The equatorial tropical zone teems with edible plants, from global commodities like coffee and chocolate to humble staples like the mung bean and taro root. These economically important--and frequently delicious--edible plants are a common sight on tables far from their tropic origins. Scientists are now learning that edible tropical plants also hold potential for significant health benefits.
The tropical zone is the equatorial portion of the world between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south, each about 23 degrees from the equator. This includes Latin America, the northern two-thirds of South America, most of Africa, South-East Asia and portions of India and Australia. The term "tropical plants" generally applies to species from the jungle or forested areas of these regions and not from the arid plains, deserts or high mountains within the tropical zone.
The many types of edible tropical plants include: spices like black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger; fruits like banana, coconut, mango, pineapple and custard apple; beverage essentials like cocoa, coffee beans and cola nut; nuts like sesame and cashew; and essential staples like mung beans, taro root, squash,and cucumbers.
Consuming tropical edibles may have significant health benefits. A 2004 study by Food Science researchers at the Universiti Putra Malaysia published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that ingestion of extracts from seven out of nine common edible tropical plants studied--sweet potato, betel, cashew, maman, papaya, mint and lemongrass--relaxed vascular artery walls. Arterial wall flexibility is a critical component of heart health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services recommends increasing daily intake of fruit, including tropical plant basics like citrus fruits and bananas, for optimum health and nutrition.
Many tropical edible plants are significant global commodities. According to the International Coffee Organization, coffee is second in value only to oil as an export commodity for developing nations, while the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development says that bananas are the most popular fruit in the world and the foremost fruit in international trade.
Consider growing miniature specimens of edible tropical plants at home. The Florida Cooperative Extension Office suggests growing tropical plants in containers so they can be brought indoors in winter. Avocados and dwarf cultivars of citrus fruit make ideal container plants, while dwarf banana may be difficult to get to set fruit. Ginger is easily grown in a container from a small piece of root from the grocery store.