Growing your own food has never been this interesting.
Most of us enjoy root crops of two kinds; the starchy mostly-carb kind, such as Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes, and secondly the ‘vegetable’ kind such as carrots, parsnips, turnips and swede.
Our diets have changed dramatically over the past few centuries as explorers travelled beyond the reaches of their known worlds and returned with new crops which could enrich our diets and fill our fields.
In this article we are going to examine our relationship to our current ‘staple crops’ and discover which new or neglected plants will become the Potato of Tomorrow.
The Potato of Today
Today it is not unusual in Europe to see acres of potato fields, a plant that originates in the Andes of Peru, nor is it strange to think of the rice being grown in East-Asian countries as ending up on the plates of European diners.
Before the arrival of potatoes to Europe, people would have eaten a broader range of foods including root crops such as Turnips, Parsnips, ‘Pignut’, and a variety of stews and gruels made using relatively small amounts of coarse grains.
Today, however, our mass-production farming methods have resulted in plates which are filled up with larger amounts of cheap, plain starch, and now we see parsnips and turnips as weird subsidiary vegetables that belong with carrots and runner beans instead of the staple that they used to be.
Indeed, today most of our calories come from just a handful of major crop species worldwide (Rice, Wheat, Maize, Potatoes and Cassava) which are grown on a massive and industrially efficient scale, often known as ‘monocropping’.
As well as being *a little* boring, the prevalence of just a handful of foods as our main source of calories also limits the diversity of nutritional intake in our diet. This makes it more important to seek out a wide range of vegetable food sources, to ensure a balanced diet rich in trace elements and vitamins.
The tendency toward ‘monocropping’ also puts our food security at risk as the gene pool is naturally limited by the selective breeding processes used to produce bigger yields. This limited gene pool makes the global crops vulnerable to pests or diseases to which almost all of the closely related plants will share the same weakness.
Alternative crops for a more diverse plate
There are many interesting root crops that can be grown with great ease and will add interest to any plate. These may be of special interest for those following a ‘paleo’ diet, but all of these will add a special something to the garden at the very least and many of them come from the same cradle of diversity as the potato in the Andean mountain range.
Jerusalem Artichoke and Helianthi –Helianthus tuberosus and Helianthus strumosus
These two closely related root crops originate in North America and
have been domesticated on both sides of the Atlantic since at least the 1700’s. These are similar plants and have a similar set of growing requirements. Both get relatively tall (especially the Jerusalem Artichokes), and then produce flavorsome tubers in the late autumn which can be harvested throughout the winter as needed. The tubers are rich in inulin, a prebiotic which contributes to maintaining gut health . Quite a large space is needed to grow these but they make a great addition to stews and a mixed mash.
Crosne- Stachys affinis
These are also known as ‘chinese artichoke’ and ‘knotroot’ and are an
unusual member of the betony family. The plants form a small rhizome with a crisp crunchy quality with a texture similar to radish.
Often eaten raw or pickled, these are a great addition to a dish and have reputed medicinal qualities, specifically in treating colds and bronchial infections. A pretty plant in its own right, similar to an Agastache when in flower.
Oca – Oxalis tuberosa
Also known as New Zealand Yam this tuber hails from the Andes and has a variable flavour which can be sharp and acidic or sweet and
starchy depending on variety. There are numerous varieties which vary in colour and shape as much as flavour. These can be enjoyed in moderation as they have relatively high levels of Oxalic acid. The young stems are also occasionally eaten. This is a frost tender crop and matures quite late in the year, being ready to harvest in the middle of November in the northern hemisphere. Easy to grow in large containers, the plants are also pretty compact.
Mashua – Tropaeolum tuberosum
These are sometimes grown as decorative flowering climbers although the variety ‘Ken Aslet’ is one of the few which will flower early enough in the year to be enjoyed before the frosts get them. There are a multitude of colourful varieties to choose from and all will enjoy relatively warm, temperate growing conditions. These are relatively high-yielding and can even be grown in large containers. The flavour when raw can be a little pungent, but is very palatable when cooked. Often grown in Peruvian potato fields as a companion crop as it repels a number of pests.
Ramsons- Allium ursinum
Also known as bear garlic, this European native was widely consumed as a wild food before greengrocers were invented. As these do not travel well after harvest, this delectable vegetable has largely disappeared from the menu. A relative to onions and garlic, these have pungent flat leaves which are also edible, and smallish garlicky bulbs which have a rich flavour. Easy to grow, these will thrive in semi shade and have beautiful white flowers in spring.
Yacon – Smallanthus sonchifolius
This South American relation to the Jerusalem Artichoke produces two kind of tuber on the same plant, the edible part are the long sweet-potato shaped storage tubers, and the other is the enlarged dormant
rhizome ready for the following season’s growth. The tubers have a crisp, sweet flavour and are often allowed to dry in the sun to harden the skin and improve the flavour before eating. As these are day-neutral plants they will produce tubers at any latitude, meaning that it is possible to produce a crop even in equatorial regions. A tall plant, these can reach a height of 2m or more.
Salsify Tragopogon porrifolius
A beautiful plant in its own right, the Salsify is also known as Oyster
Plant due to the oyster-like flavour. An interesting addition to stews, this root crop is also regarded well by herbalists. These grow to 1.2m tall and have gorgeous purple hawksweed-like flowers. The root grows in a manner similar to a carrot, so the plants can be grown close together but in deep light soil.
Scorzonera Scorzonera hispanica
Sometimes known as ‘Black Salsify’ this is indeed related to the Salsify
but not very closely. Grown in a similar fashion the roots are relatively nutritious, being a source of various vitamins, minerals and also proteins, amino acids, fats and carbohydrates. These take about 2 years to reach full size before cropping, and the roots have a tough skin which is usually removed after cooking.
Yet another Peruvian root crop growing on a plant which also has edible
foliage used as spinach. Wild varieties grow as twining, sprawling vines, but the domesticated varieties are more bushy. These are relatively rich in protein, being around 2.5% by weight, and relatively watery in texture. Also rich in vitamin C these make in interesting addition to salads. The flavour is described as being similar to beetroot, and the tubers are usually cooked but can be eaten raw.
Hamburg Parsley Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum
A subvariety of the same species of plant used for leaf parsley. These can be easily mistaken for Parsnips, and are more commonly consumed in mainland Europe, especially in Germany and the Low Countries. These have about 2% protein and are a reasonable source of Vitamins, Calcium and some other essential elements. Although these have a relatively long growing season, the entire plant can be used – both leaves and root. These make a great addition to stews with a rich flavour which softens when cooked.
Chinese Yam (Cinnamon Vine) Dioscorea polystachya
There are several Yams included in the Dioscorea genus, including
D.polystachya and the related Dioscorea opposita or oppositifolia. The latter species are often confused with each other (they are probably subvarieties of the same species) and also with the true Chinese Yam (D.polystachya), however the ‘oppositifolia’ types are native to the Indian subcontinent, whereas the Chinese Yam is originally from China. This twining climbing plant produces deep-growing long tubers at the plant base/crown, and additionally small tubers in the leaf-axils. This plant was widely grown as an ornamental vegetable in the US and it has now become invasive in some areas. The main tubers can weigh as much as 6kg and can extend to 1m below the soil surface. The flowers have a Cinnamon-like scent, and the plants are pretty tough being able to survive some amount of frost. These can be grown in large containers given sufficient depth.
Jicama (Mexican Potato, Yam Bean) – Pachyrhizus erosus
A fascinating plant from Mexico is one of three Pachyrhizus species cultivated for their tuberous roots. This species is relatively easy to grow given protection from cold temperatures. Goitenyo (P.tuberosus) grows in the Amazon and Ajipa (P.ahipa) grows in the high Andes of Bolivia and was introduced to the West Indies in the colonial period, where it is still cultivated. The Jicama grows as a bean-like vine which forms a Turnip-shaped tuber at the base of the plant. This sweet-tasting root is relatively rich in Vitamin C, and low in carbohydrate while being relatively high in prebiotic inulin and fibre. Needs a warm growing season of around 8 or 9 months to give a good harvest, with some tubers weighing more than 20kg.
Potato Bean (Indian Potato) – Apios Americana
A perennial vine that produces both edible tubers and edible beans on the same plant! The tubers are large underground rhizomes which grow from the main plant on short runners like beads on a string. Surprisingly high in protein, the drawback of this crop is that it has barely been
domesticated and can be a little tricky to grow and harvest. The flowers are gorgeous, similar to tightly-clustered wisteria flowers, but a deep rich rosy colour.
Gobo – Japanese Burdock –Arctium lappa
Used in Japanese cuisine, this species is also employed in Chinese traditional medicine as a remedy for colds and sore throats. This plant is well-known as a pernicious weed which can be hard to eradicate due to its thick taproots. If you are eating them however, it suddenly becomes easier to run out of them! These are tough plants with velvety soft leaves which are not bothered by pests or much else and the plants are a rich source of nectar when in flower. The flowers are attractive mini-thistles which, while not prickly, possess Velcro-like hooks which causes the seedheads to become attached to clothing, hair, fur and feathers.
Chufa – Tigernuts – Cyperus esculentus
A pretty extraordinary tuber produced on the roots of a sedge grass.
Originally cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, Chufa is now grown worldwide as a nutritious snackfood.
Dried for storage, these are usually rehydrated before consuming and can be made into a variety of foods including Chufa milk, ground into flour and baked, and even pressed for oil.
Although these are indeed tubers, Tigernuts are more similar to nuts nutritionally, containing high proportions of oils and protein. The ‘nuts’ have a sweet almond-like flavour. The plants can withstand only a tiny amount of cold, but are easy to grow in containers, needing only 30cm of soil depth to produce a crop.
Skirret (Crummock)– Sium sisarum
An ancient vegetable from the Carrot family, this unusual and hardy
perennial produces a cluster of centimetre wide roots held in a loose bunch. As a plant, these hail from Asia originally, but had already spread to Europe a few thousand years ago. These vary considerably from plant to plant and as a crop there is potential for improvement by selective breeding but harvesting on a mass-production scale would be challenging to say the least. Cooked roots have a flavour similar to Carrots.
Arracacha (Peruvian Carrot) – Arracacia xanthorrhiza
Finally, yet another root crop from the Andes, this plant is cultivated on
a large scale in South America, and is very nutritious with a similar profile to Potatoes (but with less protein) and cooked in a similar manner.
These need a long season to grow and produce a crop and all of that season needs to be warm to get a reasonable yield (although the roots can tolerate some cold).
Some useful links:
Information about Ulluco (also loads of other interesting crops) from Cultivariable (USA).
A wide selection of these (and other) species from incredible vegetables (UK).
A lot of different ‘forgotten vegetables’ also available from Allseeds, which ships across the EU.
Sacred Succulents (USA) carry a special range of Andean Tubers
And JL Hudson (Seedsman) (USA) is always one of the best sources for unusual seeds and tubers.