Economic Plants of the Tropics

Our daily dependence on plant products of tropical origin is astounding. For instance, Latin America and Africa are major suppliers of coffee and cacao (from which we derive chocolate), while Asia produces most of our rice and natural rubber. Our lives are enriched by beautiful hardwoods, spices, essential oils and fruits. In addition, tropical countries export many fibers, gums, resins, dyes, and plant essences that we may never see directly, but which are widely used in medicine and industry. This section highlights some of these important plants.

The Tropics in World Trade

Plant products like those just mentioned are often referred to as "commodities" or "cash crops." Unlike many exports from the industrialized economies, commodities are usually exported in minimally processed states as raw materials. Whether tropical nations should continue to rely extensively on these exports to fuel their emerging economies is a hotly debated subject, with critics maintaining that overproduction depresses world prices of these materials and diverts arable land from food production for local markets. Regardless, patterns of trade in commodities are not likely to change significantly in the near future.

Trade vs. Environmental Concerns

As tropical nations seek to increase their share in the world marketplace, a key question is the best way to balance these strategies with the needs to conserve and manage remaining forested areas. Indiscriminate harvesting techniques and clearing large tracts for cultivation or ranching have been all too characteristic of the past. The future will require more appropriate means of extracting plants or their products if we are not to lose the many thousands of other tropical species holding genetic "blueprints" important to our future. This will require strong international leadership on economic and environmental fronts and, for all citizens of the world, a willingness to rethink our use of the Earth's resources.


Plants listed below are native to these regions. Many are now grown in other areas of the tropics also.



Bambusa spp.
Phyllostachys spp.
Grass family

Bamboo is the world's largest grass and is native to many parts of the world. It is grown throughout the tropics and is used as a source of food as well as for construction and weaving. It has great strength and is used in Japan as scaffolding for building skyscrapers.


Musa x paradisiaca
Banana family

Bananas and plantains are very closely related. Plantains, however, are used more like a starch than a fruit. Both are native to East Asia and Australia but are now grown throughout the tropics. Though commonly called "trees", they are actually the world's largest herbaceous plants, as they do not develop woody stems like trees.

Sugar cane

Saccharum officinarum
Grass family

The stems of this grass plant can reach 10 feet tall and are rich in sugar. The stems are crushed to extract the sweet juice, which is then processed to obtain sugar. Sugar cane is native to New Guinea. It was introduced into the New World by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493.

Nutmeg and Mace

Myristica fragrans
Nutmeg family

Nutmeg and mace are the only spices that are obtained from the same fruit. Nutmeg is the seed and mace is the red net-like fiber (aril) that surrounds the seed. Nutmeg is native to the Moluccas (Spice Islands).


Cassava (or Manioc)

Manihot esculenta
Spurge family

Native to Mexico, Guatemala and northern Brazil, cassava is now grown throughout the tropics. It is the starch staple of over 500 million people. The roots are peeled and boiled (like potatoes) or made into a flatbread. It is in the same family as poinsettia and wild varieties can be toxic if not prepared correctly. Tapioca is made from heated, purified cassava starch and is a common thickening agent.


Manikara zopota
Sapodilla family

Chicle, the original base for chewing gum, comes from the latex (sap) of a tree native from southern Mexico to northern Brazil. When the trunks are scored with diagonal down-sloping cuts, the latex flows from the bark. It is collected, molded into blocks and shipped for processing, where sugar and flavoring are added. Today chicle has been largely replaced with the latex from other trees and by synthetic gums. The fruit of the chicle tree, sapodilla, is delicious.


Pimenta dioica
Myrtle family

Allspice is not a mixture of spices but rather a single fruit that contains the flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. The Maya used allspice to embalm the bodies of their leaders.


Hevea brasiliensis
Spurge family

Rubber trees are native to the Brazilian Amazon but now are also grown in plantations in Southeast Asia. Diagonal slashes are made in the bark of the tree and the latex sap that exudes is collected. The latex is mixed with water and heated over a smoky fire to produce a ball of rubber ready for processing. Today most rubber is synthetic; natural rubber is restricted to specialized uses.


Theobroma cacao
Sterculia family

Cacao is native to the eastern Andes. The Maya and Aztecs made a beverage from the seeds of this plant calling it the "food of the gods." The seeds, after being fermented and pulverized, were mixed with water to produce a beverage. It was not until Europeans added sugar and milk that the world came to know chocolate as we do today. Today, major production areas are in West Africa, Brazil and Mexico.


Vanilla planifolia
Orchid family

Vanilla is the only orchid that is grown for purposes other than its flowers. It is native to Mexico, and was introduced into Europe in the mid-16th century by the Spanish. The flowers are pollinated by hand or by a small bee and produce an elongated fruit, or "bean", which is fermented to produce vanilla beans. True vanilla flavoring is extracted from the fermented seed pods with alcohol. Today most of the world supply is grown in the Seychelles, Central America and Madagascar.



Zingiber officinale
Ginger family

Native to southern Asia, ginger is now grown throughout the tropics with major production in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Jamaica and India. The plant's rhizome (stem that grows at ground level like iris) is used fresh as well as dried and ground. It is a common ingredient in Asian cooking and flavors ginger snaps, ginger ale, ginger beer, ginger cake and pumpkin pie.

Black pepper

Piper nigrum
Pepper family

Black pepper and hot pepper (Capsicum) are not closely related. Black pepper originated in India and Cambodia and was the spice that, above all, drove the spice trade. The green, immature fruits of the pepper vine are harvested and dried, turning black upon drying. White pepper is obtained by letting the "berries" turn red (ripen) and then removing the outer husk, leaving the straw-colored "kernel". It is milder than black pepper.


Artocarpus heterophyllus
Mulberry family

Native to Southeast Asia, jackfruit is now grown throughout the tropics. The fruits can weigh up to 100 pounds and are produced directly on the trunks and branches. Fruits are green or yellow and "warty" on the surface. Inside, the seeds are surrounded with a fragrant yellow flesh tasting like pineapple and bananas. The seeds are also eaten boiled or roasted.


Calamus spp.,
Daemonorops spp.
Palm family

Native to Asia, rattan is the collective name for the climbing palms. They are rope-like, woody climbing plants that can grow to 600 feet long. After being collected from the forest the stems are boiled in oil and scoured in sand or sawdust to remove their natural gums and resins. The outer skins are removed and used to weave furniture, baskets, screens and chair seats. The inner core is used for making baskets.



Cola acuminata, C. nitida
Sterculia family

Cola is related to cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, and is best known as a flavoring in cola soda pops. Cola seeds, called "nuts", are rich in caffeine. It is native to West Africa but now is also grown commercially in Jamaica and Brazil. In West Africa a cola drink is made by mixing the pulverized, fermented and dried beans with water.


Diospyros spp.
Ebony family

Ebony is in the same genus as the North American persimmon, D. virginiana, and has a similar fruit. Its heartwood gives it commercial value. The wood is extremely hard and will sink in water. It is used for piano keys, cutlery handles, musical instruments and carvings. It is native to West Africa. Good quality logs are rare due to over harvesting.

back back to the home page next