Beyond potato – taro & other waterlovers
31 Mar 2022
Potatoes will not cope with the flooding rains and waterlogged soils that we are prone to in this area. They will rot. But that’s ok because we can grow a number of other starchy plants who love these sodden conditions. All of them are beginner easy. They each take about 8 months to mature. Taro and cocoyam taste like creamy, nutty potato, while lotus and waterchestnut retain a crispy to chewy texture.
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Taro / cocoyam / dasheen / eddo
Taro is an abundant and strong plant who has has looked after humanity for a long time. This is an ancient and wildly popular food across South East Asia and the Pacific Islands and more. Taro is rich in nutrients and energy and gentle to digest, ideal for babies and the elderly.
Taro is a tropical perennial plant. It is one of the few plants that thrives in waterlogged conditions and can be grown in either a rice paddy or regular garden situation. It is one of the easiest plants to grow organically as it has almost no pests or diseases, especially at this time in Australia. About the only downside is brush turkeys and rats can be a nuisance, and some caterpillars.
To grow taro, it’s best to plant corms in September or October although they can be planted any time. Space corms 60 – 90cm apart with 1.8m between rows. It’s a big plant, 1.5m tall with leaves at least 60cm long. Push the corms a few centimetres below the soil. They love a very rich soil. Give them ample amounts of very well rotted manure and compost. Either grow them in your vege garden up on a 30cm tall mound (upland) and they will take 9 months to mature. Or put them in a boggy or rice paddy like situation (wetland) where they take 12 months to grow but create twice the amount of corms. In either case, keep them moist. The plants will survive drought conditions but they won’t grow and make edible tubers until they have enough water. While they are young, before they shade out the ground, they will need weeding. They love potash / potassium rich fertiliser, and appreciate a good fertiliser top up 3 – 4 times while they are growing. That’s it!!
Around June / July, as the frost descends, the plant height will reduce and leaves will start to yellow and die down. This is the signal to dig up the tubers. It is wise to ease off the water and let them dry out at this stage. This is the only time the corms can be prone to rotting if left to sit in soggy ground. Commercially taro is picked by first cutting the stem from the base. Then digging up the ball of corms.
Broadly speaking there are two forms of taro. Small corm and large corm forms. Japanese taro has these smaller sized corms, with each plant making a ball of about 50 corms. Large corm taro has very large corms with each plant making one giant mother corm and several smaller side corms. Pacific varieties tend to be large corm taro and they stay firm on cooking as that’s the local preference that was selected for. SE Asian varieties have tended to be selected to become soft on cooking.
For replanting, keep some corms. Any of them will grow. The larger the starting corm the more abundant the resultant corms. Store in a cool dry place until time to replant. Don’t replant in the same spot for a year. For small corm taro replant the mother corm or slice it into quarters. Seal the cut edges with dolomite or ash and let them dry before planting out. For large corm taro, cut the dark top section of the corms into pieces and seal as above. Or keep 30 – 40cm of stem and the top of the taro corm and plant out.
Taro corms must be cooked before eating. They need to be peeled too as they have a tough hairy skin. Depending on the variety you have, the leaves are edible either raw, lightly cooked or double boiled. They are similar enough in flavour to spinach. Young leaves, unopened leaves and younger stems are the more palatable green parts. Stems may need to be peeled. It is best to find out from the source of your plants what preparation is required for the different parts of your plants. There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties all differing in colour, shape, size, flood vs drought hardiness, flavour and importantly for food preparation, calcium oxalate content.
Calcium oxalate forms tiny needle shaped crystals that feel like a thousand bee stings in your mouth if you try to eat something containing them. In taro they are broken down and made harmless by cooking. Uncooked they are an irritant to skin and your gastrointestinal system. Some people are more sensitive than others. When properly cooked taro is notably easy to digest.
Taro corms can be cooked whole if peeling and slicing them first hurts your skin. Or wear gloves. The flavour tends to be nutty and somewhat sweet. Don’t be alarmed by the purple flecks, and after cooking, the grey / lilac colour. They are best suited to cooking that keeps them moist ie boiled or steamed (less gluggy) but they reputedly make great oven roasted chips. Explore the many Islander and SE Asian cuisines to learn how to bring out its best. Taro is often paired with coconut milk in either savoury or sweet dishes including cakes. And surely you’ve heard of taro bubble tea?
Cooked corms last about a week in the fridge. Uncooked greens about two weeks. Store uncooked corms as you would potato and they will last about a month. Kept at 7 – 10°C they will last up to 18 weeks. Or leave them in the ground until you’re ready to eat. Or bandicoot for corms as needed.
It is wise to obtain your taro from a known source along with cooking directions. Taro grows so well here that it is a weed when allowed to escape into waterways. Don’t be one of those dunderheads! You won’t be doing people a favour by spreading taro in the wild. There are a number of poisonous lookalikes that are quite tricky to tell apart from all the wildly varying forms of edible taro. And some taros like ‘black taro’ with purple leaves is only ornamental, not edible. This makes foraging for taro a dicey proposition. The lookalikes are cunjevoi / elephant ears (Alocasia sp.) which are generally not edible. Another plant also commonly called cocoyam or ‘blue taro’ (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) is not a taro at all, looks like elephant ears / Alocasia but is indeed edible. If you have the wrong variety or species, no amount of cooking will make it edible. Yes, people have died. Cunjevoi (A. brisbanensis and A. macrorrhizos) is an Australian native which can be made edible after rather extensive processing but it is more commonly used as crushed up leaves for insect and stinging tree stings.
Cocoyam / blue taro / arrowleaf elephant ear
This is the less water-needy cousin of taro. Don’t grow it in a rice paddy situation. Grow it in your regular garden or on the edge of a wet patch. Aside from this, the growing advice is very similar to small corm taro. Cocoyam corms can be bandicooted for any time of year. Don’t eat the mother corm, it’s far too large and tough. Eat the growing smaller side corms. They are excellent roasted and quite potato-like. Leaves and stems can be cooked as for taro too.
This is a different plant to waterlily (Nymphaea sp.) Lotus is a beautiful and zero effort perennial starchy food plant who grows in ponds. That means our big rains are not a problem! It has very few pests or diseases. Every part of the plant is edible, raw or cooked. When you meet the flowers, make sure to sample their scent – incredible!
Put a lotus root in a pond (or better yet, a bathtub) in full sun with a small amount of water and a large amount of silt and well rotted manure and wander off. That’s about all the care it needs.
The main part we eat is the rhizome. These are created in a series of long, smooth tubers in the mud, a bit like a string of very fat sausages, each 15 – 25 cm long. Collected tubers are easy to bruise purple and they brown quickly in contact with air. Keep them in an airtight bag. At 3 – 7°C (in the fridge) they will keep for up to 6 weeks. Lotus root has a crispy to chewy texture even when cooked. Lightly peeled is best. The flavour is vaguely nutty and it soaks up the flavours around it very well. Young leaves and stems are delicious, before they become too fibrous with age. Older leaves make great wrappers for steaming food. The seeds are eaten after the bitter core is removed. FYI, lotus seeds can still germinate after 1300 years!
No mud, no lotus.
If you’ve been around Bellingen long enough you’ve probably heard this spouted in a quasi spiritual capacity. As far as gardening goes, it’s 100% accurate for growing lotus. They need deep soft mud. Up to a metre deep. Little mud, little lotus root. The roots grow in the mud. They need room. The water only needs to be 20 – 30cm deep. pH is inconsequential and a bit of salinity is too. Heavy clay mud, flat small lotus, hard to pull out. Deep soft mud, large lotus tubers, no comedy harvesting.
Lotus is frost tender, but it also goes dormant over our cool season. Underwater it is protected from the extreme cold and so it actually will over-winter even in a mildly frosty location in this area, despite being a true subtropical to tropical plant. Around September is when the plant wakes up (15°C). From 6 months later you can begin to gently bandicoot for tubers (from Feb). Summer lotus roots are clear and juicy. Winter roots are milky white with a fluffy texture. Autumn roots are considered the best as a transition between the two. Around May or June is when the green tops die down, the plant goes dormant and you should collect all the remaining tubers for eating. Leave some for growing.
The best time to transplant is while it’s still dormant and after last frost. It does NOT like being handled or disturbed. Replant immediately. Ideally, plant a rhizome with at least two segments which are sealed at either end by an intact node. Plant in wet mud at a small angle off horizontal with the growing tip facing up and about 5cm deep. Lotus feeds heavily on nitrogen while growing stems and leaves, and potassium when it begins forming flowers and roots. Commercially it is fed in 4 or 5 small doses over 6 months. Go easy on phosphorus as it is rather sensitive to this mineral. If you are able to alternate the pond / bathtub each year, that is recommended as the roots do become smaller over time if they are grown in the same place every year. Occasionally lotus succumbs to a disease (fusarium wilt) and if this happens you will definitely need to grow the next season in a different location and fumigate the previous one.
Waterchestnut is a rampantly abundant annual plant. Put two corms in a bathtub and in a few months the ENTIRE bath will be jammed full of growing waterchestnuts. This is not in any way an exaggeration. Fresh waterchestnuts taste nothing like the things bearing their name in tins. They are sweet and crispy and moreish. A real treat, though I admit they are a pain to peel for cooking. This starchy food plant is ridiculously easy to grow, needing next to no maintenance. It has basically no pests other than occasional competition for the corms from rats and some larger water birds.
Although there is a native Australian variety from the NT, the Chinese varieties are the ones you will probably find to grow in your food garden as the corms are so much larger, up to 5cm diameter. Though the native ones are reputedly much sweeter. Regardless, this is a seriously invasive plant of waterways. It’s best to keep it contained. It will grow very very well in a container and be easy to collect at the end of the season this way.
There are only a few simple tricks to growing waterchestnut.
The first is that, like lotus, they need more mud than water. The mud is where the corms grow. If there isn’t very much of it, the corms tend to be tiny. In the wild, waterchestnuts don’t grow in the centre of a waterway. They like the swampy edges with thick soft wet mud. 10cm of water is enough. 30cm or more of mud is the requirement.
A side note is that they like a slightly alkaline environment, pH 6 to 7.5. A bit of lime helps. Also, plenty of nitrogen and some calcium and magnesium but they don’t use much potassium or phosphorus. Planting into fresh manure will rot the corms.
The second main point is when to collect them. Despite what a lot of written sources say, in my experience if you leave it too long, most of them will rot. There is a balance to noting when the tops die down as the weather cools (drain the water at this point) and leaving them to sweeten with a winter chill. Err on the side of collecting them early is my advice. Once the corms turn dark brown, they should be harvested.
The final point isn’t essential as corms that get missed tend to just come up regardless. But the most reliable way to sprout the corms is to put them in a container in wet mud and only (transfer and) top up the water over the mud after they’ve sprouted. They can be kept in the fridge in a little water over winter. They are frost tender and sprout once temperatures are above 13°C. It takes them 7 – 8 months to create mature corms.
Remember, these are prolific. One corm per square metre, max. Each should create about 100 corms, or at least 2kg. Too many to start with results in small corms as they all compete for the same container space. Believe me it is not worth growing them to end up with hazelnut sized corms.
If you’re concerned about encouraging mosquito breeding with having pond plants, there is a simple solution. Make the ponds attractive to frogs and there will be no mosquito problem.
Yes, there are even more bog or pond loving starchy food plants to put on your radar. Here’s a handful, and I’m sure there’s more, especially amongst Australian natives.
Arrowhead / duck potatoes / kuwai (Sagittaria sagittifolia). A pond edge plant. This one also makes small crispy tubers like waterchestnut.
Giant water lily (Nymphaea gigantean). Gumbaynggirr name juluuban. Some waterlily species are edible, some are not, especially European species. This species is native to Australia and all parts are edible.
Bulrush /cumbungi (Typha orientalis). Gumbaynggirr name bunday. Rhizomes, shoots, pollen and seeds are edible.
Big thanks to
Ian Thomas from The Gourmet Garden School, Paul from Barefoot Fruit & Veg, Rasa Dover from Byron Hinterland Seed Savers, Kyles Woodbury formerly of The Vegie Gardener, Carole & Phil Helman, Nick Radford from Bellingen Permaculture, John Vernon and the Bellingen Seedsavers blog, Pete Bufo, Tim Cole from Bellingen Farmers and Producers market
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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