2013 Plant Talk 15 Tropical Plants

November 9, 2013

Plant Talk 15: Tropical Plant Overview Taxonomy & Ethnobotany, Places for Further Study

Hello plant enthusiasts!

Well, the cold has finally descended once again in the Southern Appalachian region and other temperate places of the world. The killing frost has taken away Tomatoes, Peppers, Marigolds, Nasturtiums, Basil and many other tender annuals as well as many of the leaves on the trees. The Fagaceae family really shows off its tendency to retain its withered leaves this time of year. Something in me dies as well with the first killing frost. Thankfully this entity is waiting to be reborn again come the wonder of spring. i have a strong dislike for being cold but i do welcome the dormancy that such a condition brings. After going pretty non-stop since April i am excited for the opportunity to catch my breath, stock up on rest and do further botanical research. All of these things have proven difficult to grasp during the growing season. i hope in 2014 to have a couple apprentices that can help me keep my head a bit more above water throughout the year of which the need is clear.

 The class below focuses mostly on warm places where frost never comes. i probably would not want to live full time in a place like that. However,  right now in the transition from warm to cold thoughts of such places are very welcome.

Tropical Botany

A photo album corresponding to this class can be seen at the link below…


              Below is a treatment of tropical/sub-tropical botany and resources for the study therein. The focus is largely contained to the Americas including Hawaii as these are the places my travels have taken me personally. However, i have also visited many conservatories with tropical collections from around the world which may inform the discussion as well. What follows are descriptions of gardens that are available to visit for further exploration in the North/Central America. After that i have included small monographic treatments of mostly tropical families that are not described in Elpel (2004). Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. i have typically used one main resource in regards to edible leaves of the tropics (Martin, Ruberte, & Meitzner, 1998).

Gardens Florida

Ironic that i grew up in Florida from the age of 7 – 24 and yet only really got into plants in the last couple years before departure. Nonetheless, my youth in South Florida from 7 – 18 was immersed in plants of the region by default and i even had several profound plant experiences very early in my life there. Since becoming a focused botanist around 2001/2002 i have made numerous trips to Florida to visit friends and family. i have also had the good fortune to co-teach with Mycol Stevens from Brooker, FL in recent years. Mycol works for the state of Florida doing botanical surveys and ecological restoration work. He has greatly enhanced my awareness of sub-tropical botany more than anyone other than Frank Cook. Mycol hosts WOOFers at his farm if you are interested and also hosts a primitive skill gathering near the end of January every year. www.growfood.org/es/farm/997

i tend to depend on just a few books for plant identification in Florida (G. Nelson, 1998; Taylor, 1992; Wunderlin & Hansen, 2011). i am only currently aware of a few resources so far in regards to Florida Ethnobotany in general or certain Native American tribes on the peninsula in particular (D. F. Austin, 2004; Macmahon & Marquardt, 2004; Marquardt & Payne, 1992; Snow & Stans, 2001). The Florida Ethnobotany book by Dan Austin in particular is an amazing tome of extensive information although quite expensive to procure. One other resource i picked up last year as a discard from Warren Wilson College covers north Florida trees rather succinctly (Kurz & Godfrey, 1962).

Fairchild Botanical Gardens www.fairchildgarden.org

One of the best tropical botanical gardens in the world especially in regards to palms and cycads. Also the old home place of David Fairchild (1982) one of the greatest ethnobotanists of all time!

Kampong National Tropical Botanical Gardens   


One of these gardens occurs in Florida and another on the island of Kauai in Hawai’i. Probably the two top tropical gardens on my list to visit.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens www.kanapaha.org

Kanapaha is such a treat! One of the first botanical gardens i ever visited starting back in 1997/98. They have an extensive collection of fruits that will grow in the area. Many gorgeous aesthetic elements are featured as well. Ethnobotanical information is included on the signs around the medicinal herb garden. Some of the best such signs i have ever witnessed in visiting over 100 botanical gardens!

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens www.selby.org

This garden right on the Gulf is exceptional especially for its collection of Orchids, Banyan trees and frogs.

University of South Florida Botanical Gardens www.cas.usf.edu/garden

i have been a member of this garden for years due to their very affordable rates. This membership gives me free entry and other benefits to most of the major botanical gardens of the country! The citrus and orchid collections are particularly engaging.

Ford Edison Estate www.edisonfordwinterestates.org

A legendary estate that played host to the families of both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Numerous old trees provide inspiration including the biggest Bayan (F. benghalensis) in the continental United States. It was only planted in 1925 from a 4ft tree! A fascinating museum is part of the property as well.

Naples Botanical Gardens www.naplesgarden.org

A compact garden that is action packed and perfect for a crash course tutorial in the most important tropical plants of the world. Has a nice butterfly garden as well.

Edible Fruit and Spice Park www.fruitandspicepark.org

The Fruit and Spice Park is an incredible resource and must see stop for lovers of tropical fruit. What follows is a synopsis from a book written by the Director Chris Rollins (Rollins, 2006). Today the park contains 35 acres. It is surrounded by thousands of acres of commercial tropical agriculture. Over 27,000 visitors a year come to view the gardens and participate in various festivals. The park features more than 500 varieties of exotic fruits, herbs, spices, and nuts from around the world. 80 varieties of bananas, 40 varieties of grapes, 80+ varieties of mangoes, over 30 varieties of avocadoes and 15 varieties of jackfruit are present!!! Visitors can sample fallen fruit but cannot pick from the trees.  Arrangements can be made to collect seeds and cuttings. Classes, workshops, and tours are conducted year round by park staff. A number of festivals occur annually at the park. These include one that celebrates the areas agricultural heritage, an Asian culture festival, and an orchid festival.


McKee Botanical Gardens www.mckeegarden.org


i was pleased to visit the McKee Botanical Gardens during a glass exhibit. This is more a pretty place garden than one for hard core botanizing. In that regard it is very engaging, relaxing and inspiring for sure.

Morikami Japanese Garden www.morikami.org


One of the first formal gardens i ever visited. An elegant nature respite amongst the intensity of SE Florida.

Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens www.kwbgs.org

This garden was founded in 1934 and has undergone various states of upkeep and maintenance through its history. The diversity is impressive and you will probably see many plants here that occur nowhere else in the U.S. Great signage and an extensive guide as well (LaGotta & Pimm, 2011).

Gardens Hawaii

i am very appreciative for the guide book Hawaii’s Botanical Gardens by  Kevin Whitton (2009) for compact information and insights to gardens i might not have found otherwise. A number of other useful books i found along my travels are cited here and in the text (Kepler, 2004; Krauss, 2001a, 2001b; Smith, 1988). Hawaii is blessed with a rich catalogue of affordable high quality plant guides. All of the gardens described below are contained on the Big Island where i was blessed to visit for 10 days three years ago. i give great thanks to my friends Sand, Ian, and Sol on the Kona side and Michael, Christy, Jai and Robin on the  Hilo side for such great places to stay when my travels were under way!

Painted Church

Often when i travel alone i tend to botanize, look at art and pray…Noticing that many types of life might be considered art by the right lens. Here at my first official prayer stop i also took note of some common Hawaiian landscape plants. It was nice to meet and know the name of the prevalent Snow Bush (Breynia disticha) var roseo- picta Euphorbiaceae. i also saw what was probably the prolific Bay Biscayne Creeping Oxeye (Sphagneticola trilobata  syn Wedelia trilobata) Asteraceae.

Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens  www.kealakowaa.org  

This small garden is effectively a nice series of “rooms” containing plants from throughout the tropical world. As part of a community center it provides a welcome respite from the bustling traffic nearby.

The palm collection in particular is rather nice. However, they really have a sampling of global tropical plants laid out in a very tasteful and aesthetically pleasing manner. Notable other plants included:

Australian Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea arborea) Xanthorrhoeaceae

Pua Keni Keni (Fragraea berteroana) Loganiaceae

Pony Tail Palm (Nolina recurvata) Agavaceae

i definitely had to look out for bugs like spiders and a multitude of flyers as well.

Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden


This is one of the best gardens for ethnobotanical signage that i have ever been to!!! A kid’s educational program consisting of planting natives, weeding invasives and making tropical fruit smoothies was happening concurrent with my visit. They have a great recently published book covering plants of the garden and the legacy of a most extraordinary woman (Greenwell, Lincoln, & Van Dyke, 2009). The garden had a particularly nice selection of Hala (Pandanus tectorius) Pandanaceae The wood of the plant can be used to make textile items while part of the fruits are edible and they can also be used as paintbrushes (Wood, 2010a).

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden www.htbg.com

This garden has a special location right by the sea. They have many stunning exotic trees including the Rose of Venezuela (Brownea coccinea) Fabaceae. The garden also contains huge ferns like the Mule’s Foot (Angiopteris evecta) and ornamental shrubs like the Yellow Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea) Acanthaceae. A good place to tease apart plants in the Ginger order (Zingiberales). The sweet locale also has a nice waterfall and book describing the gardens and their development (Anderson, 1994).

Kalani www.kalani.com

i feel very fortunate to have visited Kalani which is the workplace of  a dear friend from my time at the Omega Institute in 1998/99. While at Kalani i went on an awesome plant walk with the head gardener Barcus and also got to practice some Dutch with an older couple from the Netherlands. Barcus demonstrated how one can write on the leaves of the Autograph Plant (Clusia rosea) Clusiaceae. He also regaled us with traditional folklore and details from the nice aquaponics set up established to grow fish and plants in a continuous system.  Kalani has a published map containing plant locations and descriptions. It is an incredible place for many reasons. Established over 35 years ago, it hosts numerous types of workshops, while serving as a model of living in community amongst a multitude of amenities. i probably took note of at least 30 interesting plants at this location alone.

Nani Mau Gardens www.nanimaugardens.com

Nani Mau is more of a pretty place garden with lots of orchids and tourists riding trams. It also has a really interesting fruit selection and minimal signage. If you walk rather than ride you may have the place mostly to yourself. The head gardener Paul was very friendly and informative.

Liliuokalani Gardens

Liliuokalani is a nice Japanese style garden dedicated to the sugarcane workers who came over from Japan to work the fields. It is more a place to hang out relax or stroll through. Not too much diversity of planting but i did take notice of the stunning Mickey Mouse Plant (Ochna thomasiana   syn Ochna kirkii) Ochnaceae. The Ochnaceae is a fascinating pan tropical family that i will endeavor to serve further as time permits.

Lava Tree State Park


Here i took note and pictures of a plant that looks like the Bamboo Orchid (Arundina graminifolia). Huge what my friends called Mimosa trees and a particularly prolific fern probably the Pacific False Staghorn (Dicranopteris sp.) also caught my eye. The fern is not native to Hawaii and quickly invades disturbed areas (Pratt, 1998).

One evening i went to a Kava Bar in Hilo and saw the incredible band Nahko and Medicine for the People http://nahko.com/. Kava (Piper methysticum) Piperaceae is used in a traditional Polynesian beverage. The effects tend to bring on a bit of numbness and general sense of wellbeing. Moderation in usage is recommended due to potential harmful effects. It has never been a beverage of choice for me. However, i enjoyed experiencing Kava in a Pacific Island context at an outdoor show on a balmy evening in mid-December.

Central America

               In 2007 i was fortunate to visit Central America for 7 weeks. i flew into Costa Rica and participated in a plant symposium with Frank Cook and others over the course of the first two weeks. i then travelled by bus through other parts of the country before continuing through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Descriptions of gardens below are from that trip.

Costa Rica

Diamante Verde

Here is an excerpt from a travelougue of my trip through Central America in 2007. It conveys a bit of the interesting nature of a very special place in the world…i was privileged to spend a week there studying plants with Frank Cook, Tenasi Rama, Tin Contreras and various other incredible plant teachers.

On Monday i left the cave and the cathedral de la piedra (Cathedral of stone) at about 3:30 in the morning to catch the 6 a.m. bus from Las Tumbas to San Isidro. i spent the two days prior with an awesome couple who were the current caretakers Cannon and Akissi. Cannon and i had former connections from the Hostel in the Forest of all places! Akkisi was born in Africa but her parents were French and had ties to Greece. She had spent the holidays in Europe with Cannon where it was apparently not cold yet even in the Alps! That is a little snapshot of the type of incredible people that come through
the Cathedral de la Piedra. In the scant time i was there other visitors included; a bunch of other Frenchmen, a couple scouting out a retreat space for their Unitarian Universalist church out of Tulsa Oklahoma, U.S. expats who live in Platanillo, the owner Jon Chapman who has donated the land for the greater good and has a number of amazing children with a Tica (Costa Rican native) lady, and a number of the Tico laborers up for a Sunday outing with the family. This even though the hike is probably as steep as any that most of you and i have ever done! It legendarily has been known to take anywhere from from 1 hour to 2 days. A multitude of beautiful waterfalls including the highest one in the country certainly add to the attraction. To top it off Frank Cook and i assisted Tenasi Rama in generating a plant list for the land that is close to 300 species replete with numerous ethnobotanical uses both researched and first hand! This list is a great resource for anyone working in Central America and i am in the process of talking with Tenasi about making this list as well as several other co-created works on Costa Rican flora more available.

Wilson Botanical Gardens, San Vito www.ots.ac.cr

These fabulous gardens are run by the Organization for Tropical studies.

 i  spent two fabulous days there touring around first with a Tica environmental education graduate and then by myself. The gardens are notable for several big collections of tropical plant groups including Heliconias, Bromeliads, Marantas (you all have seen them in the house or the mall) and especially Palms. They have the second biggest palm collection in the world after the Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami! Close to 700 palm species alone and apparently near 7000
plant species in total inhabit this space. A pleasant surprise besides the cool and abundant plants was one of the neatest tropical plant libraries i have ever been privileged to spend time in! Many of you know how i adore books, and i spent copious amounts of time referencing from their collection and noting which titles i
might like to add to mine.

Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) or The Center for Tropical Investigation and Learning.   www.catie.ac.cr

The CATIE property covers 2,655 acres and houses over 400 species of
plants from around the world! The main focus is to maintain the
genetic diversity of plants crucial to Central American agriculture. This includes
2,500 varieties of Coffee (Coffea spp.) and 700 varieties of Chocolate (Theobroma cacao) alone!!! They also have a very neat garden of useful plants from around the world with placards explaining their beneficial qualities. In addition to the gardens CATIE runs a full scale University with graduate programs for people from many different places. The program includes faculty representing 13 different countries. They also have a 400,000 volume library and many publications! i could see possibly spending some time there and/or the Organization for Tropical Studies somewhere in the future si Dios quiere (God willing).

Lankester Gardens in Cartago Paraiso www.jbl.ucr.ac.cr/php/inicio/inicio.php

              The garden was quite a bit down a non-descript road with no prior signage that i   could see. With persistence and a few kilometers of walking carrying my pack i was able to find its location. Once there i realized it was well worth the effort. The desk attendant spoke excellent English as well as German and we had a rather nice dialogue in a mixture of languages. This garden also had the nicest gift shop i had seen! i ended up getting a few knickknacks and a couple of the best botany books i had found in the country. One book was for the most common weeds and their uses and another was the
most succinct book for understanding the 120 tree families of Costa Rica (Laurito, Sanchez-Vindas, & Manfredi Abarca, 2005; Sanchez-Vindas, Poveda, & Arnason, 2005). We used both of these books extensively during our two week plant study through Diamante Verde. Other books that we used as well as others i have found since are numerous (Condit, Pérez, & Daguerre, 2010; Gargiullo, Magnuson, & Kimball, 2008; Lellinger, 1989; Navas, 2006; Zuchowski, 2007). Many more are cited under the Ark Herb farm description below. The misty rain that had persisted throughout the morning let up just as i was done checking out the gift shop and ready to explore. The 27 acres of the Lankester garden are home to around 3000 species of plants. The overwhelming majority consists of an amazing orchid collection containing about 1000 different species and more than 7,000 individuals. This was the place that i finally found inspiration to go deeper into orchid study. It was very nice to have everything meticulously labeled. i left there with an appreciation of several Orchid groups that call to me in particular. Besides Orchids the garden focuses on a few other plant families including Palms (Arecaceae), Bamboos (Poaceae), Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae), Heliconias (Heliconiaceae), Cycads (Cycadaceae), Cacti (Cactaceae), and Ferns. i am not particularly knowledgeable of any of these families but still found their collections rather impressive and a challenge for further study. The garden at that time needed to work quite a bit on their signage however to facilitate such a task.

Ark Herb Farm www.arkherbfarm.com

              i traveled from CATIE to Heredia near San Jose to stay with my new friend Tin. He  was one of the main teachers at the plant symposium i attended. i explored this repository of hundreds of plants with him and worked to compile the additions we made to the Diamante Verde plant list including more than 50 new species. My time at the Ark herb farm seemed like a bit of a warp zone. i had already pretty much decided to skip Arenal and Tabacon Hot Springs mostly due to my book purchases at Lankester. This was a classic choice for me. i took  the longer lasting joy of books over the short term joy of shi shi hot springs and the chance to see an active volcano glowing orange with lava. i partially rationalized that a volcano viewing is never guaranteed and the books are rather fabulous resources in many ways. After just a little time at Ark it became apparent that beyond money i would also rather spend the time alloted to Tabacon/Arenal deepening my connection with this rather special family at a particularly dynamic time of all our lives.

This is the place where i wrote my rather extended reflection of the Diamante symposium. i also reviewed Tin´s large collection of the vast book resources available about Costa Rican Flora. Costa Rica is sooooo lucky to have several non-profits and the government itself publish copious amounts of up to date literary resources on most of the various special plant groups represented there. Many of these resources are both in Spanish and English which is yet another boon (Acevedo, Bustamante, Paniagua, & Chaves, 2002; Arce, 2005; Céspedes & Lindquist, 2007; Chavarria, González, & Zamora, 2001a, 2001b; Chizmar, Lu, & Correa, 2009; Crow, 2002; Estrada & Rodríguez, 2009; González, 2005; Haehner, 2006; Hammel, 2005; Harmon, 2004; Kappelle, Castro, Acevedo, González, & Monge, 2003; Kappelle & Horn, 2005; Kappelle, 2008; Morales, 2000; Obando & Herrera, 2010; Polini, 2008; Poveda, Jiménez, & Zamora, 2011; Quirós, 2006; Roubik & Hanson, 2004; Skutch, 2000; Umaña & Sipman, 2002; V, M, & A, 2004; Valerio, 2004; Vindas, 2003).

Ark is also home to over 300 species of medicinal and culinary plants from around the world. These are represented in large beds for commercial cultivation as well as within a nicely labeled and layed out ethnobotanical garden. The view of the central valley below is also rather stunning, especially from the tree house.

Monte Verde, Orchid Botanical Gardens www.monteverde-online.com

                The next day i went to this sweet little Orchid garden which was a pleasant
surprise amongst the copious tourists of this famous locale. The attendant/guide was a gal named Karmen from Eugene, Oregon who had spent quite a bit of time in C.R. and also had a great bit of knowledge about plants. Karmen was studying with Willow Zuchowski author of  the amazing tome Tropical Plants of Costa Rica (2007). She very adeptly helped me hone my budding (smile) interest in orchids to a much finer point. i spent the balance of the day in further discussion and exploration of the orchid
books that they had available. In a relatively small space they had over 450 species of orchids almost all native to Costa Rica. That is about 1/3 of the total native species to the country! To top it off over 100 of these species were blooming. However, i must say that you really need a magnifying glass to appreciate many of them! A number of book resources are available for further study of Costa Rican orchids (Morales, 2006, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d, 2009e).


                The Isla de Ometepe on the huge Lago (Lake) de Nicaragua is certainly one of the most stunning places i have ever been! Unfortunately, i have only found very few resources for Nicaraguan botany specifically (Gómez & Arbeláez, 2009; Seymour, 2012; Stevens, Ulloa, Pool, & Montiel, 2001). However, many educational programs including ethnobotanical field schools and herbalist trainings have occurred or continue to occur there.

Finca Magdelena
                 i had already decided that i was being called to hike the "smaller" of the two volcanos that inhabit the island. Maderas is close to 4000 ft tall. Conception the larger of the two is an additional 600 ft taller and still active. i quickly determined that it was necessary to reach Finca Magdalena at the foot of Maderas that day if i were to be able to climb the following morning. After a rather extensive bus trip and a great ride/conversation with a local Nica (Nicaraguan) family i reached the trail to Magdalena. Another twenty
minutes of hiking and i reached this amazing oasis. Finca Magdelena is a cooperative farm that owns hundreds of acres on this island. they produce fair trade organic shade grown coffee, chocolate, bananas, etc. They also run a rather popular hostel frequented by people from all over the world. The rooms ranged from $2.50 shared to $6 private per night! A whole plate of yummy typical food goes for $1.25 and liters of beer are $1.50! The finca also has a rather extensive collection of the petroglyphs that are another hallmark of the Ometepe experience.


Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela www.bgci.org/worldwide/article/125/

               Lancetilla was started in 1926 by the United Fruit Company owners of the Chiquita Banana brand. The garden in total comprises 1680 hectares (4000 plus acres). 78 hectares are dedicated to an arboretum and 321 hectares to experimental plants and endangered species. the rest is a biological reserve. The garden features fruit trees from every continent. This was the place that almost every type of tropical fruit you can imagine was trialed to see its appropriateness for cultivation in Central America. It was inspiring to see an arboretum of such mature specimens. Eighty years in the tropics is probably similar to twice or three times that much in the north. The garden was also rather vacant and very peaceful. The signage was for the most part superb though i realized i have a lot more studying to do to even begin to appreciate the diversity represented. Trees can be a lot harder to get a handle on than smaller plants especially with so many diverse places from all over the world represented. Luckily the visitor center did have a tree guide available to also help the cause (C. Nelson & Andino, n.d.).


Guatemala National Botanical Gardens 


             i really wanted to visit the Guatemala National Botanical Gardens. Luckily the gardens are located in a rather chill part of  the capital city. i was very glad for my decision. Initially, i had decided to limit my time to two hours. i was able to secure a great plant list and the signage was also good. Unfortunately funds were low for this project so the plant list though good was 20 years old and instead of removing broken trees they just had whole sections roped off citing danger. The greenhouse was also rather run down. Nonetheless, the established plantings were a very interesting mix of Northern temperate and Subtropical. Just as i was about to leave to catch a taxi to the bus stop the most challenging part of my trip began. My bowels broke loose!!!


              i have yet to visit Belize but i do have one great resource from there in my library (Balick, Nee, & Atha, 2000). However, many more resources for plant study in Belize sometimes overlapping with the Mayan sections of Mexico have been produced (Ames & Correll, 2012; Arvigo & Balick, 1993; Arvigo & Epstein, 2001; Arvigo, 1995; Garcia, Sierra, Balam, & Balam, 1999; Rietsema & Beveridge, 2009).

Major Plants of the Tropics

Below are some of the major plants that are everywhere in Hawaii in particular and hard to miss

Bauhinia (Bauhinia) Fabaceae

African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) Bignoniaceae

Plumeria (Plumeria spp.) Apocynaceae

Plumbago (Plumbago)  Plumbaginaceae

Kukui/Candelnut (Aleurites moluccana) Sapindaceae

Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) Plantaginaceae

Bouganvilla (Bougainvillea) Nycaginaceae

Reina de La Noche (Brugmansia) Solanaceae

Octopus Tree (Schefflera actinophylla) Araliaceae

A couple plants were prevalent in the markets for cut flowers including Anthurium (Anthurium) Araceae, Proteas (Protea) Proteaceae. Numerous members of the Zingiberales order also make good cut flowers.

Ti Plant (Cordyline fruticosa) is a major plant of Polynesia brought to Hawaii with the Tahitian or Marquesan colonizers. Most guide books put it in the Agavaceae. However, Laxmanniaceae is another family sometimes used and certain placement is still in question.


i got to sample a surprising array of fruits while visiting Hawaii especially.

Abiu (Pouteria caimito) Sapotaceae

Longan (Dimocarpus longan) Sapindaceae

Atemoya, Annonaceae

Noni (Morinda citrifolia) Rubiaceae

Avocados (Persea spp.) Lauraceae

Papaya (Carica papaya) Caricaceae

Breadfruit/Ulu (Artocarpus altilis) Moraceae

Passionfruit/Liliko’i (Passiflora spp.) Passifloraceae

Cacao (Theobroma cacao) Malvaceae

Persimmon (Diospyros) Ebenaceae

Citrus (Citrus spp.) Rutaceae

Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) Sapindaceae

Coconut (Cocos nucifera) Areceae

Soursop (Annona muricata) Annonaceae

Mac Nuts (Macadamia integrifolia) Proteaceae

Surinam Cherries (Eugenia uniflora) Myrtaceae


Other Interesting Plants

i ran into a number of other interesting plants worth mentioning during my Hawaiian travels

Koa (Acacia koa) Fabaceae is a special endemic tree of Hawaii. In the photo album on Facebook you can see a number of pictures of the plant as well as signs with ethnobotanical uses. The Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) Asclepidaceae is a beach plant with rather pretty flowers.

While visiting a charter school holiday fair i noticed a neat wreath made out of Christmas Berry (Schinus  sp.) Anacardiaceae and what i think what was probably Pukiawe (Styphelia tameiameiae) formerly Empacridaceae but now Ericaceae. The first plant is a terrible and to some a toxic exotic invasive and the other a rather rare indigenous plant of Polynesia.

Golden Dew Drop (Duranta erecta syn Duranta repens) Verbenaceae is a conspicuous plant i noticed throughout my travels on the Big Island. The pretty purple flowers and distinctive orange fruit make identification easy. For the second time in my life i got to see the Jade Vine (Strongylodon sp.) Fabaceae. The first time was in a greenhouse in a cold Dutch spring. It was nice to see it outside growing naturally in a tree.

i feel especially privileged to have met the Silversword/’Ahinahina (Argyroxiphium sandwicense) Asteraceae. This is an endemic genus with several species in Hawaii all of them rare. The Silversword was almost extinguished by feral animals but is now protected and making a comeback (Wood, 2010b). This plant group represents an excellent example of island speciation.

i also noticed what looked like quite a bit of Dodder  (Cuscuta) taking over parts of Kona area but it may also have been the similar (Cassytha filiformis) Lauraceae as i only got a look from afar. Kauna’oa (Cuscuta sandwichiana) is used as the typical lei for Lanai (Hall, 2008).

‘Ohi’a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) Fabaceae is another endemic plant to Hawai’i. A famous honey comes from this lava field colonizer from which i crafted a delicious mead.

Tropical Families not Covered by Elpel

i have taken to including the current orders that families are ascribed to as defined by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group II (APG II) in the 2003 issue of Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 141(4), 399-436 and presented in four sources (Heywood, Brummitt, Culham, & Seberg, 2007; Judd, Campbell, Kellog, Stevens, & Donahue, 2008; Llamas, 2003; Spears, 2006).  These are the fundamental sources for the stated taxonomy below!

The Zingiberales is a very important order for food and ornament in the tropics. It can be hard to determine members even to family at times. Some of the major members are teased apart below.

Cannanaceae / Canna Lily Family / Zingiberales

The Canna Lily (Canna indica syn Canna edulis) is one of the classic tropical looking plants that grows well in cool climates (Roth & Schrader, 2000). A starch similar to Arrowroot (Maranta sp.) can be obtained from the rootstock (Couplan, 1998). Beyond that i am not too familiar with other uses of this family.

Heliconiaceae / Heliconia Family / Zingiberales

These plants look a lot like bananas vegetatively. However, many Heliconias have very distinctive an alluring inflorescences. Traveler’s Palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is a stunning landscape ornamental grown in Hawaii and elsewhere in tropical locales.

Marantaceae / Arrowroot Family / Zingiberales

Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) is probably the most famous plant in this family. It has an unpalatable outer skin that must be removed and the raw root is acrid as well (Couplan, 1998). Plants from the Marantaceae are sometimes used ornamentally indoors. The leaves tend to have distinctive striping patterns with a characteristic purple underside to the leaf. They are sometimes called prayer plants.

Muscaceae / Banana Family / Zingiberales

This family is responsible for one of the most popular fruits on the planet Musa ×paradisiaca. The modern cultivated banana does not even produce viable seeds and it must be reproduced vegetatively! Luckily this propagation is very easy to do. In the tropics you will notice that many different types of bananas exist and that bananas ripe off the plant are far superior to anything from the grocery store where they have been shipped after being picked green. Bananas are also often coated in toxic pesticides which have deleterious effects on harvesters (Ransom, 2001). Fairtrade organic Bananas are a good way to vote with your money and your mouth for a more sustainable global agricultural system (Ericson, 2006). Abaca (Musa textilis) is a textile plant from the genus.

Strelitziaceae / Bird of Paradise Family / Zingiberales

Birds of Paradise (Strelitzia spp.) always remind me to be thankful when i see them during travel. True to their name, i am usually in paradise every time i witness these growing. In the last couple years i have had the good fortune to catch the white version a couple of times Strelitzia alba.

Zingiberaceae / Ginger Family / Zingberales

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is probably one of the most important food as medicine plants in the world! Bring this into your life if you have not already. It is an overall health supportive while improving digestion specifically. Very different than the temperate plant in the US and elsewhere called `Wild Ginger` (Asarum spp.) Aristolochiaceae which has toxic compounds! Tropical Ginger has great flavor and is featured prominently in a multitude of iconic foods. Tumeric (Curcuma longa) is well known for its anti-imflammatory effects and also imparting the color yellows to curries and mustard. A type of Arrowroot is made from (C. angustifolia) and perfume extracted from Zedoary (C. zedoaria) (Heywood et al., 2007).

 i think of Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) mostly as something to add to curry and chai, however, it is medicinal as well and goes good in coffee too. Galangal (Alpinia galanga) is a lesser known member of the family that is used medicinally in Asia. The Ginger family hosts a number of ornamentals as well including Red Ginger (A. purpurata), Shell Ginger (A. zerumbet), Ginger Lily (Hedychium coronarium) and Roscoea (Heywood et al., 2007).

Sweet Sop Family / Annonaceae / Magnoliales

The family Annonaceae is thought to fall in the Magnoliales order (Judd et al., 2008) but is not included in Botany in a Day. Many food plants occur in the family including

Paw Paw (Asimina triloba

Poshte (Annona scleroderma)

Custard Apple (Annona reticulata)

Pond Apple (Annona glabra)

Cherimoya (Annona cherimola)

Soursop (Annona muricata)

Sweet Sop (Annona squamosa)

Mountain Soursop (Annona montana)

Soncoya (Annona purpurea)

Africa Amamense (Annona senegalensis)

Anon morado (Annona cinerea)

West and Tropical African Junglesop (Anonidium mannii)

Llama (Annona diversifolia


Sources: (Facciola, 1998; Van Wyk, 2005).

Several genera in this family come from Asia including Ylang ylang (Canaga odorata), Kai kung shue (Uvaria microcarpa) and Keppel Apple (Stelechocarpus burakol) (Facciola, 1998).

Paw paw (Asimina triloba) is the only temperate member of this mostly tropical New World family. It is quite a treat to have a native plant that tastes like a cross between Mango (Mangifera indica) Anacardiaceae, Banana (Musa acuminata) Musaceae, and Pineapple (Ananas comosus) Bromeliaceae. Amazingingly they grow as far north as Michigan. Other species grow further south in Georgia and Florida including Asimina incana and Asimina tetramera  (Couplan, 1998). Some others include small flower Pawpaw (Asimina parviflora), Florida Pawpaw (Asimina obovata), slimleaf Pawpaw (Asimina angustifolia) and Dwarf Pawpaw (Asimina pygmea). Another genus in the family that occurs in Florida is called the False Pawpaw (Deeringothamnus spp.).

The Paw paw also has nice physical aesthetics. However, the leaves, bark, root, unripe fruit and seeds have toxic compounds and therefore are not considered edible for people. This compound is concentrated in the smaller stems which are being investigated for natural pesticide potential (Reich, 2008). The compounds including asiminine, analobine and annonaceous acetogenins are being investigated for use in anti-tumor drugs as well (Lyle, 2006).  The ripe Pawpaw is considered delicious by most but some people may have allergic reactions (Lyle, 2006).

Despite some toxicity in some parts of the Paw paw it is also host to the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) and Pawpaw Sphinx moth (Dolba hyloeus) (Tallamy, 2009).

The Pawpaw has a rich recorded history going back to early colonial exploration including De Soto in the 1500s and Lewis and Clark in the 1800s (Staub, 2008). The Pawpaw was used extensively by Native American tribes (Moerman, 1998). Pawpaws may be used to make a strong fiber (Lyle, 2006). They may be used as dye plants as well (Fern, 2008).

Pawpaws can be hard to cultivate. They have a deep tap roots and don’t take well to transplanting. Seeds are hard to germinate as well. Beetles and flies pollinate as is consistent with the fetid purple flowers (Lyle, 2006). However, they are often not very effective. Flowers are strongly protogynous meaning the female parts are ready long before the males of the same plant which discourages self pollination. Pollination is increased by having several varieties and manually applying pollen to stigmas.  Wild Pawpaws vary greatly in quality. Improved varieties are recommended. They can be easily propagated by whip and tongue grafting (Lyle, 2006). Wild seeds can be started in sizable pots and grown on for a couple few years in shade and then put in the ground in sun whereupon an improved variety may be applied to the top. Clones may be separated from a grove if split off one year and dug out the next (Reich, 2008).

Bignoniaceae / Cross Vine Family / Lamiales

Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) and Cross Vine (Bignonia capreolata) are two attractive vines from this family that grow in the southern U.S.  A wonderful Eastern American tree the Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) hints at the marvelous potential of this family to put on a spring show. Many plants, mostly trees, really light up the forest with amazing displays in the tropics. Jacaranda (Jacaranda) Trumpet Tree (Tabeuia spp.) Orange Bells (Tecoma spp.) and Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) are all tremendous ornamentals in this family.

Francois Couplan (1998) mentioned an unverified report of the roots from the Trumpet Bush (Tecoma stans) being used for a fermented beverage. According to the research of Stephen Facciola (1998)  a number of plants from the Bignoniaceae have been used for food included in the table below

Common Name

Scientific Name




Catalpa ovata

Flowers and young Pods *SEE  BELOW



Crescentia alata

Ripe seeds added to Horchata

Tropical America


Crescentia cujete

Young fruits pickled and seeds used to make syrup called Carabobo in Curacao as well as a coffee substitute. Leaves cooked in Africa

Tropical America

Sausage Tree

Kigelia africana

Fruits used to ferment beverages including Muratina, Uki and Kathroko

Tropical Africa

Indian Trumpet Flower

Oroxylum indicum

Young leaves and flowers are eaten uncooked. Fruits and seeds are eaten cooked. Mature seeds used in the Chinese drink Chub Liang and the Ayurveda tonic Chyavanprash

Southeast Asia


Parmentiera aculeata

Fruits raw, cooked, roasted, pickled

Central America

Candle Tree

Parmentiera cereifera

Edible fruits


African Tulip Tree

Spathodea campanulata

Flower bud liquid considered tonic winged seeds said to be edible

Tropical Africa/ Cultivated

Pau d Arco

Tabeuia impetiginosa

Inner bark brewed into a famous tea

South America









Source: Facciola, S. (1998). Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants.

*Though mentioned as a food above (Catalpa ovata) fruits have catalpin, a mutagenic iridoid (Frohne & Pfander, 2005)

Pau d’ Arco is brewed as a tonic tea in South America (Facciola, 1998). Roble De Sabana (Tabebuia rosea) is used in Costa Rica as a potent antimicrobial and anti-parasitic (Navas, 2006). Paki (Crescentia cujete) is used medicinally in Costa Rica and in Jamaica (S. Austin & Thomas, 2009; Navas, 2006). (Tecoma stans) is used in Costa Rica for a number of applications as well (Navas, 2006).

Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) is considered invasive in California while Chinese Catlapa (Catalpa ovata) and Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) are considered invasive in parts of the eastern U.S. (Burrell, 2006).

Arabidea bilabiata and Pseudocalymna are known to cause livestock poisoning in Brazil (Frohne & Pfander, 2005). According to the same source the timber from Tabebuia and Paratecoma peroba contains naphthoquinones and can cause skin irritation, though the Pau d Arco (Tabebuia impetiginosa) is free of these compounds. The foliage and flowers of Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) can cause skin irritation and blisters (Westbrooks & Preacher, 1986).

Cross vine (Bignonia capreolata) is a good early food source for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and is a preferred food of the Swamp Rabbit and moderate preference forage of the White-tailed Deer in the eastern U.S.  (Miller & Miller, 2005). Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) is an important Ruby-throated Hummingbird plant and is readily used by White-tailed Deer (Miller & Miller, 2005). A large array of butterflies including Swallowtails are attracted to the Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) (Lewis, 1995). Flowers vary in the Cross Vine family and are pollinated by bees, wasps, butterflies, hawk moths, birds and bats (Judd et al., 2008).

Acanthaceae / Bear’s Breeches Family / Lamiales

Appalachia contains mainly one member of this family known as Water Willow (Justicia americana). However, i was blown away by the diversity of this family down in Costa Rica. Azul de Mata (Justicia tinctoria) is a dye plant who’s efficacy as a traditional medicine used there is in question (Navas, 2006). Sornia (Dicliptera unguiculata) is used in traditional Costa Rican medicine against dysentery (Laurito et al., 2005). A number of members from this family are used medicinally in Jamaica including Rice Bitters (Andrographis paniculata) Freshcut (Justicia pectoralis) and Duppy Gun (Ruellia tuberosa) (S. Austin & Thomas, 2009). Some members have made their way to Florida as ornamentals including the Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeeana).

The black mangrove (Avicennia spp.) has been moved from the Verbenaceae to the Acanthaceae by some (Judd et al., 2008; Spears, 2006). However, others support the placement of Black Mangrove in its own family the Avicenniaceae (Heywood et al., 2007).

Bears Breeches (Acanthus mollis) is one iconic plant from Europe already popular in Roman times. i remember first noticing this plant at the Botanical Gardens in Cordoba Spain which has a fabulous collection of plants if you are ever in the area.

The flowers of Chuparosa (Justicia californica syn Beloperone californica) are good to eat raw and have been used by the Papago Native Americans as well as Hummingbirds (Couplan, 1998). The nutritious leaves and stems of Moku (Rungia klossii) are eaten raw and cooked in Papau New Guinea while Purple Rice Plant (Peristrophe speciosa) is used as a food coloring in SE Asia (Facciola, 1998).

Black Eyed Susan Vine (Thunbergia spp.) is sometimes planted in as an ornamental in temperate gardens. Polka Dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) is a popular ornamental from this family and used in traditional Costa Rican medicine (Laurito et al., 2005). Britton’s Wild Petunia (Ruellia caerulea) is considered invasive in Florida (Burrell, 2006).

Phrymaceae / Lopseed Family  / Lamiales

Monkeyflower (Mimulus) is most often put into the Scrophulariaceae family. However, some have supported its placement here (Judd et al., 2008; Spears, 2006). According to the USDA site http://plants.usda.gov many plants formerly in the genus Mimulus are now in the Bush Monkeyflower genus (Diplacus).

Mimulus cardinalis attracts several butterflies including Checkerspots, Ringlets, Painted Lady, Cabbage White, and Checkered White (Lewis, 1995). Sticky Monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus ssp. aurantiacus syn M. aurantiacus) which is native to Southern California is a larval food plant for Common Buckeye and Chalcedon Checkerspot (Lewis, 1995).

This is the last class for the year due to an incredibly full schedule...Please do join us again starting next year around the Spring equinox...Thanks! marc

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class.


  • Plan to go to a conservatory at a place near you and meet some tropical plants.
  • Discover what area of the world your house plants come from.
  • Write a list of tropical plants that you consumed for food and where they originated and are currently produced
  • Post any clear photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email.

Praises to all that have donated to the cause. i encourage everyone reading this to donate as they are able financially, commentarially, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and any way i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

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