Ulluco: Crop of the future or Inca practical joke?

2012 was the year that credulous Mayan calendar watchers believed that apocalypse was coming, and not just to a theater near you.  I try to avoid looking too strenuously for meaning in things, because it usually results in foolish conclusions, but I can’t help imagining a bunch of Mayans sitting around, laughing at the idea of a bunch of people freaking out about the end of a calendar that outlasted the civilization that invented it.  By the same token, I can’t help but imagine a bunch of Incas sitting around, laughing at my attempt to grow ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), a crop that may have been used as a practical joke on inexperienced Inca farmers.

Several varieties of ulluco tubers

If I manage to stick with writing throughout this year, you’ll probably be reading quite a few posts about ulluco.  We grow four of the more common “lost” Inca crops – oca, ulluco, yacon, and mashua – and occasionally tinker with some of the lesser ones as well.  We’ve gotten small harvests of oca and ulluco the last few years, primarily dug in the winter. This will be the first year that we try growing ulluco outdoors.

All of these crops are tuber crops that were developed at high elevation in South America.  Most are fairly adaptable to low altitude growing, but they all want cool conditions and day lengths similar to where they were bred, which is one reason why they aren’t commonly known worldwide.
Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), also commonly known as olluco or melloco, is probably the most difficult of these Inca tuber crops to grow.  I’m not going to delve deeply into the details here – I will get into those in a later post.  Ulluco wants a cool, wet climate.  That is great, because I can supply that.

Unfortunately, it is also very frost-sensitive and doesn’t begin to form tubers until after the autumnal equinox.  Our average first frost is November 15th.  But, of course, that is an average.  That first frost could happen any time between the second week of October and the end of December.  If the frost occurs on November 15th, that is plenty of time to grow some ulluco.  If it happens on October 10th, it might not be.

My sad greenhouse ulluco plant.

I’ve grown ulluco for a few years without any great success.  Last year, I tried to grow it in the greenhouse over the winter, hoping to harvest a small crop of tubers to start more plants this year.  I think that I succeeded in that, although the yield was pretty disappointing. The plant also didn’t do very well in the greenhouse.

As I understand it, ulluco cuttings root readily, so my backup plan is to slice and dice this plant into a bunch of cuttings in the event that my tubers don’t grow out this year.

My massive ulluco harvest is pictured below.  I know that you are impressed.  I have harvested infinitely more ulluco than 99.9999% of people on the planet.  This is a Pica de Pulga (flea bite) type of ulluco.  I’m not sure if that is a formal variety, or just a description of a common form.  I have several other varieties that I will test this year that are very different in appearance.
If each of those 15 tubers grows into a plant, that will be pretty great as far as I’m concerned, but yields are going to have to be a heck of a lot better in order for me to consider this a food crop.  In South America, these things range from the size of eggs (chicken eggs, I assume, not ostrich) to fists.  I ordered some canned ulluco from Amazon and will compare whenever it arrives.  I’m willing to put in the effort to figure out how to grow unusual crops, but only if they have a chance of producing.  Ulluco tastes really good, so that is a mark in its favor, but these blueberry-sized tubers aren’t encouraging.

I understand that this is considered a bushel of ulluco outside of Peru.

I think I have worked out some better strategies for growing ulluco.  Raised beds for better isolation from slugs, full sun instead of partial shade, and soil that hasn’t been recently manured all figure into the mix.

I plan to experiment with different growing techniques to try to dial in a little more closely on the ideal growing conditions.  I also have my little lab set up to do some micropropagation this year and have a few plantlets growing in glass.  Reportedly, ulluco has a pretty high virus burden and meristem culture results in a much higher yielding crop.  If the technique that I learned for potatoes works for ulluco, I should be able to get some clean stock to evaluate.

Anyway, there is a brief introduction to my ulluco experiment.  Hopefully I will have more interesting results to report later in the year.

(And now you can see the results.)

Ulluco tubers are sometimes available in our seed shop.

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