Text by Caleb Melchior for the July/August 2018 issue of Horticulture.
My first encounter with tapioca, in my late teens, was with this magnificent ornamental plant—they called it variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’; USDA Zones 8–11). Corky stems. Coral petioles holding seven-fingered leaves. Each leaf with a network of crimson veins running through its pale yellow center, filtering toward edges blotched in cucumber-peel green. I grew them, summer after hot summer, in cobalt-blue pots that showed off those incredible foliage hues. The blazing heat’s hot winds rattled the foliage, causing it to quiver and quake.
Later on, I found out about edible tapioca. Boba in bubble tea—bouncy black or pale, translucent balls that absorb the flavor of whatever liquid in which they’re immersed. Yuca fries with pungent mojo de ajo (sour orange and garlic sauce). Cassava cake in dense sweet slices. More reasons to love this incredible plant. But regardless, it’s the ornamental selection of tapioca that holds my heart.
As you might expect from a tropical crop, variegated tapioca loves heat and humidity. While it’s theoretically winter hardy down to Zone 8, it’ll only retain its leaves in winter through Zone 10. Through most of the continental United States, it is best treated as a showy seasonal bedding plant or container specimen. For best results, plant it in full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Variegated tapioca is slow-growing until temperatures warm up in the spring. Once they remain reliably in the 80s, with warm nights, the plants start to grow quickly.
Variegated tapioca makes a dense, rounded plant two to four feet high in the first year. It’s easy to overwinter as a houseplant, although it may dramatically drop all leaves. Not to worry—as soon as the weather warms up in spring, move it to a sunny front porch and watch the recovery.
In its second year and beyond, it’ll lose the lower leaves, revealing wobbly bare stems. Play this up to create fanciful standards (tree-form plants) that make wonderful container specimens, with big tufts of that sensationally colored foliage floating over whatever spillers and fillers your heart desires.
Tropical foods might evade your palate. But there’s no way you can be anything but thrilled with the foliar glory of this top tropical. Hustle out to your nearest garden center and bring yourself home a variegated tapioca. You’ll bask all summer in its glorious shades of emerald, scarlet, coral and gold.
Image credit: Megan Hansen/CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr