Quinoa can adapt to the most varied soil and climatic conditions: altitudes ranging from sea level to 4000 asl; temperatures between 38 °C and -8 °C; precipitation levels that can vary from 100 mm to 2000 mm per year and at an average humidity between 40% and 88%. This extraordinary adaptability is due to the huge number of existing varieties. In the seed banks of Peru and Bolivia alone there are over 5000 accessions, among which we find the commercial varieties that represent a small part of them. A first classification of Quinoa can be carried out by identifying 5 macro-groups (ecotypes) that are defined based on the cultivation areas:
» “Coastal Quinoa”: It is mainly grown in Chile (below 30° south latitude), requiring minimum temperatures that are not extreme, about 100-200 mm of rain and a humid climate. In my opinion, these are the varieties that should be followed more carefully.
» “Inter-Andean valleys Quinoa”: These varieties grow at altitudes between 2500 and 3500 m asl, normally exceeding 250 cm in height. They generally have a good resistance to downy mildew.
» “Altiplano Quinoa”: They are grown at altitudes between 3600 and 3800 m asl (area of the Peruvian/Bolivian plateau).
» “Salares Quinoa”: They grow at about 4000 m asl, in the salt areas (Bolivian salares), which are the driest areas, with 300 mm of annual rainfall and soils with pH close to 8. These plants usually have larger seeds. The “Quinua Real”, which is not a variety but a denomination, is the main representative of this group.
» “Yungas Quinoa”: These varieties grow in the Yungas belt (foggy and humid mountain forests, with a tropical climate that extend between Peru, Bolivia and Argentina) at an altitude between 1500 and 2000 m asl.
Within these ecotypes there are innumerable varieties. Many are wild varieties; others, although not wild varieties, do not have (at the moment) a commercial value as they are not registered as varieties and are grown mainly for family use and, finally, there are the registered varieties, which represent a negligible percentage among those existing. In this website, at least for the moment, I will only consider the main commercial varieties. Before going into the varietal description, let’s try to understand which parameters and variables are taken into consideration to give an identity to a variety:
Colour of the plant before flowering: green, purple, red or mixed
Colour of the plant at physiological maturity: yellow, cream, orange, pink, red, purple, black
Panniculus shape: glomerulated, or intermediate
Density of the panniculus: loose (amaranthiform), compact (glomerulated) or intermediate
Seed colour: white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, coffee, black (66 shades of colour of the seed have been identified)
Vegetative cycle: from 110 to 210 days
Seed yield per plant: from 48 g to 250 g
Diameter of the seed: from 1.36 mm to 2.66 mm
Weight of 100 seeds: from 0.12 g to 0.60 g
Protein content: from 10.21% to 18.39%
As can be seen, the classification system considers many parameters and variables that do not refer only to the colour or size of the seed, but to an infinite number of factors. This should make us think that, when we buy Quinoa in a supermarket or in a specialised shop, the simple distinction between white, black and red quinoa is extremely reductive and does not give a precise indication of the characteristics and qualities of that seed. But even more important is knowing the characteristics of the plant and its seed when it comes to choosing a seed for sowing. It is important to know the optimal conditions for each variety: altitude, ideal soil, water requirements, moisture, sensitivity to diseases, vegetative cycle and photoperiod (the latter is probably more important than any other variable).
However, it is important and necessary to underline that anyone wishing to start growing Quinoa outside the areas of origin must do it with a “spirit of adventure”, without short-term certainties. It is not my intention to demoralise anyone, nor dampen enthusiasm, but realistically, in southern Europe and especially in Italy, in 2015 we are still in a phase of study from an agronomic point of view (many of the seeds imported from the Andean areas have problems of adaptability, mainly for a matter of photoperiod), and the supply chain is still developing.
This digression on the current state of Quinoa in Italy and many European countries just wants to be a warning not to create false short-term expectations. Despite this, personally, I firmly believe that Quinoa represents a great opportunity in which I am the first to believe in and invest energy and resources.
As already mentioned, the main producers of Quinoa are Bolivia and Peru, which means that most of the research, experiments and information relating to this vegetable refer to these countries. Despite this, I believe that Chile is the most interesting country in terms of agronomic and pedoclimatic aspects. Even with regard to seeds, to date, we can say that almost all the material available in Europe comes from Bolivia or Peru. To the best of my knowledge, only a few research centres and universities have tried seeds from Chile (Cv. Regalona Baer). As of today (2015), I consider Regalona Baer the best option in Europe among the South American varieties.