Plant Talk 13: Neotropical Plant Overview: Places to see, Resources for further study, Major families missing from Elpel


Plant Talk 13: Neo-Tropical Plant Overview Taxonomy and Ethnobotany

Hello plant enthusiasts!

Tropical Botany

Below is a treatment of tropical botany and resource for the study therein. The focus is largely contained to the Americas including Hawaii as these are the places I have personally travelled. However, I have also visited many conservatories with tropical collections from around the world which may inform the discussion as well. First follows a discussion of gardens that are available to visit for further exploration in the Americas. Next follows small monographic treatments of mostly tropical families that are not treated in Elpel (2004). Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Gardens Florida

Ironic that I grew up in Florida from the time of 7 – 24 and yet I 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. In recent years I have had the good fortune to co teach with Mycol Stevens from Brooker, FL. 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 maybe. Mycol hosts WOOFers at his farm if you are interested and also host a primitive skill gathering near the end of January every year.

i tend to depend on just a few books for plant identification in Florida (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).

Fairchild Botanical Gardens

One of the best tropical botanical gardens in the world especially in regards to palms and cycads

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

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.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

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

University of South Florida Botanical Gardens

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 particulary engaging.

Ford Edison Estate

This legendary estate played host to the families of both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Numerous old trees provide inspiration including the biggest Banyan (F. benghalensis) in the continental United States planted in 1925 from a 4ft tree.

Naples Botanical Gardens

This compact garden is action packed and perfect for a crash course tutotial in the most important tropical plants of the world.

Edible Fruit and Spice Park

This incredible resource is a must see stop for lovers of tropical fruit. 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 (Rollins, 2006).


McKee Botanical Gardens

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

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 in the text. Hawaii is blessed with a rich catalogue of affordable high quality plant guides.

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  

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 education 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

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. This is 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.


i feel very fortunate to have visited Kalani which is the workplace of  a dear friend from my time at the Omega Institute in 1997/98. 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 plants at this location alone.

Nani Mau Gardens

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 is very friendly and informative. Apparently an Acupuncture school will be moving there shortly which will certainly up the appeal even further.

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 Ochanaceae is a fascinating pan tropical family that i will endeavor to serve further in the coming year.

Lava Tree State Park


Here I took note and pictures of a plant that looks like the Bamboo Orchid ( ). Huge Mimosa trees and a particular fern probably The Pacific False Staghorn (Dicranopteris sp.) all 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 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.

Costa Rica

Diamante Verde

 Here is an excerpt from a travelougue of my trip through Central America in 2007. It seems to convey a bit the interesting nature of a very special place in the world…

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, 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 have ever done. It legendarily has been known to take anywhere from from 1hr to 2days. The mulititude 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 works on Costa Rican flora more available.

 Wilson Botanical Gardens, San Vito

These fabulous gardens run by the Organization for Tropical studies.

 i  spent two fabulous days there touring around first with a Tico 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, with the second biggest palm collection in the world after the Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami! i believe something like 700 palm species alone and apparently close to 7000 plant species in total. A pleasant surprise besides the cool and abundant plants was one of the neatest plant libraries i have ever been priveledged
to spend time in. Most 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 or The Center for Tropical Investigation and
Learning.  CATIE

Their property covers 2,655 acres and houses over 400 species of
plants from around the world. Their main focus seems to be maintaining the genetic diversity of plants crucial to Central American Agriculture with 2,500 varieties of coffee and 700 varieties of Chocolate 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 and faculty representing 13 dfferent countries.They 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 Dio Quiere (God willing)


               Lankester Gardens in Paraiso 

i got off the bus just passed Paraiso and had a similar experience. The garden is quite a bit down a non descript road with no prior signage that i could see. Once again with persistance and a few kilometers of walking with 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 dialougue in a mixture of languages. This garden also had the nicest gift shop i had seen and i ended up getting quite a few knick nacks and a couple of the best books i had seen in the country. One book was for the most common weeds and their uses and another was the most susccint book for understanding the 120 tree families of Costa Rica. We used both of these books extensively during our two week plant study. 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 amzing orchid collection containing about 1000 differents 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 few other plant families including Palms, Bamboos, Bromeliads, Heliconias, Cycads, Cacti, 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 could work quite a bit on their signage however to facilitate such a task.  

Ark Herb Farm

 Heredia near San Jose to stay with new friend Tin was one of the main teachers at the symposium and he runs the i will explore this repository of hundreds of plants with him and work to compile the additions we made to the Diamante Verde plant list including plus 50 new species. My time at the Ark herb farm seems 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 super shi shi hot springs and the chance to see a 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 special 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 extensive 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. Ark is also home to over 300 species of Medicinal and Culinary plants from around the world. These are represented in large beds for commerical 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 that was recently built.

 Monte Verde, Orchid Botanical Gardens

The next day i went to the Orchid garden which was a greatly pleasant surprise. 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 is currently studying with Willow Zuchowski author of the amazing tome Tropical Plants of Costa Rica. 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, many i must say you really need a magnifying glass to appreciate!


      Isla de Ometepe on the huge Lago(Lake) de Nicaragua 

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 in fact more like 4000 ft tall than the previously stated 3000 ft tall. Conception the larger of the two is an additional 600 ft taller and still active. i quickly determined that i would need to reach Finca(Farm) 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 range 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.

Ethnobotanical Institute


Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela

Lancetilla was started in 1926 by the United Fruit Company owners of the Chiquita Banana brand. The garden in total comprises 1680 hectares(6000 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 time 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 as Eighty years in the tropicas 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 alot 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.


Guatemala City Botanical Gardens

i really wanted to visit their Botanical Gardens. Luckily the gardens are located in a rather chill part of town. 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 are 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!

Major Plants of the Tropics (origin?)

Below are some of the major plants that are everywhere 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.

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



A few greens are still available in the temperate world even in winter. Numerous members of the Brassica family are around. Recently i picked frozen spinach out in the field in Boone that tasted great after feet of snow and no cover for protection.

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 and 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 Endemic plant to Hawai’i

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 three sources (Heywood, Brummitt, Culham, & Seberg, 2007; Judd, Campbell, Kellog, Stevens, & Donahue, 2008; 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 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 is 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. It 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. 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 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 also 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. Quite a treat to have a native plant that taste like a cross between Mango (Mangifera indica) Anacardiaceae, Banana (Musa acuminata) Musaceae, and Pineapple (Ananas comosus ) Bromeliaceae . Amazing that they grow as far north as Michigan. Other species grow further south in Georgia and Florida including Asimina incana, Asimina tetramera  (Couplan, 1998). Small flower Pawpaw (Asimina parviflora) and Florida Pawpaw (Asimina obovata) (Facciola, 1998). Other species include 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, and 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 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 Paw paw 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 females 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.  (J. H. Miller & Miller, 2005). Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) is an important Ruby-throated Hummingbird plant and is readily used by White-tailed Deer (J. H. 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

In Appalachia we have 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, Sanchez-Vindas, & Manfredi Abarca, 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 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 (W. Curtis) Jeps. ssp. aurantiacus syn M. aurantiacus) which is native to Southern California is a larval food plant for Common Buckeye and Chalcedon Checkerspot (Lewis, 1995).

Paulowniaceae / Empress tree Family / Lamiales

The Royal Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa) is normally put in the Scrophulariaceae which always seemed weird to me. There is now some strong support for giving it a separate family (Judd et al., 2008; Spears, 2006). It is a very distinct Ornamental/Exotic Invasive in Appalachia. The Flowers are a gorgeous purple color in the spring and the wood is apparently of rather high value in Asia.

For the next class we will cover other families not included by Elpel and it will be posted around the 21st of December.

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at or leave information in the commentary under this class. Save your comment before submitting if possible as sometimes our spam filter seems to reject them. The problem seems to be connected to how much time you take to submit. I WOULD REALLY LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!!!

  • 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, commentarialy, 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

Austin, D. F. (2004). Florida Ethnobotany (1st ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Austin, S., & Thomas, M. (2009). Common Medicinal Plants of Portland Jamaica (2nd ed.). United States: CIEER, Inc.

Burrell, C. C. (2006). Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Couplan, F. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. New Canaan, CT: Keats Pub.

Elpel, T. J. (2004). Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification (5th ed.). Pony, MT: HOPS Press.

Ericson, R. B. (2006). The Conscious Consumer: Promoting Economic Justice Through Fair Trade. Washington, D.C.: Fair Trade Resource Network.

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

Frohne, D., & Pfander, H. J. (2005). Poisonous Plants: A Handbook for Doctors, Pharmacists, Toxicologists, Biologists and Veterinarians (2nd ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc.

Greenwell, A. B. H. V. D., Lincoln, N., & Van Dyke, P. (2009). Amy Greenwell Garden Ethnobotanical Guide to Native Hawaiian Plants & Polynesian-Introduced Plants. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum Press.

Hall, J. (2008). A Hiker’s Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawai`i. Honolulu, Hawai`i: Mutual Pub.

Heywood, V. H., Brummitt, R. K., Culham, A., & Seberg, O. (2007). Flowering Plant Families of the World (Revised.). Buffalo, NY; Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books.

Judd, W. S., Campbell, C. S., Kellog, E. A., Stevens, P. F., & Donahue, M. J. (2008). Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach (3rd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Laurito, V. N., Sanchez-Vindas, P., & Manfredi Abarca, R. (2005). Hierbas y Arbustos Comunes en Cafetales y Otros Cultivos. San Jose, Costa Rica: Herbario Juvenal Valerio Rodriguez.

Lewis, A. (Ed.). (1995). Butterfly Gardens. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Macmahon, D. A., & Marquardt, W. H. (2004). The Calusa and Their Legacy: South Florida People and Their Environments (1st ed.). University Press of Florida.

Marquardt, W. H., & Payne, C. (1992). Culture and Environment in the Domain of the Calusa. Iaps Books.

Miller, J. H., & Miller, K. V. (2005). Forest Plants Of The Southeast And Their Wildlife Uses (Revised.). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Navas, H. R. (2006). La Utilidad de Las Plantas Medicinales en Costa Rica (1st ed. 4th Printing ed.). Heredia, Costa Rica: Editorial Universidad Nacional.

Nelson, G. (1998). The Trees of Florida: A Reference and Field Guide. Pineapple Pr.

Pratt, H. D. 1944-(Harold D. (1998). A Pocket Guide to Hawai`i’s Trees and Shrubs. Honolulu, Hawaii: Mutual Pub.

Ransom, D. (2001). The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.

Rollins, C. (2006). The Fruit and Spice Park. (L. Bohorquez, Ed.). Lawrenceburg, IN: The Creative Company.

Roth, S. A., & Schrader, D. (2000). Hot Plants for Cool Climates: Gardening with Tropical Plants in Temperate Zones / Schrader, Dennis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Snow, A. M., & Stans, S. E. (2001). Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians (1st ed.). Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Spears, P. (2006). A Tour of the Flowering Plants: Based on the Classification System of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Taylor, W. K. (1992). The Guide to Florida Wildflowers. Taylor Trade Publishing.

Westbrooks, R. G., & Preacher, J. W. (1986). Poisonous Plants of Eastern North America (1st ed.). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Whitton, K. J. (2009). A Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Botanical Gardens. Honolulu, Hawai’i: Mutual Pub.

Wood, P. (2010a). Tropical Trees of Hawai`i. Pocket guide series. Waipahu, Hawai`i: Island Heritage Publishing.

Wood, P. (2010b). Flowers and Plants of Hawai’i. Waipahu, Hawaii: Island Heritage Publishing.

Wunderlin, R. P., & Hansen, B. F. (2011). Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida (Third Edition.). University Press of Florida.


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