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Lost Crops of the Incas by the National Research Council  RSS feed

 
Neil Layton
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Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation by the National Research Council, National Academies Press, 1989

Summary:
In an age when society often believes "newer" is better, what happens when something "new" on the market is actually almost five centuries old? That is exactly the case with dozens of tasty, fascinating fruits, vegetables, and tubers that were once grown by the Incas at a time when their empire extended throughout the Andes in South America and that have now been "found" by researchers. This fascinating, readable volume is filled with enticing, detailed information about more than thirty different Incan crops that promise to become important contributors to the world's food supply. The New York Times book review calls Lost Crops of the Incas a book that will "... inspire those with an interest in agriculture and an entrepreneurial spirit to experiment with these obscure plants of the Inca Empire."

Where to get it:
Direct from the National Academies Press (also free PDF download):
Amazon.com
Amazon.co.uk
 
Neil Layton
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I give this book 8.5 out of 10 acorns. The consideration given by the authors to worldwide cultivation and the multiple niches that can be filled by crops discussed in this book make it more useful than the companion volumes on African crops (see separate reviews).

I came across this book by accident when looking for the Lost Crops of Africa series by the same institution. The Incan Empire stretched from the tropics to temperate zones into what is now Chile, roughly from Quito to modern Santiago, from the Pacific coast high into the Andes. The Incas were world-class experts at the creation of microclimates, often working with wildly different conditions over the space of a few tens of metres. It seemed reasonable to assume that some of the plants they grew (besides the papa (potato (Solanum tuberosum)), of course) might find a home elsewhere. In the couple of decades since this book was published it is fair to say that some people have picked it up and, if not run then at least walked with it. Work has certainly been done on examining whether many of these crops will grow outside their native ranges and on propagating virus-free strains. It is certainly worth seeking up to date information on any crop that looks promising to the reader, whether in the western Neotropic or elsewhere.

The main focus of this book is to broaden the cultivation and acceptance of these and other crops in South America. The Incas gave us The Conquistadors and other invading colonial scum stole the potato, the chilli (Capsicum spp) and the tomatl (tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)) (both loanwords from Nahuatl), among others, but went on to insist the indigenous peoples grew plants that Europeans were more familiar with, and these are still often perceived as superior to domestic crops today, mainly because one set of crops are eaten by poor, brown people and the others are eaten by affluent white people. Nevertheless, the subtitle of the book is “Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation”. I'm more than happy to borrow – with due credit (which is why I will prioritise the Runasimi (aka Quechua) or other indigenous names throughout) and recompense – a good idea when I see one. The book is also fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective. It's one to curl up with on a wet Sunday as much as one that you can obtain inspiration from.

That said, some of these plants, such as o'qa (oca - Oxalis tuberosa), and kinwa (quinoa - (Chenopodium quinoa), are known to me. Few have received scientific respect or research, and only a couple are even now grown commercially. With that said, as with Africa, colonial powers stole a great deal and in many ways continue to do so: it's therefore important, I think, not to make the problem worse. There are complex issues with the cultivation and export of these crops, which I am not equipped to answer, many going back to the Conquest: http://www.salon.com/2014/04/24/what_your_organic_market_doesnt_want_you_to_know_the_dark_truth_about_quinoa_partner/

There may also be a risk of some species becoming invasive outside their native ranges, although all these species seem to present a low risk. Attempting to circumvent important biosecurity protocols may, however, promote the spread of crop diseases. One point mentioned about many crops is that they are often infested with a variety of plant viruses, so it's critically important that only germplasm with a proper biosecurity import certificate is obtained. This means official channels, not online auction sites.

The other main problem is likely to be daylength. Some of these crops are known not to be sensitive to photoperiod. That said, there was an attempt to grow kinwa in Scotland, which failed for reasons that are unclear. My suspicion is that the relatively long summer days at the latitude of Fife interfered with the plant's metabolism – some varieties show more response to daylength than others. That said, even at the time this book was written a number of the crops described, such as o'qa (oca - Oxalis tuberosa), were being grown outside the western Neotropic, and I'm aware of work on a couple of others, so I would encourage the reader to conduct trials rather than assume.

On the other hand, with a disrupted climate, the fact that some of these crops will grow, even thrive, in truly malign conditions (maca (Lepidium meyenii) (a perennial tuber) grows at altitudes of 4,300 metres – with the inevitable high winds – on the dismal soils of the Puna, where temperatures can fall from 18C to -10C in a matter of minutes at sunset), presents obvious opportunities. Many indigenous Andeans are as aware as I am that Pachamama is well and truly pissed off: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/climate-change-threatens-quechua-and-their-crops-in-perus-andes/

Much of the book is taken up by a discussion of nine different root crops from as many plant families, plus seven species of potato (various Solanum spp). On the plus side, a ten-crop rotation should firmly break up pest life cycles, as well as presenting the grower with potentially substantial added resistance against failure. Some, such as Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), are more promising than others as foodstuffs, and the grower will need to select species to conditions, although others are valuable starch crops but, with the addition of crops from Africa (see my review of Lost Crops of Africa Volume 2: http://www.permies.com/t/57011/books/Lost-Crops-Africa-Volume-Vegetables), Asia (think yams (Dioscorea spp)) and elsewhere (such as sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)) many growers might well be able to organise root rotations coupled with nitrogen-fixing crops lasting at least a decade (although note that several root and tuber options are legumes, others may be related to plants that may be prone to the same diseases, and remember your soil partitioning!).

The problem is that the cultivation of root crops requires digging or tilling, which is problematic in terms of soil carbon sequestration. On the other hand, this should help to enable you to consume a varied diet and produce an eye-catching display at your farmers' market. I'm thinking about opportunities for hybridisation between the various Solanum potato species in order to extend their range. Most are tropical mountain (i.e temperate-photoperiod-sensitive) crops, but breeding something more resistant to heat, drought or a regular dry season would be useful. The methods by which this might be achieved are discussed.

Three pseudograins, kinwa (quinoa - Chenopodium quinoa), kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus) and kaniwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) are also discussed. Kinwa has found a market in the Global North in recent years and this, along with the other two, are particularly valuable in containing three of the most common limiting amino acids lysine, methionine and tryptophan. All have their limitations, but all have some potential outside their region of origin: in the case of kinwa this has been partially realised. Kinwa is best characterised as a complex of subspecies, varieties and landraces, so picking the right one for your conditions is probably a matter for research. Requirements for the other two are more complicated. I also wonder whether those annoying protective saponins found coating kinwa seeds could be extracted for soap without affecting the edibility of the crop. This is something I'd like to refer to someone with more experience in the subject.

All of the three legume species listed have their uses, ranging from food to agroforesty and the use of basul (Erythrina edulis) as a nurse tree. Nuñas hybridise readily with other varieties of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and need to be grown separately. Tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis) seeds are bitter, and seem to have no obvious benefits over other varities of lupin. I did not immediately find evidence of any of these species becoming invasive, although tarwi will hybridise with other lupins and, in the case of basul, this may be a matter of absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. All may contain transmissible plant diseases, and clean germplasm should be obtained.

Several vegetables have my attention, from a hardy tree chilli (rocoto (Capsicum pubescens)) to a perennial (but not hardy, sadly) squash, the zambo (Cucurbita ficifolia). The achocha (Cyclanthera pedata) and casabanana (Sicana odorifera) (the smell is apparently a pleasant combination of ripe melon and peach, but only the inedible mature fruits are fragrant: they are usually eaten young) among others will grow outside the Andes.

Perhaps even more than vegetables, I'm always on the lookout for new fruits. Most grains tend to the bland, and this can be an asset, but many pseudograins can have better flavour. Most new vegetables I've tried have been an interesting curiosity, but typically not worth premium prices or the costs of carbon in air freighting. Fruits have unique flavours and are almost invariably worth trying. This books lists many, few of which I've tried and many of which show promise outside their region of origin.

The problem with fruits is that the edible parts have typically evolved in order to encourage animals to eat them in order to disperse their seeds. This means that they are more likely than many other plants to become invasive in areas with nothing that will control the plant, squeezing out native species with their evolved associations with other species and impairing ecosystem function. In addition, at least some species listed here are liable to hybridise with native species, and both viable and nonreproductive offspring present ecosystem problems. Both of these issues may apply to the Rubus genus (relatives of blackberries and raspberries), for example. There are tasty fruits listed here that I would be interested in incorporating into perennial polycultures, but I want to go through them carefully, one at a time, to ensure that they pose minimal risk if they, or their pollen (as might be the case with the Vaccinium species (related to the blueberry) listed), get over the hedge.

Others, such as ugni (Myrtus ugni) interest me. This is one I've never tried, but it's frost and drought tolerant, and is also an ornamental perennial into the bargain. The murmuntu or capuli cherry (Prunus serotina subsp. capuli) exemplifies my comments on invasive potential: Prunus serotina is a known invasive species in Europe. The murmuntu has been grown in commercial plantings, but I don't think growing it is a good idea; nor does it show many advantages over existing cherry varieties. Similar issues apply to the topotopo (Physalis peruviana – goldenberry or cape gooseberry).

The cherimoya (Annona cherimola) is another matter. This is one of the custard apples, and one of my favourites. It will grow into Mediterranean climates and is one for the list of anyone who can give it suitable conditions. The question is whether to eat them all yourself or flog them for the premium prices they fetch. In Europe plants should be available from Spain, although giving them the correct conditions can be tricky. That's not likely to stop me. The Annona genus is quite large, and they hybridise readily, so the enthusiast may find fun and profit in breeding new varieties.

Similarly some of the “Highland papayas” (various Carica species), relatives of the more familiar papaya show promise even into some warm temperate areas, as may lucuma (Pouteria lucuma), another plant with many uses if it can be given frost-free conditions. The lulo (Solanum quitoense – aka naranjilla) is a plant some may wish to try in the shaded shrub layer of a homegarden/forest garden, but pollination may be tricky, and intercropping with something that suppresses nematodes (the authors suggest Indigofera species, which would also provide nitrogen) may be necessary. I intend to investigate the related Solanum pectinatum, since the true lulo is unlikely to be suited to the climate where I intend to end up. Similarly, at least one species of passionfruit (Passiflora spp) should be available for most climates well into warm temperate areas.

To my minor irritation, the cachun (Solanum muricatum – pepino) would probably require shade and irrigation in the Mediterranean summer, because otherwise it sounds like a great crop. Suitable conditions for the tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea) would be similarly difficult to achieve, although close relatives, such as C. hartwegi might be worth pursuing.

I think there is a strong case for examining the requirements of the Quito palm (Parajubaea cocoides). It has also led me to consider what other palms might be suited to the climate I hope to move to, and what palms might be appropriate as the climate changes. This one is suited to cool climates, and may have evolved to fit into a niche where tropical and temperate zones are physically close together. Its potential range may be quite extensive. There are also several walnut (Juglans) species, which may do well into temperate zones, and certainly might be worth considering if you live in a montane tropical or subtropical zone. They hybridise with the Persian/”English” walnut (J. regia) and may be a source of valuable genetic material.

There are minor flaws with this book. It's clear it could have been much, much longer, and there are probably many potential crops in the Andes that are not listed in this book. It's also very inconsistent: it was clearly written by committee without reference to a good editor. Listings for some species have reasonably complete botanical information, but this is lacking for others. That said, most of those may have been subject to further investigation since, and cross-checking with other sources, such as Plants for a Future: http://pfaf.org/user/Default.aspx might be advisable, especially for a plant that might grow on the edge of your range. The literature on many of these species has certainly expanded since the appendix on recommended reading was put together, and it's probably worth a thorough web search if you consider growing any of the species mentioned. This may also throw up sources of clean germplasm. The list of research contacts will also be out of date, and institutions will have come and gone. All that said, it's definitely worth reading for any smallholder well into temperate ranges.

I've seen it claimed recently that many people are reluctant to change their diets, and indeed history tends to bear this out. Equally, history shows us potential solutions to the problem. The Parmentier Solution is one. A plant that grows almost like a weed in my garden, once the province of the Scottish poor, is now widely regarded as a superfood. This is kale (a group of cultivars of Brassica oleracea). The right marketing campaign, sneaky or otherwise, could introduce many new foods to the unsuspecting foodie and, eventually, the general population. I have found several plants in here to stick on my Mediterranean planting list. I'd certainly consider eating them, and would introduce them to others.

I now plan to have a good rake through the NAS back catalogue for anything else I might have missed. There are a number of monographs on individual species, and their volume entitled “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century” (2010) shows promise.
 
David Livingston
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I was interested in your comments about quinoa having tried to grow it myself , and I am aware of a local grower here in Anjou even if it does not grow as well as in it's native range at 9€ a kilo is quite economic I hope to give it another go as it has dissapeared from our diet due to price and frankly ethical concerns . I was told it does not grow so well here because it's too hot ... Not an issue in Fife
I grow oca also available at the local organic shop and markets here in Anjou and have some growing again this year with little effort
I also grow cape gooseberry as it's a bit of an exotic on cakes for parties etc and am trying to grow it as a perennial in our poly tunnel
 
David Livingston
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I forgot to mention I am trying achocha this year having been given some seeds and advised to eat young and small in stir fry
Plus cape gooseberry is grown commercially and organically in Spain and seeds are available for two types locally
I came across this book via a mention on Permies a year or so ago and am aware that the real seed comp in the UK sells quite a few of the seeds for these plants http://www.realseeds.co.uk/

David
 
David Livingston
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I give this book 8 of 10 acorns ; Its a treasure trove for those interested in expanding your range of veg and fruit becoming more resilient and hopefully profitable if thats your thing
I am hoping to see more of these fruits and veg rightfully take their place on the world stage and shops too
 
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