Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham
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Taro and Aroids
This article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Scene Magazine
Lets get one thing straight: Aroids are not performance-enhancing substances.
Far from it. They are plants belonging to the Arum lily family and include the taro in all its multitude of different types. Calla lilies, Philodendrons and Fruit Salad plant are all aroids too.
Early Maori settlers brought edible taro here along with other tropical food crops like kumara and ti pore, the suckering Cordyline stricta which was grown as a source of sugar and still lurks decoratively in many NZ gardens.
But the bold, lush foliage of the taro epitomises the exuberant verdure of the tropics and comes in many different colours, shapes and sizes suitable for almost any garden.
There is a beautiful golden form of the giant Xanthosoma sagittifolium with lime-yellow leaves, best grown in dappled light as it is prone to sunburn.
The wild green form of this huge taro is, well ... huge.
In a sheltered semi-shaded spot it will reach 2.5 metres high, with each quilted grey-green leaf blade 1.5 metres long. A monster. Truly an aroid on steroids.
In total contrast is the dwarf Colocasia fallax with velvety green, heart-shaped leaves forming a spreading carpet only 30cm high under trees. The leaf is patterned with a subtle silvery sheen which makes it a beautiful cut foliage for floral work.
Colocasia illustris is a superb Himalayan species, 70cm tall with dark blue-black patches between green veins. An eye-catching centre-piece for a sheltered tropical courtyard.
Then there is the extraordinary 'Black Magic'. It's a lustrous purple-black all over but the young leaves unfold in shades of mauve and green, going dark in the sun, staying paler in the shade.
Xanthosoma violaceus, the West Indian 'Cocoyam', is yet another beauty with unusual mauve stems and grey-green leaves with mauve undersides, a fairly tough and tidy plant in a sheltered spot.
Colocasia cucullata from New Guinea is a small bright green taro with pointed, quilted-looking leaves that remind me of the rouched curtains in old cinemas! Its compact and hardy, looking great with river-stone mulch or dark groundcovers like Ajuga.
There are many others available too, including marbled and variegated forms and the so-called black taro, which is really dark green with black stems and can be a pretty rampant spreader.
While taro is a major food source in the Pacific, it is poisonous until its properly cooked. The swollen stem base needs a long period of cooking to destroy the toxic components, and if you've ever undercooked it like I did once, you'll know the scary feeling as your throat starts to prickle and swell closed.
The wonderful Samoan dish, palusami, is made of the young taro leaves, well cooked with coconut cream. Delicious but very very rich.
People have told me that most of these ornamental taro are edible, but I'm not game to try after my last experience.
Most taro will grow in normal garden soil as happily as in their natural, boggy habitat, but they all object to drying out. And of course they don't like frost but will usually survive even if frosted off to soil level.
As with most tropical plants, Spring is the time to plant them while the soil is warming up. Heavy mulching with bark or stones ensures a more steady level of soil moisture in Summer and looks great as well.
By Winter's end taro are generally looking spotty and sad, so a major removal of damaged leaves clears the deck for the burst of Spring growth that starts about now.
Strangely, full sun in NZ can often damage taro leaves, causing sunburn despite the plant's tropical origins. Dappled light or shade through the middle of the day seems to suit taro the best.
The beauty of ornamental taros in the garden is that their wonderful leaves make such a sumptuous, bold background for sharper-coloured plants. And in the case of Colocasia illustris and 'Black Magic', the leaf colour is so strong that they can be the centre of attention themselves.
Big bold leaves like these look best teamed up with fine or feathery foliage, or strongly contrasting shapes like cabbage trees, palms, young rimu or fairy bamboo.
Then you could also play around with startling colour combinations like massed red Impatiens in front of 'Black Magic' with cabbage trees or palms behind.
Or perhaps you could combine hot-hued vireyas or bromeliads with the soft grey-greens and mauves of massed taros.
Be bold and reckless.
The possibilities are endless
(Copyright Russell Fransham 2003)