Don’t stop at potatoes
Mar 19, 2022
An overview of our starchy food plants. These plants will be looked at in detail in future articles.
This is an edited update of the article from August 2020
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The best times to plant potatoes in this area are April, May, June & July. This is so they will be out of the ground by the time our humid hot season rolls around come November. Tatties prefer a colder and drier air and soil like Dorrigo, Scotland, NZ or the Andes which is where they’re from. The warmth and humidity here aren’t ideal for them.
So don’t stop at potatoes.
I know we all know them because they’re a supermarket staple, but they are by no means the only potato-like food that grows well here. A lot of the following are far more suited to here than potatoes. We need starchy carb foods in our diet. Relying only on potatoes for this when there are better suited plants for this climate is not sensible.
Let’s start softly.
You will know sweet potato. Ideal for growing here and both the root and the leaves are tasty edibles. Some people call these yams, especially the orange ones.
There are a bunch of other yams to try. Most of the world lives on some sort of yam, they’re not really unusual. Yams grow vigorously and easily. They are vines with edible underground tubers. Some of them look terrifying, others like a sweet potato. All of these need to be cooked before eating.
Winged or purple yam (Dioscorea alata), lesser yam (Dioscorea esculenta), elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius), and butter or yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) all get a mention from our cousins in the Byron Hinterland Seed Savers who are currently growing in the climate that is heading our way with climate change. One to watch out for is tree potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) which also creates a huge number of edible aerial tubers as well. Although very tasty and easy to grow, it is an absolute menace of a weed as every tuber will sprout. Not to mention you don’t want to be standing under it when one drops off the vine. These aren’t small; knockout!
Yam bean / jicama (Pachyrhizus erosus) is a subtropical vine bearing a poisonous bean with seeds that should never be eaten and a wonderfully versatile large crispy tuber which can be eaten raw or cooked. It grows by itself in this area.
Then there’s oca / NZ yam (Oxalis tuberosa). Better in the cool season here, if at all. It doesn’t like our heavy rains or high heat. I haven’t managed to try it yet but it has a cult following for it’s flavour among those who are familiar with it.
For drought tolerance you cannot go past cassava (Manihot esculenta). This is a small perennial tree. When I say tree, think of a tall stalk with a few leaves looking like hands. A lot like a pawpaw / papaya ‘tree’. The cassava dies down and drops it’s leaves about August, which is when you dig up the big sweet-potato like roots and feast. To propagate, the stalk is cut into foot-long lengths and poked into the ground. It’s simple to grow. Both the leaves and roots are edible though cassava absolutely must be cooked to neutralise cyanide.
There’s a number of plants that like wetter soil than most.
Arrowroot / edible canna lily (Canna edulis) loves damp ground and being beside waterways. You might know it in your kitchen as a thickener, like cornstarch, but the plant looks like a tall turmeric and grows an edible tuber. The palatability and weedyness depends on the variety you have. Ideally, get a variety with big magenta tubers that does not go to seed.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is also known as yam in parts of South East Asia. Tastes like a creamy potato. The stems and leaves are edible too. Absolutely must be cooked to neutralise sharp calcium oxalate crystals, and some people need to wear gloves to peel it as it can irritate skin before it’s cooked. Once cooked it’s notably easy to digest. Go figure. Taro can be grown in a rice paddy situation or in a regular vege patch with regular watering. Let’s just say it copes well with floods!
Cocoyam (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) is the less water-needy cousin of taro. Don’t grow it in a rice paddy situation. Aside from this, the growing, cooking and eating advice is the same.
Moving into the pond, we can grow water chestnuts (Eleocharis dulcis). They are divine home grown treats. Nothing like the things in the can. Though I admit they are a bugger to peel / prep for cooking. Growing them is as simple as putting 2 or 3 in an old bath with a lot of mud and a little water and keeping the water topped up until winter. They will completely fill their growing container with corms.
Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). Not just the divine flower. Requires plenty of deep soft mud and ‘fertiliser’ and some water to develop good sized roots. Yum. You’ll probably recognise it from Chinese dishes. It stays crispy with cooking. Super easy to grow in an old bath. The stems, leaves and roots are edible raw or cooked.
Moving back onto land. The sunflower family isn’t just the pretty flower we all know. It contains fartichoke, the pet name for Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). A prolifically abundant tuber. Put one in the ground, come back a year later with a large bucket. Great if they don’t give you awful wind. They affect some people a lot more than others. They aren’t as abundant or easy here as in colder climates. They do need to be dug up, moved and cared for each year.
Did you know there is a savoury banana? Plantains are used as a carb vegetable in main meals. As easy to grow as all bananas are in this area. This is not a sweet dessert fruit like we are used to. Don’t eat it like a regular banana and expect to enjoy it. Learn from Jamaican and Dominican cuisines how to best use this.
And then there’s the original tuber that was grown as a food staple all over this area and seems to get a mention in every Gumbaynggirr story. The pencil yam / daam / gugaam (Dioscorea transversa). Sweet and nutty and crisp like a waterchestnut, raw or cooked. Perfectly adapted to here. It seems crazy that we don’t grow and eat this. This is not the yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata) as I mistakenly thought originally. Yam daisy / murnong prefers a different climate to ours.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding