Everyone who grows their own food wants to grow something different from time to time. I’m always trying to grow new things, including tropical plants. After spending much time in the tropics I came back with all sorts of hungers for fruits and vegetables I can’t find here. It’s kind of like the tropics are really home, with all the food we instinctively miss.
Northern gardeners interested in tropicals often choose figs. Fig trees can survive freezing temperatures but only if you go to unusual means to protect them, like bringing them indoors for the winter or toppling the bush, burying it under several inches of earth, and mulching it deeply. (In the spring, you dig the bush out and pull it upright). That’s a lot of work to do for a few figs. Citrus fruits and even hardy bananas can survive northern winters, if you choose dwarf plants and grow these tropicals in containers, but you won’t get large crops that way. In the Ozarks I tried papayas one summer and got seven foot tall plants like small palm trees, with fruit reaching about 1/4 mature size as cold weather set in. Not bad for an outdoor planting, and of course with a greenhouse it’s more possible. Growing tropical plants up north, though, usually isn’t practical. It’s just a hobby.
Taro does surprisingly well up here, however, with only a little extra help, and it does produce food in useful quantities. After growing it for a few years I suspect that I’ll eventually do better with taro than with potatoes. Potatoes are a gamble for me, and only the early varieties have a chance of producing before the hot weather puts a halt to the potato season. Taro thrives in the heat, providing a leafy harvest through the summer and starchy corms something like potatoes in the fall. All I need are enough storage bins to build a small, well-drained swamp, and that’s not really impossible. I’m partway there already and this year my garden will have a full row of taro plants for the first time, using corms I grew myself.
Taro grows naturally in warm swampy areas, although some varieties thrive in wet semitropical mountain climates. Both wetland and upland taro tolerate very wet conditions, so overwatering rarely causes problems. Cold temperatures and heavy soil present the greatest risk to taro survival and bountiful harvests. Occasionally when a taro plant gets too much water, an older corm rots, but part of the corm usually survives the mistake and resumes normal growth.
Instead of growing taro directly in the garden I’ve planted this prolific vegetable in large containers, set in trenches during the hottest months, to conserve moisture and protect the roots from temperature extremes. Moving the containers to warmer areas in the fall extends the growing season. The first year I grew taro, I knew very little about it. Planting it directly in the soil failed several times, but we did succeed one year and had a nice row of taro growing along the edge of the deck, until the weather turned cold. Taro is a very beautiful landscaping plant, similar to elephant ear. At the end of the season, in direct plantings, we saw a ring of small corms developing around the original rootstock, but didn’t think they were large enough to eat.
Planted in large pots or in rectangular plastic storage bins with four 1/4 inch holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, taro flourishes here. I planted corms I bought in a local Asian grocery, not nursery stock. If you do this, look for fresh corms without shriveling or discoloration. Taro might stay on the store shelves weeks longer than it should, and aged corms are often infested with mold. Trimming out the damaged parts might save the plant, but corms in flawless condition make much better planting stock.
Storage in a cool humid area preserves the roots and maintains dormancy until the weather warms. For a growing medium you might try a rich potting soil, but I’ve also had success with layers of garden soil and rotting leaves, using whatever the garden provides for those rotting organic layers of swamp. Adding some potting soil to our heavy clay certainly improves the mix. Taro sprouts indoors when given sufficient warmth and light, but don’t move the plants outside until the ground warms and all frost is past.
Watering on alternate days helps the plants endure hot midwestern summers. Overwatering isn’t a serious problem, since taro grows in flooded soil as well as in well-watered soil, but the quality of water does matter. Stagnant water and poor drainage fosters rot in the taro corms. Taro grows best when frequently flooded and drained.
Even tropical plants can suffer in extreme heat, and the taro here developed burned leaf edges when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees F last year. Daily watering kept them going when very little else in the garden was actually growing. The plants recovered fully in the cooler temperatures of early fall. Throughout the summer I harvested leaves and stems for cooked greens, and in the fall I set aside part of of the corm harvest for the table, overwintering the rest in bins of damp leaves for replanting next year.
If you haven’t grown up with taro, you probably won’t know how to cook it properly. If you eat any part of the plant raw, you’ll suffer from an intensely burning swollen throat, somewhat like eating poison ivy salad with chili pepper dressing. Eating bananas or drinking milk should halt the unpleasant side effects, but this is not a plant to sample casually. Boiling the roots or leaves for an hour destroys most of the plant’s irritants, but steaming works even better and takes less cooking time. As a canned leafy vegetable, processed at temperatures over 212 degrees F, taro is even safer. Think of it as a thick cooked spinach, with a slightly gelatinous texture similar to seaweed. Eat the corms like potatoes, steamed in their skins and peeled afterward. Cook the smaller corms whole, but quarter the large ones to ensure even cooking. Taro corms have a slightly nutty flavor and a creamy consistency, substituting for potatoes in many familiar dishes.
When harvesting and processing taro, handle it carefully and don’t get the sap on your bare skin. Taro sap can cause skin irritation and some people may be more sensitive than others. So far I’ve had no problems. Traditional taro growers advise trimming off the tip of the taro leaf as well as the lower stem. The thickest part of the stem has more fiber and less flavor, while the tip of the leaf might contain more of the irritating chemical that makes raw taro an inedible plant.
To me, the best thing about taro is the beautiful way it grows. When nothing else in the summer garden does anything but struggle and even the weeds go dormant in the heat, taro is a giant cluster of vigorous green leaves swaying in the wind. Even if you don’t eat it, you’ll like taro.