Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Amazonia Plant Species Highlights

Many of the trees and plants found in the Amazon and other rainforests are used by people around the world for food, medicine, cosmetics, furniture, shelter, crafts, and more.

Cocoa - Theobroma cacao

The source of cocoa, a major ingredient in chocolate. The seeds must be processed to remove the tannin that protect the plant from insects.

Avocado - Persea americana

Not only does its fruit contain more protein than any other, its seeds are used to produce an indelible dye and, when powdered, can be used to poison rats.

kapokKapok or silkcotton tree - Ceiba pentandra

The pods of this tree are broken open to reveal long stiff threads known for their bouyancy. The fibers are used in life preservers, pillows, and even surgery.

Passionflowers - Passiflora caerulea, P. edulis, P. vitifolia

Not known for any sexual enhancement powers, this plant gets its name from the shape of its stigma which looks like a cross. Its leaves are favored by the caterpillars of many tropical butterflies.

Chicle Tree - Manilkara zapota

Chiclets, anyone? Chicle is the chief ingredient in chewing gum. Chicleros or chicle tappers gather latex from the trees once every two or three years.

Mahogany - Swietenia mahagoni

This tree is prized for its fine hardwood which makes lovely furniture. The penalty for such beauty if that many of the largest trees have been wiped out by commercial loggers.

Dieffenbachia - Dieffenbachia barraquiniana

Tub leaves of this common tree contain calcium oxylate which can cause severe skin irritation.

vanillaVanilla vine - Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla is the only orchid that produces a food item prized by humans. Grown on plantations, vanilla requires hand-pollination to produce the six-inch long pods from which seeds are taken to produce vanilla extract.

Guava tree - Psidium guajava

The source of guava fruit often made into jelly, this fruit is a better source of vitamin C than citrus fruits.

Sweet potato vine - Ipomoea batatas

Not to be confused with the unrelated African species or yam, the sweet potato is now grown throughout the southern U.S. and is used in many tasty recipes.

Balsa tree - Ochroma pyramidale

This is the world's lightest wood, making it a fine candidate for the construction of model airplanes and boats.

cashewCashew tree - Anacardium occidentalis

Everyone is aware of the cashew nut but few realize that it naturally comes wrapped inside a juicy apple-like fruit. However, it's probably more important to know that the outside shell is poisonous.

Annatto - Bixa orellana

Lipstick may rely on annatto for its red color but native South Americans have used the seeds of this shrub at the source of red body paints for centuries.

papayaPapaya - Carica papaya

Eaten with lime, papaya makes a great treat. The fruit is also the source of the enzyme papayin which is used at a meat tenderizer don't let looks fool you, the papaya is not a tree, but a short-lived bush.

Sandbox tree - Hura crepitans

The caustic sap from this tree is used by fishermen to poison fish.

Rubber tree- Hevea brasiliensis

No other tropical tree has been so widely dispersed by human as the rubber tree. Amazonian rubber trees, with nuts the size of ping-pong balls, were introduced to huge Asian plantations by European colonial powers.