Cactaceae (Cactus family)

Description. Large, branched, shrublike cactus 4-6 m (13-20 ft) tall with flat, green, oval stem segments, 40-60 cm (16-24 in) long by 20-30 cm (8-12 in) wide. These carry long pointed gray thorns and cushions of short, hairlike spines (glochids) at their base. Insect- and bird-pollinated flowers 5-8 cm (2-3 in) long with a cylindrical hypanthium, spirally arranged areoles, and numerous yellow or orange petals and yellow stamens. Fruits yellow, red, or orange, ellipsoid berries, 5-7 cm (2-2.8 in) long. Red or orange flesh juicy, sweet to subacid with numerous black seeds, 3 mm (0.12 in) long. Origin and Distribution. The exact origin is uncertain. Probably native to Mexico, where close genetic relatives have been found. Widely cultivated and often naturalized in dry tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Like corn (Zea mays, p. 241) and squash (Cucurbita sp.), this plant has been cultivated in Central America for millennia. The prickly pear was introduced into Europe by Spanish sailors in the sixteenth century.


Food uses. Ripe fruits are eaten fresh. Before the delicious fruit can be eaten, any hairlike spines must be rubbed off with a cloth. The fruit is then halved and eaten with a spoon. Fruits are made into marmalades and jam or dried for later consumption. Young, tender stem segments are eaten as a vegetable.

Comments. This cactus species is also cultivated as the host plant of the cochineal scale insect. The insect, which feeds on the sap of the cactus, produces carminic acid, which is used as a deep red dye for fabrics and cosmetics and as a natural food coloring. The genus Opuntia comprises about 200 species, all native to tropical and subtropical America.

Description. Perennial grass (annual in cultivation), usually 50-150 cm (1.6-5 ft) tall with jointlike nodes producing straight or arching leaves 40-60 cm (1624 in) long. Small wind-pollinated flowers are produced in drooping panicles. Fruit is a grain 5-11 mm (0.204 in) long by 2-3 mm (0.08-0.11 in) thick.

Origin and Distribution. Recent genome studies indicate that the two main subspecies of rice, indica and japonica, may have first appeared as far back as approximately 9,000 years ago in the Yangtze Valley in China, with O. rufipogon a possible progenitor of all modern rice varieties. New genetic studies indicate the Pearl River delta in southern China as the probable origin of O. rufipogon. Rice grows in swampy or inundated, tropical to subtropical habitats. Widely cultivated, especially in Asia, where 95% of the crop is grown and consumed. Food uses. Rice is a staple food for nearly half the world’s population. It is eaten boiled with a wide variety of savory and sweet dishes. Rice flour is used to make noodles, bread, bakery goods, and puddings. It is also used as a thickener for soups and other food products. Rice is fermented to make beer and a winelike beverage (sake).

Comments. O. sativa can be divided into the two major subspecies, the short-grained O. sativa ssp. japonica and the long-grained O. sativa ssp. indica, which grows in tropical regions and includes important cultivars like basmati and patma rice. Japonica cultivars are usually grown in subtropical and temperate regions.

Milled or white rice has a relatively low protein content of only 7%. Rice, a good source of nutritional energy, contains about 75% starch and minerals like manganese, phosphorous, and iron. Milling removes fiber, minerals, and certain B vitamins like niacin and vitamin B6, which are concentrated in the husk. The dark brown grains of so-called wild rice originate from the North American grass Zizania palustris.

Description. Evergreen tree 15-25 m (50-80 ft) tall with palmate leaves measuring 25-35 cm (10-14 in) in diameter with lanceolate, shiny green leaflets. Very showy, large, bat-pollinated flowers with cream-colored recurved petals 15-30 cm (6-12 in) long and numerous cream and dark red-colored stamens. Large woody fruit pods 20-30 cm (812 in) long can weigh up to 3 kg (6.6 lbs) and open with 5 valves when ripe. Exocarp dark brown with several edible, chestnutlike seeds embedded in a cream-colored pulp. Seeds brown with lighter-colored stripes.

Origin and Distribution. Native to a vast region ranging from southern Mexico and Central America to Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. The tree grows naturally at river margins and in periodically inundated, tropical swamps. The seeds are water dispersed. With its beautiful shiny foliage and showy flowers, which are produced year-round, the tree is occasionally planted as an ornamental.

Food uses. The seeds are eaten raw, roasted, fried in oil, or boiled in saltwater. Raw nuts taste similar to peanuts, while roasted they taste more like chestnuts. They are sometimes ground into flour used to make bread. Young leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers are eaten raw in salads.

Comments. In East Asia, where the tree is often called money tree, it is grown as a potted plant, sometimes with braided trunks, or even as a bonsai. The plant is often decorated with red ribbons and is considered a symbol of good financial fortune.

Unripe fruits and the bark of the trunk are used in Guatemalan tribal medicine to treat liver diseases. The bark contains tannins and provides a yellow dye that was used by indigenous people to dye clothing.

Description. Most species palmlike, evergreen, 2-18 m (6.5-60 ft) tall, with numerous horizontal branches and multiple, aerial stilt roots that form a dense tangle. The trunk and branches show persistent leaf scars. The 1.5-2 m (5-6.5 ft) long linear, light-green, tough leaves are clustered in spirals at the tip of each branch. Dioecious flowers, with male flowers produced in spikes. Female flowers usually develop into a compound, somewhat pineapple-like, often orange fruit.

Origin and Distribution. The genus consists of more than 740 species, all of which are native to the tropics of the Old World. The salt-tolerant screwpine often grows naturally in coastal areas, although species of the genus occur from sea level to more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft).

Food uses. The fruits of P. utilis, native to Madagascar, are eaten raw or boiled. They are often used as a staple food on small oceanic islands. The young, tender leaves of P. tectorius, which is native to Indonesia, Hawaii, many tropical Pacific islands as well as northern and eastern Australia, are used in curries and for the preparation of sweets.

Comments. The screwpine is known as a quintessential tropical landscaping element found in many tropical gardens. The plant leaves of some species also provide fiber, which is used to make rope, mats, and nets. In coastal areas the screwpine is planted for erosion control.

Description. Evergreen tree with smooth bark and spreading branches, 25-35 m (82-115 ft) tall. Alternate, cordate, glabrous leaves with long petioles, blades 25-35 cm (10-14 in) long. Monoecious flowers, with green male flowers borne in small racemes and single female flowers produced in axils of leaves. Ovoid brown fruits with reddish-brown, leathery skin, 1622 cm (6-9 in) long. Fruits contain 10-12 seeds surrounded by a light brown, hard, wrinkled shell.

Origin and Distribution. Native to mangrove forests of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Fruits are collected mainly from wild trees. Rarely cultivated.

Food uses. The seeds are a valued spice in Southeast Asian cuisine. Raw fruits and seeds contain

Pangium edule Reinw.

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