Taro (colocasia esculenta)

Taro Illustration

Taro is hypothesized to be one of the oldest domesticated crops in the world.[1] Taro is somewhat of an ambiguous term, as it is used in various cultures to refer to different species of tubers and sweet potatoes, but scientists regard colocasia esculenta as the oldest species and most highly domesticated plant. Colocasia esculenta originated independently in mainland Southeast Asia and New Guinea as early as 9,000 years ago.[2] Evidence suggests that flooded taro fields might have been a precursor to the rice paddy system in Asia and it has been deduced that taro was domesticated earlier than rice in Formosa, the Philippines, Assam, and Timor.[3] It later spread to Polynesia, becoming the most important staple crop, and other Pacific islands,[4] including Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii.[5] Taro also traveled westward to the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, where it was grown in China and in Egypt. Over 2,000 years ago, it was taken by voyagers to the east coast of Africa, first across the continent and later to the Caribbean on slave ships.[6] Evidence suggests that taro was repeatedly taken from West Africa to the Americas during the colonial period, being used for provisions on 18th century slave plantations.[7] Although taro was routinely taken to the Americas, it wasn’t adopted in large quantities in American agriculture and other similar species were much more popular.

While rice largely replaced taro as the staple crop in China and Japan, taro continues to be grown as a minor crop. In certain Pacific Islands, taro has taken on a huge socio-cultural importance, especially the islands of New Guinea, Tonga, and Samoa. Taro features into much of the folklore and oral traditions of the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia and is even depicted on the currency coins of Samoa and Tonga. It is considered a prestige crop and is popular for gift-giving and feasts.[8]  The round corm of the taro plant is the most consumed part and must be cooked to remove harmful bundles of calcium oxalate crystals, a defense against predators that rip the mouth and esophagus if eaten raw.[9] The leaves of the taro plant are also used, though less often than the corm, as a spinach-like vegetable. The taro root is used in the dishes of many different cultures, from poi, a mashed taro paste in Hawaii, to an ingredient in Southern Chinese savory zongzi and its sweet, Northern Chinese cousin. Taro plants require warm, humid weather and sometimes even flooded fields to grow, so taro is found in tropical and pan-tropic regions, from Southeast Asia and Oceania to West Africa and the Carribean.

With the expansion of travel and colonialism in the 18th century, Europeans encountered more foreign plants than ever before, and there was a demand for botanists to catalog and find uses, medicinal or economic, for this biological knowledge. Colcasia esculenta is illustrated in one of these catalogs, Pierre Joseph Buchoz’s Histoire universelle du règne végétal, ou nouveau dictionnaire physique et economique de toutes les plantes qui croissent sur la surface du globe. Buchoz was a French physician as well as botanist and studied plants, animals, and minerals. He was interested in the medicinal use of plants, for which there was a growing demand in the colonial era. He wrote a number of natural histories, such as this catalog of “all” the natural plants on the globe.  The cataloging of nature in this period was an attempt to organize the world in a scientific manner, and the illustration of colocasia esculenta shows this. The illustration is a simple but accurate rendering of the plant in black and white, labeled by its scientific name at the bottom. It is detailed but not decorous, less a piece of art than a scientific sketch. The taro root doesn’t even get its own page; it shares it with another plant species. Although taro is included in the book, the image is a cold, emotionless picture that doesn’t convey the cultural impact of the tuber in various regions of the world. By depicting the food in this sense, the cultures surrounding taro are made invisible and are, in effect, muted. Taro is completely removed from its context and is placed in a compilation of plant images, all severed from the landscapes they inhabit and the people they feed.

Although taro was widespread in pan-tropic areas, it doesn’t seem to have been used in 18th century Europe. Whereas entire cultures depended on the root in Oceania, Europeans were largely unaware of the food, and due to the need for a humid or sub-humid climate, taro would have been practically impossible to grow there. Taro also presented transportation difficulties, as the roots are very delicate and perish rapidly. One cause of taro’s lack of assimilation into early modern European culinary culture was the limited exposure to the plant. Other than botanical catalogs, taro was not typically featured in art, and the audience of such catalogs would have been limited to the rulers who commissioned them and certain intellectuals of the field. Another, perhaps more pertinent, cause could have been the “otherness” of the plant. Just as Europeans distanced themselves from the native inhabitants of their colonies, constructing the idea of foreign peoples as “other,” the food that these inhabitants ate was also a cultural other. The root itself may have been unpalatable to the Europeans, and because the difficulty of shipping taro, it did not become a prestige crop in Europe like it was in the Pacific. There is little evidence that Europeans ate or used the root, despite its use in zongzi, poi, and similarly important dishes of other cultures. Taro has long been used in traditional medicinal practices in Southeast Asia and Oceania,[10] and despite the search for medicinal plants in the early modern era, especially the emergence of this science in France, taro was not adopted into European culture. The economic potential of importing taro, had it been established into the European culinary world, would have been great due to the delicate and rare nature of the plant in temperate zones. However, this potential wasn't utilized. The lack of representation of taro in early modern European art and literature is evidence of the invisibility of the food in this era, which is startling compared to the reverence for the plant in the Pacific, because of the colonialism and globalization during this period. Taro took on the plight of indigenous peoples of this era, being silenced by European colonialism and being reduced to a scientific study catalogued by European explorers.

By Sarah Lundell

[1] Jonathan D. Sauer, Historical Geography of Crop Plants: A Select Roster (Boca Raton: Lewis Publishers, 1993), 179.

[2] David R. Harris, “Origins and Spread of Agriculture.” In The Cultural History of Plants, edited by Sir Ghillean Prance and Mark Nesbitt (New York: Routledge, 2005), 19.

[3] Sauer, 179.

[4] Helen Sanderson, “Roots and Tubers.” In The Cultural History of Plants, edited by Sir Ghillean Prance and Mark Nesbitt (New York: Routledge, 2005), 70.

[5] Sauer, 180.

[6] Prof. Inno Onwueme, “Taro Cultivation in Asia and the Pacific,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN Corporate Document Repository (1999), accessed November 15, 2014

[7] Sauer, 181.

[8] Onwueme

[9] Sanderson, 70.

[10] Onwueme

Taro (colocasia esculenta)