MYSTERY PLANT: Plant parts are tropical, underground, edible

  • Thursday, June 20, 2013

John Nelson/USC Herbarium The underground structures aren't exactly roots, but are more like the corms of a gladiolus plant, only more elongated.

They don't often let me go to the supermarket or to pick up anything, because I always end up spending too much time there. Not exactly buying stuff, but just looking at it and reading the labels. Sardines, wine, macaroni, the roasted chickens, sushi, cheese, mustard (how many kinds can there be?), rice, grains, milk, hot sauce, candy, cosmetics, beach stuff, dog toys…it goes on and on. I'm coming up with a theory that modern grocery stores have two societal functions: satisfying our nutritional and every-day needs, as well as our up-front entertainment requirements. In fact, I'm one of those lucky people who can spend hours looking at the stuff: it's cheaper than going to a movie, after all.
And then, of course, there is the produce section. WOW. Figs from down the street, plantains from Guatemala, and strawberries from Chile. Peaches from Lexington County SC (the best in the world!), persimmons from the Orient, and lychees from Australia. Beautiful, fresh fruits and vegetables…too much fun for a botanist. It's like being in a garden. You never know what you might run into on your next trip.
The things in this picture will probably not win any beauty contests. They are the edible underground parts of a very tropical species, a species that is a member of the philodendron family. It's a plant that grows in clumps, and has plenty of dark green, arrowhead-shaped leaves about 2 feet long, held in a cluster above the ground, thus resembling a cultivated elephant-ear. The foliage is quite beautiful, and can figure into some dramatic garden scenery. The underground structures aren't exactly roots, but are more like the corms of a gladiolus plant, only more elongated. Tons of these things are grown as a crop and consumed each year in the Caribbean nations, where it is something of a staple. The species is probably native to northern South America, but was transported widely as a food crop by early explorers, and is now commonly consumed throughout the tropics, including Africa and Indonesia, and beyond.
Although the fibrous exterior of the corm is rough and scratchy, the interior is perfectly white, and crispy. (Some varieties have a purple interior.) The nutritionists tell us that these have a very high starch content, and so probably wouldn't be very good for a low-carb diet. Nevertheless, they are full of vitamins and minerals, quite nutritious as a peeled, cooked vegetable, and definitely worth a try, baked, boiled or steamed. It's versatile by itself or as a component of savory stews or turned into fritters. They also make popular chips when thinly sliced and then deep fried. I think I can safely recommend a generous sprinkle of sea salt after they have drained a bit on paper, just out of the fryer. Be sure to serve them hot, and give them a healthy squeeze of some vinegar or lime juice, too.
[Answer: “Malanga," Xanthosoma sagittifolium]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.


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