Finding edible plants to grow in the summer garden can be a real challenge. Turning to some of the less well-known vegetables can be just what Florida gardeners need to keep their edible gardens producing through the summer heat.
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a shrubby perennial with smooth, erect stems and reaches heights of 6 to 8 feet tall. Also called yuca, manioc, manihot, mandioca, tapioca plant and sweet potato tree, this plant produces edible starchy, tuberous roots.
While the roots are the most valuable part of these plants, it does also have ornamental value as well. The large, palmate leaves are dark green with reddish veins.
Roots develop in clusters of four to eight at the base of the stem. They're 1 to 4 inches in diameter and are generally 8 to 15 inches long. The pure white interiors are firmer than potatoes and have a very high starch content. The roots are also covered in a thin, reddish brown, fibrous bark. This bark contains the toxin hydrocyanic (prussic) acid, which must be removed by washing, scraping, and heating. It's easier to peel the bark off with a knife than a traditional vegetable peeler.
There is both a bitter and a sweet type of cassava. The roots of the sweet type contain only a small amount of prussic acid and are prepared boiled as a vegetable. Leaves can also be boiled and eaten; they should not be eaten raw because they also contain the toxic prussic acid.
Cassava roots are also used as animal feed, and are processed for glue, laundry starch, and tapioca pudding.
Planting and Care
These plants need eight to 11 frost-free months in order to produce edible roots. Soil preparations and fertilizer use for cassava is the same as for sweet potatoes. Plant short 10-inch sections of the stem 2 to 4 inches deep in the soil. Plants should be spaced 4 feet apart in rows that are spaced at intervals of 4 feet. To harvest, roots are dug or pulled and used soon after harvesting since they deteriorate rapidly.
For more information on growing cassava and other vegetables, contact your county Extension office.