So, you want to grow ulluco…

Interest in ulluco has taken a big jump the past couple of days, with the giant Baker Creek Seed company doing a bit of blogging about it on Facebook.  That translated into a rush of orders for us, which is great, but enthusiasm has overwhelmed practical considerations for some buyers.  This is a quick guide to ulluco and its growing conditions.

Half a dozen varieties of ulluco grown at the coast of Washington state

 

What is ulluco?

Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) is a tuber crop that was developed in the Andes mountains of South America, a process begun by the pre-Incan peoples of that region.  It is found primarily in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and to a lesser extent in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile.  It is very similar to the potato, but is not a close relative, botanically speaking.  It is still a popular crop in its native region, but has not spread to the outside world due both to difficulties with cultivation and the fact that the potato arrived in Europe first.

Ulluco plants form hundreds of small, starlike flowers through the summer

It is grown very much like potatoes, but requires a more specific environment (which we’ll get into below).  The plant is similar in size, although more sprawling than potato.  Whole or cut tubers are planted in spring.  Planting occurs at about the same time as for main crop potatoes, although harvest takes place later than for most potatoes.

The flavor is akin to beet and the texture, when cooked, is dense and somewhat like boiled peanut.  It remains firm even after long cooking times that would cause a potato to disintegrate.  Ulluco can also be eaten raw, but is mucilaginous (slimy) when uncooked.  All parts of the plant are edible at all stages of growth.  Tubers will become green when exposed to light, but this does not alter flavor and they do not become toxic as potatoes do.  The tubers are the primary part used as food, but the leaves are similar to spinach when cooked.  Tubers can be cooked according to almost any root vegetable recipe and are nearly interchangeable with potatoes, although they don’t mash or fry as well.

The ulluco growing environment

Ulluco plant about 1 month after sprouting

Ulluco grows at high elevation in the tropics, where the uplift of clouds against the mountains creates cool and wet weather conditions.  Mild conditions are constant throughout the year, without well defined seasons, due to the proximity to the equator.  The temperature falls mostly between 40 and 70 degrees Farenheit, rarely reaching either the freezing point or exceeding 80 degrees, regardless of season.

Ulluco in the hot zone: Midwest and east

If you live in the United States, odds are very good that your climate is not much like this.  Most of us have much hotter summers and pronounced seasons.  Where summers don’t get very hot, the growing season is often short and cold weather closes in relatively early in the fall.  Ulluco is not very adaptable to either condition.  Plants will survive temperatures into the 80s and possibly even the 90s, but they appear to yield almost nothing when they have been exposed to that kind of heat.  The typical yield under hot summer conditions is less than 1/10th of a pound of very small tubers and sometimes nothing at all.  In the UK, which is relatively cool in the summer compared to the US, and where ulluco is a more popular crop, people still often struggle to get a reasonable yield away from the northern coasts.

 
Ulluco in the cold zone: Up north and up high
 
Pica de Pulga ulluco, a common type with many varieties

You might be tempted to think that ulluco would be a good candidate to grow in the northern states, which have relatively cool summers, or at high elevations, like the Rockies, since it is a high elevation crop in South America.  Unfortunately, ulluco is grown at high elevation in the tropics, so while the weather is cool, it doesn’t get cold.  Ulluco won’t survive a frost and, unfortunately, it doesn’t begin to form tubers until after the autumn equinox (about September 22).  It takes about two months from that point to form good, eating size tubers, which puts harvest at about the end of November at the earliest.  It is even better if you can delay harvest until December or January.  If you live at high elevation in the US, odds are that you will begin experiencing frosts long before ulluco has matured its tubers.

 
Bottom line: you need a long frost-free autumn in order to get a good crop of ulluco.
 
Ulluco oases in North America
 
A Peruvian ulluco with long, banana-shaped tubers

So, where can you grow ulluco?  We’re still working to answer that question with the help of some of our more adventurous customers.  One good bet is anywhere along the west coast where you experience coastal fog in the summer.  So, a five mile wide strip along the coast, running from the northwest tip of Washington state down to about the San Francisco Bay area is a good bet for growing ulluco.  There are many people growing the crop successfully in this “ulluco belt.”  By the way, the belt continues on up in Canada to at least Courtenay, BC.  Growers in Vancouver and Victoria have reported good results.

 
Some people are also having success in the same zone in Southern California, but others have reported failure.  It may depend on the year and how much you water the plants in that region.  The inland Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains is another good area.  You will have some difficulties with summer weather and the ulluco may get cooked in some years, but will be fine in others.  In Seattle, you can probably get an ulluco crop in most years; in Portland, the odds are not so good.  We have mixed reports from Oregon’s major agricultural region, the Willamette Valley, where there will often be a sufficient frost-free season, but also a bit too much summer heat.
 
Wild ulluco has small tubers, but long vines with
edible, sort of spinach-like leaves.  You can grow
ulluco for its leaves in climates where tuber
production is poor.

Along the east coast, there are some reports of success along parts of the coast, from North Carolina to Maine, but also some reports of failure.  You need to take a close look at your microclimate to see if you can supply a long enough frost-free season while staying under the 80 degree mark in the summer.

 
We also have some reports of good results along the shores of the Great Lakes.  If you are very close to a large body of water, you might be in a good place to try ulluco.
 
Growing outside the oases
 
You can grow ulluco almost anywhere if you are willing to take steps to protect the plants and supply the growing conditions that they need.  In cold zones, you can extend the season in a greenhouse.  In hot zones, you can grow the plants in containers and move them into heavy shade or indoors when the weather gets hot.  You won’t harvest a huge crop this way, but if you just want to grow a few plants, it’s certainly manageable.  Ulluco makes a nice houseplant, but won’t get enough sun to produce a heavy crop of tubers indoors.
You can also experiment with blacking out your ulluco.  It doesn’t produce tubers until after the equinox, because that is when day length falls below 12 hours.  You can possibly stimulate tuber formation earlier in the year by blocking light from reaching your plants.  Blacking them out beginning two or three weeks before the equinox may get you tubers that much sooner.
If you try to grow ulluco in a difficult climate, you may actually discover ways to get better yields.  We’re in a rather ideal ulluco climate, so in a way, I’m the worst person to give you growing advice for different climates.  I’ve collected a lot of information from people who have tried growing ulluco in a warm climate, but I’ve never done it myself.  So, if you are feeling adventurous and flush with cash, give it a shot and let us know if you discover better ways to grow ulluco in your climate.
Some of the incredible ulluco diversity already available in North America

 

 

Future possibilities for ulluco


Ulluco has a couple of problems that limit its adaptability and we’re working on both of them, so we hope to eventually expand the North American ulluco growing region by at least a little bit.
 
Viruses
 
Meristem culture is one technique for reducing
viral infections in plants

Most ulluco on the market is heavily infected with viruses.  This is the easier of the two problems to solve, but still a time-consuming process.  Like the potato, ulluco is propagated by replanting tubers, which are clones of the original plant.  The tubers carry on every virus that the previous generations of the plant have been infected with, so over many years and generations of ulluco crops, they have become burdened with these viruses.  There is good reason to think that the viruses make ulluco more vulnerable to environmental stress and probably limit its ability to grow outside of ideal climates.  In 2012, we began tissue culturing our ulluco plants using virus elimination protocols to test whether or not we will get more robust plants once they are virus-free (or at least freer; some of the viruses that infect ulluco are difficult to eradicate).  Results have not been conclusive in our climate, but as mentioned above, our climate puts little stress on the plant, so it is not easy to evaluate the results ourselves.  This project will take several more years to complete, but we hope that the end result will be some stronger, healthier plants that are somewhat more adaptable.

 
Breeding
 
Ulluco has been reproduced asexually (from tubers) for so long that it has lost almost all of its ability to reproduce sexually and produce true seeds.  (The burden of viruses that they carry may be partly responsible for this as well.)  When plants cannot be grown from seed, they adapt only by relatively uncommon mutation events.  Selecting better plants involves growing large numbers of plants and hoping to find a chance mutation among them that happens to be valuable.  There is no doubt that ulluco varieties have been selected this way, but the process took generations.  Human generations, that is.
 
An ulluco seed obtained in 2013
(Possibly the first ulluco seed in North America)

A little sexual reproduction could go a long way to mixing up all of those ulluco genes to give us large numbers of new plants with new traits.  That is the key to breeding new, better adapted varieties for North America and the rest of the temperate world.  Unfortunately, ulluco has been observed to set seed very rarely – on the order of decades between reported events.  Fortunately, we got some seed last year!  We are now attempting to grow out some of that seed and working to figure out how to produce more.  In fact, we’re going to have so much ulluco to sell not just because we want to share it with the world (which we do!) but because we need to grow very large numbers of plants in order to maximize our chances of producing more seed.

Summary

Ulluco is a crop with a future as bright as its colorful tubers.  It has good potential today for parts of the US and Canada with maritime climates and late frosts.  It will need some breeding work and a bit of luck before it becomes a crop that can be grown outdoors in the warmer continental climates of North America.  The more people who are aware of ulluco, who grow and preserve varieties, who help the people of the Andes steward this crop, and who make it available to the world at large, the better the odds that we can find ways to overcome ulluco’s limitations and put it alongside the potato (which once faced similar difficulties) as a staple crop for the temperate world.

You can read our growing instructions here:
http://www.cultivariable.com/?page_id=165

If we haven’t scared you off by this point, you can buy ulluco here:
http://www.cultivariable.com/?product_cat=ulluco

One Response to So, you want to grow ulluco…

  1. Anthony October 15, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

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