Let’s start with Yucca (pronounced YUHK-a), with two ‘c’s. One of my favourite plants that seem completely indifferent to heat, rain or cold here in Portugal, and you can plant them directly into your garden, or grow in large pots, which can give an instant tropical look to a terrace or balcony. Leaves can be thick or thin and are usually long and narrow, sword-shaped, and have a wicked spine-tip, earning them the nickname of ‘Spanish Bayonet’ or ‘Spanish Dagger’. You can grow them from seed, but I find cuttings take root quickly, and unless you want the satisfaction of planting a seed and watching it grow, cuttings are so easy, and the parent plant will just grow a new ‘baby’ where you cut the last one off!

Blooming time varies by type, but most varieties will bloom annually throughout their life. Flowers bloom on large stalks that emerge from the centre of the plant, some over 10 feet tall, and are usually white or cream, with some varieties having a hint of pink, purple or even green.

They are extremely drought tolerant and store water in their trunks or bulbous bases. They are slow-growers and need almost no maintenance to survive. Their toughness is both a virtue and a vice, as they can be nearly impossible to get rid of once firmly established!. Pruning – if you can even call it that – is just a case of removing dead leaves from the stem. If a plant has grown too big, simply cut off the top portion of a trunk down to the desired size. This will leave a sparse trunk for a while, but new offsets or ‘babies’ should sprout from the cut point.

However, this growth can sometimes be unpredictable. At this same time, offsets can be cut away and replanted, there is always someone happy to take your newly cut ‘babies’ away!

Now let’s look at Yuca, (pronounced YOO-ka) and with only one ‘c’, this is the one that has a ‘root’ you can eat. Its proper name is cassava, manioc or mandioca, and is a woody shrub native to South America of the ‘spurge’ family. Although a perennial plant, it is extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions for its edible starchy tuberous root, a major source of carbohydrates.

Cassava is predominantly consumed in boiled form, but substantial quantities are used to extract cassava starch, called tapioca (ah, I remember Tapioca Pudding on the school dinner menu!), which is used for food, animal feed, and industrial purposes – apparently one use is a binding agent in the production of tablets. The Brazilian farinha, and the related garri of West Africa, is an edible coarse flour obtained by grating cassava roots, pressing moisture out of the grated pulp, and finally drying it (and roasting in the case of farinha). Strangely farinha is also the Portuguese word for flour, which I think is more a generic word for any flour.

Cassava is the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics after rice and maize, and is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, with Nigeria being the world’s largest producer of cassava, while Thailand is the largest exporter of cassava starch.

You might be interested in this - I lived a good many years in Bermuda, and Cassava Pie was something special there for Christmas time.

To the uninitiated, a Bermudian Christmas without Cassava Pie would be like Easter without chocolate! This unusual dish – a sweet, spicy cake with layers of different meat fillings – is as essential to a traditional Bermudian Christmas dinner as the turkey itself – a really rich, heavy mixture made with the addition of upwards of 15 eggs! And everyone would use a recipe that had been passed down through their family, and declare theirs was the best. Families usually make a large quantity and eat it hot, cold or fried in slices all during Christmas week. Cassava Pie is an odd mix of sweet and savoury, but it’s a combination that seems to please the Bermudian palate, particularly at times of celebration.

So when you go to the garden centre, be careful what you ask for, as the Yucca (with two ‘c’s) doesn’t have an edible root!