew from one of our cuttings.  So don’t say you haven’t been warned what you might dig up one of these days…

Just one yacon tuber...

Just one yacon tuber… (image from Jean Lippett at Visions)

If you’ve got any other links to good sources of information, plants or recipes for yacon I’d really welcome them and if appropriate I’ll add them to this or a follow-up post – and credit you, of course. Extra praise for anyone who comes up with a constructive use for the remaining bucket of yacon tubers…I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching Grand Designs in a month or two and see Kevin McCloud gushing over their amazing tensile strength while someone shovels them by the ton in to their foundations…

Additional sources of information:

http://cipotato.org/roots-and-tubers/yacon (includes PDF factsheet)

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