Useful Rainforest Plants
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010
The Atlantic Rainforest contains a wealth of edible and medicinal plants used daily by the Guaraní indigenous people. Many plants also provide useful resources and construction materials.
Many of the foods we eat and products which we use everyday originate from rainforests. They go far beyond bananas, coffee, nuts and spices, to include items of such importance as medicines. Below are just a few examples of the products the Atlantic Rainforest has to offer.
It has yellow flowers, typical in shape to the pea family. Its fruit develops into a legume which forces its way underground to mature.
Originating from South America, peanuts are now cultivated and eaten across the world.
|Ananas comosus. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Pineapples are one the world’s most popular fruits. They are native to Paraguay and southern Brazil. The Guaraní name for pineapple gives the derivation of the word ‘ananas’.
|Canna indica. Photo by Arz, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Canna indica has large, attractive foliage. It has glossy, coarse-grained leaves and may grow up to six feet in height. Canna indica’s rhizomes can be used as a spice and its fruit is edible. It is also used as an ornamental and in thatching houses. The Indian Shot is so named after its hard, round seeds.
|Carica quercifolia. Photo by Vidokov, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Oak Leaved Papaya
The fruit of the Oak Leaved Papaya is eaten raw, just as the fruit of the common Papaya. It also has a number of quoted medical uses.
|Cecropia peltata. Photo © World Land Trust|
The Trumpet Tree is a fast-growing species which can grow more than 20m tall. Its light-demanding nature means that it invades rapidly any gaps in the forest canopy.
A tea made from Trumpet Tree leaves is widely used medicinally. Just a few of the aliments it is used to treat are liver disease, Parkinson’s disease and snake bites.
Chenopodium ambrosioides is a herb with oval leaves and small, green flowers. Its seeds are green when fresh and black when dry. It has a strong odour and is used to flavour dishes. The plant has many medicinal uses, including treating worm infections in humans.
|Ipomoea batatas. Photo by Pollinator, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Sweet potatoes are native to tropical South America. The vegetable is the plant’s tuberous roots. Sweet potatoes, perennial vines belonging to the family Convolvulaceae, are only distantly related to potatoes. They have heart-shaped leaves and pink and white flowers which open early in the morning and close in the evening.
|Ilex paraguariensis. Photo published under Creative Commons licence.|
Yerba Mate is famous as a traditional drink in South America. Its leaves are dried and then placed in hot water, creating a grassy flavour which has been likened to some varieties of green tea. It is also toasted and sweetened and then sold as a caffeine-rich, uncarbonated soft drink. In Argentina it is traditionally drunk from a hollow gourd, which is passed around with a metal filter-straw called a bombilla.
The plant, a member of the holly family, is a shrub or small tree (up to 15m tall) which is found growing wild along streams. Its flowers are small and of a greenish-white appearance and has small red drupes. It is used in herbal medicine as a stimulant, antidepressant and a diuretic. It has been used by Guaraní people for medicinal uses for centuries. The IUCN Red List records Ilex paraguariensis as near threatened.
Purple Passion Fruit
This tree produces passion fruits. These are nearly round, with dark purple skins and a sweet taste. The plant, which is a climbing vine, produces beautiful white flowers with purple-pink crowns.
|Philodendron bipinnatifidum. Photo © World Land Trust.|
Guembé/Swiss Cheese Plant
This is an important plant to the Guaraní indigenous people. They eat its edible banana-like fruits, use the roots to make rope and its fibre for baskets. The Guaraní also use Guembé medicinally. Its root sap is used as a coagulant on wounds, burns and snake bites and it is also used for treating toothache and conjunctivitis. When the plant comes into flower, the guaraní use it as a sign that there will be no more frosts so it is time to plant their crops.
It is also often called the Swiss Cheese Plant because of the holes in its glossy, dark green leaves. Leaves have prominent veins and are deeply divided and lobed. It is a climber.
Another common food to originate from the forests of South America is the tomato. Tomato plants are cultivated worldwide.
|Talinum paniculatum. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Talinum paniculatum is commonly named ‘Jewels-of-Opar’ due to its tiny, jewel-like fruits. It is a succulent shrub. It has fleshy roots which can be eaten as a vegetable.
|Zea mays. Photo by burgkirsh, published under Creative Commons licence.|
Sweet Corn, or Maize, is a type of grass which was historically domesticated by South American indigenous peoples. It is now cultivated and eaten worldwide and is the most widely grown crop in the Americas. It has even found use as a biofuel, or feedstock for the production of biofuels such as ethanol.
Rainforest plants information
Help protect the Atlantic Rainforest
WLT is actively involved in Atlantic Rainforest conservation in Argentina (Misiones Province), Brazil (REGUA Reserve) and Paraguay (San Rafael). To help save Atlantic Forest habitat, please support these projects.