Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
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Polymnia sonchifolia Poeppig and Endlicher
The Yacón is a perennial plant grown in the Andes for its crisp, sweet-tasting tuberous root. The texture and flavour have been described as a cross between a fresh apple and watermelon which is why it is sometimes referred to as the apple of the earth. The root is composed mostly of water and fructo-oligosaccharides. It has recently been introduced into farmer’s markets and natural food stores in the US.
Although sometimes confused with jicama, yacón is actually a close relative of the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke. The plants produce two types of roots: propagation roots and storage roots. Propagation roots grow just under the soil surface and produce new growing points that will become next year’s aerial parts. These roots resemble Jerusalem artichokes. Storage roots are large and edible.
These edible roots contain inulin, an indigestible sugar, which means that although they have a sweet flavour, the roots contain fewer calories than would be expected.
Yacón plants can grow to over 2 meters in height and produce small, yellow inconspicuous flowers at the end of the growing season. Unlike many other root vegetables domesticates by the Inca (ulluco, oca), the yacón is not photoperiod sensitive, and can produce a commercial yield in the tropics.
Yacón can easily be grown in home gardens in climates with only gentle frosts. It grows well in southern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, where the climate is mild and the growing season long. It has recently been introduced to the Philippines, and is now widely available in markets.