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Yacon: What is it? | Quick Points | Benefits & Uses | History & Traditional Usage | Growing & Harvesting | Taxonomy, Common Names | Dosage & Preparation

Intro: What is Yacon? (Smallanthus sonchifolius)

Smallanthus is an order of plants found in both South and North America. Probably the most famous of the smallanthus species is commonly called Yacon. Yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower with edible tubers and leaves.

The syrup from this sweet root is raising eyebrows in the medical community and natural product world for its medicinal qualities.

Benefits & Uses of Yacon:

- Yacon contains fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which pass through the digestive track unmetabolized, providing few calories1. The sugars, however, are metabolized by the bifidobacteria in the large intestine and contribute to improved digestions and absorption of vitamins, such as B-complex. The undigested portion of yacon serves as prebiotic-food for “friendly” bacteria.

- It may also help diabetics regulate and normalize glucose levels in the blood due to its FOS content. It is considered hypoglycemic and holds promise as a sweetener for diabetics and others who choose not to consume sugar.

History & Traditional Usage:

Roots in the Andes:
It is believed that Yacon originated from the high Andean Region now known as eastern Bolivia and southern Peru. Legend has it that Inca messengers would dig up the succulent tubers from beside the trail to slake their thirst. Yacon is currently grown from Ecuador to Argentina and Brazil as a staple food crop by many indigenous peoples, some of which have used the plant ceremonially as well.

While it is noted that there are a few distinct varieties of Yacon found in Peru, little if any serious breeding work has been done on the crop and it is considered a landrace at best. It is only recently, thanks to the efforts of a few intrepid plantspeople, that this unique cultivar is finding its way into the fields and beds of adventurous farmers and gardeners throughout North America. We have our former Research Director Alan Kapuler to thank for providing our original planting stock.

How Sweet It Is…and Healthy too!
Fresh Yacon tubers are crisp and juicy with a delicate flavor reminiscent of apple or melon and a surprising sweetness that increases in storage. They can be eaten raw, (fresh or dried) steamed, baked, roasted, or juiced. The somewhat bitter skin can be scrubbed off with a stiff brush, peeled with a vegetable peeler, or removed after baking. One of our favorite recipes is to simply chop the peeled tubers into bite-size pieces and sauté them in a little butter until the sugar begins to caramelize. Serve with mashed potatoes topped with fresh parsley.

While satisfyingly sweet and flavorful, Yacon remains low in calories. This is due to the fact that the sugar contains high levels of oligofructose (inulin), a form of sugar that is not metabolized readily by the human body. For this reason, Yacon shows much promise as a food for diabetics and as a base for a low calorie sweetener. Even a tea made from dried Yacon leaves is purported to have the ability to level out blood sugar levels.

Research on the benefits of Yacon for diabetics is being carried out in Argentina and Japan. High in fiber, low in fat, and rich in oligofructose, Yacon is considered by many to be a superfood of the future.

A Commercial Future?
After a failed attempt at industrial scale cultivation and commercialization in Southern Europe in the 1930's, Yacon is now emerging as a commercial crop in South America as well as in New Zealand, Japan and Korea. The tubers are now commonly found in markets in Lima and is even available peeled and sliced in supermarkets there. One Peruvian company is exporting tins of chunked Yacon to Japan where it is added to yogurt.

In another commercial initiative, a group of rural farmers from Oxapampa, Peru, working with Scientists from the Andean Roots and Tubers project at the Lima-based International Potato Center have developed a process for creating a syrup from Yacon tubers that can be added to other products as a healthy, low calorie sweetener. While still in its nascent stages, commercial Yacon production will likely increase as refinements in plant breeding and production take place.

Growing & Harvesting:

Vigorous Plants are Easy To Grow:
A distant relative of the Sunflower, Yacon seems to thrive just about anywhere with consistent moisture and moderate sun and reasonable soil fertility. The plants can reach 5-7 feet tall and have a stunning presence in the garden, although they will rarely flower except in areas with growing seasons of 6 months or more.

Rather than starting from seed, which is evidently quite difficult, we propagate Yacon plants from dividing the "crown", a ginger-like root structure from which the edible tubers emanate. This is done much in the same way that potatoes can be divided, with each new sprout emerging from an "eye." The crown divisions are generally planted in a growing medium in a 4-6 inch pot 2-3 months before the last frost date. The resulting plants are hardened off and transplanted only after the soil warms and all danger of frost has passed. Allow at least a 3 foot diameter space for each plant to grow into.

We have found that a deep mulch, applied once the plants are established and the soil has warmed, eliminates most weeding and watering and will protect the tubers from freezing in the fall. In warmer areas, we understand that Yacon, also a relative of the Dahlia, can be grown as a perennial, with the crowns simply left in the ground after the tubers are dug. If anyone has any experience with this we'd love to hear from you.

Pests Are Not a Problem…mostly:
We have grown Yacon for the last few years from Maine to New Mexico and Oregon. So far, the fuzzy broad-leaved plants seem fairly impervious to insect pests except for the occasional voracious grasshopper. We haven't noticed any disease affecting the plants. The only serious pest pressure we've seen is from below. In Oregon we've actually witnessed an entire plant being dragged into the earth by Yacon-crazed gophers. In New Mexico we've seen tubers eaten to the point where the plants have withered and died.

If you have subterranean pests you might try lining your bed with chicken wire at least 16 inches below the surface. Spreading the plants throughout the garden can confuse the gophers and prevent the rapid decimation of your entire crop before you know what hit it.

Reap the Harvest:
We generally wait for the plants to wither from the first hard frost before harvesting the tubers and crowns, although I've never been able to resist sneaking out a tuber or two for a pre-harvest appetizer. Friends are always amazed when I reach into the ground and emerge with a crispy tuber that is quickly peeled and consumed to everyone's delight. The tubers and crowns can also be left in the ground for months before harvesting, as long as they are protected from freezing. The tubers seem to become sweeter with storage. We've harvested Yacon as late as mid-December in Maine from under a thick layer of straw and snow.

Try to be a gentle as possible when harvesting your crop as the fresh tubers are quite brittle and thin-skinned. We use a digging fork to gently loosen the soil under and around the tubers before lifting the entire root system from the ground. The tubers are then snapped from crown.

Taxonomy, Common Names:

Botanical Classifications:
Kingdom: Plantae
Common Names:
aricoma, arboloco, aricona, arikuma, colla, chiriguano, ipio, jacón, jicama, jiquima, jikima, jiquimilla, leafcup, llacon, llacoma, mexican potato, polaco, poire de terre, potato bean, puhe, shicama, taraca, yacón, yacuma, yacumpi

Dosage, Preparation, Storage:

Information coming soon.

Instructions for use:
Information coming soon.

Once harvested, the tubers should be stored in a cool dark place much like potatoes. Even after they've begun to shrivel, they'll still retain their sweetness and will be wonderful roasted and peeled. Fresh Yacon can also be sliced and dried for extended storage, but it might be advantageous to allow them to "ripen" before drying. Crowns can be packed in moist peat, sawdust, or coir fiber and stored in a cool place for propagation in the Spring.

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Yacon Quick Points:

- Yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower with edible tubers and leaves.

- Principal uses: a low glycemic honey and sugar substitute