Mar 25, 2009

Cassava important crop in the tropics

By KEITH PATTON, Special to the Daily News

Palm Beach Daily News - Palm Beach,FL,USA, Friday, March 20, 2009

Cassava is one of those plants with as many names as there are different communities eating it. It is known as manioc, manihot, yucca, mandioca, sweet potato tree and tapioca plant. It is an important food crop in the tropics, where it is grown for its starchy, tuberous roots. This plant is sometimes referred to as the potato of the tropics, and it is a staple for many people around the world.

Cassava has been grown in Florida for many years and, as the Caribbean population increased, so did its cultivation in backyard gardens. Around the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was grown to such an extent that a few small starch factories were started to process the crop.

While not as important a commercial crop as it once was, about 800 acres were grown in Miami-Dade County for the fresh market in 1984. Only a relatively few gardeners now include it in their home gardens, but it is such an easy plant to care for and establish, I would encourage everyone to give it a try.

Cassava is a shrubby perennial that grows to a maximum of 6 to 8 feet. It has smooth, erect stems and resembles the cannabis plant. The large, compound, dark-green, reddish-veined leaves are divided into about seven leaflets. The stems contain a soft white center and have nodes from which new plants are obtained.

The roots, the most valuable part of the plant, grow in clusters of four to eight at the stem base. Roots are from 1 to 4 inches in diameter and from 8 to 15 inches long, although roots up to 3 feet long are found.

The winner of this year's largest vegetable at the South Florida Fair was a cassava.

The pure-white interior of the roots is firmer than potatoes and has very high starch content. The roots are covered with a thin, reddish-brown, fibrous bark that is removed by peeling. The bark is reported to contain toxic hydrocyanic acid, which must be removed by washing, scraping and heating. Eat the flesh, not the bark.

Two types of cassava recognized are "bitter" and "sweet." The sweet-type roots contain only a small amount of the acid and are boiled and used as a vegetable, along with the young leaves, which are used a greens.

Leaves are not eaten raw because of the poisonous substances. Boil them like other greens, such a turnips.

The roots also are used for animal feed, and the starch is used for glue, laundry starch and tapioca pudding.

Cassava needs eight to 11 frost-free months to produce usable roots. It requires about the same soil and fertilizer as sweet potatoes.

Cassava is propagated by planting 10-inch sections of the stem 2 to 4 inches deep at 4-foot intervals on 4-foot wide rows. The roots are dug or pulled and used soon after harvest, since they deteriorate rapidly.

Large plants will be very tough, so most grow this plant for a single season. The plant, however, can grow for many years, producing roots that weigh many pounds.

Stick with small roots, and you will be surprised at just how many recipes exist for this plant.

Tired of potatoes? Grow cassava.

For more information, call the Palm Beach County Master Gardener hot line at 233-1750.

Keith Patton is coordinator of the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program at the Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension Service. Portions of this column may have been produced by his colleagues at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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