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It's a Plant's Life too


Manioc, Yucca or Mandioca, Gumanana in Garifuna
with Lisa Carne

Cassava is native to Tropical America but has become an important crop worldwide. Portuguese traders introduced cassava to Africa hundreds of years ago where it has become a food staple for five million people. In Asia it is grown for commercial feed. Brazil claims cassava originated there and only Nigeria competes with their annual yield; in 1999 Nigeria produced 33 million tons of cassava. Here in Belize cassava plays an essential role in Garifuna culture. Just look in the Garifuna-English dictionary and you will find no less than 10 different words for cassava in all its uses and forms!

Cassava root

Cassava is a herbaceous shrub that can grow up to 12 feet tall. It is drought-tolerant and grows well in low-nutrient soils. It is propagated vegetatively as clones and can take 8-18 months to bear, depending on soil conditions. Cassava is mostly grown for its root, or tuber, which can reach over two feet in length, and is rich in carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Recent studies suggest that a diet rich in fiber can reduce the onset of diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Its leaves are also edible, eaten mostly in Africa, and are rich in protein and vitamins A, B and C.

Cassava has become a major international industry for several nations, including Thailand, China, Brazil and Nigeria. Worldwide production in 2000 was 172 million tons! In 1999 Thailand exported 10 million pounds of cassava chips, earning US$700 million, and China has over 400 cassava production plants. Cassava starch can be further processed into sorbitol, mannitol, glucose, fructose and even monosodium glutamate (MSG). The starch is also used in commercial production of ethanol and acetone. In Belize, it is grown mostly as a subsistence crop, but one source says the Barbados has almost 3 times the yield/per hectare than Nigeria. South Africa is currently looking into commercial production of cassava, maybe Belize should investigate its options, too!

In Belize we recognize two kinds of cassava: sweet and bitter. This is due to the absence or presence of toxic levels of cyanogenic glucosides. Scientifically speaking, it was recently decided that they are the same species, Manihot esculenta, but don't go adding the bitter root to your boil up or serré! The sweet cassava has darker green leaves than the bitter one. There is also a third, variegated (white in its leaves) variety, used only for an ornamental plant.

The bitter root is used for cassava flour, and the toxins are reduced by the laborious preparation and cooking processes. The Garifuna make a dry cassava bread that lasts forever. It requires peeling then grating the root on a special, long board full of small pebbles. The juice is strained through a 12 foot long, woven strainer resembling a snake: its Garifuna name is ruguma but some people call it "wowla", the Creole nickname for a boa constrictor. The collected juice can be dried out and used for a baby formula (porridge), cooked on the stovetop with nutmeg and water, or in the bread.

Cassava bread has recently been marketed in the United States for people allergic to wheat. Cassava juice and even wine or beer (hiu in Garifuna) can be made from the strainings out of the ruguma.

The sweet cassava root has many uses. It can be peeled and boiled in soups or stews. In Belize we call it "ground food" which is an important component of "ital" food. Ital food is simply a Creole way of saying what's good for you, from nature. A perfect example is the Belizean dish "boil up": boiled ground foods like potato, cassava, yampi , coco (both are tubers), plantain and green banana. Sometimes a boiled egg is used for protein. This is served with boiled or steamed fish and a thick tomato sauce. Delicious and nutritious!
Cassava can also be thinly sliced and fried like potato chips, or cut thicker, fried and salted like French fries.

Another Garifuna traditional food is dani. This is the sweet cassava root grated, boiled and sweetened further, and wrapped in waha or plantain leaf. The waha leaf (gasibu in Garifuna) is a large thick leaf also used to wrap and steam tamales.

Cassava cake is both a Garifuna and Creole tradition, the Creole call it "plastic" cake because the cassava starch makes it stretch. In fact, cassava cake is made in Brazil, Vietnam and the Philippines. In Belize it is made with coconut milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sugar and butter. Most of these delicacies are not found in restaurants, but are usually sold in Dangriga around the 19th of November, Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize.

The festivities traditionally begin with the picking of Miss Garifuna the weekend before the holiday, at a specified Garifuna village. This year it'’s Hopkins, rumors say Seine Bight for next year (2004). Garifuna villages in Belize include Dangriga (town), Hopkins, Georgetown, Seine Bight, Barranco and Punta Gorda.

Casava plant
Typical Cassava plant found in Belize

Palm Trees

with Konny Stephan

I was born in the state of South Carolina in the mid 1950's. The South Carolina state flag today has a Palmetto palm tree.

When I first ventured south from the Carolinas to Belize, I was immediately taken back by the number of what I believed at the time to be Palmetto palms as well as the other varieties found Belize.

According to the website, South Carolina adopted the Palmetto Palm as it's "Official State Tree" by Joint Resolution No. 63, approved March 17, 1939.

The South Carolina Palmetto is classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "Inodes Palmetto", also referred to as the Sabal Palmetto, most commonly known as the Cabbage Palmetto. The Cabbage Palmetto has long been associated with the history of South Carolina.

The Cabbage Palm can be found today on the state flag and the state's official seal. Quoting the website further, the Cabbage Palm is "symbolical of the defeat of the British fleet by the fort, built of Palmetto logs, on Sullivan's Island".

Even when I was growing up I could remember that there were countless Palmetto palms scattered about the state. Today you generally see them in gigantic Mexican clay plots withering away inside the atriums of shopping malls.

However, researching palm trees further on the Internet:

  • Photos of palm trees split into alphabetical order at, they sell over 100 varieties
  • The palm trees of South Carolina at
  • The International Palm Association at notes there are some 3,000 tropical and subtropical palm species. In their Invitation to Join they offer a three year membership for US$99.

Belize has at least 18 species of palms according to Lisa Carne's book 'Mangoes and More'. But according to Ms. Carne's book on page 22, Belize has "only one coconut palm", the Cocos nucifera or Tidibu fáluma in Garifuna. Lisa notes that though there is only one true coconut palm, there are "several varieties", two of which, the Maypan Hybrid and the Malayan Dwarf, have shown resistance to Lethal Yellowing, the deadly disease that has plagued palm lovers from Holbox on the northern Yucatan to the Panama Canal.

Further reading and exploring the Internet for information regarding palm trees in Belize led me eventually to Chris Berlin who has a report on the website According to Chris, there are actually four varieties of coconut palms in Belize. Those would be, the Atlantic or Jamaica Tall palm, the Malaya Dwarf palm, the Mayjam palm and the Maypan or Mapan palm.

Chris has photos of each of his four known varieties of Belizean coconut palms on his webpage about Ambergris Caye, and Lisa has in her book a picture of the only variety of coconut palm she is aware of from her base in Placencia.

I guess one could surmise its controversies just like this that explains why the Egyptians have pyramids in Egypt, while the Maya have Maya temples in Belize.
Blancaneaux Lodge

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