6 Magical and Medicinal Trees to Grow in the Tropics
Truth be told, my wife Emma and I believe that just about any plant we come across has some sort of mystical, medicinal power. Unfortunately, we are well aware of the fact that, whatever that power is, we more often than not do not know it or the extents to which its magic will work. So, it’s no wonder, when we learn that tree bark from such-and-such tree or leaves from whichever bush are good for treating some ailment, we get pretty excited.
We have just started really exploring Belize in that last couple of months, and it’s been a great place for spotting medicinal plants. Here there is a great mix of cultures—Mayan, Garifuna, Creole—all steeped in knowledge about what’s growing around them and how to use it. As we are transitioning from visitors to residents, we too are learning what’s on offer in the forests and gardens, and the list is becoming more and more extensive.
One of the projects we’ve taken at The Farm Inn, where we are volunteering, is to locate and label denizen plants with special powers, and it just seems information worth sharing on a grander scale than with those taking a walk around the farm. Without a doubt, many of the following trees will be available elsewhere in Central America and other regions throughout the world. Even if it’s not your particular neighborhood, it’s still handy, interesting stuff to know.
Gumbalimba, or Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba)
These are thick-trunked canopy trees, also know as gamalamee trees, that grow in the Americas, from Florida to Brazil, and they are sometimes comically called the tourist tree, due to red and ever-peeling bark resembling the sunburnt skin of vacationers. However, they are not only good for a laugh.
For growers, they are useful in many ways. They are wind-tolerant trees that provide quick shelter for crop plants. Cuttings will also take readily, so gumbo-limbos make for great living fence posts that can be trimmed for firewood and small construction projects. Even the resin has several uses: varnish, glue and incense. Plus, the fruit of the tree attract a wide variety of birds, both native and migratory.
Medicinally, the tree is all over the show as well. The resin can be brewed as a tea ingested for treating gout, backaches, urinary tract infections, other infections, and fever, or it can be applied topically to help with rashes, sores, insect bites and (ironically) sunburns.
Guanabana, or Soursop (Annona muricata)
It was called guanabana when I first learned about it, and I’ve since learned that it’s more often recognized as soursop. Whatever the case, these trees are in the tropics, all along the equator, from right here in Belize over to Africa and Southeast Asia. It doesn’t tolerate cold winters, nothing below five degrees Celsius, but it really digs high humidity.
We already had this one on our list of fruit trees to include in the food forest, and with good reason: it’s got huge fruits of up to 30 centimeters long and several kilos. And, the fruits are absolutely delicious, a strange mix of sour citrus and creamy banana with a sweet bite and texture perfect for making homemade ice cream. It also makes great smoothies. It’s in the same family and ballpark of custard apples, its more temperate cousin.
Medicinally, it is very well regarded by homeopaths. First and foremost, it is promoted, though no conclusive research is said to exist, as an alternative cancer treatment. Teas made from the fresh leaves are also useful in treating uric acid, back pain, infections, joint problems and ulcers. In essence, it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory. However, there is a certain toxicity within the fruit that is not good for those with Parkinson’s Disease, so it’s worth being careful.
Saragundi (Senna reticulate)
Saragundi are small native trees that grow to somewhere in the two-to-six-meter range, and they are often grown—if not weed-like in the wild—as ornamentals. Most farmers aren’t huge fans of the plant, naming it the “meadow killer”, because it is especially adept at appearing in open areas and has the ability to grow quickly and shade out nearby plants. In other words, it perhaps is a plant to be aware of or very attentively cultivate.
On the usefulness side of the coin, saragundi is respected for its medicinal properties. Specifically, it has anti-bacterial qualities that make it good for topically treating rashes (we used it successfully for poison oak), and flower/leaf preparations are used for treating kidney and liver ailments. In parts of South America, the leaves and ashes of the plant are applied as an insect repellant.
This one is easy to find: Just follow the smell. The fruits let off a memorable scent akin to dirty feet dipped in an aged blue cheese dressing. The trees, however, grow readily in the tropics, anything from shady forests or sandy shores, and it reaches maturity in less than two years, after which it yields new fruit every month. Bigger trees get upwards of nine meters.
While this has always been in our plans to cultivate, the truth of the matter is that noni fruits are very difficult to eat. They simply do not taste good. It is sometimes referred to as “starvation fruit”, as seemingly only people in dire straights will eat the very nutritious food. On some Pacific Islands it is, in fact, a staple, eaten raw with salt or cooked into curries. However, “acquired taste” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Nevertheless, noni is a highly medicinal plant and is currently one of the top selling medicinal herbs in the US. It has a special blend of nutrients that make it affective in treating high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, any kind of inflammation, intestinal problems (including worms), and so on. Upon the advice of a friend, I even once used a leaf as a topical treatment for sore muscles, and it worked a charm. All that said, noni is very strong and must be taken with serious caution, probably medical clearance for anyone with a serious ailment.
Trumpet Tree, or Snakewood (Cecropia peltata and others)
Yet another pioneering, very much weed-like, tree that has proven to be of some value and is just about everywhere in the area is the trumpet tree. They are fast-growing and reach up to 20 meters, such that they tower over the young forests before ultimately being passed up and shaded out. The trunk is hollow, the leaves massive, and it bears a fruit beloved by birds and bats. Like saragundi, trumpet trees are more often considered invasive and might not necessarily be a food cultivars dream come true.
Medicinally speaking, the different species show up throughout Caribbean folk medicine. Used for sore throats, nervousness, warts, corns, herpes, liver disorders, colds, and snake or scorpion bites, the trumpet tree acts as a sort of cure-all. Studies have also linked it to aiding with high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. Again, due to its truly powerful qualities, it’s not something to be mixed with prescription meds or pregnancy, at least not without professional assistance.
Neem Tree (Azadirachta indica)
Neem trees grow in tropical and semi-tropical areas but come from the Indian subcontinent. They are typically about 15 or 20 metes tall and known to spread out to make themselves comfortable, and they have a deep-tapping root for pulling up buried nutrients from below. They have fragrant white flowers and produce a fruit that resembles olives in appearance. They, too, are often considered to be a weed; however, they are simply too valuable to think of this way.
For growers, these plants are extremely versatile additions, able to withstand various types of soil, levels of rainfall, and high temperatures. They make great shade trees in drought areas, as well as provide many other gardening benefits. Young sprouts, leaves, and flowers, though bitter, are eaten in India and parts of Southeast Asia. More so, though, it is renowned for being an organic pest control, deterring troublesome insects as opposed to outright killing them.
Then, there is neem the medicine. Nearly the entire plant is used, but the seeds are most popular in the form of neem oil. The oil (it can also be gotten from the more readily available leaves) is good for the skin, for treating infections and parasites, for thwarting warts and cold sores, and for reducing inflammation. The anti-septic bark is used for treating gum disease, the twigs often utilized as natural toothbrushes.
And, there are so many more to discover. We haven’t even discussed the plants (or even all of the trees) we are learning about, many of which also have funny names like jippi jappa and jackass bitters. Often overlooked in the cultivation and growing of food, this rediscovering of useful native and/or present species is an important part of what we do in permaculture. These trees are valuable components to our forests and gardens, offering all sorts of cultivation and health benefits. Plus, for us, many of them just happen to be around anyway.