If you love tropical plants, we have the perfect one for you. The taro plant, one of the many types of elephant ear plants, features gigantic leaves with a variety of unique colorings. Plus, it grows the taro root, which is actually one of the top staple foods around the world!
Taro is an ancient plant. Originating in Southeast Asia, it’s believed to be one of the first plants ever cultivated. Today, practically any country you visit, from Australia to Belize to Papua New Guinea, has its own taro-centered dishes such as poi. In the United States, Hawaii is the main commercial grower. The tropical state alone has 100 varieties of taro, which is an important part of Hawaiian cuisine.
If you’re wondering what taro roots even look like, just imagine a ringed and hairy potato. Once peeled, taro flesh is white or pink and has a sweet, nutty taste. The giant leaves are also edible and usually cooked like spinach.
Elephant ears thrive outdoors in tropical areas, but will also grow in United States zones 8-10. It also makes an excellent houseplant, though it needs plenty of sunlight. Because of its size, taro will definitely attract attention in your home or garden. And because of its tubers, taro will step up your edible gardening game.
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- Neem Bliss Cold Pressed Neem Oil
- PyGanic Pyrethrin Concentrate
- NaturesGoodGuys Beneficial Nematodes
- Southern Ag Liquid Copper Fungicide
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Taro, dasheen, caladium, melange, cocoyam, eddo|
|Scientific Name||Colocasia esculenta|
|Days to Harvest||7 months|
|Water:||Heavy and consistent|
|Soil||Fertile, loamy, acidic|
|Pests||Spider mites, root knot nematodes|
|Diseases||Fungal leaf blight, Pythium rot, downy mildew|
All About Taro Plant
So what is taro root? Well, we weren’t kidding when we said this plant is large. Mature taro plants reach 3-6 feet tall and wide. The leaves themselves can grow up to 3 feet in size. At the base of the plant is one main tuber, which stores nutrients to last the plant through the winter. Fibrous roots called corms grow from this tuber, as do several smaller tubers.
Instead of stems, long and thick petioles connect the foliage directly to the root, somewhat like a beet plant. The leaves are heart-shaped and have distinct veins. They’re usually green, but can also be purple, red, and even black. Variegated varieties mix these colors in numerous patterns. The plant flowers rarely and sporadically. Its blossoms resemble Calla lilies, but not very noticeable among the much larger foliage.
Because it’s a tropical plant, taro is used to a long growing season. It takes seven months of warm weather to mature and goes dormant over mild winters. In cold regions, Elephant Ears can be grown as an annual for decorative purposes.
Taro has so many different names that we can’t possibly list them all. You’ll most often hear it called taro or dasheen plant, though caladium, melange, cocoyam, and eddo are common names as well. Botanically, this plant is one species, Cococasia esculenta, but has tons of cultivars.
The cultivars usually differ in color, but some have more palatable roots or must be grown a certain way. Taro can grow in dry or wet conditions, but some cultivars are only meant for one. We recommend “Bun Long” or “Elepaio” as varieties for good root production. For just ornamental purposes, “Black Magic”, “Blue Hawaii”, or “Hilo Beauty” are excellent choices.
Let’s not forget one last detail: taro is mildly toxic when raw. The entire plant contains calcium oxalate, an acrid chemical that irritates the mouth and stomach. Thankfully, this toxin can be completely destroyed by cooking the plant well.
Planting Taro Root
Eddo plant is grown by vegetative propagation, usually through the corms or tubers. Like potatoes, you can plant small tubers or portions of a large one. You can also buy taro starts from a nursery.
Choose a location with rich, moist soil that gets partial sunlight. Because they grow well in water-soaked conditions, taro plants are excellent for the water’s edge of a backyard pond. Indoors, you’ll need a fairly large pot and a spacious spot next to a south-facing window.
Before planting, work some organic matter into the soil. As your taro grows, it will love the nutrients and loamy texture. Plant each tuber 2-3 inches deep and 15-24 inches apart. A common practice is to plant them in 6 inch furrows to conserve water.
To keep them healthy, you have to keep up with the care needs. Taro plants grow quickly, so get ready for a wild summer!
Sun and Temperature
Taro Colocasia esculenta prefers partial shade or dappled sunlight. A roomy spot under a tree is perfect! If it’s indoors, give it as much light as possible. This plant also needs to be protected from strong winds.
The ideal temperature is 77-95°F. Taro corms need at least 200 days of warm, frost-free weather to mature, so you need to time it well. If your plant lives outside year round, the temperature should always be above 45°F (cooler temps may affect tuber growth). Indoor taros should only be put outside during the window between the last and first frost.
Water and Humidity
It’s vital to never let the soil dry out. The taro plant can grow in up to 6 inches of water, so don’t be shy with the watering can! This plant is ideal for those hard-to-fill spaces in your garden that flood frequently. During the winter, however, keep the tubers dry so the plant can go dormant.
High humidity is best for this plant. Indoors, use a plant humidifier to keep the taro leaves happy. You can also mist the plant with a spray bottle for some extra moisture.
Colocasia esculenta grows best in wet soil, but that doesn’t mean you should be planting in straight-up mud. Instead, choose a soil with plenty of humus. It needs to be very fertile with a loamy texture. It should hold water well while also draining enough that the roots don’t drown. A slightly acidic pH of 5.5-6.5 is preferable for taro leaf.
Those huge leaves need plenty of nutrients in order to grow. Along with fertile soil, regularly treat your elephant ears to a high-potassium fertilizer during the growing season. You may want to test your soil beforehand since excess nitrogen can result in frail taro plants.
Because flowering is so unpredictable with this plant, division is the best method to propagate it. Select a healthy taro plant and dig up the whole thing. Brush the soil off the roots and you’ll see the main tuber. Look for mini tubers that have sprouted off the main one and snap them off. These little tubers should already have some roots and maybe even a petiole sprout. Plant each tuber directly in the ground or start them in a medium-sized container. If you kept the leaves intact, replant the main tuber.
Harvesting and Storing
Some gardeners only grow elephant’s ear as a decoration, but it’s worth harvesting at least once. Here’s how to turn that beautiful plant into a tasty dish.
When it reaches maturity, the taro leaves will turn yellow and start to die off. This is your signal to harvest the tubers. However, taro roots can stay in the ground until the frost comes, so you don’t have to rush to harvest them. You can only harvest the tubers once, so say goodbye to the gorgeous leaves and pick up your spade!
Lift up the entire plant, chop off the leaves, and brush off the soil. You should have one large tuber and several smaller ones. The little tubers can be eaten or saved for planting next year. Leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season. Don’t take more than ⅓ of the leaves on one plant or it won’t be able to photosynthesize as well.
If you’re going to overwinter your plant instead of harvesting it, cut down the leaves and leave the tubers in the ground. If you live in the right area, they’ll sprout again the following spring. Cold climate gardeners can remove all the tubers and overwinter them in a cool, dry location, like a garage or shed. The temperature should be above 45°F to keep the tubers viable.
Unlike potatoes, taro softens quickly after being harvested so you should eat it as soon as possible. Until then, store the roots in a dark, aerated place (not the refrigerator). Colocasia leaves should be washed and stored in the fridge for up to a week.
It’s imperative that you cook any taro plant parts before consumption. The sodium oxalate lies just beneath the exterior, so use gloves when preparing taro. Bake, roast, fry, or boil your taro and eat it warm (they go great with coconut milk). Taro can be prepared like a potato, but it doesn’t hold up well when mashed.
Once cooked, taro root can be frozen, and blanching before freezing is advised. Place the taro in an airtight container and keep it in the freezer for up to a year.
Most Colocasia esculenta live their lives disease and pest-free. However, you should always be on the lookout for potential problems that can wipe out your harvest.
The worst thing you can do to your Colocasia esculenta is stress it out. Infrequent watering and fertilization or swinging temperatures can heavily impact the plant’s growth and health. The result could be a limited harvest and/or pest and disease problems. Make a schedule for watering and fertilization and keep your taro in a spot with consistently warm temperatures.
Underwatering will make the leaves wilt and curl up. Overwatering, on the other hand, will make the plant mushy and invite pests and diseases. Make amendments to your watering schedule as needed.
Spider mites can be quite pesky to taro, especially when grown indoors. These minuscule arachnids spin ultra-fine webs on the taro leaf and feed on its sap. They’re common in hot and dry conditions. Some simple ways to get rid of them is to blast the plant with water or apply neem oil. Stubborn populations can be controlled with a pyrethrin insecticide.
Root knot nematodes are a common problem in commercial taro cultivation and can be in your garden as well. These parasitic roundworms chew on roots, causing the plant to yellow, weaken, and stop growing. Nematodes can be tricky to eliminate organically, especially since most nematicides kill off beneficial nematodes as well. It’s best to apply beneficial nematodes to allow them to hunt down and kill any of the root knot nematodes living in the soil. You can prevent nematode damage by rotating your crops and removing dead plants from the soil.
Phytophthora blight is the disease you’re most likely to come across. It causes water-soaked lesions that rot the plant. These lesions can be accompanied by fuzzy growth. If left untreated, leaf blight will eventually collapse the whole plant. Prevent this disease by keeping the plant dry above ground. Leaf blight can be controlled through weekly applications of copper fungicide.
Pythium is the fungus responsible for corm rot. It’s often brought on by soggy soil conditions. This makes it difficult to control, as taro likes lots of water. Once established, this disease can’t be cured so prevention is key. Be careful to avoid stagnant water, plant resistant species, and only plant corms that you are certain are disease-free.
Downy mildew looks like yellow or brown dust on the foliage. Like the last two diseases, it thrives in humidity and can cause severe damage. As it progresses, downy mildew releases spores that easily infect neighboring plants. It can eventually spread to and kill your entire garden. Intervene as soon as possible with neem oil or copper fungicide.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are taro plant leaves edible?
A: Yes, but they must be cooked first. They’re often used like spinach.
Q: Are elephant ears and taro the same thing?
A: Sort of. Elephant ears are an entire series of different plant species, all of which have large leaves. We’ve got an in-depth article that covers a wide variety of elephant ear plants, so if you’re looking for the ornamental varieties like alocasia, you can read that too!
Q: Is taro healthier than potato?
A: Taro actually does have more nutrients than your average potato. It contains more fiber and potassium as well as Vitamins B, C, and E.
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