Titan Arum Arums

The Arums (Araceae) are bog plants well known in North America for decorative varieties like Calla Lilies, Philodendrons, and the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) from Sumatra, which makes the newspapers whenever one blooms. It's the worlds largest flower (to 15 feet tall) and smells like a rotting corpse to attract pollinating insects. In contrast, Wolfia duckweeds, also Arums, have the smallest known flowers, one hundredth of an inch (0.3 mm) long.

While the Titan Arum isn't much eaten, corms (swollen underground stems) of some far less spectacular arums are important in the diet of many tropical peoples.   Titan Arum image U.S. Government = Public Domain.

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General & History

The Arums are a fairly large family and common as ornamentals, but only a few members are significant as food. Taro has been spread by Polynesian settlers throughout the Pacific Islands and as far as Hawaii. It has long been an important food for these peoples because it is one of the few starchy vegetables that thrive in a hot and very wet environment.

Caution: Arums foliage and some roots typically contain large amounts of sharp pointed Calcium Oxalate crystals that cause severe irritation and swelling of the mouth and throat which can be fatal through strangulation. Should you manage to swallow them, they break down into Calcium and corrosive Oxalic Acid in the digestive tract causing severe gastric distress. It is important that all Arums be properly prepared and cooked before ingestion.


Duckweed   -   [Water Lentil; Lemna minor (common duckweed)   also   Lemna gibba (fat duckweed)]
Blanket of Duckweeds

This tiny, free floating, aquatic weed is native to temperate and subtropical regions worldwide, except Australia and South America, but has been naturalized on both those continents. It has evolved into a very simple plant, discarding many features of the larger arums. The plant consists of a single oval green thallus (not a true leaf), about 1/4 inch long, that reproduces by budding off daughter plants. It also reproduces sexually by flowers which are only four hundredths of an inch (1 mm) long.

While currently used as food mainly in Southeast Asia, it is gaining a lot of attention in the West as a farmed product. It is very high in quality protein, higher than soybeans. It also yields fiber, and many other important nutrients. It grow so fast under ideal conditions that ponds must be harvested daily. It is now being studied as an ingredient in processed foods. One grower has self certified it as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) and has applied for a "no objection" letter from the FDA.   Photo by Rapomon (cropped) contributed to the Public Domain.

Elephant Foot Yam   -   [Suran (India); Amorphophallus paeoniifolius]
Whole Elephant Foot Corm

Native to Southeast Asia, this arum produces another warm, super-stinky flower pretending to be a rotting dead animal. Mercifully the flower is much smaller than that of the Titan Arum. The corms of this plant, which look remarkably like old anti-tank mines, are cooked and eaten in Southeast Asia and in India where efforts are being made to develop it into a major crop. Despite the name, it is not a yam. As canned "Suran" it is sometimes seen in Indian markets in North America.   Photo: copyright holder uncontactable.

Konjac   -   [Devil's Tongue; Konnyaku (Japan); Gonyak (Korea); Amorphophallus konjac]
Whole Konjac Corm

The Konjac plant is native to tropical and warm temperate zones of East Asia, as far north as Japan, and as far south as Indonesia. It has been planted in Hawaii. It is harvested for root corms that can be up to 10 inches in diameter. Corms are ground up and extracted to produce a flour that is almost entirely soluble fiber. This fiber has many food industry uses as a gelling agent, thickener, film former, emulsifier, and stabilizer.

The flour is also made into a clear jelly formed into blocks and noodles, much used in Japan and Korea. This jelly is often colored with powdered Hijiki seaweed. The flour is also used by vegans as a substitute for gelatin, and by diabetics as a thickener having almost no calories or carbs. It is being promoted as a weight loss item, but there are some dangers.   Details and Cooking.   Photo by Silke Baron distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution v2.0 Generic.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit   -   [Indian turnip; A. triphyllum]
Jack-in-the-Pulpit Flower and Leaf

Rhizomes of this common wetland plant found in the northeast U.S. were eaten by Native Americans in times past but it is no longer a significant food plant.   Photo © i0084.

Malanga   -   [Yautia (Puerto Rico), Malanga (Cuba), Mangarito (Brazil), New Cocoyam (Africa), Tannia / Tannier (Caribbean), Macabo, Taioba (Brazil, leaves only), 'Ape (Polynesia); Xanthosoma saggitifolium (malanga blanca), X. atrovirens (malanga amarilla), X. violaceum (malanga lila), X. maffaffa (mangarito)]
Malanga Root Dorms

Native to northern South America, this arum is now also grown all through the Caribbean region and Central America, and is particularly popular in Cuba and Puerto Rico. The plant is also now grown in West Africa as an alternative to yams and taro (cocoyam) and in Hawaii as 'ape (say "Ah-pay").

The corm is somewhat mucilaginous and cooks to a smoother texture than potato, with chunks holding their shape well. The longer of the photo specimens, obtained from a multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles, was 8-1/2 inches long, 2-5/8 inches in diameter at the thickest part, and weighed 14 ounces. Details and Cooking.

Skunk Cabbage   -   [Symplocarpus foetidus]
Live Skunk Cabbage

Rhizomes of this common wetlands plant, found in North America from southern Canada to Georgia, were eaten by Native Americans in times past but it is no longer a significant food plant here. It inhabits damp stream beds and gets its name from the skunk-like odor the leaves exude when damaged. This plant was very common in the back woods of New Jersey where I lived for a while as a child.   Photo © i0083.

Taro Corms   -   [Taro (Polynesian); Kalo (Hawaiian); Colocasia (Rome); Kolocasi (Cyprus); Ocumo, Cocoyam, Madumbi, Nduma (Africa); Macabo (Cameroon); Khoai mo, khoai so (Vietnam); Laing (Philippine); Dasheen, Eddoes (Caribbean); Malanga cabeza, Malanga islena (Cuba); Arvi, Colocasia (India); Talas (S.E. Asia); Dalo (Fiji); Cara (Brazil); Calaloo (Caribbean, leaves only); Yautia (Puerto Rico); Colocasia esculenta]
Large and Small Taro corms

Probably native to the wetlands of Maylasia, taro was carried through the Pacific region as far as Hawaii by seagoing canoe, and by traders as far as ancient Egypt and Rome. In more modern times it has been carried to all tropical and near tropical areas, including Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. Cold tolerant varieties are grown in China, Korea and Japan.

Taro corms (called taro root) are short underground stems rich in starch. Unlike most starchy vegetables they are high in amylose, a starch soluble in hot water, and contain 3% sugar which makes them somewhat sweet. Taro is indigestible raw and can cause severe gastrointestinal distress if not properly prepared and cooked.

The photo specimens include regular taro corms available everywhere, and a giant taro corm, often available from markets serving a Southeast Asian community. The regular run up to about 5 inches inch long, 2-1/2 inches diameter and about 5 ounces, while the giant in the photo is 9 inches long, 5 inches in diameter and weighed 4 pounds 2-1/4 ounces, but they get quite a bit larger.   Details and Cooking.

Taro Leaves & Stems   -   [Taro (Polynesian); Kalo (Hawaiian); Colocasia (Rome); Kolocasi (Cyprus); Ocumo, Cocoyam, Madumbi, Nduma (Africa); Macabo (Cameroon); Khoai mo, khoai so (Vietnam); Laing (Philippine); Dasheen, Eddoes (Caribbean); Malanga cabeza, Malanga islena (Cuba); Arvi, Colocasia (India); Talas (S.E. Asia); Dalo (Fiji); Cara (Brazil); Calaloo (Caribbean, leaves only); Yautia (Puerto Rico); Colocasia esculenta]
Live Taro Leaves

Taro leaves are, of course, grown wherever Taro Corms are grown (see our Taro / Colocosia page). They are edible, and are cooked and eaten in most of those regions. They do need much different treatment, because the Oxalic Acid and Calcium Oxalate content can't be simply peeled off as it can with the corms.

While these have been pretty much unavailable in North America, they are now showing up in Philippine markets here in Los Angeles, and are selling very well when they appear.   Details and Cooking.

Giant Elephant Ear   -   [Indian Taro; Colocasia gigantea]
Colocasia Stems and Slices

Often sold as "Taro Stems", this plant is native to Southeast Asia, and is thought to be a natural cross between Alocasia macrorrhizos and Colocasia esculenta (Taro). The stems are eaten as a vegetable in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, and in Japan. The root corms of this species are fibrous and inedible, and the leaves are not particularly edible either.   Details and Cooking.

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