If you’ve ever traveled through any islands in the south Pacific, you will have seen taro in the markets, or growing on just about any spare piece of land. There are good reasons why you can find it everywhere.
Taro is a staple crop and suits survival gardens as well as the everyday vegetable garden. It is nutrient dense and filling, and the entire plant can be eaten. It stores for a long while and taro leaves add beauty to the garden.
If you’re looking for something different that is easy to grow, let’s look at the wonderful taro plant.
What is Taro?
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is originally from Southeast Asia and is one of the oldest cultivated plants. Known by other names such as dasheen, eddo, melange, or cocoyam, taro is a sub-tropical or tropical plant ideal for USDA Growing Zones 9-11, though some are hardy in 7 and 8.
However, because it matures quickly, you can grow it as an annual in other areas.
Being a perennial herbaceous plant, taro is easily a mainstay in your garden. The edible root varies in size from similar to a softball, to a much larger long root.
Taro requires consistently high temperatures, but you can still grow it for the edible leaves if you live in slightly cooler areas.
Taro is very high in dietary fiber and carbohydrates. It is high in vitamins E, B6, and C, making it a great tool for your immune system.
Varieties of Taro
There are two types of taro: water and land. In Asian countries, you often find taro growing in flooded fields, much like rice. Taro is also grown in soil and is the way most Pacific islanders grow it.
There are hundreds of cultivars of taro, but the most common in the continental United States are these two:
Trinidad Dasheen (or Dasheen)
This is a popular variety in the United States because it suits the conditions environmental conditions in North America and produces a big harvest. The root is on the larger side, it stores well, and is easily cultivated.
‘Dasheen’ is the large variety most often seen in specialty stores. Sometimes it is sold cut into sections due to its size.
It has a dry, crumbly consistency once cooked.
Much smaller than ‘Dasheen,’ it is the size of a small potato up to the size of a large lemon. This variety is known to be a little bland in flavor, but it can be used in dishes where it will absorb other flavors.
In Hawaii where taro is common, there are many other cultivars you’ll find growing. Some of the most common types are:
- Chinese Bun Long
- Maui Lehua
- Lehua Maoli
- Samona Niue
- Pike Kea
How to Propagate Taro
Taro plants are unreliable when it comes to flowering, so the best way to propagate is by way of tubers rather than seeds.
- Locate a healthy taro plant that is ready for harvest with the leaves intact.
- Dig the whole plant up. You don’t want to damage the roots or tubers, so be careful and dig wide until you see what the root structure size is.
- The main tuber is obvious due to its size. Look for the mini tubers that have sprouted off the main one. They often already have roots growing off them. This is why taro spreads and grows so easily once planted.
- Snap the smaller tubers off the main tuber.
- Plant these new tubers directly in the ground.
- You can eat the main tuber or replant it to grow more mini tubers. You must keep the leaves intact if you want to plant the main tuber again.
A slightly different method is to use the top of the tuber and foliage to replant, leaving the remaining part of the tuber to eat.
- Harvest a healthy tuber.
- Cut the top off of the tuber keeping the foliage attached. This slice should be about 3/4 of an inch thick.
- Trim the foliage back to about 8-10 inches tall.
- Plant this back into the soil.
Another method similar to potatoes:
- Dig up a healthy tuber.
- Cut into chunks about four to six inches wide, making sure there is at least one eye on the piece.
- Replant like a potato.
You can also purchase starts from your local nursery. These are best planted in a big container and transferred to the garden when bigger. Experienced taro growers can plant the starts directly into the soil.
You can keep smaller varieties of taro in containers, which allows you to bring them indoors during the winter in cooler Zones.
How to Care For Taro
Temperature plays a big role in the taro plant’s success. Taro needs about 200 warm, frost-free days. The ideal temperatures are around 75ºF to 95ºF.
In cooler climates, taro can be grown in glass houses, but that is just for the edible leaves, not the root.
Slightly acidic soil at 5.5 to 6.5 pH is preferable. It must be loamy soil that can hold plenty of moisture, but not be waterlogged or muddy. The soil should drain well and be full of well-rotted manure and compost. Taro is a heavy feeder.
Water is taro’s friend. Don’t be shy when watering so provide plenty. The soil around the taro should never be allowed to dry out. Keep it moist.
Due to being a tropical or sub-tropical plant, taro appreciates humidity.
Despite loving the heat, taro should be planted in partial shade. Close to water sources like ponds with a little shade is perfect if you have those conditions.
Taro grows huge leaves and that takes a lot of energy. Provide that energy with a high-potassium fertilizer, compost tea, or comfrey tea.
Best Companion Plants for Taro
The best thing to plant with taro is more taro. If you plant in rows, give the first planting 12 weeks, then plant more taro in between those initial rows.
You can always put them with other plants but just remember that these will vary depending on whether you’re growing your taro in soil or water.
- Sweet potato (soil)
- Swamp cabbage (water)
- Ginger (soil or water)
- Lemongrass (soil)
- Lilies (water)
- Chilies (soil)
Problems and Solutions for Growing Taro
If you plant in the right environment, you’re less likely to have to deal with diseases.
Yellowing or Wilting Leaves
This is usually due to insufficient watering. If the soil dries out, or days go by without water, the taro will become stressed. Use irrigation or have a watering plan for that part of the garden.
When the leaves begin to wilt and then turn mushy, this is due to overwatering. Mushy taro leaves will invite other pests and diseases. Reduce watering if this starts to happen to the leaves.
Root Knot Nematodes
This is a type of microscopic roundworm that munches on the roots of taro plants. When they’re present, you’ll notice yellowing leaves, or stunted growth. The taro plant might stop growing before starting to look weak.
Prevent root-knot nematodes by practicing good crop rotation. Keep the soil free of dead plants and foliage.
Use plenty of neem oil from an early age of the taro.
These pests are lovers of humidity and heat, the same as taro. The leaves become stressed with large infestations because the mites suck the sap from the foliage.
You may see fine webs on the plant as well.
Give the taro leaves a quick burst of water to remove the mites, or use regular sprays of organic neem oil. Our guide has more tips.
Water-soaked lesions may be a symptom along with rotting of the plant and a fuzzy growth in the problem areas. This disease will kill the plant if left too long. The plant collapses on itself.
One prevention technique is to keep the soil moist at all times, but the plant above ground should be dry. Avoid overhead watering.
If you suspect this disease, you may need weekly applications of a copper fungicide.
This fungal disease can cause the roots to rot and is caused by the taro sitting in soil that is too wet.
Once pythium strikes, it’s too late. Prevention is key so plant the varieties of taro that are resistant. If you plant your taro plant pieces taken from the diseased plant, make sure the replanted taro is free from any disease.
This is another humidity-loving disease, and with the big leaves of the taro plant, it’s one to watch for. It starts out with brownish dust on the leaves. This turns into lesions that spread and prevent the plant from photosynthesizing.
As the taro plant loses more and more leaves, it slowly dies.
Treat plants in humid areas regularly with neem oil. If you don’t, and you think downy mildew has appeared, use a copper fungicide.
Harvesting and Storing Taro
Taro is a reasonably slow-growing plant, and it generally signals when it’s ready. After about 200 days, the leaves start to yellow and drop off.
Dig the whole plant up to expose the main tuber. On some older taro plants, you can see the damage because they have a large portion of the tuber above the ground.
Save the small tubers for replanting next year or eat them.
Remove all the leaves from the large tuber. Store in a cool, dry place, not the refrigerator. Keep checking the tubers because they do soften more quickly than potatoes.
The young leaves you use for eating can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. You can also harvest the leaves throughout the growing season, but remember to leave at least two-thirds of them on the plant at all times.
Taro (Safety) Tips
- All parts of the taro plant must be cooked. Never eat any of it raw.
- Taro contains sodium oxalate that sits just below the surface.
- If you’re new to taro, use gloves to prepare it while it’s raw. Don’t worry though, cooking removes any issues.
- Boil taro leaves (sometimes twice depending on age) to remove the sodium oxalate and bitter taste. Then, use it like spinach.
- All parts of the taro plant go amazing with coconut milk.
- Bake, fry, and roast taro just like a potato. It doesn’t mash very well though.
- Taro will last in the freezer for up to a year. You must cook and blanch it first though.