A perennial herb grown in the tropics and subtropics, arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) is known as “obedience plant,” “maranta indica,” Maranta ramosissima, “maranta starch,” “Bermuda arrowroot,” “marcanta,” “Saint Vincent arrowroot,” and “West Indian arrowroot.” The genus Maranta was named to honor 16th-century physician Bartommeo Maranto. Because the edible part of arrowroot, contrary to its name, is a tuber not a root and because one gardener compares the flavor to that of potato, comparisons are made between the plants, though nutritionally arrowroot is much less attractive than potato. The arrowroot tuber is 63 percent water, 27 percent starch—the principal carbohydrate—2 percent protein, fiber, fat, sugar, albumen, gum, and ash. Arrowroot is bereft of vitamins and minerals. Once widespread as a food additive, arrowroot starch has fallen out of favor in this nutrition-conscious age.
The arrowroot plant, a member of the Marantaceae family, may grow to three to six feet tall and the leaves 10 inches long. The plant has white flowers whereas the Australian arrowroot has red flowers. Arrowroot may have originated in Guyana and western Brazil and was cultivated as early as 5000 BCE. From South America, arrowroot spread to the Caribbean, which is today the chief region of cultivation. The Arawak of the Caribbean called the plant “aru-aru”—from which the word arrowroot may derive—meaning “meal of meals,” testament to its importance in their diet. Another tradition held that the name “arrowroot” derives from the practice of using the plant's pulp to extract poison from an arrow wound. More recently, arrowroot migrated to Florida.
One author mentioned arrowroot as a wild plant of Florida. The Seminoles of Florida called arrowroot “conti,” meaning “flour-root,” evidently using the plant's tubers to make flour. The term “conti” has the variants “coontie,” “coontia,” “compte,” “comtie,” “koonti,” and “koonnee.” Either the Amerindians or the European inhabitants of Florida made a type of bread—Seminole bread—from arrowroot starch. Perhaps this was flat bread because arrowroot starch is incapable of rising when baked. Alternatively, the starch might have been combined with wheat flour to make leavened bread. By the 1920s, Key West was an importer of arrowroot starch, though this author feared that the pace of land clearage might make arrowroot extinct in Florida. Floridians grew arrowroot as an ornamental.
From the Americas, the Columbian Exchange carried arrowroot to Australia, South and West Africa, Mauritius, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India. Arrowroot was imported into Great Britain in about 1732, though being frost intolerant, it could scarcely have survived the cold. Perhaps greenhouses and botanical gardens grew it as a curiosity. Botanists Alphonse de Candole and Asa Gray were apparently familiar with arrowroot.
Arrowroot thrives in rich soil but does yield an acceptable crop in poor soil and arid conditions. Arrowroot prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade. The plant prefers a temperature between 77°F and 81°F and rainfall between 59 and 71 inches. The soil should drain well. Alluvial and igneous soils are best, though latosol is favored on Saint Vincent. Pieces of tuber, like those of potato, are planted in lieu of seeds. One gardener recommends plantings 30 inches apart. Arrowroot tubers need 10 or 11 months of hot, wet weather to mature, though if left in the ground too long they become tough. As a rule, tubers are ready to harvest at one year old. The gardener knows the harvest is imminent when the leaves yellow and the stem collapses. An acre of arrowroot may yield six tons of tubers, from which may be extracted one ton of starch.
An easy-to-digest starch, admittedly one with little flavor according to one gardener, arrowroot was once important to the cuisines of Old and New Worlds. Tubers may be consumed raw, steamed, roasted, or barbecued. Because of the paucity of flavor, arrowroot is best combined with other food, for example in stir-fry, casserole, stew, and soup. The arrowroot tuber must be cooked longer than the potato. In the Caribbean—especially in Jamaica and Saint Vincent—arrowroot starch is added to biscuits, pudding, jelly, cake, and sauce. In Korea and Vietnam people add arrowroot starch to noodles. A food of children and the infirm, arrowroot fell out of favor because of its poor nutrition. Arrowroot is used to sooth mosquito, spider, scorpion, and snakebite and to treat gangrene, stomachache, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
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