Archaeological studies in the Americas show evidence of arrowroot cultivation as early as 7,000 years ago. The name may come from aru-aru (meal of meals) in the language of the Caribbean Arawak people, for whom the plant was a staple. It has also been suggested that the name comes from arrowroot’s use in treating poison-arrow wounds, as it draws out the poison when applied to the site of the injury
Saint Vincent has a long history of arrowroot production. The industry started as the food and medicine of the Carib and Garifuna peoples, and developed to the status of a major export of St. Vincent during the period 1900 to 1965. It became an important commodity in colonial trade in the 1930s. As the sugar industry declined in the nineteenth century, cultivation of arrowroot was developed to fill the void. Since then, the area cultivated has declined steadily as other crops, particularly bananas, have gained wider acceptance by farmers. Evidence of its former importance is indicated by the ruins of the various magnificent 19th-century factories located in valleys on the St. Vincent mainland.
The plant is propagated from other rhizomes and cultivation takes place at elevations up to 300 metres on the eastern and windward facing side of the highlands of St. Vincent. Cultivation covers an area of about 3,700 ha and some 80% of the crop is grown by small farmers. The arrowroot plant is very hardy and not very demanding in its requirements. St. Vincent, particularly the north-east coast, provides the ideal growing conditions for optimal yields; deep, well drained, slightly acidic soils and a hot, humid climate. Some farmers produce the crop by shifting cultivation on the cleared forested slopes.
The harvesting season extends from October to May. On the larger estates, the harvesting of the rhizome usually proceeds from the base of a hill towards the top. Harvesting involves breaking off the rhizome from the shoot. Planting and harvesting are inter-related in that when the rhizomes are harvested the shoot is replanted at the same time. In St. Vincent, much use is made of rural unemployment and many women workers are involved in the various phases of operation. Mechanical harvesters have recently been introduced, allowing faster arrowroot harvesting.