Nov 4, 2007
Achocha, Bolivian "cucumber"
This is my second year to grow achocha. My first seed came from a email correspondent from Bolivia. She sent me seed to try and I planted it in the spring at the same time I planted other cucumbers. Not knowing what the vine would do, I chose an 8 ft. x 16 ft. metal cattle panel (which I uses for all of my beans and tomatoes to grow on). It covered the panel by mid summer, climbed across the pathway and onto the chicken fence. It grew vigorously all summer but did produce one single bloom or fruit.
Our good friend and long time e-pal, Eddie Chong, who was visiting from Malaysia, stir-fried some of the tendrils in a bit of oil, with soy sauce, a bit of garlic and dried shrimp, and it was delicious. But, having used up my 6 seed for my first trial planting, I had none left to try again. Quite frankly I was disappointed that it hadn't fruited.
This spring I was visiting my plant buddy, Joe Javorchik in Illinois and he offered me some starts of achocha. He'd gotten seed, coincidentally from the same Bolivian correspondent I had. Starting off with plants, earlier than in the previous year, I gave it another try. Surprise of surprises, the plant began producing blossoms in early summer and has been fruiting continuously since.
Here's what I have learned about achocha. There are 2 varieties: ‘Fat Baby’ (Cyclanthera brachystachya), the one I'm growing, which produces single fruit that are said to be "softly spiny" (mine isn't, it's smooth), and ‘Lady’s slipper’ (Cyclanthera pedata) which sets smooth fruits in pairs.
The flowers are very pale yellow-green, and small, but you will notice the flower clusters. They attract hoverflies and you may recall that hoverfly larvae prey on aphids and other pests, so they are good to have in the garden.
Additionally, achocha is a wonderful arbor plant. Instead of planting on a trellis as last year, I grew mine this year on an arbor. It's 8 feet above the ground, made of 2 x 6 lumber and covered with metal cattle panels. Two plants of achocha covered an area 8 feet high, and about 16 feet long, producing hundreds of achocha fruits.
Achocha plants are prolific at fruiting, and like beans will continue producing as long as you keep harvesting them. Young fruits are eaten raw in salads, and taste a bit like cucumber. Older fruits should be cooked, put them in stir-fries or sliced on pizza. They can be used in the same ways as green peppers. You will need to remove the hard, black seeds first though and the fruit is mostly hollow. They are also traditionally split open, the seeds removed and stuffed with a mixture of ground turkey or pork, onions, garlic, cumin or chilies and baked with tomato sauce.
Another relative of achocha that I would like to try but haven't found the seed, is Cyclanthera explodens. Also known as the exploding cucumber, the fruits burst open when mature and eject their seeds outwards. After the fruits have split, they are used in the same way as achocha. I have read you should "take care when growing this plant as the seeds are ejected at great speed and could cause eye injuries!" (Tying a paper bag over semi-ripe fruit is said to be the easiest way to save seeds from exploding cucumbers). If you happen to have seed of this one, I'd be interested in trading. Of course they might cross, then you'd have mild mannered little achochas that spit seeds at you when provoked!
The variety I grew this year has been a real delight in the garden and lots of visitors have inquired what the beautiful emerald green vine is, growing on the arbor. You can find more information about the plant in the book, Lost Crops of the Incas (search http://www.powells.com/).