Tropical Rainforest Plants
The Americas
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.

ChicleChicle or Sapodilla
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's supply is grown in the Seychelles, Central America, and Madagascar.

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