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