Cassava: A Reliable Staple for Subtropical Gardeners


cassava plantWhen 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.

5/6/2019 2:07:25 PM

Has anyone tried growing cassava in Detroit Michigan area? Thanks!

4/20/2016 4:47:19 PM

I believe I started my cassava cutting upside down. It has roots and new leaves. I started it in water first then planted in pot until I'm ready to plant outdoors. I just read above not to plant upside down, what will happen with the roots? Will it not produce, and can I fix this before placing in the ground?

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