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Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott 1832
pronounced: kol-loh-KAY-shah ess-kew-LEN-tuh
(Araceae — the arum family)
common names: Taro, Dasheen, Elephant Ear
Colocasia is derived from the Greek κολοκασια (kolokasia), the root of Nelumbium nicifera, the sacred lotus; esculenta is from the Latin esculentus, edible. This is Taro, the staple diet of many Polynesian islands. Though generally reckoned to be an introduced species in Australia, it may possibly have been introduced here before white settlement. The plant was taken to Hawaii by the earliest Polynesian settlers and has been cultivated from ancient times in the tropics and sub-tropics worldwide. In earlier days there were many named varieties, thought to be over 300, mostly developed in Hawaii, but now only about a dozen are grown. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, var. aquatilis is recognized as a native. In Western Australia var. esculenta is also recognized as a distinct variety, but in Queensland, where the plant is found in the north-eastern regions of the state, the varietal taxa do not seem to be recognized, and the plant is regarded as naturalized. Also, the Plant List at Kew reckons the varieties to be synonyms of the species name.
The Taro plant is a perennial herb, growing from corms, with clusters of long cordate or sagittate leaves that point earthwards. The leaves grow on erect stems that may be green, red, black or variegated. The new leaves and stems push out of the innermost stalk, unrolling as they emerge. The leaf blades vary in size, up to about 60 by 30 cm, and is grey-green on the underside. The base of the petiole is winged for about 30 cm. The petiole meets the leaf blade about 7 – 9 cm in from the edge (i.e., the leaf is peltate), and from that point the midrib extends upwards to the tip of the leaf. From the same point, 2 veins extend downwards to the basal lobes of the leaf blade. The inflorescence, only rarely found on cultivated plants, is produced near the apex of the plant, inserted between the wings on the petiole of the uppermost leaf. The inflorescence is enclosed in a large narrow spathe up to 20 cm or more in length. The spadix has sessile female flowers near the base, and male flowers, also sessile, on the upper part, with sterile flowers in between. The male flowers are cream, while the female flowers are green.
The corm is the main part of the plant generally eaten. Also known as a mammy, it is shaped like a top with rough ridges, lumps, and spindly roots, and usually weighs between 0.5 and 1 kg, but sometimes more. The skin is brown, and the flesh is white or pink. Some varieties produce eddos as well, smaller tubers that grow off the sides of the main corm. These are used much like potatoes, and can be removed without damaging the plant, often giving several harvests a year. The main corm should be eaten after the leaves begin to yellow, or else it will start sprouting again, and its flavour and texture will deteriorate.
All parts of the plant contain calcium oxalate, but this is destroyed by cooking. Poi is a starchy paste-like food made from fermented corms, and is a staple in many of the Pacific islands. Young taro leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach in many regions, and young shoots are sometimes forced and blanched in the dark to produce a vegetable that tastes something like a mushroom.
In India the juice of the leaf stalks is used for stopping bleeding, even, it is said, from arteries.
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 a Picnic Bay garden, 2015
Page last updated 30th October 2016