2015 Plant Talk 14 Neotropical/Subtropical Ethnobotany/Taxonomy and Places for Further Study

Passion Flower

Plant Talk 14: Neotropical/Subtropical EthnobotanyTaxonomy, Places/Resources for Further Study

Hello plant enthusiasts!

            Well, the cold is finally in full affect in the Southern Appalachian region that i typically call home as well as and other temperate places of the northern world. However, i have escaped to Florida where i grew up to spend time with family and the subject matter at hand; neotropical botany. 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 thoughts of such places are very welcome to me.


Down here many things are ready to harvest in the middle of winter including a sampling below.

Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicon) Solanaceae

Starfruit (Averrhoa carambola) Oxalidaceae

Canistel (Pouteria campechiana) Sapotaceae

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) Moraceae

Citrus (Citrus spp.) Rutaceae

Coco plum (Chrysobalanus icaco) Chrysobalanaceae

Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) Sapotaceae

All sorts of greens from the Brassicaceae and Asteraceae are available as well


Lots of beautiful blooms including the Scarlet Bush (Hamelia patens) and the odorific Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) which comes from the Paw Paw family (Annonaceae) and is reputed to be used in Chanel No 5.

Neo Tropical and Subtropical Botany

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


             Below is a treatment of tropical/subtropical 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 North/Central America and a listing of literature available for most areas within that region. For those interested, a website is available from the Botanical Gardens Conservation International that lists most of the botanical gardens of the whole world over 3,300 in total! After that i have included small monographic treatments of mostly tropical families that are not described in Botany in a Day (T. Elpel, 2013; T. J. Elpel & Cook, 2006). 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).

            Excited to say that i have been accepted to present my research on the ethnobotany and ethnomycology of Costa Rica at the 3rd annual Medicines From the Edge Conference in Costa Rica this March. This research is informed by my only international trip with Frank Cook that occurred as part of the Guardians of Eden Retreat at Diamante Verde in 2007 and teaching at the Medicine’s from the Edge and travels to the Caribbean last year. Tenasi Rama and Tin Contreras are two other crucial instructors and together we have all crafted a plant list of over 300 species from Costa Rica replete with ethnobotanical uses. This year we plan to publish a new edition in the Plants and Healers series started by Frank Cook reflecting the research that i, Tenasi, Tin and Frank have put together over the last 10 years. i will also be leading a tour of 8 people to the conference and various other amazing places around the country. i am currently using a few resources to research the medicinal plants of tropical places more broadly in preparation for my trip (Balick, Elisabetsky, & Laird, 1996; Downum, Romeo, & Stafford, 1993).

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 formerly worked for the state of Florida doing botanical surveys and ecological restoration work. He has greatly enhanced my awareness of subtropical botany more than anyone other than Frank Cook. Mycol hosts WOOFers at his farm if you are interested. He also founded an earth skills gathering that happens in February every year. http://www.floridaearthskills.org/

            i tend to depend on just a few books for plant identification in Florida (G. Nelson, 1998; Taylor, 1992; Wunderlin & Hansen, 2011). An expanded version of  the flora by some of the same authors in multiple volumes is in development as well (Wunderlin & Hansen, 2000, 2015, 2016). Beyond books Florida also has an online atlas of vascular plants too.

             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; Hann, 1986; 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. He did write a number of small field guides for specific ecotypes as well though that are both affordable and full of fascinating ethnobotanical information (D. Austin, 1991, 1997, 1999; D. F. Austin, 2003).

            Of course lots of gardening books for growing plants in Florida have been developed over the years (Flint, 1997). A number of books about Florida’s trees specifically have been written as well (Hammer, 2010; Kirk, 2009; Kurz & Godfrey, 1962; Little, 1978; G. Nelson, 1998, 2011; Scurlock, 1996; Small, 1913; Stebbins, 1999). i have recently come across field guides for specific regions written by naturalist Roger Hammer for specific regions such as the Florida Keys and Everglades (Hammer, 2004, 2015). Another one on the plants of Central Florida is forthcoming (Hammer, 2016).

            A few wild edible books specific to wild edibles for Florida have been written as well (Deuerling & Lantz, 1993; Lantz, 2014). Green Deane and Andy Firk are incredible resources for wild edibles that grow in Florida and elsewhere.

           A specific guide for orchids of Florida is available for folks interested in this fascinating plant group (Brown, 2002). A book about supporting wildlife in Florida with planting may also be of interest (Craig N. Huegel, 2010; Craig Norman Huegel, 1995). Wetland plants of Florida have their own literature (Tobe, 1998; Whitney, Means, & Rudloe, 2014). As does the general ecology of Florida botany (Knight, 2010; Myers & Ewel, 1990; Putz, 2014; Whitney, Means, & Rudloe, 2004).

Kampong National Tropical Botanical Gardens

        This is the only outpost for the National Tropical Botanical gardens in North America. All the others are on the islands of Hawai’i. The Kampong is the former residence of international explorer David Fairchild (Fairchild, 1982; Schokman, 1985).

Fairchild Botanical Gardens www.fairchildgarden.org

           This is one of the best tropical botanical gardens in the world especially in regards to palms and cycads. They have a large indoor butterfly garden featuring rare species as well. This garden was started by friends of David Fairchild and carved out of their estate which is now a world class research garden in its own right known as the Montgomery Botanical Center.

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! Phoenix botanical gardens and Amy B Greenwell gardens in Hawaii are a couple of others if you are wondering.

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. Selby has the most diverse collection of bromeliads in the world and the collection in total has plants from 6,000 species in 1,200 genera from 214 plant families! They have also published a great exhaustive book about orchid genera (Alrich & Higgins, 2008).

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

           This is 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 (Ficus benghalensis) in the continental United States! It was only planted in 1925 from a 4ft tree and now takes up almost an acre of canopy space! A fascinating museum is part of the property as well. Signage is great with the exception of not including the family and many rare plants can be found here.

Naples Botanical Gardens www.naplesgarden.org

           This used to be a compact garden that was action packed and perfect for a crash course tutorial in the most important tropical plants of the world. However in recent years they have expanded significantly. i also have begun to teach here which hopefully will continue for years to come. They also have 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. It honors the heritage of Japanese pineapple farmers who inhabited this region in a bygone time.

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).

Miami Beach Botanical Gardens http://www.mbgarden.org/

           This is a relatively small garden. However, it contains many rare native plants and has excellent signage. The guest service spot also has a nice little library of books available for perusal though not to check things out.

Mounts Botanical Garden http://www.mounts.org/

            This garden is at the northern edge of zone 10b for the east coast of Florida. It is attached to the cooperative extension office. Lots of different themed gardens are featured. i particularly enjoyed the one with culinary medicinal herbs and another planted for butterflies. A number of rare natives are featured as well as a small fruit orchard and vegetable in another section too.

Hawaiian Botany

             A manual to the plants of Hawaii has been developed (Wagner, Herbst, & Sohmer, 1999). A number of books focus on the native plants of Hawaii, of which many are endemic, and how to grow them (Bohm, 2009; Bornhorst, 2005; Culliney & Koebele, 1999; Fahs, 2006). One in particular is a rather exhaustive treatise on every single species (Lilleeng-Rosenberger, 2005)! It may be helpful to look at the history, evolution and ecology of Hawaii to put these plants in context (Ziegler, 2002).

            Angela Kay Kepler is a prolific author of books on Hawaiian plants. Some are for specific plant groups like trees and proteas and bananas (A. K. Kepler, 1990, 1996; A. K. Kepler & Rust, 2011). Others are more general wildflower guides are talk about heritage plants of Hawaii (A. Kepler, 2004; A. K. Kepler, 1995, 1998; A. K. Kepler & Mau, 1989).

             Some great books address the traditional healing practices of Hawaii (Abbott, 1992; Gutmanis, 1976, 1995; Krauss, 2001b). One looks at the healing practices of Polynesia in general (Whistler, 1994). A few books also explore the ferns of Hawaii of which the one by Palmer (2008) is especially exhaustive and up to date (Valier, 1995). Exotic invasives are a really big problem in Hawaii. The University of Hawaii, Manoa also has traditionally had one of the only fully fledged ethnobotany programs in the country though it has now been downgraded to a minor for Bachelors and concentration in the Graduate school. L


              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 (A. Kepler, 2004; Krauss, 2001a, 2001b; C. 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 five 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 published a great 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 (P. Wood, 2010b).

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). Plant and animal invasiveness in Hawaii is a real big challenge to maintaining many endemic plants that grow nowhere else in the world (Messing & Wright, 2006; Staples & Cowie, 2001).

Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park

             Unfortunately i did not get to visit while in Pahoa which last year was being eaten by lava from here. However, i am aware of a couple of great resources for the study of life present there (C. Smith, 1988; Stone & Pratt, 1995).

            One evening i went to a Kava Bar in Hilo and saw the incredible band Medicine for the People. 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 and a more recent trip in 2015.

Costa Rica

               Costa Rica is sooooo lucky to have had 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; Estrada & Rodríguez, 2009; Hammel, 2005; Kappelle & Horn, 2005)

               Costa Rica is home to many reserves and several of these have publications related to the plants within (Arce, 2005; Céspedes & Lindquist, 2007; Crow, 2002; González, 2005; Harmon, 2004; Kappelle, Castro, Acevedo, González, & Monge, 2003; Polini, 2008; Vindas, 2003). Some great books address conservation of Costa Rica and threatened species (Madrigal, 1993; Obando & Herrera, 2010; Ocampo, 2005; Southgate, 1998).

               Many resources address the woody plants across the country (Condit, Pérez, & Daguerre, 2010; Holdridge, 1997; Poveda, Jiménez, & Zamora, 2011; Sanchez-Vindas, Poveda, & Arnason, 2005; Valerio, 2004; Zamora, Jimenez, & Poveda, 2004). A number of resources address other specific plant groups. Morales (2000) reviews bromeliads. Lichens get a couple books (Purvis, 2000; Umaña & Sipman, 2002). The Gesneriaceae is treated as well (Haehner, 2006).

               A few books look at the history and tradition of Costa Rican naturalists and herbalism (Bernhardt, 2008; Laurito, Sanchez-Vindas, & Manfredi Abarca, 2005; Navas, 2006; Quirós, 2006; Skutch, 2000; Wu & Browning, 2015). Ethnobotanist Rafael Ocampo (2005, 2009; 1994; 1985) is a particularly prolific author in Spanish of medicinal plants growing in Costa Rica.

            A few resources are available for the study of mushrooms as well (Calderón Fallas, 2005; Halling & Mueller, 2004; Mata Hidalgo, Lewis, Ávila Solera, & Aragón, 2003; Mata, 1999; Tulloss, O’Dell, & Thorn, 1997a, 1997b). Here is the website for Inbio in Costa Rica on mushrooms known as hongos in Spanish and a sister site at the New York botanical gardens.

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 in preparation for the trip down there this March.

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 et al., 2005; Sanchez-Vindas et al., 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 et al., 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. Costa Rica has a number of guides for understanding orchid diversity (Dressler, 1994; Morales, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d, 2009e).  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. 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
               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). One book even looks at the bees that pollinate the orchids (Roubik & Hanson, 2004). Did some of this disappear?
               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 i.e through the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy and Finca Bona Fide.  
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.).

              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, 1995; Arvigo & Balick, 1993; Arvigo & Epstein, 2001; Garcia, Sierra, Balam, & Balam, 1999; Rietsema & Beveridge, 2009). A guide has been written that treats the orchids of both Belize and Guatemala (Ames & Correll, 2012).


               So far i have found one book about medicinal plants in Panama (Chizmar, Lu, & Correa, 2009). Another book covers the trees for there and Costa Rica (Condit et al., 2010). The little Barro Colorado Island has a rather astonishing amount of detailed literature as well (Croat, 1978; Garwood & Tebbs, 2009; Leigh, 1999).


               A few resources address the plants of Caribbean more generally (Ackerman, 2014; Allsopp, 2003; Barlow & Doyle, 1993; Bourne, Lennox, & Seddon, 1988; Carrington, 1998; Lennox & Seddon, 1978; Liogier & Martorell, 1999; Littler, Littler, Bucher, & Norris, 1989; Littler et al., 1989; Marcelle, Hawthorn, & Jules, 2004; Nellis, 1994; Scurlock, 1996; Seddon & Lennox, 1980; Thomas, 2009). A cross cultural dictionary covering terms regarding flora has been developed as well (Allsopp, 2003). The Taino and Carib are the two indigenous tribes best known from the Caribbean (Rouse, 1993; Wilson, 1999). Tramil is an initiative dedicated to documenting the medicinal uses of plants in the Caribbean and surrounding areas.       


               The Bahamas is the only place in the Caribbean that i have been able to visit so far in my life. That visit also occurred at a young age while accompanying my father and consisted of mostly hanging around golf courses and hotels in Freeport. Nonetheless, the place made a big impression on me and i still have a conch shell from that time. Here are a couple wild flower guides for the area (Lennox & Seddon, 1978; K. M. Wood, 2003). A few good references have been written about the herbal practices of the Bahamas known as “Bush Medicine” both there and other places in the Caribbean (Higgs, 1978; McCormack, Maier, & Wallens, 2011; M. H.- Smith, 2005; Wilmanowicz, 2011). The Bahamas also has a published flora (Correll & Correll, 1996). One of the foremost naturalists of the 18th century also wrote a tome considering both the plants and other biota of the Bahamas as well as much of the southeastern United States (Catesby & Kislak, 1771).

Cayman Islands

              The Cayman Islands have a more recent flora than most (G. Proctor R., 2012).


               One book i have found covers Afro-Cuban herbalism (Quiros-Moran, 2009). Another covers the trees (Leiva, 2007). Yet another is available for orchids specifically (Llamacho & Joa, 2005). A rather extensive book also details common names for the plants of Cuba (Mesa, 2014). A thorough bibliography has been generated as well (Manitz, 1999). i have come across a number of writings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding the flora (Henderson, 1916; Hill, 1898). Of course Americans can now visit Cuba much more readily though still under the auspices of a number of officially approved activities. My hope is to go there next year and explore before it gets two overrun.


               Dominica is an island in the Caribbean that plays a similar role to Costa Rica in Central   America. Ecotourism is big. Some of the native Carib traditions live on there as well. Much ethnobotanical work has been done down there (Meyer, 2014; M. Quinlan, 2010; Marsha Bogar Quinlan, 2000; Marsha B. Quinlan & Quinlan, 2007; Marsha B Quinlan, Quinlan, & Nolan, 2002; M. B. Quinlan & Quinlan, 2006; R. J. Quinlan, 2005; R. J. Quinlan & Flinn, 2005).

Haiti/Dominican Republic

               The work of Wade Davis (1985) is seminal in regards to ethnobotany. An older flora in Spanish is available for the Dominican Republic (Moscoso, 1943). A more recent treatment of the ethnobotany there is available as well (Ososki et al., 2002). Ethnobiologist Dr. Ina Vandebroek has conducted extensive research in the DR too.


               A friend and colleague of mine Dr. Summer Ragosta nee Austin has worked extensively in Jamaica ethnobotany  first as a Peace Corps worker and then as a ethnobotany student at the University of Hawaii Manoa (S. Austin & Thomas, 2009). Many other resources are available to study Jamaican ethnobotany and medicinal practices specifically (Ayre, 2002; Cho, 1976; Harris, 2010; Henry, 2002; Higman, 2008; Irizarry, 2012; Payne-Jackson & Alleyne, 2004; Robertson, 1988). An old flora for the island has been written too (Macfadyen, 1837). A newer book covering specifically flowering plants is possibly more pertinent (C. D. Proctor, Adams, & Read, 1973). My Jamaican step-mother recently turned me onto the Guinep or Momoncillo (Melicoccus bijugatus) related to the more well know Rambutan and Lychee. Here is a link to an extensive video about Jamaican medicinal plants although the plants are mostly dried and referred to  by common names so hard to tell their exact identification. Here’s another 15 minute video about one version of the classic Jamaican bush teas/roots drink. The Source Farm in Jamaica is one great place to learn about Permaculture and Ecovillages. A program there is beign facilitated in part by Chuck Marsh and Tony Kleese who are both dear friends of Frank Cook.

Puerto Rico

               One book covers the trees from a National Forest (Mowbray, 2012). Another covers specifically gymnosperms and monocots for here and the Virgin Islands (Acevedo-Rodríguez & Strong, 2005). An orchid flora was developed for here and the Virgin Islands as well (Ackerman, 1995). At least one journal article covers the historic flora (Graham, 1996). Studies of ancient collections of plants largely depends on the science of pollen known as palynology. An all-inclusive flora is available too for this and adjacent islands (Liogier & Martorell, 1999).

Major Plants of the Tropics

Below are some of the major plants that are fairly common in parts of the neotropics.

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 of the big island of Hawaii 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. It is used for a number of applications including the making of Hula skirts and planted for protection and property demarcation. Most guide books put it in the Agavaceae. However, Laxmanniaceae is another family sometimes used and certain placement is still in question. Near as I can tell it is now in the Asparagaceae (Utteridge & Bramley, 2014).


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) Apocynaceae and formerly 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. Christmas Berry which is also known as Brazilian Pepper is a terrible invasive in Florida as well (Langeland, 1998; Ramey, 2005).

               Golden Dew Drop (Duranta erecta syn Duranta repens) Verbenaceae is a conspicuous plant i noticed throughout my travels on the Big Island and in a number of other tropical locales as well. The pretty purple flowers and distinctive orange fruit make identification easy. Jade Vine (Strongylodon sp.) Fabaceae has some of the most beautiful flowers that I have ever laid eyes on! The first time i saw it was in a greenhouse on a cold Dutch spring day. It has been nice to see it outside growing naturally on a number of occasions in Hawaii and Costa Rica since.

              i feel especially privileged to have met the Silversword/’Ahinahina (Argyroxiphium sandwicense) Asteraceae. While in Hawaii. 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 (P. Wood, 2010a). This plant group represents an excellent example of island speciation. The biogeography of islands is a fascinating study unto itself (Cox & Moore, 2010; Lomolino, Riddle, Whittaker, Brown, & Lomolino, 2010; Losos & Ricklefs, 2009; Mielke, 1989; Quammen, 1997; Whittaker & Fernández-Palacios, 2007).

             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! Some insight is taken from the more recent APG III (2009; 2009; 2009)  especially as presented in one incredible resource from Kew gardens (Utteridge & Bramley, 2014).

               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). One variety of banana called Cavendish is grown almost exclusively for the global trade around the world. Unfortunately, as with many monocultures this one is threatened by disease. In this case a type of Fusarium fungus called tropical race 4. This happened before a few decades ago when the “Gros Michel” variety was taken out by Panama disease (Koeppel, 2007). You would think we would have learned from our mistakes and diversified beyond one type. However, the race is on now to find new resistant varieties or the industry as we know it worldwide may be destroyed! 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. Turmeric (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 mostly 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 as seen below.

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, 1998).

            Several genera in this family come from Asia including Ylang ylang (Cananga 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 fruit is also supportive of other wildlife as well.

             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; Utteridge & Bramley, 2014). 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).

              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

Literature Cited

Abbott, I. A. (1992). La’au Hawai’i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants. Bishop Museum Press.

Acevedo, H., Bustamante, J., Paniagua, L., & Chaves, R. (2002). Ecosistemas de la Cuenca Hidrográfica Del Río Savegre, Costa Rica (1ST ed.). Editorial INBio.

Acevedo-Rodríguez, P., & Strong, M. T. (2005). Monocotyledons and gymnosperms of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Washington, DC: Dept. of Botany, National Museum of Natural History.

Ackerman, J. D. (1995). An Orchid Flora of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (First Edition edition). Bronx, N.Y: New York Botanical Garden.

Ackerman, J. D. (2014). Orchid Flora of the Greater Antilles. The New York Botanical Garden Press.

Adams, C. D. (1973). Flowering Plants of Jamaica. Mona, Jamaica: University of The West Indies.

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