Peru is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, the Incan empire. This once-majestic empire spanned large areas across contemporary Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru with a flourishing agricultural system. The ruins we see today gives us an important glimpse into gardening in extreme environments. It also challenges our perception of what a garden entails.
So let us dive into the wonders of mountaintop gardening and explore the plants that have made their way from the Andes to our gardens.
The Incan empire spanned roughly 300 years, from 1200 CE until the Spanish invasion in the 1500s. At the height of Inca rule, it encompassed a population of several million. One of the reasons for their success was a stable food supply. This was made possible by extraordinary terraces built into the stark Andes and fed by carved canals.
These ancient aquifers were so efficient that an archaeologist (Ann Kendall) along with a local non-profit (Cusichaca Andina) has been rebuilding and restoring old Incan canals to resuscitate the agricultural systems.
From farming to Incan kings, one cannot write about Machu Picchu without mentioning it's rare orchids. Here are a select number you may recognise that have its origins in the deep valleys of Peru.
Masdevallia litter the Inca trail as you near Machu Picchu.
Orchids: Epidendrum to Masdevallia
Orchids were revered by both pre-Incan and Incan civilisations. You may find them dangling in the breeze of the cloud forests or creeping up from the ruins (Masdevallia veitchiana). Their diversity (>200 species) and rarity led to the designation of an orchid sanctuary which the contemporary Inca trail traverses.
During flowering time (Jan-March, Sept-Dec) you come across members of Epidendrum, Lycaste, Masdevallia, Maxillaria, Oncidium, Odontoglossum and Phragmipedium in all their glory. Matching these conditions at home can be challenging, therefore being able to observe them in their natural habitat is an experience unto itself.
Peru grows an astronomical amount of fruit and vegetables. The Incas managed to cultivate as many species as Europe at the time, but without iron, wheels or ploughs. The one crop that stands out above the rest is the potato of which 4000 varieties are cultivated.
Potatoes or Solanum spp. are more than just a food source. It is used medicinally to treat headaches and skin rashes or even given as wedding presents. The large diversity or native potatoes rarely make it onto the international market due to the irregular shapes, but the textures and nutritional value speaks for itself.
Here is a list of some local species:
- Pitiquiña Solanum stenotomum
- Limeña Solanum goniocalyx
- Phureja Solanum phureja
You would be hardpressed to avoid being subjected to coca leaves or tea upon arrival to the valley (in hopes of mitigating some high altitude affects). Erythroxylum coca var. coca was considered by the Incas as a sacred plant and has maintained its popularity through the decades. Heavy processing of large quantities of leaves results in cocaine, however, the raw leaves (or tea) is non-addictive containing high levels of vitamin A, B1, B2, B6, C and E.
Note these products can only be consumed in South America as it is illegal to possess coca leaves/candy/tea etc. outside of a select number of countries. Consuming copious quantities will also have a laxative effect, so take note.
If you found this interesting remember to tap that Dig button or scroll through to the other instalments of this series on Ancient Gardens.
Mamani-Pati, F., Clay, D. E., & Smeltekop, H. (2014). Modern landscape management using andean technology developed by the Inca Empire. The soil underfoot: Infinite possibilities for a finite resource. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 247.
Martel, C. (2014). An overview of Telipogon diversity at the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. Orchids83, 618-621.
National Research Council. (1989). Lost crops of the Incas: little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. National Academies Press.
Somervill, B. A. (2009). Empire of the Incas. Infobase Publishing.