For a Texas Supertar with “wow factor” try variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta “Variegata”). This tropical is related to the hardier South American all-green cassava, from which the food tapioca is derived. Like cassava, all parts of the variegated version are poisonous unless processed. It is safe around pets, however, because its bitter taste make it an undesirable food source.
Variegated tapioca is a per-annual, meaning it is a perennial in tropical Texas but an annual in the rest of the state. Here in Tyler, it should be planted in late spring after all danger of frost has passed, preferably after night temperatures are above 50 degrees. Once temperatures reach summer values, it grows rapidly.
The plant is non-blooming, but its bright yellow-edged-with-green leaves and carmine red leaf stems more than compensate for the lack of flowers. The large palmate leaves are stunning. The shrub can easily reach 4 to 5 feet high, and as wide, in a season. It is a heat lover whose leaves can tolerate full sun without burning, as well as the reflected heat from concrete or bricks.
It can be grown in full sun or partial shade, but colors best in full sun. Water needs are moderate. Once established, it can tolerate some drought, but benefits from supplemental watering. Don’t overdo it. The plant does not like wet feet. Acidic or alkaline soils are not a problem as long as there is good drainage. A time-release fertilizer should be applied at planting. Since the plant grows rapidly, subsequent applications at monthly intervals are beneficial. It is relatively pest free, with the possible exception of spider mites. Deer avoid it but have been known to eat it.
Variegated tapioca lends a tropical look, but is a show stopper in any type of garden. As an accent plant, it grows well in a large pot on the patio or in the ground. Multiple plantings should be at least 4 feet apart for a striking hedge or flowerbed backdrop.
Since it will show damage when night temperatures fall below 50 degrees, and will die in a hard freeze, it must be overwintered in a heated greenhouse or even brought inside near a sunny window. On the other hand, it can be propagated by stem cuttings.
Variegated tapioca is a valuable addition to any garden. You can see one in the IDEA Garden this summer. For more information, check out TexasSuperstar.com or Google variegated tapioca.
The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.