When I first encountered a cassava plant, it was love at first sight, and over the years, my affection for this graceful and highly useful perennial has only increased. Inside the US, cassava is generally unknown except among various ethnic minorities. It's where tapioca comes from (or "fish eyes," as my Uncle Stuart calls them) and has also been used as a source of laundry starch. The roots are really, really high in starch. And that’s why it’s become a staple worldwide – cassava packs some serious calories.
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 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. 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. It happens to me every year here in North Florida … but the plants come back up again in spring without fail.
In the tropics, cassava is a perennial, capable of growing huge roots and living for years. Growing it at any USDA Zone beyond 8 is likely an exercise in futility. Cassava needs warmth and time to grow its massive roots. And speaking of roots … the cassava’s roots contain roughly twice the calories of a comparable serving of potatoes. Bonus: they’re easier to grow.
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. (This is another reason it’s almost pest free). Fortunately, boiling or fermenting gets most of 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 (microwaveable burritos, anyone?), cassava is pretty tame.
Now – moving beyond the cyanide – how do you grow these things? Like potatoes, 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’ – 2’ long, stick them in the ground straight up, or on their sides about two inches down and cover them lightly with soil. 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.
If you’re living in an area that freezes, you can bury cut canes in a box beneath the ground for the winter (as my Cuban friend Gabriela told me her family does); or you can let your current plants freeze to the ground and just wait for spring to bring new growth back; or 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 – almost every method I’ve tried works. The stems hold enough moisture in them to basically sit around for weeks or months without being planted.
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 (or with your hands like a starving caveman, as is my preferred method) 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 and can grow as big around as your thigh. Don’t dig them too long before processing as cassava doesn’t store well at all.
Incidentally, once you harvest and process the roots (which I’ll tell you how to do momentarily), 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.
To prepare the roots, just cut a slit down the root, through the outer peel. (The peel is about 1/4” thick). Once slit, it’s generally easy to slip off. In the middle of each cassava root is also a thin woody core that can be pulled out when you chop the roots up for your next Incredibly Awesome Jamaican Curry Night. The roots, once peeled and de-cored, can be boiled until soft. They’re about twice the density of a potato and have a pleasant chewiness that absorbs flavors well. I like to drop them into soups and crock-pot meals. They’re also great boiled, then fried into cassava French fries.
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 also be chopped and frozen raw – they keep quite well that way.
As far as food security goes, cassava has already been a proven lifesaver in Africa. Finding cuttings in the States is a bit of a chore, but once you get a few plants going, you’ll never be without propagative material. I got my first cassava canes from Ralph Stuck, a wonderful retired missionary who had been given a few plants by some Indian friends. For years (and in multiple places), I’ve grown the same variety. More recently, I also acquired a different cultivar from Luis Camacho, a master gardener friend from Puerto Rico Ask around at South American and Indian markets and you might be able to score a few cuttings – and that’s all it takes to get a patch going.
If your potatoes are failing, your corn has worms and your squash has succumbed to mildew – cassava will still stand in the gap. As a reliable staple, cassava is simply unbeatable.
(For more on cassava and other survival crops, visit www.floridasurvivalgardening.com. There you’ll find an always-growing series of profiles on plants that thrive in the sand, heat and drought of the Deep South.)