Inside the US, cassava is generally unknown except
among various ethnic minorities. But... it's where tapioca comes from (or "fish eyes," as my Uncle Stuart calls them) and has been used as a source of laundry starch. The roots are really, really high in starch.
Growing to about 12’ tall, the cassava plant looks very
tropical. Its palmate leaves and graceful cane-like branches are attractive in
the landscape or in the garden. Cassava’s pseudonyms include yuca (with one
“c,” NOT two – “yucca” is a completely unrelated species), manioc, the tapioca
plant, and manihot. In Latin science-speak, it’s Manihot escuelenta.
Whatever you call it, it’s a serious staple crop. Virtually
pest-free, drought tolerant, loaded with calories, capable of good growth in
poor soil – cassava is a must-have anyplace it can grow. And it’s MUCH less
work than grain and much more tolerant of harvest times. In fact, once it’s hit
maturity, you can basically dig it at any point for a few years (though
the roots may sometimes get too woody to eat).
But there is a caveat on cultivation: cassava doesn’t like
cold. At all.
If temperatures drop to freezing, your cassava will freeze
to the ground. This won’t usually kill the plant, but it does mean
you need to plan your growing accordingly.
In the tropics, cassava is a perennial, capable of growing
huge roots and living for years. Here in Florida the plant does well until you
get north of zone 10, then the occasional frosts will knock it down. Growing it
at any zone beyond 8 is likely an exercise in futility. Cassava needs warm days
and nights to make good roots.
And speaking of roots… the cassava’s roots contain roughly
twice the calories of a comparable serving of potatoes. Bonus: they’re easier
Of course, there is the cyanide to consider.
What – you didn’t think a plant this awesome could exist
without a downside, did you? Yes – cyanide. The plant is full of it, from its
lovely leaves to its tasty roots. Fortunately, boiling or fermenting gets it
out, so fear not. A lot of plants we eat are poisonous. Just google the “cashew
tree” or look up the toxicity of dry kidney beans. Now THAT’S scary. Compared to many things we eat, cassava's pretty tame. Microwaveable
Burritos, for instance.
Now – moving beyond the cyanide – how do you grow these
things? Unlike many plants, cassava is not usually grown from seeds except
for breeding purposes. The only way most folks grow it is via stem cuttings.
(Roots from the grocery store almost definitely won’t work since they’ve been separated from the stem and dipped in wax.)
To grow from fresh cuttings, chop a sturdy stem into pieces
about 1.5’ long, stick them in the ground on their sides about two inches down
and cover them lightly with soil – or, as I plant them, stuck in vertically
with the growth buds pointing up – and within a week or so they’ll be growing
new leaves. 6-12 months later (depending on care and rainfall), they’ll be
ready to start harvesting.
To harvest, machete down the entire plant a foot or so
from the ground, throw the branches to the side and start digging. Be careful,
though – the roots are easy to chop through. Some careful exploratory digging
with a trowel is often a good idea. The roots you’re looking for grow down and
away from the main stem and are generally located in the first 1-2’ of soil.
They’re deep brown with flaky skin. Don’t dig them too long before you’re going
to process them as cassava doesn’t store well at all.
Once you harvest the roots, you’ll want to chop up the rest
of the plant to make a new set of canes for planting out. I snap off all the
leaves and compost them, then cut the bare canes into planting size. Canes that
are too green tend to rot rather than root, so throw them on the compost too.
Sturdy, 1-2” diameter canes are perfect.
Plant them a third of their length or so into the ground and stand back
so the new growth doesn’t knock you over. Just don’t plant them upside-down.
Ensure they’re right side up by looking for the tiny little growth buds by the
leaf bases (or where the leaves were before they hit the compost bin). That
little dot should be above the leaf’s base, not below.
Preparing the roots is another post for another day. I’ll
take pictures next time I pull some roots.
The Cassava plant is a must-have in Florida. You can bury
cut canes in a box beneath the ground for the winter, as a Cuban friend told me
her family does… you can let your current plants freeze to the ground and just
wait for spring to bring new growth back… you can put cuttings in pots and
bring them inside on freezing nights, then plant out in spring… or you can get
a greenhouse and always keep a few plants in there for propagative stock. It’s
pretty tough stuff. And as for work, the worst part is the harvesting. (View it
like digging for treasure and it’s fun.)
Another great thing about this plant: its leaves are also
edible (boiled, of course – remember… CYANIDE!) and rich in nutrients. The
young leaves are best and remind me of a drier-tasting collard green. Not bad
at all. At harvest time I usually grab a few baskets’ worth for the table or
the freezer. The roots can be chopped and frozen raw as well – they keep quite
well that way.
Get some now and start learning this plant. It’s literally
proved a lifesaver in insecure regions of Africa.
Survival Plant Profile
Latin Name: Manihot
Part Used: Leaves,
unless frozen, dried or fermented
Ease of growing: Very
Nutrition: Roots -
low. Leaves - good
SOLD OUT UNTIL SUMMER
Labels: africa, cassava, manihot escuelenta, manioc, root crop, Survival plants