When I first moved to northern New South Wales to live and work at Zaytuna Farm as a nurseryman, I had to readjust my botanical eye to my new surroundings. What grew where and how? What were the predominant local natives? The commonly planted fruit trees? The commonly cultivated vegetables? Catching my eye almost immediately growing in the Zaytuna Farm ‘Urban Garden’ was a whole bed of lush green… something that I couldn’t identify.
“That’s Peruvian Parsnip”, Mr Lawton informed when I quizzed him.
“Hmmm… Never heard of it.”
“You know, arracacha”
I had first heard of arracacha from Eric Toensmeier’s ‘Perennial Vegetables’ book a couple of years previous and had been dying to play with it but up until that point, despite my efforts, I hadn’t been able to locate any. Brought to Zaytuna by fellow botanophile Daniel Sheridan, here now was a chance to explore it. Let’s take a closer look….
Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorriza) is a member of the Apiaceae family, which is native to the Andes and has long been a popular perennial crop in South America. Grown predominantly for its starchy roots, which when ready for harvest resemble a clumped bunch of fattened parsnips, one of its common english names is hence peruvian parsnip.
They have a slightly sweet, nutty flavour, like a cross between celeriac and chestnut. Though used widely as a culinary analog for potato (roasted, boiled, soups, pastas, gnocchi, chips etc…) it requires considerably less cultivation inputs whether it be fertilizer or effort spent heaping and mounding.
The roots are high in calcium and vitamin A, plus its relatively small starchy grains make it is very easily digested and as such is the perfect base in soups for the very young, the elderly and those with digestive issues, especially coeliacs.
Closely resembling many of its Apiaceae kin, above ground it looks like a cross between say… parsley and celery and indeed its leaves and stems taste much like that too with that classic, fresh Apiaceae bite. There are three main varieties in cultivation — yellow, white and purple rooted. We have the white.
We found a few less common uses for the Arracacha that may appeal to Permaculturists.
Usually in mass commercial cultivation it is grown exclusively for the valuable root crop with the significant mass of rich, verdant foliage often discarded or at best composted, however we found it is loved by the livestock at Zaytuna — the cows, the goats and notably the rabbits.
While young stems and leaves are useable in salads the older herbaceous material proves a little tougher and its flavour is often too overpowering to be considered palatable. However we found the more mature foliage an excellent leafy green additive to our bone broths, giving them a subtle nutty, celery tone and infusing it with its high mineral content. Arracacha has been cultivated for some 100 years in Brazil. There farmers have established successful intercropping regimes with maize, beans and coffee. Further experimentation may see the development of other valuable guilds. Like other members of the Apiaceae family the arracacha’s delicate umbel flowers are excellent for attracting beneficial insects to the garden, in particular solitary, predatory wasps.
Propagation and cultivation
From the time it’s planted, whether as a seedling or cutting, arracacha has a relatively long growing period before optimum root crop is achieved — some time between 14-18 months, though new varieties are reported to have been bred requiring a mere 7 month’s growth. Like many South American crops of highland-tropic origins day length may be a big influence on its growth and in particular its flowering but this has not yet been confirmed. It prefers well drained sandy loam soil tolerating a pH between 6.3 and 6.8. It can also tolerate some shade but obviously high starch production would depend largely on high sun exposure. Being subtropical it is frost tender but further selective breeding may result in more frost hardy varieties. It requires a minimum of 600mm of rainfall a year. The roots have a relatively short shelf life which might help explain its lack of wider cultivation. Roots are commonly harvested in the autumn, with care to not let them sit too long in the ground as they are prone to turning woody, much like a carrot root does as the plant matures and goes to seed.
Most propagation is by unrooted buds separated from the plant’s crown.
In Autumn, once the plant has reached the optimum cropping stage, the roots and herbaceous material are removed. The crown is then separated bi-laterally with effort to ensure there is at least one node for new foliage to sprout from. The resulting un-rooted buds are left in a cool, dry place and allowed to ‘heal’ for about 3-4 days. Once a lite callus has formed they are then potted separately in a well drained, open compost mix and left to overwinter somewhere relatively protected like a greenhouse and kept moist (not wet) until spring conditions are suitable to plant out in the field. Often a shallow grid like pattern is sliced into the underside of the divisions to ensure numerous and even root production. From memory, we obtained well over a dozen propagules from one medium sized crown.
It is this permaculturist’s opinion that this is just the kind of plant that we should be attempting to selectively breed and speciate into wider tolerance. To do that we need seed. Arracacha do go to seed. The flowers are usually pinched out to encourage greater tuber yield but I suggest that we leave the best plants to seed, initiating a breeding program to broaden genetic variance, increase yield, strengthen lines to pest and disease resistance and speciate toward local conditions. Arracacha is thought to likely be a hybrid of two separate wild species and as a result of that broad genetic heritage seedlings can and often do vary greatly from the mother plant. This of course we can use to our advantage when selecting for superior varieties.
Sow seed into a seed raising mix and cover only slightly with clean sand in early spring in a cold frame or greenhouse. Keep moist (not wet). Don’t expect a great strike rate… maybe half your seed won’t germinate. When those that do are big enough, prick them out, pot them on separately and keep them potted. Over-winter them for their first cold season then plant out late next spring after the chance of frost has past. Remember to keep tabs on your best plants to ensure strong genetics.
What an amazing perennial staple crop! Large yields of delicious, easily digestible starch… year long bunches of fresh, mineral rich greens… and the opportunity to breed further fecundity into the species.
What’s not to love about a perennial staple vegetable?
Keep an eye out for another fantastic perennial, staple crop from the same family, Skirret (Sium sisarum).
Editor’s Note: Arracacha cuttings are now available for sale from Zaytuna Farm. Please call +61 (0)2 66 191 432 (between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday) for more information.