Achocha is an unusual edible plant – it’s one of the ‘Lost crops of the Incas’, but you can discover it all over again in your own vegetable garden!
Achocha is a climbing plant, and a member of the Cucurbitaceae family – the same vegetable family as squashes and cucumbers. Its vines will need netting or a trellis to scramble up, but are very vigorous and would make a good show climbing over an arch or a pergola.
Tender annuals, these plants are easily grown from seed in much the same way as beans – they can be sown directly into the soil once the danger of frost has passed, or started indoors in pots and later planted out. Young plants will need to be protected from slug and snail damage, but otherwise achocha are generally trouble-free and easy to grow.
There are two common types of achocha, and although they are very similar they are (botanically speaking) different species rather than different varieties. ‘Fat Baby’ (Cyclanthera brachystachya) grows single fruits that are covered in soft, fleshy spines. ‘Lady’s slipper’ (Cyclanthera pedata) sets smooth fruits in pairs.
In both species, the fruits are teardrop shaped and green. The flowers that precede the fruits are very pale green, and so small that they’re very easy to overlook. That doesn’t stop them attracting hoverflies though, and hoverfly larvae prey on pests such as aphids so they’re great to have in the garden.
Achocha plants are prolific fruiters, and like beans will continue to grow more fruits as long as you keep harvesting them. Young fruits can be eaten raw in salads, and taste a bit like cucumber. Older fruits need to be cooked – try them in stir-fries or sliced onto pizza. They can be used in the same ways as green peppers. You will need to remove the hard, black seeds first though.
Achocha won’t cross with any of the other plants in your garden, so it’s easy to save your own seed for next year. Simply remove the seeds from a mature fruit, dry them out and store them somewhere dry for next year.
If you’re into extreme gardening then you might also like to try growing a close relative, Cyclanthera explodens. Also known as the exploding cucumber, the fruits burst open when mature and spray their seeds outwards. Once the fruits have split, they can be used in the same way. 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 probably the easiest way to save seeds from exploding cucumbers!