Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


(Maranta arundinacea)

By Hugh Murphy

The arrowroot is a jungle plant, native to the West Indies and Central and South America. Its name refers primarily to plants of the Maranta genus, but in recent years it has expanded to include a number of similar plants like the cassava (Davidson, 36).  

The name ‘arrowroot’ comes from a misinterpretation of the Aruac Indian’s name for the plant—‘Aru-ruta.’  The confusion may have come since the Aruac of South America used arrowroot sap to treat wounds from poisoned arrows (Grieve).  Some varieties of arrowroot were not used as an antidote, but rather as a poison itself.  Indigenous tribes from the West Indies, for example, dipped their arrowheads into poisonous cassava juice (BMI, 196).

The starchy tubers of the arrowroot have long been an important food crop for the Indigenous peoples in the West Indies and Central and South America.  The roots are washed, peeled, soaked in water and ground into a fine-grained flour.  After drying, the flour is mixed into soups and puddings as a thickening agent, or used as a lighter replacement for cornstarch and wheat flour (Davidson, 36).  Brazilian arrowroot (cassava) is the primary ingredient in tapioca (Britannica).   

Arrowroot flour is a low-calorie, gluten-free starch that has gained popularity in health markets.  While it contains virtually no vitamins or protein, it is easily digestible and works well with a variety of recipes (Britannica). 

Arrowroot flour became a major export of the West Indies once Europeans established shipping lines to the Western Hemisphere (BMI, 191).  Arrowroot plantations thrived in the 18th century as plantation owners clear-cut forests to grow native varieties of the plant.  Each acre produced between 13,000 and 15,000 pounds of harvested roots (BMI, 196).   


Facts and History:


 “St. Vincent Arrowroot.” Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Gardens, Kew), Vol. 1893, No. 80 (1893). Published by: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. pp. 191-204 

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

"Arrowroot." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 12 Jun. 2008 <>.

Grieve, M. “Arrowroot.” A Modern Herbal. 1990-2008. <>.