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Yacon, ulluco, skirret: Here are some exotic tubers worth trying in your Alaska garden

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: February 1
  • Published February 1

Commercially available ulluco in New Zealand. (By Nzfauna via Creative Commons)

Recently, I came upon a website called Cultivariable (cultivariable.com), which sells all manner of Andes tubers. Hmm, the Andes. To me, this means high altitude, and that means cold weather – and any edible that can grow there should probably be tested here in Alaska.

The first thing that caught my eye were yacons. I've written about these for about five years now, so they are not new. They are most definitely worthy of your attention, especially if you like to grow edible plants in large containers. These produce a very sweet tuber, which can be eaten like candy. There is a secondary tuber that can be used to propagate new plants.

The leaves of yacons are said to have therapeutic value as well, but for me, it is their large size that makes them worthwhile. I usually order ours from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, but they have not listed them yet on their site. Stay tuned.

I was hoping that Cultivariable would be a secondary source. Alas, their crop was damaged by heavy rains last year, and they won't be selling plants again until the fall of this year (though they do have two that are listed in stock. Two? Who knew there was more than one variety of yacon?).

So, unless you have saved tubers, you may have trouble growing yacons this year. However, Cultivariable has seeds for sale. In fact, they call them "breeding mixes." It turns out that you can develop your own heirloom varieties of yacons. Who knew?

Growing yacons from seed (and tubers when you can get them) is definitely something for Alaska gardeners to consider. You will love the taste of these little tubers, and they are not only easy to grow, but very impressive looking. Do note that they also sells seeds of relatives of yacons, which can be used to breed different varieties. And, reading between the lines, it seems clear that these seeds need to be started very early in the season, i.e., as soon as they arrive in the mail.

The site, as well as Nichols, also offered a tuber known as oca. In fact, it has almost 30 different varieties of oca tubers, which are sometimes called Oxalis tuberosa. These tubers are about 4 inches long, about the diameter of a quarter, and come in very colorful reds, yellow, pinks and the like. They are eaten cooked and taste somewhat like soft potatoes, only a bit more acidic or sour.

Don't stop there. Cultivariable lists ulluco tubers and seeds. This is an earthy, beet-tasting tuber full of antioxidants, which no doubt you have never tasted. What fun to try something new.

Then there is skirret, a root crop that lost popularity when the potato was introduced into Europe. It is said to be perfectly hardy, and yet I have never heard of anyone growing it in Alaska.

And check out a very rare root crop, mauka, which was unknown to most until the 1960s. The vegetable takes two or three years to develop. It can be started from offshoots and seeds and is high in protein, calcium and phosphorus. The tops die back in the winter, but I wonder if the root, the edible part, would be hardy here. I suspect so, but some research is in order, though it is grown at a very cool 10,000 feet in the Andes.

This site was an interesting find. You will note that all of the crops offered are worthy of attention by Alaskans who are looking for "new" things to grow in our edible gardens. While it appears that rains damaged many of the company's stock, seeds are available and you can always use your web browser to try and find other sources.

Jeff's Alaska garden calendar

Hypertufa trough-making: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15 at Alaska Botanical Garden, $55 for members, $65 for non-members. alaskabg.org

Celery: If you want celery from the garden, now is the time to buy and start seeds.

25th Annual Spring Conference: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. March 3. Call Alaska Botanical Garden for reservations at 907-770-3692. This event sells out. Fast.

Seeking vendors for the Spring Garden Conference: The Alaska Botanical Garden has openings for vendors at the 25th Anniversary Garden Conference. Call 907-770-3692.

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