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Manihot esculenta Crantz 1766
pronounced: MAN-ee-hot ess-kew-LEN-tuh
(Euphorbiaceae – the spurge family)
common names: Cassava, Manioc
Both Manihot and manioc are derived from mandioca, the name of the plant in the Tupi language of Brazil; esculenta is from the Latin esculentus, edible. Cassava comes from Taino, an extinct West Indian tribal language.
Cassava is a tall semi-woody perennial shrub or tree with big palmately compound leaves. It resembles the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). The dark green leaves are 30 cm or more across and have 5–9 or more lobes. The petioles are very long (up to 60 cm), and are often tinged red, as are the stems. Plants can grow up to 6 m high in frost-free regions; but where they die back and regrow in spring, they rarely get more than 3 m tall.
The tuberous edible roots are 20–75 cm long and 2.5–7.5 cm in diameter. They grow in outward-pointing clusters from the base of the stem just below the soil surface. There are several cultivars available, including a variegated one. The primitive ‘bitter cassavas’ contain large amounts of cyanide and need a great deal of processing to make their roots edible. The modern ‘sweet’ cultivars require only peeling and cooking.
Cassava is a native of South America, but is cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical areas throughout the world. It is the third largest source of carbohydrates for food in the world, and is also quite rich in calcium, phosphorus and vitamin C; but it is poor in protein and other nutrients. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer. Wild populations of Manihot esculenta ssp. flabellifolia, the progenitor of domesticated cassava, are centred in west-central Brazil, where it was likely to have been first domesticated some 10,000 years ago. By 6600 BC, manioc pollen appears in the Gulf of Mexico lowlands, at the San Andres archaeological site. The oldest direct evidence of cassava cultivation comes from a 1,400 year old Mayan site in Sal Salvador. Cassava had become a staple food of the native populations of northern South America, Central America and the Caribbean by the time of the Spanish conquest, and its cultivation was continued by the colonial Portuguese and Spanish.
Cassava must be treated and cooked properly to detoxify it before it is eaten. The soft-boiled fruit has a delicate flavour and can replace boiled potatoes in many uses: as an accompaniment for meat dishes, or made into purées, dumplings, soups, stews, gravies, etc. Deep fried, after boiling or steaming, it can replace fried potatoes, with a distinctive flavour. Foufou, a staple food in many parts of Africa, is made from cassava root flour. Tapioca is produced from treated and dried cassava root; it is used to make a milky pudding similar to rice pudding. Ẹbà, a staple food eaten in West Africa, particularly in the Southern parts of Nigeria, is made from cassava flour. The juice of the bitter cassava, boiled to the consistency of thick syrup and flavoured with spices, is called cassareep. It is used as a basis for various sauces. Cassava was also used to make alcoholic beverages. The English explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton reported in Wanderings in South America (1836) that the natives of Guyana used it to make a liquor, which they abandoned when rum became available. Hamilton Rice, in 1913, found natives drinking a similar liquor in the Brazilian rainforest.
There are some medical uses for the plant: from the roots, treatment for diarrhoea and malaria; from the leaves, for hypertension, headache and pain in general.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010, 2014
Page last updated 25th January 2018