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Xanthosoma sagittifolium (L.) Schott 1832
pronounced: zan-tho-SO-muh sag-git-ee-FOH-lee-um
(Araceae – the arum family)
pronounced: AIR-um sag-git-ee-FOH-lee-um, kuh-LAY-dee-um sag-git-ee-FOH-lee-um
common names: Elephant Ear, Arrowleaf Elephant Ear
Xanthosoma is derived from the Greek ξανθος (xanthos), yellow, and σωμα (soma), the body (of a man); sagittifolium is from the Latin sagitta, an arrow, and folium, a leaf. There are dozens of synonyms (Kew gives 37), of which I have listed only a couple.
This stout perennial herb, originating from northern South America, grows to about 2 m tall, with a thick tuberous corm and numerous smaller offshoots (cormels). It spreads by slender rhizomes, and exudes a watery, milky sap when cut.
The leaves arise from the tip of the central corm, and have sheathing, overlapping bases; the petioles are up to 150 cm long, succulent, round near the leaf blade but channelled lower down, and attached to the leaf blade at the margin between the two lobes. The blades are anything up to a metre long, sagittate to broadly cordate in shape, glabrous, light green with a waxy, powdery covering, widely angled to a broad point at the tip, and with the veins very prominent.
The inflorescence, only infrequently produced, is borne on a fleshy stalk shorter than the petioles. The spadix bears tiny, densely-packed, cream-coloured flowers (male above, female below), and is surrounded by a large greenish white boat-shaped spathe with rolled margins. The fruit is a small yellow berry.
In its native state, and where it becomes naturalized, it is found in disturbed wetlands, mesic pinelands, wet ditches, and near freshwater swamps. It is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. It is now widely distributed throughout the tropics, where its starchy tubers are an important food source. Oxalate crystals in uncooked leaves and tubers are intestinal irritants, and saponins in raw corms are thought to be toxic.
The corms, cooked like potatoes, are the primary food crop, but the young leaves and shoots are also eaten as a vegetable. In Puerto Rican cuisine, the corm, known as yautia, is ground with squash, potato, green bananas and plantains into a dough-like fluid paste, containing pieces of pork and ham, and boiled in a banana leaf or paper wrapper. The corm is also used in stews and soups, and is a part of many local dishes. In alcapurrias, it is ground with green bananas and made into fried croquettes containing sea food. The shredded root of the plant, which is called tayer in Suriname and the Netherlands, is baked with chicken, fruit juices, salted meat and spices in the popular Surinamese dish, pom.
This plant should not be confused with its relative Taro, also a staple food in many regions. Although there is a superficial likeness between the two species, Taro (Colocasia esculenta) has peltate leaves. and the plant does not grow so large.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2015
Page last updated 10th March 2017