Taro–the potato of the Tropics

taro in front pond

Taro grows in our front yard pond along with iris, wiry rush, water hyacinth, and penny royal.

I’m working on a new pond for our backyard, a small in-ground water garden. One of the plants that I will grow in the pond will be taro or elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta). I have plenty of it growing in my larger front yard pond, and it will be a simple matter to transplant a few small corms.

NC 114 taro leaves

Taro leaves at Plant Delight Nursery in Raleigh, NC

Taro was one of the earliest plants put into cultivation as humans began developing farming practices and domesticating plants. Thought to have been first cultivated in Malaysia and wet tropical India about 7,000 years ago, taro spread throughout the Pacific Basin to China, Indonesia, Egypt, tropical Africa, and eventually the New World in the West Indies where it was grown as food for slaves.

The Maoris took taro to New Zealand, and Indonesians carried it with them to Hawaii, where it is still cooked today into poi. The leaf of the taro, called a luau in Hawaiian, is used as a plate and gives us our name for a Hawaiian-style feast. The young leaves are also edible after 45 minutes of boiling.

taro corm

This is a corm from a young taro plant. They are generally harvested at eight months for eating.

The most often used edible part of the plant is the starchy corm, which is peeled and pounded on a board with a stone until it forms a thick paste. The paste is dried, then mixed with water, kneaded and cooked into poi, a thick gelatinous paste.

Taro may be roasted, baked, or boiled, but I haven’t tried cooking it. Cooking taro is essential as the raw corms contain needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate. Cooking destroys this poisonous skin irritant.

If you’ve cooked taro, I’d like to hear about your experience, how you cooked it and what it tasted like.  Hey, if 100 million people on this planet eat it every day, and 600 million use it as a food staple, it can’t be too bad.

The women of Palau (and many other Pacific Islands) grow taro as a food staple. You can read more about how they cultivate taro at this website. http://www.pacificworlds.com/palau/land/planting.cfm

(To read more of Lou Murray’s environmental writing, see her weekly column, Natural Perspectives, in the Huntington Beach Independent at www.hbindependent.com/blogs_and_columns/)

About Lou Murray, Ph.D.

I'm a professional writer/photographer, avid gardener, and active environmentalist living in southern California. I am retired from writing a weekly newspaper column on environmental topics in the Huntington Beach Independent, but I am still teaching at the Orange County Conservation Corps. This blog chronicles my efforts to live a green life growing as much food as possible for my husband and myself on a 4,500 sq ft yard that is covered mainly by house, garage, driveway, and sidewalks.
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