Lost crops of the Incas

Without money, iron, wheels or work animals for ploughing, the Incas developed one of the world’s most advanced agricultural empires. After languishing for 450 years in relative obscurity, many of the Incas’ fruits, vegetables and grains are being discovered by the rest of the world, and nowhere more so than in New Zealand.

Written by       Photographed by Stephen Robinson

I can barely remember the incident, lost as it is among memory cells whose neurons were then barely acquainted. It occurred in the mid-1940s when I was about four years old and growing up in Mornington. Mr Hanlon, who lived across the street in that suburb of Wellington, was showing me his chickens when he bent down suddenly and scratched up what looked like a tiny lump of pink rock. “Here, try this!” he said.

I assumed it was a potato, but it was very small—merely the size of a peanut in the shell. And, unlike a potato, it turned out to be good to eat straight from the ground. The taste was subtly sour, the texture firm, and the result very pleasant. What looked strange, though, were the creases lin­ing its fresh, pink skin . . . as discon­certing as old-age wrinkles on a ba­by’s brow.

At the time I had no idea what it was—nor, I suspect, did my kindly neighbour. And for years I thought nothing more of it . . . not until the 1970s, when I was working on the other side of the world, at the United States National Academy of Sciences. There, I’d been given the job of find­ing innovations to help developing nations. In part, I began searching for food plants that might help peasant farmers eat better, earn better, and live happier. A nagging question then started slithering out of my subcon­scious: what on earth was the root in that chicken run in the hills behind Athletic Park near the end of World War II?

In 20 years of subsequent life in New Zealand I’d heard nothing more about such a species. None of the standard monographs on New Zea­land botany mentioned anything like it; nor did any textbook on world agriculture. It was a puzzlement that haunted me for years.

A major clue to the mystery came out when, in the late 1970s, I was back in New Zealand and vis­iting my brother’s farm in the Bay of Plenty. In the Four Square store in Murupara, where I’d stopped to pick up a few groceries, I saw, with near disbelief, a bin of wrin­kled roots. Most were red and much larger than the pink one Mr Hanlon had handed me, but they were unmistakably the same thing. The label said: “Yams, $5.00/kilo.”

Now I was a giant step for­ward in solving the mystery: at least those roots were no childhood fantasy. However, they were not yams—at least, not as far as botanists are con­cerned. Yams are big, fat, hairy things that sometimes look like human feet with toes sticking out the end. They are a major food of the tropics, and seeing them in Murupara might have made some sense; they were grown by the Maori in warm northern areas at one time. However, the “yams” in that Four Square bin were something quite different.

I bought half a kilo. My sister-in-law, Diana, was delighted. She popped them in with the roast. “I usually do it,” she said. “They taste better than potatoes!”

So that night we all had good old Kiwi tucker: roast lamb, green peas and “New Zealand yams”. The com­bination was all that Diana had pre­dicted, but what on earth were those sourish roots that tasted so good?

I finally found out when, in the early 1980s, I was in South America checking into the traditional crops of the Andes mountains. In an outdoor market in Cuzco, Peru, I almost stum­bled over a waist-high pile of those same creased tubers. They were spill­ing out into the street like a cascade of red and pink botanical gems. There were yellow varieties as well. I bought samples of each. All had that same pleasant-tasting acidity. I called them “potatoes that need no sour cream”; the lady selling them called them “oca”.

Soon I learned that oca (pro­nounced “oh-kah”) is a staple throughout much of the highlands of the Andes. It is, in fact, one of dozens of food crops that had fed the Incas and helped those fearsome warriors conquer and run one of the biggest empires of the ancient world.

For me, finding those red roots in a rustic market generated such an in­terest in the Incas that I eventually directed a major study to explore the crops they had lived on. After four years of effort my staff and I (with contributions from some 650 scien­tists worldwide) were able to high­light more than 50 roots, tubers, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans that had been Inca foods. All have been languishing for centuries, essentially unknown to the world be­yond the Andes. But to our amaze­ment, at least 35 of these ancient foods seemed outstandingly useful for the world of today.

As I tried to work out how best to resurrect these “lost” crops, I was intrigued to find that other New Zea­landers had been there before me. Moreover, I was surprised that, with the exception of the South Ameri­cans themselves, we are the only peo­ple who routinely eat a number of the Incas’ foods. Most Kiwis would prob­ably be amazed to know how much of what we eat came from the Incas and not from Europe.

Furthermore, there may be more Inca foods on the way to our dinner tables. In various parts of the country researchers, en­trepreneurs and pioneering gardeners are breeding and developing more than 20 crops that had fed those an­cient warriors.

Scientists of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) have gath­ered planting materials in the Andes. Private nurserymen have crossed the South Pa­cific in search of plants, too. Some observers believe that the native crops of the Andes offer such a wealth of new foods, new exports, and new industries that they could give a significant boost to the nation’s farming economy.

The indians of the Andes were perhaps the most creative farmers of the ancient world. They lived mostly in valleys cupped between steep, treeless mountains that are among the highest in the world. Although close to the equator, they dwelt at such high altitudes that the climate was cool, like New Zea­land’s. In these sparkling uplands farming was conducted continuously for something like 5000 years. It in­volved such skill, sensitivity and se­lection of crops that it turned steep, stony, and otherwise marginal lands into an agricultural paradise. Author William H. Prescott in his classic The Conquest of Peru described what it must have been like in the days of the Incas: “The air was scented with the sweet odours of flowers,” he wrote, “and everywhere the eye was re­freshed by the sight of orchards laden with unknown fruits, and of fields waving with yellow grain, and rich in luscious vegetables of every de­scription that teem in the sunny clime of the equator.”

Actually, though, it was not the Incas who originated that paradise. They were just a minor tribal group until their fierce, doggedly creative spirits started stirring in about 1400AD. They certainly knew how to quickly make their presence felt, however. Without a written language for communication, without wheels to ease the transportation of goods and without money for payments and rewards, they fashioned an advanced civilisation and then projected it throughout the Andes. Within a few decades they were administering to­day’s Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as parts of Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

“It was one of the greatest of all empires,” explains Peruvian scholar Ramiro Matos. “It stretched at least as far as the Roman Empire at its zenith, and included perhaps 15 million peo­ple, many of them far different in culture, language and tradition from the Incas. From the capital at Cuzco, the Incas cast their influence and power along the spine of a whole continent, up mountainsides four kilometres high and in climates vary­ing from frozen wastes to lush tropi­cal forests.”

The Incas were not only superb political organisers, they were skilful agriculturists, too. Building on the legacy of hundreds of generations of observant and innovative Indian farmers, they cultivated about 80 food crops—more than the farmers of Asia or Europe did. And they farmed so successfully that they kept thou­sands of stone warehouses and silos piled high with food. No one starved in their empire.

And then all this wondrous operation was brought crash­ing down. Five thousand years of agricultural develop­ment was cut off at the roots when, in 1535, Francisco Pizarro and a band of about 160 Spanish adventurers ar­rived on the Peruvian coast. By coincidence, a civil war was raging among rival broth­ers for the Inca throne. The people, inherently fatalistic, concluded that the Sun god had sent the white invaders to punish them for fighting each other. They quietly and ab­jectly submitted upon the al­most ludicrous entrance of a handful of motley mavericks whose pitiful weapons were hardly better than those car­ried by the tens of thousands of fierce Inca soldiers.

“They put up little resistance to the tiny band of Spaniards,” explains Luis Aguilar, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washing­ton, D.C. “Against his officers’ ad­vice, the Inca emperor went to meet the small Spanish army. Captured by Pizarro, he offered an enormous ran­som in gold, renounced his gods, pro­claimed himself a Christian and or­dered his troops not to resist . . . He was executed by Pizarro as a traitor.”

Soon Spanish adventurers, ad­ministrators and clerics were making a hash out of the agriculture the Incas had perfected. They scorned the doz­ens of crops so exquisitely adapted to the harsh mountain habitats. Shud­dering at the very thought of eating heathen foods, they converted the Indians to the doctrine of European foods: wheat, barley, broad beans and carrots, for example. Plants that had fed millions for millennia in that tough and terrible terrain were tossed aside seemingly without a thought.


Although hidden from world view, the discarded foods did not become extinct. Most still survive—kept alive somewhere in the mountains by tradition-minded Indians. Our study’s task was to help rediscover and reassess this lost liv­ing treasure. It was perhaps the most exciting project I’ve been involved in, and, as I noted earlier, I’m cer­tainly not the first New Zealander to get caught up in the excitement over what the Incas ate.

Captain Cook was the first, albeit unknowing, champion of Inca foods in New Zealand. In 1773 he picked up some potatoes at the Cape of Good Hope and planted them in a vegeta­ble garden he ordered dug at Queen Charlotte Sound. Potato had been among the Incas’ chief foods. Dried, fried, boiled and baked, it fed almost everyone in the empire from peas­ants to princes.

Until Pizarro invaded Peru, how­ever, it had never been seen by Euro­peans. As with the other Inca crops, the Spanish scorned the potato, but eventually they found a use for it . . . as a cheap way to feed the thousands of Indians they converted into slaves for the silver mines. Then, about 30 years after Pizarro’s conquest, some­one had the bright idea that the po­tato might also conveniently feed Spanish sailors (little more than slaves, at least to landsmen) on the galleons that each year hauled the silver across the Atlantic. In this in­advertent way, the potato first reached the Old World.

For about a century, Europeans continued to scorn what they widely feared as a dark, sinister, foreign, un­derground food. In fact, potato oppo­nents formed a Society for the Pre­vention of Unhealthy Diets (SPUD) in order to stamp out the new­comer. But the poor in Ireland eventually learned what the Incas knew all along: the po­tato was filling, nutritious, high-yielding and easy to grow. Another century passed, however, before it was truly accepted into the bosom of European cuisine. When Captain Cook brought his spuds from South Africa he was being quite daring for an Englishman.

By about 1790 almost all Europeans were embracing the root. Despite loud protestations that it was ungodly (because it was not men­tioned in the Bible), that it might be toxic (all parts of the plant other than the tuber are indeed poisonous), and that it caused syphilis (a disease that spread through Europe at about the same time as the potato), it became the mainstay of Europe’s food sup­ply. Indeed, scholars now suggest that the potato contributed so much food that it allowed large numbers of peo­ple to leave the land and take up factory work. It was the potato, the scholars suggest, that made possible the Industrial Revolution!

From Europe, this Inca plant trav­elled on around the world. It became the fourth biggest food crop and one of 20 plants regarded as essential for feeding the planet. According to Robert Rhoades of the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru, the an­nual value of the world’s potato crop — nearly $US100 billion—is three times greater than all the gold and silver the Spanish ever hauled out of the New World.

Its value to New Zealand is sub­stantial, too. Within 40 years of Cap­tain Cook’s potato patch in the Marlborough Sounds, spuds had spread throughout the country. Whal­ers introduced more, and by 1813, for example, Maori farmers were grow­ing about 40 hectares of them at Bluff.

Soon thereafter, meat and potatoes came to be the typical Kiwi meal. Today, New Zealand is one of 130 potato-dependent nations. It not only grows all its own, it exports seed potatoes to other countries. Although eating habits are changing, we still eat heaps of potatoes—more than 150,000 tonnes most years. Every time we have fish and chips, for ex­ample, we should thank the Incas for their genius.


Eating potatoes is not unique to New Zealand, of course. And I grew up assuming that all the fruits and vegetables we enjoy were also enjoyed everywhere else. Now I know better. Other countries may eat potatoes, but many foods we take for granted are little known elsewhere. It is a seldom appreciated fact that New Zealand leads most countries in the tortuous, tedious, time consuming and very uncertain business of per­fecting new food crops.

“People in New Zealand may be so close to the picture that they don’t truly appreciate the stature of their farm industry as it relates to the worldwide produce scene,” explains Frieda Caplan, North America’s Queen of specialty produce. “I’ve handled New Zealand produce for 25 years, and I know!”

Frieda runs a $25 million-a-year Los Angeles company handling some 400 different types of fruits and veg­etables. Her promotion of New Zea­land kiwifruit in North America helped stimulate the boom that blasted that formerly obscure berry into a winner worldwide.

The kiwifruit is perhaps the prime example of New Zealanders’ skill in not unique to New Zealand, of course. And I grew up assuming that all the fruits and vegetables we enjoy were also enjoyed everywhere else. Now I know better. Other countries may eat potatoes, but many foods we take for granted are little known elsewhere. It is a seldom appreciated fact that New Zealand leads most countries in the tortuous, tedious, time consuming and very uncertain business of per­fecting new food crops.

“People in New Zealand may be so close to the picture that they don’t truly appreciate the stature of their farm industry as it relates to the worldwide produce scene,” explains Frieda Caplan, North America’s Queen of specialty produce. “I’ve handled New Zealand produce for 25 years, and I know!”

Frieda runs a $25 million-a-year Los Angeles company handling some 400 different types of fruits and veg­etables. Her promotion of New Zea­land kiwifruit in North America helped stimulate the boom that blasted that formerly obscure berry into a winner worldwide.

The kiwifruit is perhaps the prime example of New Zealanders’ skill in plant breeding. Early this century its ancestor, the wild mihoutao (mon­key peach), grew only in the forests of southern China. It was brought to New Zealand in 1904 and, as the “Chinese gooseberry”, became a com­mon vine in home gardens and or­chards. No one thought much of it until the 1920s, when Auckland plantsman Hayward Wright made a surprise discovery in his nursery at Avondale: one of his Chinese goose­berry vines had fruit which were 50 per cent bigger than any of the others. This ‘Hayward’ cultivar (Wright him­self called it ‘Wright’s Giant’) was introduced to growers in the mid-1930s, and the new fruit took off. Its phenomenal keeping quality, novel appearance and culinary versatility have made it one of the few new fruits and nuts to have had an inter­national impact this century (others are blueberry, macadamia and avo­cado).

New Zealand’s innovations with kiwifruit have certainly changed eat­ing habits in dozens of nations. And as far as Inca crops are concerned, New Zealand has been leading the way, too. The root New Zealanders call “yam” is an example.

Although potato was their main root crop, the Incas grew at least 20 others. They probably had more root foods than any people in history. And of them all, the “yam” (oca to them) ran a close second in the popularity stakes. Those wrinkled red roots have been feeding millions of Andean In­dians for thousands of years; in some areas they were (and still are) even more popular than potatoes. Perhaps they would have become worldwide winners too, but the Spanish didn’t think to feed oca to their sailors, so the plant was left in the Andes and became one of the lost crops of the Incas.

Just when oca reached New Zea­land is uncertain. Peter Halford of Feilding claims that his great-grand­father brought it: coming out from England to join the colonial police force in 1869, he picked up some oca during a layover in Chile and planted them in Wanganui. The Halfords have been growing them ever since.

The fact that New Zealanders can now buy “yams” at the grocer’s is largely due to Peter Halford’s efforts. “I’ve grown them commercially for 30 years,” he told me. “I had to estab­lish the markets myself.”

Today both North and South Is­land growers are producing those brilliantly coloured, stubby, round roots, too, and demand is increasing each year.

What’s the appeal, I asked Peter Halford. “Nothing else tastes like a yam . . . that tangy acid flavour . . . they’re very, very nice. Also, they’re very easy to prepare… the waxy skin washes up clean.”

According to him, most “yams” grown in New Zealand end up around the meat in roast dinners.

However, he prefers them par-boiled then grilled with butter and a little brown sugar. “That way, they’re beau­tiful,” he says.

While New Zealanders may have assimilated oca into Kiwi culinary tradition, the roots can’t be grown just anywhere in the country, and this fact illustrates one of the prob­lems of transplanting crops from one side of the world to the other. Al­though New Zealand’s low-altitude, temperate climate approximates An­dean high-altitude, equatorial condi­tions, in one respect the two regions differ: day length. Near the equator the days are about the same length (12 hours) all year round. In our lati­tudes the days are longer in summer and shorter in winter, with the differ­ence being more pronounced the fur­ther south you go. Many plants are adapted to growth under a specific day length regime, and will not set fruit or develop tubers outside of those light conditions.

Oca, for example, will not pro­duce tubers until the day length ap­proaches 12 hours. In the South Is­land, where the cool, moist climate suits the growing crop, the summer days are long, and don’t come down to 12 hours until around Easter—the same time of year that the first frosts are about to strike. For oca growers, harvesting a crop is a race against time and the icy tendrils of winter.


Like peter halford’s great-grandfather over a century ago, Kiwis are still gathering up Inca foods in the Andes. That fact came home to me during one of my visits to Ecuador. In the middle of dinner at my hotel in Quito, a pecu­liar request was delivered: “Would I be able to meet with a visitor later that evening? He had come all the way from New Zealand.”

The visitor turned out to be Dick Endt, an Auckland nurseryman. He and his wife Annemarie are so com­mitted to developing Inca crops that they learned Spanish and have sev­eral times wandered the wilds of Peru and Ecuador picking up promising plants. Now, as a guest of the Ecuado­rian government, he was back seek­ing more. He had to meet me that night, he explained, because next morning an official car was whisking him to some remote valley to collect a strange fruit called casana.

The casana is cousin to the tamarillo, and tamarillos seem to be why Ecuadorians were showering Endt with help and hospitality. The best forms of this former Inca food are now found in New Zealand.

A few years ago, some were shipped back to Ecuador. Like prodi­gal sons, they returned home to a tumultuous welcome, and now are best-sellers and bring farmers pre­mium prices. The reason is easy to see. The traditional Andean forms of these tomatoes-that-grow-on-trees are normally small, splotchy and yel­low or pale red in colour. They look bland, blab and altogether puny com­pared to the big, bold, bright-red strain from New Zealand.

That dramatic fruit was the result of breeding work done in the 1920s by William Bridge, a Mt Eden nurs­eryman and fruiterer. He apparently obtained tamarillo seed from a mis­sionary who had lived in South America, and found that one of the resulting seedlings had small, bright red fruit. He crossed this variety with the common yellow-skinned tree to­mato (which had been introduced to New Zealand from India around 1890) and selected a large, red-fruited variety which he called ‘New Black’.

Like the ‘Hayward’ kiwifruit, Bridge’s big, colourful tamarillo was a breakthrough. Commercial produc­tion began in the late 1920s, and plantings were boosted during World War II when New Zealand couldn’t import bananas and oranges because all ships were crammed with ammu­nition and soldiers, and were steam­ing in all the wrong directions. The government, concerned that people weren’t getting their vitamins, en­couraged local fruit production. (This, together with the fact that American GIs loved it, was what also got the kiwifruit established here.)

The big red tamarillo is no longer New Zealand’s own tasty secret. In­creasingly, it features on up-market menus in restaurants overseas. Dur­ing the past five years, New Zealand has annually exported between 110 and 180 tonnes of the fruit, most of it to North America and Australia.

Could tamarillo become the next “kiwifruit sensation”? Based on Frieda Caplan’s experiences in Cali­fornia, it might. “It is enjoying in­creasing popularity,” she says. “Five years ago it took a month to sell what we are now selling in a day!”

Most New Zealand growers are more cautious. Bob Bilton, a consult­ant to the Tamarillo Growers Association, believes one of the main hur­dles the tamarillo faces in gaining widespread acceptance is its decep­tive appearance. Unlike the hairy-skinned kiwifruit, which clearly ad­vertises itself as a fruit that must be opened before eating, the tamarillo invites the unwary to partake “as is”. “It looks so deliciously tempting that you want to bite right in, like a plum or an apple. But the skin is so tart it makes your teeth curl. It’s really re­volting—enough to put you off tamarillo for life!”

Even the seeds and flesh are too astringent for some tastes. But Kiwi ingenuity may once more solve this hang-up. In 1980, orchardist Mark Kirkham noticed a chance variant in one of his tamarillo trees near Tauranga. Its fruits were big and at­tractive, but they were also sweet.

Instead of being red, they were golden in hue, but they were nonetheless eye-catching and attractive. He called the variety ‘Bold Gold’, and today describes it as an “historic breakthrough … the sweet tamarillo everyone has been waiting for!”

Tamarillos freeze well, and also lend themselves to being processed as pulp, puree, jam, chutney and juice. It is down these value-added avenues that tamarillo marketers see the big­gest growth occurring in the next few years. Tamarillo yo­ghurt and bottled pure juice have both proved popular, but the small size of the New Zea­land market makes the produc­tion of such commodities a mar­ginal proposition.

As for tamarillos reaching the dizzying export heights of kiwifruit, Bilton is sceptical: “New Zealand fruit growers should go to southeast Asia to see what we’re up against. Places like Thailand are pushing huge volumes of tropical fruit into North America, Europe and Japan. These countries are awash with fresh fruit!”

The days of developing a product and hoping the markets will open up are over, says Bilton. “Fruits now have to be so special that they almost promote themselves,” he says. “Kiwifruit may well have been the last fruit to sweep the world before it.”

Of all the Inca fruits, tamarillo has the strongest following among New Zealand orchardists. With the recent slump in kiwifruit prices, many growers are replanting the tamarillo plots they tore up ten years ago when kiwifruit boomed. Today some 250 growers are producing 2000 tonnes of fruit annually, and although most of this is consumed within New Zea­land, export of whole and processed fruit is expected to rise now that the fruit has been licensed with the Hor­ticulture Export Authority—a mar­keting organisation which promotes such diverse crops as avocados, per­simmons, garlic and squash.

One of the attractions of growing tamarillos is the short time between planting and first harvest—as little as 18 months. “They’re a quick, easy crop,” says Woodhill grower Ian Newton, “and they’re cheap to buy—less than a dollar each to put in the ground. On the other hand, they need good management. The trees are frost-tender, require a light soil and are subject to attack by whitefly and virus.”

The virus, Tamarillo Mosaic Vi­rus—similar to the viruses which at­tack tobacco and tomatoes—is suffi­ciently worrying for the growers’ as­sociation to be helping fund research into disease-resistant stock. The vi­rus causes the leaves and fruit of red tamarillos to develop unsightly dark blotches. While this doesn’t affect the flavour of the fruit, the blemished appearance renders it unsuitable for anything except processing. Re­searchers have been using recently-developed techniques of gene trans­fer to grow genetically modified tamarillos which, so far, appear to be resistant to the virus.

Although it sounds Spanish, the name “tamarillo” is another New Zealand invention. The former name, “tree tomato”, was considered inap­propriate for use overseas, where people buying the fruits for the first time might expect them to taste like tomatoes. In 1967, orchardist Bill Thomson took the Maori word “tama,” added “tillo” (taken from tomatillo, a completely unrelated Mexican fruit), and then (just to make the sound more mellifluous) he re­placed “t” with “r”. Thus, “tamarillo” was born.

Now the name is catching on back in the Andes. Judith Bale, a New Zealander who, like me, works at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, recently found that tamarillo is now a hit in Cali, Colombia. “It’s pronounced ‘tam-a-ree-oh’ there,” she explains. “Restau­rants serve thick, rich drinks made out of it. They’re delicious and I’m sure most tourists think they’re some old Spanish con­coction with a traditional name.”

The tamarillo is not the only strange-named fruit that is catching on. During a visit to Dunedin a few years back, my eye fell on what looked like a large egg lying in a greengro­cer’s bin on George Street. It had a yellowish skin slashed with jagged purple streaks like mauve lightning. The sign be­side it said “pepino”. I’d never heard of it at that time, but now I know that pepino (pronounced “peh-pee-noh”) is yet another of the Inca’s lost foods.

Its full name is pepino dulce, “sweet cucumber”, but this yellow­and-purple egg has nothing at all to do with cucumbers. It is a tomato relative, but is more like a melon inside: seedless, watery and pleas­antly sweet.

Coming from a small shrub that looks somewhat like a tomato plant, the pepino provides as much vitamin C as many citrus fruits, and can be used in everything from soups to sal­ads, appetizers to desserts. The fruits can also be dried, frozen, jellied or canned.

Increasing volumes of pepino are being exported, particularly to Japan, where it has become popular, and where single fruits can sell for $20! Something in the pepino’s sweet smell, subtle flavour and iridescent colour appeals to Japanese sensitivi­ties, and individually-wrapped fruit are commonly given as a special gift—to people in hospital, for in­stance.

At one time the DSIR targeted pepinos as a potential export bonanza for the nation, and a number of its researchers and technicians were helping develop it. However, the fruit has proved difficult to grow well, and whether it can ever be a major in­come-earner is now in doubt.

“It takes exceptional dedication and skill to produce pepinos,” ex­plains Keith Hammett of the DSIR laboratory in Mt Albert. “Only a few growers have been able to produce top-quality fruits; and with pepino anything less tends to be downright awful. Many a consumer has been turned off before they ever got to taste the pepino’s real delights.”

The plant’s recent disastrous his­tory in Australia exemplifies the problem. Such poor fruits were rushed to market that the public back­lash killed the crop before the grow­ers could cash in its golden eggs.

Nonetheless, at least one New Zea­land couple is making a go of pepino. For the last eight years Jim and Joy Crawshaw of Waimauku, near Auck­land, have been supplying the giant Sumitomo corporation of Japan. And the Japanese public is demanding more and more. “We can’t keep up with all they want,” says Joy Crawshaw. “It’s a struggle, but with us the fruits have to be absolutely perfect or we throw them out.”

Sometimes, that can mean up to 50 per cent of the crop. Such a high rejection rate is due in part to the stringent quality demands of Japa­nese consumers and in part to the fact that pepinos are still very “young” plants in terms of their breeding in New Zealand, and growers are still learning their secrets.

“It’s taken us quite a while to get the balance of fertilisers right,” says Jim Crawshaw as he snips a large oval pepino from a plant in one of his shade houses. He has found that pepinos do best in a mineral-rich but nutrient-poor growing medium. He grows his plants in raised beds and supplies their meagre nutrient re­quirements in the irrigation water.

The plants crop best in their first year, so are usually replanted annu­ally. The fruit mature about 80 days after flowering.


Of all scientific and commercial challenges, creating a new food crop is one of the most difficult. That can be seen from the low success rate. Out of 20,000 edible plants in the world only about 100 have reached the elite sta­tus characterised by organ­ised modern production. The rest remain wild plants or underexploited primitive crops.

Among all the forgotten food plants are many that fed the Incas. I literally stumbled across one of them during a trip to Peru in 1985. It hap­pened when I asked my driver to stop as we topped the ridge overlooking the Incas’ sacred valley, the Vilcanota. To me, the shining scene below seemed little changed from the days before the Spanish arrived. Rising hundreds of metres up the steep slopes opposite were terraces built by Incas. High-stepping it up the road below was a train of llamas, endearing creatures that were the empire’s beasts of burden. And on the valley floor, patches of plants that had fed ancient Indians for mil­lennia were glowing in the summer sun.

As I walked to the edge to photograph the scene, my feet almost touched a scraggly shrub whose appearance whisked my memory back to childhood days in Wellington—in fact, to an overgrown garden beside my grandfather’s cottage at Linden. The shrub had familiar looking little paper “lanterns” hanging on it. Inside, I found tangy, sweet, golden marbles—cape gooseberries.

Cape gooseberries grow wild all over the Andes. They, too, were Inca fruits. New Zealand, South Africa, Hawaii and India now produce them commercially, but almost nowhere else can you buy them. Even in its Andean homeland this is not a cultivated plant, just a tasty weed. To the Incas, it was “topotopo,” but last century Australians misleadingly dubbed it “Cape gooseberry” because someone had picked up the seeds in the Cape of Good Hope. It was a double misnomer: not only was the geography wrong, the plant has no botanical connection with gooseberries. It, too, is related to tomatoes.

Those berries dangling from dusty shrubs on a Peru­vian hillside were perhaps a little less tasty than the ones in my memory. However, to pop open the paper-like husks while I was in the Inca’s own sacred valley with a train of llamas shuffling silently by was a rapturous experience.

I find it most surprising that this plant isn’t known worldwide. Cape gooseberries make, in my view, the finest jam in the world, and I never can find it in Washington, D.C. When­ever I’m in New Zealand I stock up on a few jars of the wonderful jam from this lost fruit of the Incas.

“It’s not a big crop in New Zea­land, and no one pays it much atten­tion,” explains David Klinac of Ruakura, who has researched cape gooseberries for MAF and has se­lected plants far better than the non­descript ones in the Andes. “But we seem to be more advanced than other countries. There’s a steady, if small, production each year,”

One of those “small producers” is Ruth Dalton, who, with her husband Reg, grows a variety of vegetable crops on the rich clay loam soil of Clevedon in South Auckland.

“We planted a patch of cape goose­berries last year just to see how they would go,” she says. “We exported most of the crop to England, where they sold for ridiculous prices. Chocolate-dipped cape gooseberries were selling for a pound each in a London food store.”

This year, the London importer sourced his fruit from Colombia in­stead. “It’s what you could call a vola­tile market,” Ruth muses.

A few days after my magical visit to the sacred valley, I was confront­ing yet another Inca fruit: one of the many pawpaws of the Andes. Almost every house in certain parts of Ecua­dor and Colombia has a pawpaw plant beside it. These are not the true pawpaws of the tropics (also known as papaya); instead, they are moun­tain species that can take cool weather. Although their fruits look like the tropical type, they have quite different flavours and textures, and are normally used differently too. Most are made into juices or even are used as vegetables. Dumped into soups and stews, they add both zesty zing and fruity fragrance.

The first one I was given (near Quito, Ecuador) was not appealing to eat fresh, so I didn’t get to really appreciate the Incas’ pawpaws until I tasted babaco in New Zealand.

Babaco (pronounced “ba-bah-koh”). is possibly the most productive fruit tree on earth. To see the almost unbe­lievable amounts of giant, green, zep­pelin-shaped fruits hanging in un­gainly clusters around the trunk is a sight indeed. When ripe, the fruits can weigh as much as two kilograms each, and measure nearly half a me­tre in length. Juiced, individual babaco yield at least a cup of refresh­ing nectar which is said to be very good for invalids and those who suf­fer from digestive complaints.

The first babaco cuttings were brought to New Zealand in 1973 by Stuart Dawes, a fruit specialist with the Mt Albert DSIR, during a collect­ing trip which happened to coincide with the Chilean revolution. But it was Dick and Annemarie Endt who, a few years later, popularised the novel fruit and set orchardists scram­bling for plants. (During the first flush of enthusiasm for babaco, plants were selling for more than $50 apiece.)

A native of the highlands of Ecua­dor, where it has been cultivated for more than half a century, babaco is actually a hybrid between two An­dean pawpaws. It seems to be a natu­ral freak, the progeny of the chance pollination of one species by the pol­len of another. Things like that are not supposed to happen in nature, but when they do they can be of great value to the plant breeder.

Despite early popularity, the fruit has not been a huge success in New Zealand. Part of the problem is that it is unlike any fruit New Zealanders are used to; nor are Kiwis prone to dump fruits into their soup. On the other hand, it is so productive, so juicy, and so nice when you’re used to it, that it has to have a place in our horticultural future.

Babaco, cape gooseberry, pepino, tamarillo, oca and potatoes are just some of the foods of the Incas now available to New Zealanders. Others are limas, peppers and the tomato (see box, ‘The other escapees’). Now a new generation of Inca foods is about to land on our dinner plates. Certain individuals forsee great things for at least a dozen of these crops; they are bringing them into production in New Zealand, and in most cases they are leading the world.

One who hopes to see many Latin American species become estab­lished here is Stephan Halloy of MAF’s Invermay Agricultural Centre in Mosgiel, near Dunedin. Halloy hails from Tucuman, an Argentinian city that formerly was part of the Inca empire. He has travelled the Andes looking for Inca crops, and has had a lifetime interest in conserving South America’s plant resources. Prevented by lack of funds from pursuing this work in his own country, this deter­mined young scientist emigrated to New Zealand, and now researches South American crops from the deep south of this country.


On just his first collecting trip he hauled back to Mosgiel 300 species of native Argentinian food and medici­nal crops. To provide something in return, he presented Argentina’s gov­ernment with New Zealand natives, including flax, totara, kowhai, and hebe. It was not just a symbol of good will; it was, he hopes, the beginning of a long-term, two-way, trans-Pacific collaboration.

The importance of making such collections, says Halloy, is to increase biodiversity—the range of genetic material available to plant breeders. As the palette is to the artist, so plant stocks are to the breeder. “Each plant has its purpose,” he says, “and each can be used to improve a breeding line, resulting in a more agreeable product, better resistance to diseases and pests or better growth in a par­ticular environment.”

Of the plants he’s brought back, one of Halloy’s early favourites is chailar. “It’s the size of a small plum, but it tastes like fudge. You can eat it fresh or make syrup out of it. It’s very sweet, very nice!”

Halloy already has a confection­ary company interested in chanar’s possibilities for flavouring chocolates, but its real value, he says, lies in its genetic base. “Chanar belongs to a genetic complex which has mul­tiple uses. With selection, this tree may prove useful for stopping soil erosion, providing wood and animal feed, and perhaps pharmaceuticals as well.”

People such as Stephan Halloy are what I call “crop champions”—sin­gle-minded plant-lovers so entranced with a species and its potential that they devote all their energies and emotions to getting it developed. New Zealand is well supplied with these horticultural heroes. Here are three who have a passionate belief in the promise of one of the lost foods of the Incas.

Louis Trap, a tree-crop enthusiast of Mangere, is convinced he’s found a cherry to beat all cherries. It looks like the real thing, it tastes like the real thing, but inside it is green. It is the capulin (pronounced “ka-poo­lin”), one of the commonest fruits of the Andes.

Trap points out that capulins resist bruising and can be stored (under refrigeration) for six months without spoiling or fading in flavour. “The fruit has tremendous export poten­tial,” he says, “because it travels so well.”

For 30 years Trap has been experi­menting with the capulin. The trees grow fast, he reports, they can pro­duce a first crop just three years after planting and they can be manipu­lated to produce fruit three times a year after that. In addition, they are easily harvested because the fruits grow in bunches like grapes.

While Louis Trap craves capulins, Bill Sykes of the DSIR in Christchurch is enthusiastic about a Chilean fruit called ugni or strawberry myrtle: “I find it impossible to walk past a bush without grabbing a handful of the fruits and eating them as I walk along,” he says. “I find myself doing this in other people’s gardens as well as my own. I enjoy the spicy aroma almost as much as the taste.”

A cousin of the feijoa, sometimes called Chilean guava or (incorrectly) cranberry, it is a fairly common gar­den or hedge plant in the cooler parts of New Zealand. So far, however, it is not in commercial production. Chile, however, has already seized the op­portunity and is shipping the fruits to Japan. And no wonder . . . they smell and taste like wild strawberries. Sup­posedly, they were Queen Victoria’s favourite dessert.

The Endts are champions of so many crops it’s hard to keep up with them. A few years ago when I visited their nursery in Oratia, Annemarie hustled me out to see her latest find from the Andes. She grabbed a spade and began digging up something that looked like a rhubarb plant. On the bottom were fat, sausage-like roots splayed out like spokes from a hub. She broke one off, sluiced it with water, peeled back the brown skin, and held it out.

It was with some diffidence that I nibbled at it, but it proved to be good. In fact, it was delicious—like waterchestnut, very crunchy, watery, and almost translucent; but unlike waterchestnut it was deliciously sweet. It was what the Incas called yacon (pronounced “ya-kon”).

“Most people are pretty suspicious of it at first,” Annemarie said. “But almost no one leaves here without liking it.”

I’d no sooner got through my first ever yacon root than Dick burst in waving a fruit that looked about like a yellowish canonball. It was one out of dozens of hybrids he’s making out of his Andean pawpaws. “Let’s give this one a try,” he said as he sliced off sections with a pocket-knife.

Dick didn’t seem impressed with the outcome of this particular cross-pollination. However, to me it tasted like passionfruit, and anything with that flavour could make a killing in commerce these days. Moreover, Dick’s hybrid was maybe 10 times bigger than a passionfruit and its soft skin would make it much easier to process into juice.

Passionfruit (another South American native, although the pur­ple kind we know best originated in Brazil rather than the Andes) is a flavour far more familiar to Kiwis than to Americans and Europeans, but it is fast gathering momentum internationally. Passionfruit drinks are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, for example. Last year I counted more than 20 drinks containing passionfruit in the super‑market near my work. Ten years back there likely would have been none.

These are just a selection of the people who are developing Inca de­lights for our future. Among the oth­ers there are enthusiasts for at least half a dozen more fruits and vegeta­bles (see box. `What’s popping up next?’).

Of course, enthusiasm alone is no guarantee of commercial success. Without a long-term commitment to research into the breeding and culti­vation of these plants, they will re­main mere curiosities—luxury crops for prosperous times. Yet, over the last few years, government funding for new crop development has been drying up, with the research dollars going to things like apples and pears, sheep and cattle, wheat and maize.

Keith Hammett explains: “The situation is critical right now. Re­search into new crops is in limbo while organisations like the DSIR are restructured. And while the accountants juggle numbers, the country is losing its opportunity to lead the way and capture new markets.

“More and more, we’re bedevilled by a quarterly return mentality that demands instant results. Plant breed­ing doesn’t work that way. Growers have to think in terms of decades. People forget that plants like the to­mato have had 100 to 150 years of breeding. You can’t expect to strike the perfect cultivar first time round.”

Scientists like Keith Hammett point to the success of the kiwifruit as proof that “going out on a limb” on new crops can pay off for small economies like New Zealand’s. As Stephan Halloy points out: “New Zealand depends on agriculture so much that we’ve got to be sure it has a reliable base. With more crops there will be more stability … our economy won’t slump if there is a change in farm prices, overseas demand, cli­mates or pests.”

For building such an underpin­ning, New Zealand farming need not rely only on South America’s crops, of course. Promising new species can be found in other parts of the world, too. But for botanists like Bill Sykes, the Andes is the region to watch: “The flora there is so rich, with many species still awaiting discovery by the rest of the world.”

For me, to eat like an Inca is to eat like the best. When I was a child and Mr Hanlon handed me the tiny lump that looked like a pink rock, little could I imagine that I was glimpsing a food that may one day rank along side the potato. Perhaps, given Kiwi enterprise, that may one day happen.

After an absence of 450 years, the humble “yam” and other lost crops of the Incas are returning to delight people’s palates everywhere.