Colocasia esculenta (vegetable group)
Common Name: taro
Type: Bulb
Family: Araceae
Zone: 9 to 12
Height: 3.00 to 5.00 feet
Spread: 2.00 to 4.00 feet
Bloom Time: Rarely flowers
Sun: Part shade
Water: Medium to wet
Maintenance: Low
Suggested Use: Vegetable, Rain Garden
Leaf: Colorful
Tolerate: Wet Soil

Culture

Taro may be started from a bulb (actually a corm), a cormel (the small corms that form as offsets of the parent corm), offshoots of the parent corm, or even the top ½ inch of the parent corm with about the first 8 to 10 inches of the leaf petioles (stems). Taro takes a long time to mature so consider pot or tub culture and plan for a warm spot indoors or greenhouse to overwinter, or at least extend the growing season.

For outdoor ground culture, about 8 weeks before the last frost date, place the rounded side of the corm against a thick layer of lightly moistened peat moss, cover lightly with same, and place where the temperature is a steady 70° F to 80° F. Keep slightly moist and pot as soon as shoots appear at the top of the corm, then transfer to the ground when the soil temperature is above 65° F. Place in a sheltered, partially shaded spot in rich slightly acid soil. Keep moist or wet and feed monthly. Dig out bulbs before the first frost. With pot or tub culture, transfer indoors when temperatures reach 50° F to insure uninterrupted growth. Taro can also be raised in an aquatic environment. Young taro leaves can be harvested at any time, but it takes the corm about 9 months to reach a reasonable size for harvest. When harvesting the corm for culinary purposes, cut the leaves off, leave about 8 to 10 inches of the stems, dig out the corm, remove and save all offshoots and all cormels. Cut off the top ½ inch of the mature corm with the stems still attached. That and the other offshoots and cormels may then be replanted. Caution should be used in handling all parts of the taro as they contain compounds irritating to the mouth and esophagus.

Noteworthy Characteristics

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) and other similar members of the arum family are a staple food for over 100 million people worldwide. Chiefly the corm, the starchy underground stem that can grow to a foot or more in length, is eaten, but young leaves are also consumed. Probably first cultivated in the lowland wetlands of Malaysia, it reached India before 5,000 BC, and was described as an important crop in ancient Egypt. It spread into ancient China and Indonesia and was carried by the Polynesians to New Zealand and on into greater Oceania, reaching the Hawaiian Islands about 450 AD. Taro was treasured as one of the most important Hawaiian food crop and revered in their creation stories. When Captain Cook “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, as many as 300 strains of taro were under cultivation.

Taro corms are roasted, boiled, or baked and may be made into cakes. Heating is necessary to remove an acrid, irritating property of the raw corm. Blamed for this irritation are the needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate; these occur throughout the plant and become lodged in the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. One or more additional chemicals injected into the mucous membranes by the sharp-tipped calcium oxalate crystals may also contribute to the acridity and intense itching and burning of raw taro. Handling of the uncooked taro and its parts can also trigger these reactions. In the Hawaiian Islands, taro is eaten only after thorough boiling to destroy the toxins; the leaf must be boiled 45 minutes over low heat and the corms are boiled in a deep pot with salted water for at least an hour, or until they are soft.

Taro is sometimes called the “potato” of the tropics. In comparison with the potato however, taro corms have a higher proportion of protein, calcium, and phosphorous, have a trace of fat, and are rich in vitamins A and C. Because of its very small starch grains, taro is virtually completely digestible. Taro flour is often used in infant formulas and canned baby food.

Taro aficionados will be pleased to note there are different varieties of taro, each selected to meet a specific culinary need; some are best for ‘poi’, some for taro chips, others for general purpose use.

Genus name comes from the Greek word kolokasia used for the root of Nelumbo nucifera.

Specific epithet means edible or good to eat.

Problems

Leaf hoppers and aphids are a problem only if present in great numbers. Corms, especially the cut corm top, are subject to rot if kept too moist initially, but once established, that’s unlikely to be a problem.

Garden Uses

Under especially favorable circumstances, taro can reach 6 feet in height, with gigantic 24 inch heart shaped leaves. Their appearance immediately types them as tropical and they are very effective in pots and tubs and at waters edge with other tropical foliage.