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Bolivia Diaries: Day 5, Part 2 - Andean Crops, With Photos

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Sep 09, 2011 at 23:20:42 PM PDT

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This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. We spent our fifth day in Yungas, the warmer and greener region just down the mountains from the Altiplano. After lunch, we were treated to a fascinating introduction to Andean crops.

Previous diaries can be seen here:

You can also find diaries from my 2010 trip to Bolivia here.

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 5, Part 2 - Andean Crops, With Photos
During our time in Yungas, we mostly visited the Unidad Academica Campesina (UAC) Carmen Pampa, and we were generously led around by Desiderio Flores. We first met him at the coffee plant and then met again for lunch and for a spectacular presentation of Andean crops and a tour of a organic, biointensive garden.

About Our Host
UAC-Carmen Pampa began in 1994 with 52 students in the Agronomy department, and now they have 752 students in 5 departments - vet, tourism, nursing (public health), agronomy, and education. The agronomy department is the largest. A Fransciscan nun named Sister Damon was teaching high school in this area for a long time and grew to understand the structural problems around poverty. She saw so many students graduate high school and they would return to their villages and remain poor. The only other option for them was to go to the city for a higher education, but then they wouldn't return to the country after that. So she wanted a university that would serve the needs of rural students, and that's what the university has done.

Our guide, Don Desiderio, is an agronomist who is passionate about Andean biodiversity. He is from Oruro but came to this area in 1995 to work on a project on roots and tubers. Subsequently, he was invited to become a professor of agronomy at Carmen Pampa. During his tenure, he began teaching organic agriculture. Recently, he was put in charge of the coffee facility. It's not his expertise, but he agreed to do it because of his love of the agronomy department and the college. However, he plans to leave the university to return to Oruro (and he might have already done so by now).

Andean Crops
Don Desiderio began his introduction to Andean crops by saying that many people who live in Yungas are not native to here. Many people came from elsewhere and colonized this land, and they brought their food with them. They also adapt to the food we grow here.


Oxalis tuberosa: Oca

Don Desiderio began by describing oca. Oca is native to the Andes and were domesticated thousands of years ago. They are produced in the high Andes from 2500m-4000m about sea level. They yield 25 to 30 tonnes per hectare. There are about 150 different varieties of oca in Bolivia. They differ by size and by color of flesh and of skin. You can eat them roasted, raw, or fried. Oca is sundried to increase the amount of sugar. Sometimes they dry them until they are very dry so they are pure sugar.

Andeans have learned how to preserve oca. They put them outside during freezing nights and then put them in the sun during the day. This is called kaya. (The bowl on the left contains kaya, I believe.)

Oca is grown by planting the tuber, not by planting a seed. They plant them in mounds, about 10cm deep, 40cm wide.

Ullucus tuberosus: Papalisa

Next, papalisa. According to legend, people who eat this get soft skin, which makes people fall in love with them. This species grows in the same conditions as oca, and there is huge variety of papalisa in Bolivia. They come in green, purple, red, and yellow colors. This is grown in the region near Lake Titicaca. You will find many varieties of this near the town of Sorata. They grow 2500-4000m above sea level.

In Holy Week, they traditionally make a an ají (spicy salsa) of papalisa. Papalisa has a mucous so it must be boiled first before it's cooled in the ají to get the slime off. In Peru, papalisa is called ullucu.

Tropaeolum tuberosum: Isaño

Isaño has a bit of a spicy flavor. But the Andean people learned to cook it and then cool it very quickly and that makes it sweeter. In the Altiplano, they make a paste and mix it with milk and let it freeze at night and sell it as a kind of ice cream. And now they are making a tea with it to help with prostate problems. Isaño is grown from 3000m to 4000m but mostly between 3500m and 3800m above sea level.

Solanum tuberosum: Potatoes

There is an incredible diversity of potatoes here. For more, see the post on potatoes.


Lepidium meyenii: Maca (No picture)
Maca is like a small radish. It is grown between 3800m to 4800m above sea level. There was a boom in maca for using it to enhance male fertility. There are also rumors that it increases your brain size. The Incas would give their soldiers flour from isaño to keep them from thinking about women. Then, when the soldiers returned, the Inca gave them maca flour. Now, they are starting to use maca to feed alpacas and llamas to increase their reproduction. During the Spanish conquest, the Spanish was scared of the indigenous population increasing, so they did not want to the indigenous to eat maca.

Colocasia esculenta: Walusa (incorrect name, see below)

The plant in the photo here appears to be taro, which is correctly labeled with the scientific name Colocasia esculenta. Apparently, another name for taro in Bolivia is walusa japonesa, or Japanese walusa. Walusa itself is Xanthosoma sagittifolium. The two are routinely mixed up in Yungas, according to this document, which is quite useful to learning about Andean crops if you can read Spanish.

Don Desiderio said that this plant was introduced from Africa, but it has been Andean-ized. From some quick and imperfect research, it appears that Colocasia esculenta (taro) was introduced from Africa, but it didn't originate in Africa either.

Smallanthus sonchifolius: Aricoma (Aymara) or Yacón (Quechua)

Yacón is the name I've seen used for this in the U.S. This enormous root in the picture weighs about 16kg (35 lbs). (You cannot tell its size from the picture, but the paper label on the plant is the same size as the paper labels in other pictures if that helps you visualize how huge this is.) They traditionally make a drink with it. Just wash it and peel it, you don't need to cook it. Don Desiderio told us to eat this when we are thirsty and the water content will quench your thirst. Yacón is good for diabetics. The Japanese have started growing this and they have patented the process for extracting inulin from it (a type of fiber). This is also a diuretic.

When you grow this, it takes about 8 months to grow. There are nodules that you break off to plant instead of using seeds. Yacón has been somewhat lost due to the introduction of processed foods and the rate of diabetes has also gone up.

Canna edulis: Achira

Achira is an Andean root crop. This grows in almost any soil type, and it doesn't matter if pests attack the leaves because the part you eat is the root. The starch in the root can be used to make very high quality pastas. It can be used to create organic types of plastics and glue. In Bolivia, they either use this to extract the starch or they cook the root itself and eat it.

There isn't very much interest in this crop anymore in Bolivia. However, he recently got someone from nearby to grow some for flour, which makes very good bread. In Colombia, there are factories that extract the starch and there are women's cooperatives that make pastries with the flour. Don Desiderio thinks it would be a good idea to do something like that here.

Arracacia xanthorriza: Racacha

Racacha is a relative of celery. It was domesticated even earlier than the potato or oca. It's grown throughout the Andes. Racacha roots have a very fine starch that is easy to digest. This makes it a good food to nourish the very young, elderly, and sick people. It comes in many varieties, and the most important are purple, yellow, and white.

Racacha leaves can be fed to livestock. The root has 1-3% protein, but the top part has 15% protein. In Costa Rica, they don't even eat the root, they just eat the top part. In Yungas, they are trying to salvage the high protein part, perhaps by making a flour with it to feed to hogs. Also, they say that this is a good food for women to eat after they give birth because it is high in calcium. Similarly to the carrot, which it is related to, it also has lots of vitamin A and phosphorus.

The largest producer of racacha is Brazil. It was introduced to Brazil by Colombia 100 years ago. Nestle has gotten involved with racacha production in Brazil for export to Japan.

While roots and tubers have been the basis of the Andean diet, they also have grains and cereal.

Chenopodium pallidicaule: Cañawa (Shown here: Pito de Cañawa)

Cañawa is a chenopod, and it is highly nutritious. It contains 18 essential amino acids. The grain is similar to quinoa but smaller. It hasn't been used as much as quinoa. Cañawa is grown at 3500-4500m above sea level.

Cañawa is often roasted and ground into "pito," a fine flour used to make into drinks. This is mixed with water and sugar or even mixed into coffee. Pito de cañawa (shown in the picture) is a popular item to send in care packages to soldiers by their parents. (In Bolivia, the men serve 1 year of mandatory service in the military.) It's practical, easy to carry in its dried form, and it's nutritious. Don Desiderio said it's extremely nutritious if it's drank mixed with milk. Cañawa is even higher in protein than quinoa.

Chenopodium quinoa: Quinoa

As I've noted before, there are over 3000 varieties of quinoa in Bolivia, which is the world's top producer of it. Quinoa is known here as the "grain of gold." It's one of the most important domestic crops grown at high altitude. It is grown from 2500m to 4000m above sea level. Don Desiderio said that the strange thing is that Bolivians don't like it very much because it's too much work to process (i.e. the washing required, see below). Even though it's very nutritious, it's more work than, say, cooking rice. He feels frustrated that his country imports so much wheat when Bolivia grows so many grains that can be used instead of wheat.

A problem with quinoa is a type of toxins called saponins that are in it. (Amaranth has no saponins and cañawa has very little.) Quinoa must be washed to get rid of the saponins. The bitter varieties have the most saponins. At first, the global market demanded a specific sweet variety of quinoa, so everyone grew it and a pest attacked. Later, a process to convert saponins into shampoos and other products was discovered, so then the international market began demanding the bitter varieties. Now, there are not so many problems with pests, but there are problems with untimely freezes and desertification of soils.

Recently, the price of quinoa has gone up substantially. A pound is now 10-12 Bolivianos. When you export it, you get about 15 Bolivianos. ($1 = ~ 7 Bolivianos)

Hordeum vulgare: Barley

Barley is not native to Bolivia, but it is commonly grown there. It's a base of the Andean diet from the highlands down to the tropics. It was brought from Africa but adapted to the Andes. In the picture, you see both barley and pito de barley (similar to the pito de cañawa, above). It is grown between 2500m-3500m above sea level. The grain is eaten by people and the straw is eaten by livestock. Don Desiderio recommends eating pito de barley with dulce de leche.

Don Desiderio said a problem is that when kids go to school, they lose the habit of eating traditional products and don't want to eat it anymore.


Pachyrhizus ahipa: Ajipa

This is Ajipa and it grows in both a bush and pole form. It has a tuber. The root of ajipa is used similarly to Yacón. However, it is propagated with the seed. It is an interesting species because the seed can be used as a natural insecticide, rotenone. Ajipa is grown in the valleys between 1500m and 3000m above sea level. Ajipa is in the same genus as jicama.

Other Foods

Solanum quitoense: Naranjilla

Solanum quitoense: Naranjilla

Naranjilla is a native of Ecuador that has adapted perfectly to this region in Bolivia. It's used in juices.

Solanum betaceum or Cyphomandra betacea: Tree Tomato

Solanum betaceum or Cyphomandra betacea: Tree Tomato

The tree tomato is a native crop that Don Desiderio said most people don't take advantage of. However, it's great in a juice, jam, or hot sauce.


Close-up of Isp'i

Isp'i is a fish from Lake Titicaca. They are eaten whole, eyeballs and all.

Not shown here but still important in my humble opinion:

  • Tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis): Grown from 2000m to 3800 m.
  • Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas): Grown in Bolivia in the Altiplano and in the valleys. Although sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, the majority of the world's sweet potatoes are now grown in China.
  • Fava beans (Vicia faba L.): Introduced here by the Spanish and adopted as a very commonly grown crop. Grown in the Altiplano and the valleys.
  • Peanuts: Domesticated here.
  • Coca
  • Coffee: Originally from Ethiopia, but a very major cash crop in Yungas.
  • Cacao: This is native to Amazonia, and it's mostly grown at a lower altitude as you head toward the Amazon, in an area called Alto Beni.
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Tree tomato! (4.00 / 2)
I saw those (they were calling them tamarillos) at the PSU Saturday Farmers' Market early this year for the first time, someone was selling those and Meyer Lemons.

I never got to try one.  Kicking myself.  Definitely next year (well, in six months as they were around in March and April).  Did you get to try them, Jill?  Or have you ever before?

yeah I tried it (4.00 / 2)
it was good.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Great diary (4.00 / 3)
Last year I got some Yacon tubers, but didn't get them planted. I've also tried to grow Naranjilla for the past two years. Last year I got flowers but no fruit. This year the seedlings didn't do well at all. Hopefully it'll be warmer weather in the late spring and through summer/early fall.

Baker Creek sells Naranjilla seed.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

That'd be late spring and summer/early fall of 2012... (4.00 / 3)
I think it's time for a nap for me.... ;-)

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
they grew a lot of naranjilla (4.00 / 2)
in Yungas, where it's a subtropical climate. They also grow lots of citrus, peppers, squash, and bananas if that gives you an idea of the climate there. It looks CRAZY when it's growing. They typically make a drink with it with lots of sugar bc it's sour.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
jicama (4.00 / 2)
Although I've seen only jicama root, searching Google Images for jicama plant shows pods like ajipa. Like ajipa, jicama beans are not eaten because of the rotenone toxin, but young pods can be harvested when the beans are tiny and the indented compartments are mostly empty, and young pods are used like snow peas! Who knew? I surmise that this information implies that cooking the beans doesn't destroy or deactivate the rotenone.

Jicama, and presumably ajipa, can be propagated from the tuber as well as from the bean. If you want jicama pods, sprout a jicama from the grocery store, then plant it with suitable trellis. It's a big vine. I didn't see anything about a bush form of jicama, although one might exist?

sprouting (4.00 / 2)
Hmmm. Tricky. Jicama season is October through June. You'd need to choose the time to buy and sprout the tuber so it's ready to plant at an appropriate time.

[ Parent ]
If I lived in Hawaii... (4.00 / 2)
...I think I'd look into running a jicama farm.


One of the 25 best things I've ever eaten was a veggie wrap built around jicama root and some kind of vinaigrette.  Unfortunately, I was well into about an eighth beer at the time I had it so I still can't remember where it was that I ate it.  But it still sticks out in my mind.  Sometime in late 2007, early 2008 it was.  At one of our brewpubs.  Which is surprising, because they generally suck for food, but this was outstanding.

[ Parent ]
I don't think it's warm enough (4.00 / 2)
to grow jicama here. If you could, I would.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Huh? (4.00 / 2)
I don't think it's warm enough

It's 100+ in September but...

Surely you jest.

Maybe you lack water, though. I could believe that.

[ Parent ]
Heh, well... (4.00 / 2)
It's gonna hit around 100 here today, too.

Not a usual thing, though...


[ Parent ]
just repeating what I was told (4.00 / 2)
by the best San Diego gardener I know...

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
availability (4.00 / 2)
One interesting aspect of this diary is that so many things were available for the show-and-tell. "Spectacular presentation" is right.

diabetes (4.00 / 2)
The United States of America has done the world a wonderful and essential service by conducting a decades-long experiment into the effects of American-style convenience eating. The results are clear, it makes people sick, and the information is freely available to anyone who wants to know. If Bolivians wonder what will happen as they forsake real food for processed stuff from boxes, bottles, and cans, they need look no further than our own Native American populations.

I suppose this is not preached by USAID nor other U.S. interventionist organizations, but somebody should be spreading the word.

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