Cassava, Manioc, Yuca
Synonym: Manihot esculenta Crantz
A tropical, herbaceous, perennial plant that can grow up to 3 - 5m in height. The leaves are deeply indented, palmate with 3 - 7 lobes that are attached to a slender stem by long petioles. The small, greenish-yellow flowers form panicles, which turn into seed capsules that explode upon ripening to distribute their load. The roots form large starchy tubers, somewhat similar to sweet potato, with a dark brown, fibrous covering and white flesh.
Cassava is a most forgiving and adaptable plant. It grows well in humid tropical conditions, but can also withstand draughts. It does well in poor soil where little else will grow. It requires little care and protects itself against predators by means of poisonous latex, which flows particularly profusely in the leaves. It is ideally adapted to tropical growing conditions.
Cassava appears to have originated in Brazil and Paraguay, but has spread throughout tropical areas of South and Central America long before the arrival of Columbus. Today it is one of the most important food crops of tropical countries throughout the world and ranks as the 6th most important food crop worldwide, even though in western countries it is little known or used.
In mythology it is portrayed as a savior that protects against starvation. According to one story, Tupi woman in Brazil, long ago, was devastated as she watched her child starve to death. She buried the child's body under the floor of her hut. That night she was visited by a wood spirit, known as 'mani' who changed the child's body into the root of a plant, which later became known as 'mani oca' meaning 'wood spirit root'. For generations of native people to come this plant was to become their chief staple food - and eventually, that of inhabitants of tropical regions throughout the world. (Plotkin, 1993)
The tubers of Cassava or 'Yuca', as the plant is more commonly known in South America, are extremely rich in starch - in fact, it is THE richest source of starch per se - it contains up to 10 times more starch than corn and twice as much as potatoes.). The large tubers, which can weigh up to 5kg, provide 30% of their dry weight as starch. However, due to its linamarin content, which is a pre-cursor of cyanide glycosides, the entire plant is poisonous if consumed raw. Even a relatively small amount can be fatal. Thus, the roots have to be rendered edible by a ritualized process of grating, washing the pulp and squeezing out the harmful juices. Heating also renders the substance harmless.
There are several different species of Cassava, but these are mostly differentiated as sweet or bitter types. The sweet varieties contain considerably less linamarin than the bitter ones. Different types are used for different culinary uses: to make flour from which thin tortilla-like Cassava bread is made, to prepare a mush or to fry like French fries. Natives also make an unpalatable, but nevertheless culturally important ceremonial alcoholic beverage from Cassava, which is produced like Chicha - the women chew the Cassava and spit it into a large vat, where it is allowed to ferment for a few days. The resultant brew is consumed during festival occasions. However unpalatable, to refuse it is considered an insult.
In non-tropical parts of the world the most widespread Cassava product is Tapioca, which is used to thicken liquids and for making jelly-like desserts.
The caloric value of Cassava tubers is very high indeed and it also provides vitamins and minerals, but it is insufficient as a sole source of nutrition, as it is almost completely devoid of protein. The leaves are also edible and are a much richer source of protein (up to 30%, compared to only 1-3% in the roots), but must be cooked thoroughly in order to render the prussic acid harmless. They are, to some extent, used as a pot herb. The young leaves are rich in vitamin B, C, Carotene, Calcium and Iron.
Cassava is not commonly used in herbal medicine, but indigenous people do employ it for various healing purposes. The leaves can be used as a styptic, while the starch mixed with rum has been used for skin problems, especially for children. Other indigenous uses include preparations for fever and chills, to treat female infertility and as an application for sore muscles.
There is current research under way to test Cassava as a type of gene-therapy to treat certain kinds of cancer. However, so far only animal studies have been undertaken (successfully). Folk medicine employs both leaves and pulped roots as an application for tumors. (Duke, 1983)
Cassava may be a useful source of starch for those suffering from coeliac disease (gluten intolerance) as it does not contain any gluten at all. However, people who are allergic to latex should avoid this plant.
Cassava starch is used as an adhesive, as a cosmetics ingredient and for making paper. Indigenous people use it as a fish poison.
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