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A Floridata Plant Profile #833 Manihot esculenta
Common Names: cassava, manihot, manicot, yuca, tapioca, mandioca
Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge Family)
Wallpaper Gallery (5 images)

tree  Shrub  Perennial  Drought Tolerant Edible Plant Has Unusual or Interesting Foliage

cassava plants
By September the cassava in Steve's garden has grown into a small grove 12 ft (3.7 m) high!
Cassava is a tall semiwoody perennial shrub or tree with big palmately compound leaves. It resembles a castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). The dark green leaves are a foot or more across and have 5-9 lobes. The petioles (leaf stems) are very long, up to 24 in (61 cm) long and they are red as are the stems. Plants can grow more than 20 ft (6.1 m) tall in frostfree regions, but where they die back and regrow in spring they rarely get more than 10 ft (3 m) tall. The tuberous edible roots are 8-30 in (20-76 cm) long and 1-3 in (2.5-7.6 cm) in diameter. They grow in outward pointing clusters from the base of the stem just below the soil surface. There are several named cultivars available. The primitive "bitter cassavas" contain large amounts of cyanide and need a great deal of processing to make their roots edible. The modern "sweet" cultivars require only peeling and cooking.

Cassava is native to South America but is cultivated in tropical and subtropical zones throughout the world. It is one of the most important tropical food crops in the world.

cassava cutting
Cassava stems are easy to root, this segment was cut a few days ago and is already starting to sprout a root.
Cassava thrives on poor soils (acidic to alkaline) and needs almost no attention to produce bountiful crops of edible roots. Cassava contains cyanide compounds that make it immune to most insect predators. It is easier to dig the roots if cassava is grown in a loose, friable soil.
Light: Cassava grows best if it gets full sun in the morning and partial shade at midday.
Moisture: Cassava is quite drought tolerant and is rarely irrigated, but it does produce better crops when it receives regular watering and the soil is not allowed to completely dry out.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Cassava needs at least 8 months of frostfree weather to produce usable roots. Cassava is an evergreen tree or shrub in zones 10 and 11. In zones 8 and 9 it dies to the ground after frost but comes back from its roots in spring.
Propagation: Propagate cassava by planting segments of the stem. Cut the stem into 8-14 in (20.3-35.6 cm) lengths, being sure to include at least one node, and bury 3-6 in (7.6-15 cm) deep. Segments can be buried horizontally or vertically with 4-6 in (10-15 cm) in the ground. In my zone 8B garden, I cut stem segments in late fall before freezing weather sets in and store them under a pile of hay or compost. In spring I retrieve the stem sections and plant them out. If I leave them in the ground, the roots of the old plants will sprout back in spring and produce larger plants, but cassava plants grown from stem segments produce better roots for eating (smaller and more tender) than plants that come back on their own. Even in tropical regions, cassava plants are propagated from stem sections.

cassava tubers
Cassava tubers don't store well, so leave them in the ground until you're ready to cook them.
Cassava is a reliable and important food crop in lowland tropical regions, but it is low in protein and where it forms a significant part of the diet, malnutrition is common. Cassava roots contain 25-30% starch. Unfortunately, the plant contains high levels of cyanide in the form of hydrocyanic acid, and this must be removed before the root can be eaten. This can be done by peeling the root, being sure to remove all of the purple outer layer, and then boiling in at least one change of water. Watch the cooking time carefully - it's easy to overcook cassava. One minute the roots are nice and firm and a minute later they turn to mush. Larger roots may have a woody core that can be removed after cooking. Roots prepared this way and then fried are called "yuca" in Mexico and are served with virtually every meal throughout much of the country. They are delicious!

cassava flowers
The cassava's weird little flowers and red stems are outstanding in front of a brilliant blue October sky. Click to download a large version (800x600)of this image.
Cassava meal and tapioca are made by grinding the roots in water and then evaporating off the liquid which includes the cyanide compounds. Products made from the cassava root include yuca, tapioca pudding, farinha, starch, soaps, glue, sugar, alcoholic drinks, acetone and cyanide. In tropical Asia the tender young leaves are boiled and eaten. In the Caribbean, juice extracted from cassava roots is flavored with cinnamon, cloves and sugar and called cassareep; it is used for preserving and flavoring meats, and is an essential ingredient in pepperpot stew.

variegated cassava
A variegated cultivar of cassava growing at Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.
Cassava has been grown in Florida gardens for more than a hundred years. There used to be cassava starch factories in South Florida to process the roots. Today several hundred acres in South Florida are devoted to producing the roots for the fresh vegetable market. Cassava is a great plant for the zone 8 through 11 garden; it provides a tropical look and is quite a conversation starter, never failing to attract attention. Plant cassavas in small groups in the background along with castor beans (Ricinus communis) and hardy bananas (Musa spp.) and enjoy the tropical ambiance even in zone 8!

All parts of the cassava plant are poisonous and must be processed by peeling, pressing or cooking before eating. It is reported that the Caribbean Arawak Indians committed suicide be eating raw cassava rather than face slavery under the Spanish invaders.

Steve Christman 10/19/00; updated 10/21/03, 8/25/04, 3/7/05

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