Big Leaves!

Visits to Safeway will never be the same again after you read this article.
Philip Bell, 22 Marbury Road, Wilmslow, Cheshire, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002

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If you're interested in something really exotic for the garden, here is a true tropical plant, which is extremely easy to grow: Colocasia esculenta -the Taro, a member of the Aroid family. Confusingly, it is also (incorrectly) known as Colocasia antiquorum and Caladium esculenta.

But now for the local names. It is known as 'Old Coco-Yam', 'Eddo' and 'Dasheen 'in the West Indies; 'Taro', 'Gabi' and 'Colalu' in Tropical America and the Pacific Islands (in Hawaii and New Zealand it is the main ingredient of 'poi'); in Cuba it is 'Melanga; in Malaysia - 'Talla'; 'Kachehi' 'Kachu' or 'Arvi' in India; the Egyptians call it 'Qulgas' and the Sri Lankan names include 'Kiri-ala', 'Daesi-ala', 'Kandala', 'Sevel-ala' and 'Gahala'.

Colocasia esculenta occurs wild in Burma and Assam, and has been cultivated in South East Asia for 2,000 years. The principal centre of cultivation is in Polynesia, where some hundreds of varieties are grown. Another important area is India, and from there it spread westwards to Africa during the period of slave trading. It was brought to the Caribbean by slaves, and is still known by its African name of 'Eddo', and it is from this area that most imported tubers come from today. The tubers are an important source of starch in the diet, as the potato is here. They contain 15-20% carbohydrate, 3% protein and up to 1.7% sugar. The young leaves of some varieties are eaten as a substitute for spinach.

Commonly called 'Elephant's Ear' (a name applied to nearly all of the Colocasias), C. esculenta is a very variable plant. The heart-shaped leaves are up to a metre long. The leaf stalks are attached to the centre of the leaf blade and stand up to a metre high with a spread of up to 60cm. The tubers can be from 10cm to 40cm long and up to 20cm thick. The tuber produces subsidiary tubers, known as 'cormels'.

Colocasia esculenta is a perennial marginal or bog plant with its root crown at water or soil level. It is ideal for the pool edge, or in moist ground or even in a large pot. It benefits from a semi-shaded spot and should be planted in a rich, light, free - draining soil or compost, allowing 60cm between plants. Water plentifully in warm weather and less so during cooler months. It should be fed with a liquid fertiliser weekly during the summer. Grown indoors in winter, and kept moist, it does very well as a houseplant.

Propagation can be by cutting off the top part of the tuber (as Taro roots from the area between the stem and the top of the tuber) or by the cormels. They can also be propagated from seed - if you can find any!

I got my three tubers from Sainsbury's under the name of 'Eddoes' at the end of April last year. They were just beginning to sprout. When buying from a supermarket or ethnic grocers look for fresh-looking tubers. With or without sprouts, they should not look old. I planted them in March in 15cm pots, applying gentle bottom heat of 1 5c. When leaves appeared I increased the watering. The pot size needs to be increased to keep pace with the amazing speed of the root growth until they are in the largest pots you have or are planted out at the end of May or beginning of June. Of the three, one produced a single spike 75cm high with leaves 45cm long. The others produced multiple growths and after dividing the main tubers I now have nine potted specimens. They range from 45cm to 60cm high and the leaves are between 25cm and 30cm, and one of them has produced two offsets. The largest plant has produced six offsets from the base.

I plan to keep the small plants growing indoors during the winter. The other mature plants which I think are large enough will be lifted from the garden in October and stored in the manner prescribed in 1871 by William Robinson, in his book, The Subtropical Garden:

"At the approach of frosty weather, all leaves, or all but the central one, should be cut down to within an inch or two from the crown, and a few days afterwards the tuber should be taken up, and left on the ground for a few hours to dry; they should then be stored on the shelves of a greenhouse, or in a cellar, or other place where they will be sheltered from frost and moisture. By placing in a hotbed in March, plants may be obtained with well grown leaves for planting out in the open air about the end of May/beginning of June."

Colocasia antiquorum is commonly misnamed Colocasia esculenta. The real C. antiquorum, the 'Egyptian Taro' is the smallest leaved form and is actually from India.
The next Colocasia is a stove plant of gigantic size. It grows leaves in excess of a metre, on 'trunks' rather than stems, about 60cm long, and should be placed in full sun in a very sheltered spot and not put outdoors until June. It is known variously as Colocasia gigantea, Colocasia indica or Colocasia (alocasia) odora.

There is one last plant I wish to mention. It is not a Colocasia, but an Aroid, Xanthosoma sagittifolium, also known as the New Coco-Yam or Violet stemmed Taro, or botanically as Colocasia multi- flora. It is another tropical vegetable, serving the same purpose as Taro, but it originates from Brazil. The leaves are arrow-shaped, with the stalk attached to the edge of the leaf. The leaves are of a similar size to Colocasia esculenta, but it grows up to 2 metres tall! It requires slightly drier conditions.

As I have mentioned, Colocasia esculenta can be found in supermarkets and ethnic grocers under any of the common names listed for the West Indies. Xanthosoma sagittifolium should be found as either Yautia or Tannia in the same shops. So, do try your luck at this easy-to-grow exotic vegetable. If you get fed up with the idea, you can always dig them up and eat them!

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