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My wild Andean shamrock February 15th, 2015 by

“Would you like some boiled Irish?” I’ve heard folks say in Uganda, where they mean boiled potatoes. In many countries “Irish potatoes” means regular potatoes, not sweet potatoes. The term is so engrained that I have stopped trying to correct people, even though there is nothing Irish about the spud which was domesticated in the central Andes, far from the Emerald Isle.

In agriculture’s ancient centers of origin, domestication never started from just one crop, but from several. Mexican agriculture got going with chillies, maize, beans and pumpkins. West Africa started with sorghum, millet, fonio and glaberrima rice. And in the Andes, the potato was domesticated along with the sweet potato (not a close relative), papa lisa (called olluco in Peru), oca and several other roots and tubers, most of which are rarely grown outside their homeland.

Like the potato, the oca is grown for its edible tubers, which look superficially like small sweet potatoes. The Andes also abound in wild, weedy ocas, and some of those species grow a tiny tuber, surely a useful adaptation in a semi-arid climate. After a dry spell, the plant can re-emerge from its little tuber. Many wild potato species also have a small tuber for beating the dry season. No doubt these tubers sparked the imagination of early domesticators.

Oca belongs to the Oxalis genus, also called the wood sorrel or the “false shamrock,” because they resemble clover. False shamrocks grow wild in Ireland, and over much of the world. The oca is now cultivated mostly in South America and in New Zealand, but if you are lucky enough to find some, why not celebrate Saint Patrick’s day this year with a bit of boiled, Andean shamrock?

Scientific names

Oca: Oxalis tuberosa

Potato: Solanum tuberosum (There are other species as well, only grown in the Andes)

Sweet potato: Ipomoea batatas

Papa lisa (olluco): Ullucus tuberosus

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