899 Colocasia esculentaCommon Names: taro, dasheen, elephant ear, cocoyam, eddo, eddoe Family: Araceae (arum Family)
Taro, sometimes called the "potato of the tropics," and often called "elephant ears" is a wetland herbaceous perennial with huge elephant ear leaves. It produces heart shaped leaves 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) long and 1-2 ft ((0.6-0.9 m) across on 3 ft (0.9 m) long petioles that all emanate from an upright tuberous rootstock, technically a corm. The petioles are thick and succulent and often purplish. The leaf attachment is referred to as "peltate", which means that the petiole attaches near the center of the leaf. The corm (also called a "mammy") is shaped like a top with rough ridges, lumps and spindly roots, and usually weighs around 1-2 pounds (0.5-0.9 kg), but occasionally as much as eight pounds (3.6 kg). The skin is brown and the flesh is white or pink. Certain kinds of taros produce smaller tubers or "cormels" (also called "eddos") which grow off the sides of the main corm. The eddos are usually around 2-4 ounces (57-113 g) in weight. Under ideal growing conditions, a single taro plant can get 8 ft (2.4 m) tall with a similar spread. The inflorescence, which is rarely produced in cultivated plants, is a pale green spathe and spadix, typical of the arum family. Var. aquatilis spreads by slender stolons, does not produce side cormels, and has become established as a weed in much of Florida.
There are more than 200 cultivars of taro, selected for their edible corms or cormels, or their tropical looking ornamental foliage. These fall into two main groups: Wetland taros, the source of the Polynesian food poi, which is made from the main corm; and upland taros, called "dasheens" in Florida and the West Indies, which produce numerous eddos that are used much like potatoes, as well as a large edible mammy. 'Globulifera' or 'Trinidad' is an upland taro that produces excellent cormels on numerous short side shoots. 'Sacramento' produces larger but fewer cormels of variable quality. 'Fontanesia' (violet-stemmed taro) produces leaves with wine red veins, margins and petioles. 'Illustris' (imperial taro or black caladium) has purplish markings between the leaf veins. 'Black Magic', 'Jet Black Gold' and 'Jet Black Wonder' have strikingly attractive dark purple leaves. Many of the ornamental cultivars are sold under the name "elephant ears."
Taro is superficially similar to other large-leaved arums such as the true elephant ears (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) and the arrow arums (Peltrandra spp.), but taro is the only one with peltate leaves.
Taro, Colocasia esculentae, is native to swampy areas in tropical southeastern Asia. It has been cultivated for more than 6000 years. Upland taros are widely cultivated in China, Japan and the West Indies as ornamental foliage plants and as an important food crop. Wetland taros are grown commonly in Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands. The cultivar, 'Trinidad' is grown in Florida and the West Indies for its cormels (eddos) and edible shoots.
CultureGrow taro in a slightly acidic, moist or wet soil, rich in organic material. This is a fast growing plant with a tendency to spread if conditions are favorable. Light: Taro does best in partial shade, but tolerates full sun if it gets plenty of water. Moisture: Taro is a wetland plant. It will grow happily with its feet continually wet, and even in water 12 in (0.3 m) deep. Taro also can be grown in a well-drained soil if supplied with abundant water. During its dormant period, keep the tubers dry if possible. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Taro is a returning perennial in zones 8B and 9 and an almost evergreen perennial in tropical climates. Elsewhere, grow taro as an annual. Propagation: Taro is propagated from whole tubers (the side-growing cormels or eddos), divided off in winter or early spring. Plant "seed" tubers 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) deep and 2 ft (0.6 m) apart. Sometimes when the main corm is harvested and the top, with or without its leaf stems still attached, is tossed aside, it survives and grows new roots where it lands.
In frost prone climates taro is grown as an ornamental foliage plant in a container in a warm greenhouse or at the edge of an indoor pool. It also is sometimes grown outdoors as an annual. Slice off the top of the rootstock, remove the leaf stems, and place the slice in a shallow dish of water on a sunny window sill; it will soon sprout an attractive mass of miniature leaves. In zones 9-11, taro can be grown at the edge of water gardens and in wetland sites in the landscape, but note that it can be invasive.
When grown for food, taros are planted in rows 4 ft (10 m) apart in rich, moist soil in partial shade. The wetland types are flooded with a few inches of water. The upland types (dasheens) are grown in moist soil. The side tubers, or eddos, are ready for harvest 6-8 months after planting the "seed" tubers. They can be removed without damaging the plant, and two or three harvests can be made in a year in tropical climates. They will keep for several weeks in cool storage. In frost-prone climates, leave the tubers in the ground until needed; they will remain in good condition until they begin to sprout in spring. The main corm or dasheen, should be dug soon after the leaves begin to yellow or else it will start sprouting again and the flavor and texture will deteriorate. The dasheen will not keep in storage for very long, either.
All parts of the taro plant contain the acrid compound, calcium oxalate, but this is destroyed by cooking. (Some of the cultivated strains apparently are mild enough that they can be eaten raw.) Cooked dasheens and eddos have a light mealy texture and a slightly sweet flavor, somewhat like a potato. They can be roasted, fried, or boiled; and sliced, grated or mashed. Poi is a starchy pastelike food product made from fermented taro tubers and is a staple in Hawaii, Tahiti and other Pacific islands. Young taro leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach in many regions, and young shoots are sometimes forced and blanched in the dark to produce a vegetable that tastes something like mushrooms.
The huge-leaved taro is a striking feature in the landscape, but not for the timid or refined garden. Taro makes a bold statement next to a water garden or along a small stream. It can also be grown in the vegetable garden if supplied with plenty of water. Even though it seldom produces viable seeds, taro will spread vegetatively and if not contained it can become a serious pest weed in wetlands.
Colocasia esculenta, wild taro, is an invasive exotic in much of peninsular Florida. It is listed by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council as a Category I Species, known to be disrupting native plant communities and displacing native plant species. Taro forms dense stands along lakes and rivers where it completely eliminates native plant species. Taro should not be cultivated outdoors in the vicinity of wetlands where it could escape and establish a self sustaining population that would eliminate native species. All parts of taro can cause stomach aches if ingested without cooking. Contact with the sap can irritate sensitive skin.
Steve Christman 1/12/01; updated 3/16/02, 10/7/03, 9/24/06, 11/08/08