Organic gardening often produces healthier, more easily grown vegetables and fruits than the same crops grown with “conventional” methods. There are, however, a few crops that have a pouty reputation for organic growers.
The cucurbit family claims most of these weak-kneed plants. I count on summer squash and cucumbers to be riddled with squash vine borer, cucumber worms, and fungal mildews by late summer. Though they offer prolific yields early on, I know I’ll be replacing them with sturdier crops around August.
That’s why I get so excited about possible substitutes for ornery plants! If I want to make tahini salad or pickle some cukes in September, I look to my disease-free row of achocha vines (Cyclanthera pedata).
Cyclanthera pedata has a ridiculous pile of common names, so I’ll refer to it here by its Bolivian name of “achocha” (since that’s the name I bought it under). “Caigua” seems to be another of its most-used monikers.
Peru and Bolivia have a long history of using achocha in their local cuisine. There are as many ways to make traditional stuffed achochas as there are recipes for the “best” macaroni & cheese in the US. (In other words: infinite!) Because they were adapted in the various altitudes of the Andes, achochas seem to do well in the Appalachian region as well. They are heat tolerant (but need regular irrigation to prevent interrupted growth) as well as cold (but not frost) tolerant. A long growing season is required (90 – 110 days) for fruit production, which can be achieved at least as far north as New York.
Achocha is old enough to appear in ancient art and has also been mentioned in the book Lost Crops of the Incas by the National Research Council. Despite its longevity in cultivation, it hasn’t lost its natural resistance to diseases and pests. This is one cucurbit that I’ll never call a “wimp!”
In fact, achocha vines deserve to be on the “must-grow” list for ornamental enthusiasts as well as edible gardeners. The vigorous, lightweight vines quickly cover any trellis or arbor with tropical-looking, palmate foliage. The beautiful leaves do look a bit familiar in shape — my friends couldn’t help teasing us about our crop’s similarity to an illegal species! Only two plants will coat a 12′ – 15′ long trellis in a single season. In temperate climates or a greenhouse they can achieve a height of 40′.
Though they do seem to be capable of self-pollination, best results are achieved with two or more plants. I saw plenty of beneficial syrphid flies visiting the tiny flowers in our garden. So adorable! I think they are one of my favorite insects.
Achocha starts producing in late summer and the young fruits are solid and crunchy. As they mature they begin to hollow out and form puzzle-piece shaped black seeds.
Achocha can be harvested at any time while they are still green, though the young and older fruit have different culinary uses. Rumored to have health benefits such as reducing cholesterol, Wikipedia lists their nutritional info as follows:
“Peptin, galacturonic acid, dihydroxitriptamine, pierine, resins, minerals (phosphorus), vitamins (thiamine, vit. C), lipoproteins and steroidal compound (systosterol and 3 beta D glucoside) with hypoglicaemic and antilipemic (against cholesterol LDL) action, and low density lipoproteins.”
I found them extremely easy to grow! If you start your own transplants, use the same timetable as tomatoes for your region. Otherwise, you can direct seed them into your garden beds after the danger of frost has passed. Early in the season your achocha vines will produce mostly leaves, so a foliage-based fertilizer used at the time of planting is best. Around July, apply a fertilizer balanced for fruit production.
When planting out, space them like you would winter squash or a vigorous cucumber (trellising is recommended). The vines aren’t as heavy as winter squash.
Edible achocha (Cyclanthera pedata) are related to the novelty heirloom “exploding cucumbers” (Cyclanthera explodens syn. Cyclanthera brachystachya). Warning! — If you grow the exploding type, wear goggles when you harvest because the seeds can spray into your eyes! There is some internet confusion about which species the named achocha variety ‘Fat Baby’ falls under, but it appears to be most commonly listed as Cyclanthera brachystachya.
Like most fruiting vegetables, you should keep your achocha vines harvested (before the fruit matures past the green stage) so that they will stay productive. A well-maintained achocha plant will be prolific until frost. The odd black seeds are ripe before the fruit is past its prime, so saving seeds is as simple as setting them aside as you prepare your dinner. After that they need to be thoroughly dried (at room temperature) and stored in an airtight container.
Achocha won’t cross with your other cucurbits, so there is no need to separate it for seed saving.
If you’d like to give this easy-going veggie a try, here’s a list of (global) sources:
- Nichol’s Garden Nursery (US)
- Long Island Seed Project, scroll to bottom of page (US)
- Amazon.com/Hirt’s Gardens (US)
- “Achocha” on Ebay (US)
- “Caigua” on Ebay (US)
- “Cyclanthera pedata” on Ebay (US)
- The Real Seed Catalogue, 3 varieties — scroll to bottom of page (UK/Europe)
- Heirloom Tomatoes Ltd. (England)
- Magic Garden Seeds (Germany/Worldwide)
Achocha shows its true cucurbit colors when it starts to flood your kitchen with little slipper-shaped fruits. Remind anyone of cousin zucchini? I like achocha fresh, but it also dehydrates, freezes, and cans well.
The immature fruits of achocha (before the black seeds mature) are delicious and most similar to standard cucumbers in taste and texture. As achocha matures it is still edible as a stuffing vegetable either raw or cooked, but cooking is recommended for tougher, aged fruits. Cooked achocha tastes less like cucumbers and more like a mixture of artichokes, beans, and green peppers.
Use young achocha raw on salads (although my daughter preferred to munch them right off the vine). They are commonly juiced in Peru and mix well with high-nutrient homemade juice recipes. Tender vine shoots (with leaves, flowers, and tendrils) are eaten raw, sauteed, or stir-fried. Mature achocha can be sliced onto pizza, mixed into curries, breaded and fried, or substituted in any recipe that calls for cooked green peppers. If you like the taste of Jalapeño poppers but can’t take the heat, achocha’s hollow shape is the perfect replacement.
Okra, green peppers, or cucumbers can be substituted in the below achocha recipes. I decided to adapt a favorite Greek yogurt & cuke recipe because it seemed ideal for a “stuffing” cucumber:
Achocha Stuffed with Greek Dilly Yogurt
- 2 cups Greek yogurt
- 6 or more mature achocha fruits, hollow but still green and tender, sliced in half & seeds removed
- 1/2 cup diced immature (solid) achocha fruits or regular cucumber
- 1 cup diced tomatoes, drained of excess fluid (optional)
- 1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp minced fresh dill (reserve a pinch for garnish)
- Combine the yogurt with the diced immature achocha (or cucumber), lemon juice, dill, and optional tomatoes and/or garlic. Stir gently until well mixed.
- Spoon the mixture into the center of the hollow, mature achocha halves.
- Garnish with reserved dill.
- Ajiaco de Caiguas (Caigua Ajiaco) @ Peru-Recipes.com
- Ajiaco de Papas (Potato Ajiaco) @ Peru-Recipes.com
- Caiguas Rellenas (Stuffed Caiguas) @ Peru-Recipes.com
- Caihua Rellena (Stuffed Caigua) @ Canela and Comino
- Fish-Stuffed Caigua @ The Global Gourmet
- Pepino Para Rellenar @ Palo Santo
- Achojcha Rellena – Bolivian Stuffed Caigua @ BoliviaBella.com