Where to Find Tropical Fruits

The obvious and easiest way to find tropical fruits and other edible plants is to go to markets. Fortunately, even people who do not live in tropical countries are ever more likely to find tropical fruits in their local supermarket.

A second good option is to visit tropical botanical gardens, some of which have a special section for tropical fruit trees. A few famous examples are the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, in Miami, Florida.

A third option is to visit private collections. Throughout the tropics people have started their own collections of exotic fruit trees and some are open to the public. Two better known private collections are the Tropical Fruit Farm, in Penang, Malaysia, and the Fruit & Spice Park, in Miami, Florida. The author, who lives in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, has a collection of more than 150 species of tropical fruits and exotic spices.

Fruits and vegetables on sale at Amphawa floating market, Bangkok, Thailand.

Many tropical trees, bushes, and vines produce edible fruits. Although all are botanically fruits, it is largely their culinary use that determines whether they are classified as fruits or vegetables. Some plants like the mango (Mangifera indica) or the jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) are served fully ripe as a fruit and unripe as a vegetable.

For a long time now, dozens of species of tropical fruit— including bananas, mangos, and pineapples—have been popular outside of the tropics. But in recent years, many new species like the longan (Dimocarpus longan) and the litchi (Litchi sinensis) have grown in popularity in temperate regions. Even so, there are still many lesser known fruits that are rarely exported and used almost exclusively in tropical countries. The soursop (Annona muricata) is a good example. Although it is delicious, it is too soft and bulky to be transported over long distances.

Other tasty fruits like the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) and the engkala (Litsea garciae) are so little known that an international market for them has yet to develop. This chapter, which presents 235 species of tropical fruit, will hopefully introduce readers to many new wonderful foods.

Description. Okra is an annual herbaceous plant with partly woody stems, 1.5-2 m (5-7 ft) tall. Alternate leaves are spirally arranged around branches. Blades ovate, 12-22 cm (5-9 in) long with 5-7 shallow lobes. Bright yellow flowers with a brownish-red spot at the base of each petal are borne singly in the axils of the upper leaves. Fruits are erect, 15-40 cm (6-16 in) long, often beaked capsules with longitudinal ridges and numerous hard, dark green or dark brown seeds. Unripe green fruits contain a mucilaginous sap, whereas ripe fruits are dry and light brown in color.

Origin and Distribution. The exact origin of okra is not known. The plant is probably native to tropical Africa, India, or Southeast Asia, where wild Abelmoschus species have the highest species diversity. Recent genetic research indicates that the crop might comprise multiple species of African and Asian origin. Okra is an ancient crop that was already being cultivated in Egypt around 2000 BC. Today the crop is widely grown as an annual vegetable throughout the tropics and subtropics and in warm temperate climates.

The cultivation of okra requires relatively little attention because of its natural resistance to drought, pests, and diseases. It is often grown in home gardens but also in extensive plantations. Main producers of okra are India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Ghana.

Food uses. The unripe fruit pods, which have a mild taste, are eaten as a vegetable in many regions of the world.

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