Notes on Tropical Plants

This site contains some information on tropical plants — particularly the plants we use for food — and what makes them different from the plants that people are used to seeing in colder, temperate climates like continental North America.  These pages were written to support students using the Kahihi webquests and will hopefully be of general interest.

Climate conditions range along a continuous spectrum, and there is no absolute division between temperate zones and “the tropics,” but it is still useful to think about some of the differences between regions with agreeable weather year-round and those with seasonal extremes.

First off, here’s a list of tropical and temperate foodplants, so you can see some of the plants which are often grown in the different regions.  Just as there is no firm dividing line between tropical and temperate zones, these two groups aren’t really as sharply divided as the list suggests.  Many plants can be grown in more than one region.  You’re more likely to find a “temperate” crop being grown in the tropics than the other way around, because some of the tropical crops don’t survive in cold temperatures.

A good example of this is the group of plants known as the monocots, which includes most of the world’s staple crops.  You might have noticed on the list of plants that the temperate monocot crops are mostly grains, while the tropics has much greater monocot diversity

The list also shows how plants are propagated.  People familiar with grain-based agricultural traditions of seed-planting are often surprised to find that there are other “cultures” of growing plants.  I have pulled together some information on growing Hawaiian plants, which illustrates the diversity of techniques, and particularly the importance of vegetative propagation in the tropical Pacific.

Although the diversity of Pacific crops has been overlooked by the continental nutritionists who put together the USDA Food Pyramid, there is an alternative food pyramid which works much better for Hawai‘i and the Pacific.

I hope you find these pages useful!  Please contact me if you think there is anything I should change or add.
— David
updated 6 December 2010

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Bunchy Top at Ricky's