What Is Yuca? (or Cassava)

Young Yuca Plant

Young Yuca Plant

Yuca is a reliable staple crop for those living in tropical climates. This plant is grown here in Costa Rica and throughout Central and South America.  The most common name for Yuca in English is “Cassava”.  Cassava’s other names include manioc, the tapioca plant, aipim, kappa and manihot. The scientific name is “Manihot escuelenta”.  In the Americas, Yuca was a pre-Colombian crop.  It crossed the ocean to Africa by means of Portuguese trade routes from Brazil in the 16th century.

In the Americas, it’s important to not get “yuca” mixed up with “yucca”.  They’re totally unrelated species. One is a desert plant in the agave family and one is the root crop cassava. See my post on the two for pictures and differences.

According to the United Nations, Yuca ,”(Manihot esculenta) is the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize.   It’s a pest free, calorie rich starchy staple crop that thrives in hot climates with minimal watering.  Yuca root has more than double the carbohydrates per gram compared to potatoes.  They’re rich in calcium, potassium and vitamin C and contain decent amounts of thiamine, riboflavin and nicotinic acid.  The roots don’t contain a significant amount of protein, however the leaves, if properly prepared do.

Survival crop for your survival garden?……Heck Yeah!  But hold on, Yuca isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.  No parts of the plant can be eaten raw due to high hydrocyanic acid content.  North Carolina State University states that the fresh, unprepared yuca contains risky levels of two cyanogenic glycosides named linamarin and lotaustralin.   The roots MUST be boiled before consumption.  The high protein leaves are also edible and need to be cooked. Most guides recommend changing out the water after cooking.   Many impoverished subtropical countries in Africa depend on this for survival.  Cassava accounts for a daily caloric intake of 30% in Ghana and is grown by nearly every farming family there. In the Congo it’s a primary staple crop.  According the United Nations FAO report, “About half of the world production of cassava is in Africa. Cassava is cultivated in around 40 African countries, stretching through a wide belt from Madagascar in the Southeast to Senegal and to Cape Verde in the Northwest. Around 70 percent of Africa’s cassava output is harvested in Nigeria, the Congo and Tanzania.”

Cassava - or yuca

Cyanide aside, cassava is proven asset to anyone’s survival garden.

Why Grow Yuca?

Three reasons to add yuca to your survival garden are: its simple to grow, it has a high caloric content, and it has wide harvest window.  yuca has very tolerant harvest times which make it a good back up crop.  You can even leave it in the ground for a year or two and harvest when you wish.  The tubers have a risk of becoming tough or woody if left in the ground for too long, however, think of yuca as and energy free calorie storage device.  Plant a bunch take as you need, leave some in, and replant using cuttings.   You can always have yuca on hand if you’re growing it in a warm climate.

Yuca doesn’t have a long shelf life after being harvested, but yuca can be frozen for long periods or dried and made into flour. We use yuca flour in egg batters for tilapia and catfish!  Yuca is also the main ingredient in tapioca pudding.

tapioca photo

Yuca (cassava) is what Tapioca is made of. Yum!

How to Grow Yuca

We started growing yuca in Costa Rica when we first moved to our property.  We buried cuttings in horrible hard clay soil and they were totally neglected.  To our surprise, they still popped up and made tasty yuca roots under the soil.  However, one lesson learned was that the roots like sandy looser soil.  The hard soils make for smaller roots.  In addition, any amount of shade will reduce tuber size.    Plant them in full sun!

Here’s a video of Jodi propagating yuca from cuttings.

Yuca harvesting

Good harvest! And plenty of cuttings to replant.

Yuca will grow just about anywhere it’s warm, including indoors as a potted plant. Planting is fairly simple.  Use cuttings that are about a foot long, bigger than one cm thick, and woody colored(not green).  They don’t need to have sprouts, but they do need to have nodules on them.  Some Ticos up in Guanacaste, CR swear by burying two cuttings a few inches deep in a crisscross style with the ends poking out of the soil.  Others use one cutting and plant vertically.  We have the best luck laying down one cutting horizontally about 3-4 inches under the soil.  All methods seem to work.  After 7-10 days with a little water, you should see spouts coming up (like in the video).   Harvest a year or so after planting and enjoy!

The coolest thing about yuca is its flexible harvest time.  You can leave them in for months after they’re ready.  You can think of them as nature’s food storage.   Just keep in mind, if they start getting around 2 years old, they may become woody and difficult to eat.

Eating Yuca

Here’s a tasty Yuca video from Restaurant PicaPica in California:

Sources and Links

UN FAO Entry On Cassava

UN FAO -The Cassava Transformation in Africa

North Carolina State Universtiy – Cassava Profile

Mother Earth News – Cassava

Comments?  Suggestions?