Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Neighbor's Manihot...

When I moved into my house nearly 3 years ago, the house next door had been empty for some time. The owner, an avid horticulturalist with a particular interest in natives and other dry climate plants, had become ill and was living with family in Southern California while undergoing treatment.

Her garden must have at one time been a paradise, but it was quickly falling to ruin. I would visit it occasionally, to see what was growing, pick a rose, take a cutting of a geranium, or harvest a grapefruit. A monstrous Mermaid climbing rose poured over the fence near my shed, so I gave her a bridge and said Go for it! She had covered the shed roof before the house was sold and the contractors tore her out. That was a bittersweet day...while she did give a brief but spectacular show of single yellow flowers, if you know Mermaid you also know about her wicked thorns. So Mermaid was a thug, and I was actually relieved to see her go.

Hand in hand with Mermaid was perennial Morning Glory, also a thug, but with a more innocent face. He should be planted with great care when neighboring properties are concerned. Our common fence was practically hidden. It was glorious in summer...praying mantises in particular found it a perfect habitat...many small flying creatures and no pesticides. But nothing was as popular as the Mystery Tree just over the fence, with the crazy leaves and the little magenta-and-white flowers that were a virtual bee factory. I couldn't identify it, my smartest plant-geek friends couldn't identify it; I took a branch to an APLD meeting and no one could identify it. It was driving me mad.

One day the owner came back, to empty the house for sale. She was terminally ill and obviously in pain, not only from her cancer, but from seeing her garden this way, for the last time. It was sad to see. But here, at last, was my chance to give a name to Mystery Plant. "Manihot" was all she said, and bequeathed me all of her clay pots. Manihot. Manihot esculenta, (or could be grahamii, she did not remember.) I told her how much I appreciated her garden, and the particular kind of plants she grew. I think she was glad that someone had loved it in her absence.

Reminders of my neighbor's garden exist in mine, in several forms. These are plants that were thriving with little attention (until the bulldozer came and they were no more). Salvia apiana, Salvia leucantha, Leonotis leonurus, some vigorous running bamboo along the fence (nicely confined on my side, will be fabulous), and a fig tree that somehow worked his way under the fence (now that's a fighter!) and whom I have allowed to stay, on the condition that he be a shrub. When they re-landscaped the new, over-remodeled home that took its place, the contractor and I had a few chats about what to plant along the fence, (which was not replaced) and he made some nice choices. He also transplanted all her old roses along the low fence that we share in the front yard, so I can enjoy them too.

But of all the gifts my neighbor gave me, the Manihot is my favorite. Pictured above is a one year old volunteer seedling that sprouted in the gravel of my side yard. It towers over my head, and gives beautiful lacy shade to my daughter's west-facing window...which is what I had been wishing something would do. He has several friends around him, and from the way they reseed, I may have many more (let me know if you want one!)

More about Manihot: common names: cassava, manihot, manicot, yucca, tapioca, mandioca. Native to tropical South America, where the root is used in many ways. My sweetheart is from Brazil, and the first time he cooked for me he pulled out a little bag of dried meal that he toasted to serve with the meat...and there on the bag was a picture of that leaf! It seemed like a sign...and the plant above appeared right around that same time.

I love this's tropical, and melts back to main stems when temps hit the 40s, but with that kind of growth in one season, it could be used as an annual or wintered indoors. Here it fares better than Brugmansia, so if you can keep that prima donna alive, you'll do fine.


  1. Mandioca!!!! Too bad it's the esculenta species, not the utilissima, or I'd bribe you for some mother roots. I don't know how to prepare the poisonous esculenta though. Store-bought mandioca is bland and starchy. Mandioca boiled and prepared the day it's harvested is buttery and melts in your mouth. I'm sure it wouldn't do so well here in SF, but i'd be willing to try...

  2. I'm not sure if it's esculenta or grahamii...did NOT know about utilissima or that some varieties are poisonous! I will no doubt have more bribery needed if you want one! I agree about store bought (usually as Yucca root) one big bag of starch!

  3. I am planting lots of Manihot in my garden project in the Yucatan! The variegated form is especially wonderful, if you go in for the garish and clowny, like I do!

    Love your blog, and I am so happy to read more of your writing than 140 characters!

    Your twitter friend,
    The Germinatrix

  4. Gasp! Variegated? Be still my heart. Loves me a variegated anything. I have about six of these bad boys arching over the walkway in the side yard...going to have to call it the "Manihot Walk"

    Nice to see you here, Ivette...can't wait for a SoCal tweetup!