If you’ve ever traveled through islands in the South Pacific, you’ll have seen taro in markets or growing on just about any patch of open land. There are good reasons why you can find it everywhere.
Taro is a staple crop and is suitable for both survival gardens and everyday vegetable gardens. It is nutrient dense and filling, and the whole plant can be eaten. It keeps for a long time and the taro leaves beautify the garden.
If you’re looking for something different and easy to grow, let’s look at the wonderful taro plant.
What is taro?
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is native to Southeast Asia and is one of the oldest cultivated plants. Known by other names such as dasheen, eddo, melange or cocoyam, taro is a subtropical or tropical plant ideal for USDA growing zones 9-11, although some are hardy in 7 and 8.
However, since it matures quickly, you can grow it as an annual in other areas.
Being a herbaceous perennial, taro is easily a mainstay in your garden. The edible root varies in size, from 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 rich in vitamins E, B6 and C, which makes it an excellent tool for your immune system.
Varieties of Taro
There are two types of taro: water and earth. In Asian countries, taro is often found growing in flooded fields, much like rice. Taro is also grown in the ground and this is how most Pacific Islanders grow it.
There are hundreds of taro cultivars, but the most common in the continental United States are these two:
Trinidad Dasheen (or Dasheen)
It is a popular variety in the United States because it is suitable for environmental conditions in North America and produces a large harvest. The root is larger, it keeps well and is easily cultivated.
‘Dasheen’ is the tall variety most often seen in specialty stores. Sometimes it is sold cut into sections due to its size.
It has a dry and crumbly consistency when cooked.
Much smaller than ‘Dasheen’, it ranges in size from a small potato to the size of a large lemon. This variety is known to be a bit 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:
- Long chinese bun
- 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 using tubers rather than seeds.
- Locate a healthy taro plant ready to harvest with the leaves intact.
- Dig up the whole plant. You don’t want to damage the roots or tubers, so be careful and dig until you see how big the root structure is.
- The main tubercle is evident due to its size. Look for mini tubers that have sprouted from the main. They often already have roots growing on them. This is why taro spreads and grows so easily once planted.
- Break off the small tubers from the main tuber.
- Plant these new tubers directly into 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 replant the main tuber.
A slightly different method is to use the top of the tuber and the foliage to replant, leaving the remaining part of the tuber to eat.
- Harvest a healthy tuber.
- Cut off the top of the tuber, keeping the foliage attached. This slice should be about 3/4 inch thick.
- Trim the foliage to about 8 to 10 inches tall.
- Plant it in the ground.
Another method similar to potatoes:
- Dig up a healthy tuber.
- Cut into pieces 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 starters from your local nursery. It is best to plant them in a large container and transfer them to the garden when they are bigger. Experienced taro growers can plant the shoots directly into the ground.
You can keep smaller varieties of taro in containers, allowing you to bring them indoors over winter in cooler areas.
How to take care of Taro
Temperature plays a big role in the success of the taro plant. Taro needs about 200 warm, frost-free days. Ideal temperatures are around 75ºF to 95ºF.
In cooler climates, taro can be grown in greenhouses, but that’s only for the edible leaves, not the root.
A slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is best. It should be loamy soil that can hold a lot of moisture, but should not be waterlogged or muddy. The soil should be well-drained and filled with well-rotted manure and compost. The taro is a big eater.
Water is taro’s friend. Don’t be shy when watering, so provide plenty. The soil around the taro should never dry out. Keep it moist.
Due to being a tropical or subtropical plant, taro likes humidity.
Although it loves heat, taro should be planted in partial shade. Near water sources like ponds with some shade is perfect if you have those conditions.
Taro grows huge leaves and it takes a lot of energy. Supply this energy with a potassium-rich fertilizer, compost tea or comfrey tea.
Best Companion Plants for Taro
The best thing to plant with taro is more taro. If planting in rows, give the first planting 12 weeks, then plant more taro between those initial rows.
You can always put them with other plants, but remember that these vary depending on whether you are growing your taro in soil or water.
- Sweet potato (earth)
- Swamp cabbage (water)
- Ginger (earth or water)
- Lemongrass (earth)
- lily (water)
- Peppers (ground)
Problems and Solutions for Growing Taro
If you plant in the right environment, you are less likely to have to deal with disease.
Yellowed or wilted leaves
This is usually due to insufficient watering. If the soil dries out or days go by without water, the taro will be stressed. Use irrigation or have a watering schedule for this part of the garden.
When the leaves begin to wilt and then become limp, this is due to excess water. Soft taro leaves will invite other pests and diseases. Reduce watering if it starts getting to the leaves.
This is a type of microscopic roundworm that nibbles the roots of taro plants. When present, you will notice yellowed leaves or stunted growth. The taro plant might stop growing before it starts 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 moisture and heat lovers, just like taro. Leaves are stressed by large infestations as the mites suck sap from the foliage.
You can also see fine webs on the plant.
Water the taro leaves quickly to kill the mites or use organic neem oil sprays regularly. Our guide has more tips.
Watery lesions can be a symptom along with rotting of the plant and fuzzy growth in problem areas. This disease will kill the plant if left too long. The plant collapses on itself.
One preventative technique is to keep the soil moist at all times, but the plant above the soil must be dry. Avoid overhead watering.
If you suspect this disease, you may need weekly applications of a copper fungicide.
This fungal disease can cause root rot and is caused by taro sitting in too wet soil.
Once pythium hits, it’s too late. Prevention is key so plant the taro varieties that are resistant. If you plant your taro pieces taken from the diseased plant, make sure that the replanted taro is free of any disease.
This is another moisture-loving disease, and with taro’s large leaves, it’s a disease to watch out for. It starts with a brownish dust on the leaves. This turns into lesions that spread and prevent the plant from photosynthesizing.
As the taro loses more and more leaves, it slowly dies.
Treat wetland plants regularly with neem oil. If not, and you think late blight has appeared, use a copper fungicide.
Harvesting and storing taro
Taro is a reasonably slow-growing plant, and it usually signals when it’s ready. After about 200 days, the leaves begin to turn yellow and fall off.
Dig up the entire plant 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 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 in the refrigerator. Keep checking the tubers as they soften faster than potatoes.
Young leaves that you use to eat can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a 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 Tips (Safety)
- All parts of the taro plant should be cooked. Never eat it raw.
- Taro contains sodium oxalate which is just below the surface.
- If you’re new to taro, use gloves to prepare it while it’s raw. Don’t worry, cooking removes all problems.
- Boil taro leaves (sometimes twice depending on age) to remove sodium oxalate and bitter taste. Then use it like spinach.
- All parts of the taro plant go wonderfully with coconut milk.
- Bake, fry and roast taro like a potato. It doesn’t crash very well though.
- Taro will last up to a year in the freezer. First you need to cook and blanch it.
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