neotropical

Lecythis minor (syn. L. elliptica) - Coco de Mono

Lecythis spp. mini Brazilnut.jpg

This is a fantastic tree with much potential for further dissemination and integration into agroforestry and regenerative agricultural systems.

I first encountered the species growing in a stand of three trees in a somewhat neglected area on the edge of Summit botanic gardens outside of Panama City. I have collected seed from these trees for years. A cream colored aril is attached to the end of each nut, the aril tastes like anise but I’m not entirely sure if its edible. The nut itself is one of the best tasting tropical nuts I have eaten, identical in taste to its close relatives L. zabucajo and Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa).

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

Lecythis elliptica fruit

Ranges from the Maracaibo lowlands of Venezuela to the northern coast of Colombian where it ascends to the Magdalena and Cauca valleys. The species most often occurs in dry, open, somewhat disturbed habitats where it grows as a much branched tree, however it can also be found growing in moister forests, especially along waterways where it reaches heights of 25 m. 

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

Lecythis elliptica fruit.jpg

The tree is primarily cultivated from seed for its nut, which can be eaten fresh or roasted. The seedpod and nut are like smaller versions of the closely related L. zabucajo. The nut has a superior flavor and a high oil content. In Brazil, an oil is extracted from the nuts to make soap.

PROPAGATION AND CULTIVATION

The tree is easily propagated from seed, although this species has never been systematically cultivated for commercial purposes. It is an underutilized crop that warrants further experimentation and research for incorporation into tropical agroforestry systems. 

Lecythis elliptica tree.jpg

Gustavia superba - Membrillo

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

Gustavia superba, or Membrillo, is a tree with origins in tropical lowlands from Ecuador to Panama and Venezuela. It is mostly found in homegardens grown for personal consumption. 

Gustavia superba fruit 1.jpg

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

The rounded, pear shaped fruits appear on the trunk contains one to four large smooth light brown seeds are surrounded by a fleshy edible orange pulp, which is typically boiled and is said to have a taste resembling meat.Membrillo pulp is rich in vitamins A, B, and C.

PROPAGATION AND CULTIVATION

Gustavia superba fruit.jpg

The tree can be propagated easily from the seeds found embedded in the edible pulp. The tree is generally slow growing, likes water and sun, and can reach a height of five to ten meters. The species is adapted to hot, humid, tropical climates and will do best in well drained soils with full sunlight. The leaves of G. superba are a favorte food of iguana.

Tropaeolum tuberosum - Mashua

OVERVIEW, ORIGIN, AND DISTRIBUTION

Closely related to the common nasturtium, T. tuberosum is a perennial plant domesticated and traditionally grown in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes Mountains of South America. The plant is a creeper with fleshy stems and orange-red flowers similar to those of nasturtium. The plant is a creeper with fleshy stems and orange-red flowers.

 It was cultivated centuries before European Colonization for the edible root / tuber. Europeans brought the plant back home where it has since been propagated and selected for its ornamental traits. The tuber nasturtium is practically unknown outside of South America where it is still grown as a staple food in many high altitude areas where few other crops will grow

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

The edible roots are white with purple spots, not dissimilar to the form of some potatoes. Traditionally the roots are not eaten fresh but are dried and eaten like potatoes. Pickled tubers have been used in Europe to garnish hors d’oeuvres and cold meats. Leaves are added to salads for their spicy taste and attractive colors. Young seeds and unopened flowers are pickled with tarragon and used as a substitute for capers.

Tropaeolum tuberosum.jpg

Psychotria viridis - Chacruna

OVERVIEW

Psychotria viridis shrub.jpg

Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna or chacrona. In Quechua, chaqruy is a verb meaning "to mix". P. viridis grows to a height of approximately 5 m (16 ft). Its branches span a diameter of about 2 m (6 ft 7 in)

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

Neotropics. Amazon basin, South America. 

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

This species of Psychotria is used by indigenous peoples of western Amazonia, primarily as an additive in the preparation of a hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, also called yage, employed for healing and divination. Although in some instances ayahuasca can be prepared in the absence of Psychotria, the addition of the plant greatly enhances the visionary effect of the brew due to the significant amounts of DMT present in its leaves. DMT, or N, N-dimethyltryptamine, is a tryptamine alkaloid.

Other plants with significant quantities of DMT include: Mimosa tenuiflora (=M. hostilis), Anadenanthera peregrina, Acaciapolyacantha, A. cornigera, A. maidenii, A. nubica, A. plebophylla, A. polyantha, A. senegal, A. simplicifolia), Calliandra spp., Desmodium spp. Mucuna pruriens (Fabaceae), Virola peruviana, V. elongata (=V. heiodora) Epenña, Yakeé (Myristicaceae); Banisteriopsos argentea, B. rusbyana (Malpighiaceae); Prestonia amazonica (Apocynaceae); Psychotria peoppigiana, adn P. psychotriaefolia (Rubiaceae); Arundo donax, Phalaris arundinacea, Phragmites austraiis (Poaceae) and Zanthoxylum spp (Rutaceae).

Psychotria viridis, chacruna.jpg

PROPAGATION

Psychotria viridis is hardy in USDA zone 10 or higher. The plant is fairly easy to propagate from seeds, stem cuttings, or leaf cuttings. Some resources state that the plant is extremely difficult to propagate from seed (as low as 1%!), but I have not found this to be the case. I would probably note that treating the seeds in their own fermenting fruit pulp can improve germination. 

The plant does, however, reproduce most readily from fresh leaf cuttings. I have looked for evidence of leaves dropping off the plant and self-propagating as such. I have noticed that some plants will produce seed heavily for a while, then the bulk of the shrub will slowly die off, sending up a few new shoots in succession from the base of the trunk. 

P. viridis leaf cutting propagation.

P. viridis leaf cutting propagation.

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon - Devil's Hand, Mācpalxōchitl

OVERVIEW

Chiranthodendron leaf.

Chiranthodendron leaf.

The Genus Chiranthrodendron comprises a single species, C. pentadactylon. The tree is called the Devil's, monkey's or Mexican hand tree or the hand-flower in English, the árbol de las manitas (tree of little hands) in Spanish, and mācpalxōchitl (palm flower) in Nahuatl, all on account of its distinctive red flowers, which resemble open human hands.Common names include Arbol de las Manitas (Spanish), and mācpalxōchitl (palm flower) in Nahuatl.

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

The tree is native to Guatemala and S. Mexico, growing to 10.5–27.5 m (35–90 feet) in height. I took the photos in this post at the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden in California. Fortunately my timing was perfect to collect seed which I then propagated. Five years later I have 40 ft tall trees in the ground. 

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

From what limited ethnobotanical information I can find: solutions containing the tree’s flowers are used as remedy for lower abdominal pain and to treat heart ailments. Similar solutions are used to reduce edema and serum cholesterol levels and are used as diuretics.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Annona muricata - Guanabana, Soursop

Guanabana fruit on a three year old tree.

Guanabana fruit on a three year old tree.

Guanabana is a relatively  small, fast growing, evergreen tree, originally from tropical America. Today it is cultivated in tropical countries all around the world. The tree has a dense crown full of dark green, laurel-like leaves which have spicy sort of aroma when crushed. The tree has a high tolerance of alkaline soils and drought and is easily propagated from seed. A seedling will begin to produce fruit steadily within three years after planting.

The blooms are typical of the Annonaceae family with three fleshy, triangular petals that abort once the flower is pollinated. Flowers have an unpleasant odor that attracts flies and other insects. The fruits vary in shape and size, but are generally always longer than they are wide, and are covered with protuberances, soft, green prickles about ¼ an inch long and curved, they can grown up to eight pounds, probably more, and have a very fragrant and delicate, thin, white, fleshy, edible pulp embedded with hard black oval seeds.

Annona muricata.jpg

The Guanabana is eaten raw, in juices, ice creams and blended drinks. It is also used to flavor sweets and jellies. Various medicinal properties are attributed to the fruit, the leaf and the bark. The fruit pulp is rich in vitamins B and C, and in phosphorous, and contains up to 12% sugar. This is a species adapted to hot areas and cannot be grown successfully above 1,000 meters. The tree requires protection from winds and prefers acidic soils, deep and rich in organic matter, although it can adapt to all kinds of soils as long as they provide good drainage.


In South East Asia the leaves are known for their sleep inducing properties, a tea is brewed with them or they are simply placed under the pillow. The fruit pulp is used to treat fever, diarrhoea and scurvy. Green fruit and seeds of most Annona species are known for their insecticidal properties.

Annona muricata cross section. 

Annona muricata cross section.