My eleventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Lois Croft, once told me that I owed it to myself to try the fruits of the tropics sometime. She’d had a remarkable life, including surviving a time in POW camp in the Philippines during WWII, and dancing with Martha Graham. Her comments encouraged me to get to the tropics, and my travels eventually led me to botany work in the Caribbean, and Central and South America. I’ll pass along Mrs. Croft’s advice – get yourself to the tropics sometime and try the tropical fruits.
Here’s a mixed fruit photo collection, with some of the fruit species’ flowers included. Below are the flowers of the chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao. Note the flowers, which become the fruits, grow on the trunk and main branches of the cacao tree (not at the branch tips, as do apples or oranges). Do you see the young fruit here?
To get cocoa seeds, the ripe cacao are picked and opened. Fresh, the seeds are covered with a delicious outer white fleshy coat, which is good to eat. For chocolate production, the seeds are dried, as shown below.
In case you’re new to topic of basic plant reproduction, here’s the quick rundown: most plants (except mosses, ferns, conifers and a few other curious groups) reproduce sexually by making flowers which bear their male (pollen) and female (ovules) reproductive parts. The fertilization happens when a pollen grain’s cells combine with the cells in an ovule to make a new individual offspring. This happens inside the ovary of the flower, which is actually the base of the pistil, the more substantial innermost “whorl” of the flower. The pollen, of course, comes from the anther, the male part of the flower. The other floral parts – the petals (often colorful to attract pollinating animals) and the sepals (the typically green flaps covering the floral bud) – help with protection and pollination. The big idea: flowers, once pollinated, become fruits. Ovules, once fertilized, develop into seeds. In short, the pistil of the flower develops into the fruit, and the ovules within the pistil base (ovary) develop into seeds.
Above is the coffee shrub, Coffea arabica. The “coffee beans” are the seeds. Two seeds develop within each fruit (or berry). Like chocolate, there is a complex process involved to get the product we use (chocolate, coffee) from the actual fruit. Unlike chocolate (domesticated in middle America), coffee is native to west Africa. Coffee is in the plant family Rubiaceae, which also includes gardenias, quinine (the original anti-malarial medicine), and many other medicinal and ornamental plants, mostly tropical in distribution.
Fruits and the seeds produced therein provide most of the plant food and beverages consumed by humans. Vegetable oils come from seeds (or the fruit tissue in the case of olive oil), grains are 1-seeded fruits from the grass family, and don’t we all love to eat fruit?!
Above is pictured the fruiting and flowering stalk of a plantain plant. Plantains and bananas belong to the genus Musa, a group of monocots related to gingers and bird-of-paradise flower groups. Note that in bananas and plantains, the bud, with a red scale covering, is below, at the tip of the stalk, while the open, white flowers are midway, and the green banana-like fruits are above, all on the one stalk. I have a banana plant growing in my yard in Tennessee, but our summer is much too short to get flowers, much less fruits, on my banana plant.
Bananas are the chief export crop for Ecuador (and second only to petroleum in dollar value). Ecuador supplies (in many years) the greatest part of the bananas consumed in the United States. Consider buying organic bananas – they’re better for the workers, the environment, and (I’d guess) for the consumer.
Pineapple is unusual in its fruit structure. The edible part is the stalk, which is thick, fleshy, sweet and juicy. The flowers and seeds form in the “eyes”, which we remove with the skin when cleaning the pineapple. Cultivated pineapples are sterile hybrids which rarely make seeds, and are reproduced asexually by cuttings.
Actually, one needn’t travel to the tropics to taste good pineapples (and coffee or chocolate is usually roasted or processed in US or Europe). But papaya, like many fruits, doesn’t travel as well, so try this fruit when you get where they grow.
The papaya tree is dioecious (die-ee-shus), meaning it produces male flowers on one tree and female flowers (and fruits) on a separate tree.
Botanists now regard Carica papaya as the only species in the genus Carica, but until recent revisions there were 20-25 species included in the genus Carica. One papaya relative grown in Ecuador for its fruit (used in juices) is the Babaco (formerly called Carica pentagonia, now determined to be a hybrid (cross) between two species of the genus Vasconcellea, (babaco: Vasconcellea × heilbornii). Tropical fruits are sometimes best enjoyed in juices (“jugos”).
Another great fruit for juices is the passionfruit, the fruit of various species of the genus Passiflora. In Tennessee, the wild species of Passiflora (Passiflora incarnata) is called “maypops”. Passionfruit species provide the distinctive flavor in the juice-blend “Hawaiian Punch”, and the flavoring is extracted is sold as Grenadine. Various passionfruit species are grown in Ecuador, and the genus includes hundreds of wild species.
Above are the fruits of the species Passiflora edulis (“edulis” = edible). Below are the flowers.
Here’s a different species of edible Passionfruit, Passiflora quandrangularis.
Some fruits are eaten as a jelly (“mermalada”) or paste, as well as out of hand. A popular, sweet fruit from tropical America is the guava, or guayaba (Psidium guajava).
In Cuba guava paste is a favorite, and Jamaica’s Bob Marley has a great song called “Guava jelly”. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCoAP43lujk&feature=related>
Below are flowers of guava (Psidium guajava). They have 5 petals and many stamens, as is typical for the plant family Myrtaceae (myrtles) to which it belongs.
Here’s a great tropical fruit from the India-SE Asia region: Averrhoa carambola, called carambola in Ecuador and sometimes sold as “starfruit” in the U.S. The fruits available in the U.S. generally taste nothing like the fresh fruits off the tree or available in tropical markets. Carambola includes many cultivated varieties (like apples, for example) and some are particularly juicy and sweet, without the oxalic acid sourness of green-picked fruits.
Here are the flowers of the carambola tree. This tree, and many of the photographs shown here, were taken in the experimental gardens of the Machala Polytechnic University, which is directed by Lic. Sara Castillo, Professor of Agriculture at UPM. Many thanks to Lic. Castillo for providing tours of her experimental fruit gardens for the students from ETSU-Johnson City TN and UEB, Guaranda Bolivar EC.
There’s so much to tell about these plants – I’m skipping most of the best details here, like how medicinal (lower cholesterol, anti-diabetes) this plant is, or how passionflower was named for the Passion of Christ, or how many different types of bananas, more delicious than the typical variety, are grown in the tropics. But this post is already long! So use your Wikipedia, or consult books (a great one for edible plants is “Food Plants of the World” by Ben-Erik van Wyk). My sampling here is opportunistic, based largely on what photos I have. Regarding photos, these are all my own photographs. You’re welcome to share them for non-commercial use, but don’t use these or any of my photos commercially without my written permission, thank you. If you use them non-commercially please acknowledge Tim McDowell as the photographer, and let me know if you would please, thanks.
The cashew fruit is amazing to look at, and surprising to taste. The bright red ripe fleshy part is the fruit stalk (the receptacle, in botanical terms). The fruit, containing the seed, attaches below the red stalk. The fleshy stalk is juicy and delicious – to me, it tasted like a cross between fresh apples and roast beef! The juice is sometimes sold in cans, but like most canned fruits and vegetables, it lacks the taste of the fresh product.
Amazing facts about Anacardium abound. The family – Anacardiaceae – includes mango, cashew, pistachio and poison ivy! Many skin irritants made by plants of this family, and also the exudate used in lacquer. The name Anacardium may refer to the heart-shaped (cardium) receptacle, and the species ending “occidentale” to the western hemisphere, or occident. Yet cashews are a favorite food of India!
I’ll end this post with a species named Solanum quitoense, common name “naranjilla”, or “little orange”. It’s not at all closely related to oranges, though its fruit provides one of the most used juices in Ecuador. Its biological kin belong to the very large genus Solanum, which includes over 1500 species. Among the species of Solanum are the tomato, the potato, and the eggplant, as well as many regionally important food plants worldwide. But the genus is also rich in poisonous plants and compounds, and includes the “deadly nightshade” among its nearly two thousand species.
The specific epithet, or species ending “quitoense” of course refers to Quito, Ecuador. The naranjilla is native to the lower reaches of the Andes region of NW South America and adjacent Central America. Its juice has a delicious citrusy flavor. Come to the tropics sometime and try it!