It’s Not Your Mother’s Tapioca

Known throughout the tropical world, the versatile cassava plant includes a showy variety that is anything but plain-as-pudding.


| June/July 2005


Cassava, manioc, mandioca, yuca, gari, tapioca, farine — all are synonyms that in parts of the world refer to Manihot esculenta. This remarkable plant ranks fourth in the world’s agriculture, behind rice, sugar and corn, and grows throughout the tropical world, thus accounting for its many names. The most popular common name for Manihot esculenta is cassava, and the plant likely had its origins in South America, according to the early history of Brazil. When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, they found the starchy tubers a vital part of the culture.

This root food isn’t one that can go directly from the garden to the mouth. The tuber’s juice contains hydrocyanic acid (HCN), commonly called cyanide or prussic acid. If this acid is not removed or neutralized, it can cause death by cyanide poisoning. Recipes refer to bitter cassava (M. esculenta) and a related species, called sweet cassava (M. dulcis), with smaller roots, but research at the University of Florida shows that there is some hydrocyanic acid in all cassava plants.

According to folklore, the Brazilian Indians worked out a simple system to remove the cyanide-laden acid: the women chewed the tubers! The mastication released the acid in the juice, which the women then spit out. The soft, well-chewed tubers were spread out to dry, then grated to a meal-like consistency. Happily, safer and more sanitary methods are now used to process cassava for food products.

In addition to providing a small amount of protein, the tubers have been an important source of nutritious carbohydrates for hundreds of years. They remain an important part of the diet of many cultures in the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and Central and South America.

AS A TREE OR SHRUB

Cassava grows to 7 or 8 feet tall as a small tree or shrub in Zone 8. The showy, dark green leaves are deeply parted into three to 10 lobes, all on the same plant. The flowers are nondescript but produce six angled, winged seeds. Cassava freezes to the ground here in Central Texas, but rebounds in spring. The roots and tubers are both “walkers and creepers” that can, after a few years, fill in an area, particularly if there is good drainage. Cassava makes a fine container plant but will need winter protection if temperatures drop much below freezing. Planted in a shady area, cassava gives the garden a lush, tropical look.

M. e. ‘Variegata’ is a golden-hued plant with leaves shaped like the workhorse green-leaved cassava. The leaf colorings are chartreuse, light green and yellow, and white lobes sometimes appear. This plant is a ray of light that brightens the patio, a sheltered spot in the garden, a large sunny window in winter or in the greenhouse. Here in Round Top, we rely on its bright, colorful leaves during the dark and dreary days of winter. Our M. e. ‘Variegata’ is growing in an 18-inch container where it maintains its growth at about 5 feet. We keep it in the greenhouse in winter so we can enjoy its beauty year-round. The tubers of this cultivar are not generally harvested.





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