Ullucus tuberosus (aborigineus)

The Peruvian historian María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco explains and recounts a mythic narrative related to Andean food plants, including, of course, the potato, which was domesticated in Peru 7000 years ago: “The feminine and divine element represents the fruitful and prolific mother; not in vain was the earth called Pachamama (mother earth) in the Quechua language, the sea Mamacocha, the moon Mama Quilla and also all the plants useful to humans were called and adored by the name Mama (mother): Mama sara (maize), Mama acxo (potato), Mama oca (oca, a native Andean tuber), Mama coca (coca shrubs). An example of the cult to femininity, and the woman who fills her children with goods, is the myth of the goddess Raiguana. Natives tell that in ancient times humans had nothing to eat and, in order to obtain food, they asked Yucyuc for help. Yucyuc was a little bird with a yellow beak and feet, smart enough to obtain the seeds of staple crops kept by Mama Raiguana. To achieve this, Yucyuc requested from Sacracha (another bird) a handful of fleas which he threw in the eyes of the goddess. Raiguana sobbed her eyes out and for a moment lost her son called Conopa. An eagle caught the child from his mother’s arms. Raiguana had to promise to share the seeds with the humans if she wanted to have her son back. To the people of the highlands she gave potatoes, oca, olluco, mashua (native tubers) and quinua (native grain), while the coastal inhabitants received maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and beans.”

Conopa is not only the name of the son of Raiguana, the goddess who is the guardian of all food plants in this mythic tale. It is also the word for the protective spirit of each crop, the best part of which served as a ceremonial offering and tribute to the gods to ensure maximum yields in the future.

The Inca religion was thoroughly linked to the cycles of the successful production of food, despite droughts, plagues and cold snaps. Their gods were protagonists in this process and Nature itself was deified. In the divine hierarchy, there were major and minor gods as well as goddesses of the terrestrial world associated with a maternal, fertile earth and the plants consumed as food. As the myth suggests, each of these plants, including for example, the potato (Mama acxo), is revered as a mother.

Ben Kamm, the U.S. ethnobotanist and founder of Sacred Succulents, collected the Ullucus tuberosus (aborigineus) from an ancient Incan agricultural terrace near Cuzco that Jill Pflugheber and I were honored to be able to image with the confocal microscope. According to Ben, it may very well be possible to consider this plant the wild ancestor of many of the varieties of potatoes that over time were domesticated, conserved and consumed by the Andean Indigenous population in a region with a wide array of climates (some extremely harsh) that required great diversity of plant ecotypes.

Here is how Ben describes the trip to Peru when he found this plant:

In 2010 we made our second visit to the Incan outpost of Pumamarca situated at about 12,000’ on a spur jutting out above the Patacancha Valley. From there we made the spectacular hike back towards the Inca’s final holdout in the Vilcanota Valley: Ollantaytambo. Reveling in the jubilant display of wildflowers and regrowth of native Alnus, Escallonia, and Myrcianthes trees, our path took us along the most heavily terraced mountainside I have seen in all of the Andes. With over a thousand stone terraces it would have been a site of incredibly intensive agriculture.
There are some moments that conspire towards the sublime – the angle of the sun diffusing through a lacy wisp of cloud; the exhalation of moist earth, sunbaked stone, vegetation and wildflower combine to perfume just so, and your quid nestled comfortably between gum and cheek; the perfect combination of leaf to llipta to saliva infuses the world with an undeniable grace.
Thus it was about halfway to Munaypata, near 10,500’, that I noticed some long trailing stems hanging down the rough stone terrace walls. Closer inspection revealed a lovely pink hue to the stems and semi-succulent leaves that looked and tasted very similar to the cultivated Ullucus. Following one vine along its route of growth I discovered a small spire of mini-star flowers affirming the plant’s identity. I also observed some odd thread- like stems shooting off from a few leaf nodes, these disappeared into the cracks of the terrace wall. I was able to locate one that terminated in a relatively large dirt-filled fissure and with careful excavation uncovered several small pearlescent-pink tubers!
This is considered the wild form or ancestor of the Andean staple crop “ulluco” (“papa lisa”). Cultivated ulluco very rarely sets seed and it is possible that this wild subspecies, which seeds more readily, could be used in breeding programs. It has also been speculated that it was used in breeding new varietals by the Incas. It is plausible that what we discovered was an anthropogenic relic … or it could just be this wild subspecies, which we’ve since observed as a cliff dweller, that favored the rocky habitat of the terracing.

According to a study by Tapia and de la Torre, “Potato is the prototype crop of the Suni agro-ecological zone together with the Andean tubers oca, olluco and mashua.” They go on to say that many Indigenous families continue traditional agricultural practices and have “preserved and added to crop genetic diversity.” At the Potato Park near Cuzco, there are 1367 varieties of this plant that, in the future, may be a key to staving off worldwide hunger.

Tapia and de la Torre document the quintessential importance of Andean “women’s participation in plant genetic resource conservation,” knowledge that these women transmit from one generation to the next.


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