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The Global Garden: Yacon, Peruvian sweet root

April 25, 2012 |  9:35 am

To some gardeners, it's yacon. To others, Peruvian sweet root. Still others call it Peruvian ground appleTo some, it's yacon. To others, Peruvian sweet root. "My partner is from Peru," L.A. gardener Derbeh Vance said. “The yacon produces a root that looks like a sweet potato, and is like a jicama or a sweet potato."

Fresh yacon tastes like a cross between a melon and an apple, explaining why yet another common name is Peruvian ground apple. Originating in the Andes, yacon was used as roadside fast food for travelers between Incan cities, according to some historical accounts.

Vance grew one that reached more than 10 feet, sending out leaves that looked like sunflowers, a distant cousin. One day, after the flowers had started to fade, he noticed the ground underneath was swollen. He figured he had gophers.

"So I chopped it down and started digging," Vance said, "and I got 60 pounds from one plant."

Vance works at Project Angel Food and brought part of his unexpected harvest there, asking a chef to use his imagination. "It was so crispy and fresh and sweet that I worried they wouldn't hold up well to cooking," he said. "We had them mashed, toasted and broiled, and it turned out wonderfully. The baked were the best."

To some gardeners, it's yacon. To others, Peruvian sweet root. Still others call it Peruvian ground appleThe sweetness of the tuberous roots increases during storage. However, the somewhat bitter skin has to be scrubbed or peeled prior to cooking (unless you're baking).

Yacon grows with few pest problems; the main exception is gophers, which love the below-ground treat. The plant is perennial, easy to grow but hard to start from seed. The best bet is to get a seedling or part of the sub-soil crown where new shoots develop.

You may see the plant's botanical name spelled as Polymnia sanchifolia or sonchifolia. Vance said he bought his at Armstrong Garden Centers, but many nurseries will special-order a plant if they don't have it in stock.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden is a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes. We usually post it just on Tuesdays but thought we'd offer a double dose this week. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.


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Upper photo: A yacon plant. Credit: Ann Summa

Lower photo: Derbeh Vance. Credit: Ann Summa