This past month, my wife and daughter traveled to Yurac Yacu, Peru, as part of an assistance program by the Sombrilla International Development Society, based here in Edmonton.
Sombrilla’s mission is to "improve the quality of life by addressing food security, clean water, health care and education so that communities may become self-sustaining." The main focus of this particular mission was to work with the people of Yurac Yacu to build stoves from adobe bricks.
Since Yurac Yacu is waaay up in the Andean mountains (at an elevation of just over 3000 metres) the air was a little thin, making the job of transporting and assembling the stoves a little challenging at times. But, apparently, the friendliness and appreciation displayed by the indigenous Quechua people more than made up for the sore backs!
Beyond all of the stories of the wonderful people of Yurac Yacu, Sombrilla—and, of course, the spectacular scenery—I was anxious to hear about how the Quechua people cultivated potatoes at such a high altitude. Peru is the potato epicenter of potato cultivation. Most of the potato varieties that we enjoy today originated in Peru. But there is an enormous diversity of potato varieties in Peru which makes our North American selection look rather boring by comparison.
At the high altitude of Yurac Yacu, daytime temperatures rise into the low 20’s but nighttime lows often dip below freezing, even in the summer. The foliage of potatoes in our part of the world would die from the sub-zero temperatures, but the Yurac Yacu varieties shrug-off freezing temperatures because the parent species are well adapted to frost.
Besides being tough, the Peruvian potatoes are fascinating with their wide variety of shapes and colours. However, some interesting "potato" varieties that my wife and daughter noted as being particularly sweet were, in fact, not potatoes at all but a sweet tuber from the Oxalis family. They kind of look like a funky potato tuber but are really Oxalis tuberosa known as "uqa" by the Quecha. The tubers are apparently sweet (yam-like flavour) and also very colourful, ranging from yellow, orange, and red to apricot and pink.
My daughter snapped a photo of the selection of potato and uqa tubers that the Quecha prepared for their meals (see above). Absolutely fascinating!
I know what you're thinking, "Jim, why can’t you guys get a hold of some of those cool tubers?"
Well, there are some pretty strict regulations on importation of plant material into Canada because of pest issues and, of course, sourcing a supplier is difficult. But given the rave reviews of the indigenous potato and Oxalis varieties of the Quecha people maybe—just maybe—a uqa or two might find its way into Alberta gardens in the not too distant future.