Lost crop of the Incas

by Adam Pasco

At last my achocha have been planted... later than I wanted, but time has been against me and I didn't fancy getting soaked in a July deluge! (Call this global warming?). I love the way unusual crops, like achocha, always get visitors to my garden talking.

AchochaAt last my achocha have been planted... later than I wanted, but time has been against me and I didn't fancy getting soaked in a July deluge! (Call this global warming?). I love the way unusual crops, like achocha, always get visitors to my garden talking. It's claimed to be a 'Lost Crop of the Incas', although whether anyone can prove this I don't know.

My seed comes from the Heritage Seed Library, a collection of unusual, old and heritage vegetable seeds run by Garden Organic. Members can choose six packets of seeds from the collection each year, and a couple of years ago achocha caught my eye. This unusual rampant climber, with the Latin name of Cyclanthera pedata, is unlike anything I've ever grown.

Sown in 7cm pots of compost in my warm greenhouse in April the seeds germinated readily, sending up long shoots carrying tendrils that catch onto anything close-by for support. Achocha isn't hardy so I waited until conditions had warmed up before planting out at the base of my fence and fan-trained plum. It forms quite a thicket, with stems growing 3-4m long by the end of summer, so it does need a bit of space. Tiny white flowers will form on the stems that developed into fat green pods. Picked small I throw the whole pod into stir fries, but when they grow larger I split them in half and remove their hard black seeds.

Achocha doesn't have a very distinctive flavour but does add a satisfying crunch to Thai and Chinese dishes. I cook it lightly, in the same way I do pak choi or other oriental greens. It's intriguing to know exactly where some of the crops we grow come from. I've certainly been getting more adventurous with my crop selection, both in the greenhouse and outside. Family favourites always take priority, which for my family include the widest range of salad leaves possible; lettuce, spinach, pak choi, mizuna, beetroot, watercress, parsley and chives, as well as tomatoes, beans, courgettes and new potatoes. Although I've tried growing them, I haven't had much success with either sweet potatoes or soya beans, but this is probably more to do with weather conditions than my gardening prowess (honestly!). Still, it's always worth trying something new. Perhaps my rooted pineapple top will soon produce fruit too!

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Gardeners' World Web User 24/07/2007 at 13:02

I have just joined the Heritage Seed Library and have received some Achocha seeds. Too late for sowing this year so I'm intrigued to read about what I can expect next year. My Lancashre Lad peas and Brighstone beans from HDRA are doing well :-)

Gardeners' World Web User 01/08/2007 at 18:07

Beware - my mother gave me just 6 seeds. I started them off in coir pots, then planted them out with a wire fence to climb, they grew quickly, and have now spread, climbing over the beans, peas, melons, fennel and tomatos! They are trying to bridge the gap to my sweetcorn! The melons seem to like it, but it was too much for the tomatoes which got totally swamped whilst I was away for a couple of weeks. I hope they are yummy, or I will be very sorry I planted them among other veg! Next year I may let them battle it out with the brambles, or iscolate them on the other side of the garden!

Gardeners' World Web User 03/08/2007 at 12:56

Great to hear your plants are flourishing, Bernadette, but just two plants produce more than enough achocha for my family. With six plants you'll be feeding the neighbourhood! Do let us know what you think of them. Remember, small 'fruits' that have not yet formed seeds can be cooked whole. Once they reach their full size (about 7.5cm/3in long) you'll find hard flat black seeds developing inside. I split fruits in half, removing the seeds which grow on a white stem. Towards the end of summer I'll leave a few fruits to fully mature on the plants, and collect these seeds to sow next year or give to friends.

Gardeners' World Web User 09/09/2007 at 23:12

I am starting a garden where I now have lawn. What is the best way to do it? kill the lawn then till it in. Cover lawn with black plastic to rot grass, then till it in. scrape the grass off then till it.

Gardeners' World Web User 16/11/2007 at 02:06

Being originally from Peru, I can assure you, this wonderful vegetable from the cucurbitae family, is not the "lost crop of the Incas", but a very popular meal in Peru. It is commonly known as CAIGUAS or CAIHUAS, and also named "lady slippers".

It is true that just 2 plants will produce--if properly nurtured and given the right support and sunlight--over 200 units! I planted this year such amount, and it climbed from a supporting wall, to my arborvitae trees, hanging gracefully, spreading at least 20'. It takes a very long growing season (started inside in March, planted in late April, developed until August, and started producing fruit up to late October) when I cut all of them, as a frost was coming.

The plant likes warm sunny days(24-28C), LOTS of water, compost and mulch; and can stand cool nights(down to 8C, but below 5C it collapses. This schedule is for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The fruits grow up to 6" long and 3" wide, when they are best to eat and cook. Smaller units, may taste bitter. Generally, they are prepared as stuffed peppers, cut and cleaned as explained by Adam, and placed in a large pot, with little water (or better yet, tomato juice form the filling)and simmered slowly for 20 minutes until soft. Another way, is to place them similarly on a flat Pyrex casserole container, and add some mozarella cheese on top and baked them open for 25 minutes at 325F. I have used onion, ground meat, herbs, raisins and lots of chopped fresh tomatoes to cook the stuffing on a pan. Then I place it on each raw caigua half until I stuff them all. They are delicious, as the skin is less dense than a pepper and have a special taste.

Caiguas are good to lower cholesterol among other benefits.

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