Sugar Cane, Pineapple, Coffee & Morinda

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Economic Plant Photographs #15

Sugar Cane, Pineapple, Coffee, Tea, Cola, Cacoa & Morinda

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Sugar cane is a tall, perennial grass originally native to tropical southeast Asia. It was brought to the West Indies by Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The stems are rich in table sugar (sucrose) which has many uses, including raw sugar or molasses used to make rum. In Brazil, sugar cane is used to make ethanol (ethyl alcohol) to fuel automobiles. During the 1800s, the natural rain forests on many Caribbean islands were obliterated in order to plant sugar cane. Slaves were imported from Africa to work in the cane fields, in many cases under horrible conditions. When the fields became infested with introduced rats, the mongoose of India was imported as a means of biological control. Since the rats were nocturnal and the mongoose diurnal, this predator-prey relationship resulted in a dismal failure. Today the mongoose populations on numerous islands have decimated populations of native birds and reptiles, not to mention the domestic fowl. Because of cheaper labor in other regions of the world, the Hawaiian sugar cane industry is slowly being replaced with other profitable agricultural (fruit) crops and the tourist industry.

A field of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) on the island of Maui

Sugar cane is propagated vegetatively by cuttings called "setts." A sett is a section of the stem containing lateral buds and a region where adventitious roots develop. Cane fields are often burned prior to harvesting the stems. This removes the unwanted leaves and evaporates much of the water in the stems, thus concentrating the sugar.

A field of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) in
rich volcanic soils on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

The stems of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) are rich in table sugar (sucrose). Raw sugar is brown in color. The thick, brown, sugary syrup produced during the separation of sugar crystals from the ground-up cane is called molasses.

Pineapple Family (Bromeliaceae)

Although the pineapple (Ananas comosus) is grown throughout tropical regions of the world, it is actually native to the New World. Pineapples belong to the diverse bromelia family (Bromeliaceae), along with the many tropical epiphytes called bromeliads (Bromelia), the xerophytic yucca-like plants (Puya), and the lichen-like "Spanish moss" (Tillandsia usneoides) that hangs in trees of the southeastern United States. The sweet, juicy cone-like structure is technically a multiple fruit composed of many individual fruits (berries) embedded in a fleshy, edible stem. In fact, it was originally named for its superficial resemblance to a pine cone. Columbus made this comparison during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, a similarity that led to the English name. The individual fruits arise from separate floral ovaries embedded in the stem axis. Each berry is subtended by a conspicuous bract where the original flower was located. The remnants of the bracts and floral parts produce the prickles on the knobby stem surface. [In aggregate fruits, such as the strawberry and blackberry, the individual fruits (achenes and drupelets) come from a single flower.]

Modern pineapple cultivars are parthenocarpic. The seedless fruits embedded in the stem axis develop without pollination and without subsequent fertilization; however, seeds can be obtained by carefully pollinating the flowers. Fruit initiation and maturation are carefully controlled by spaying the pineapple fields with hormones. Since most cultivated pineapples are seedless, they are propagated vegetatively by planting the leafy portion above the fruiting axis (or severed axillary branches) in rich soil. Pineapples were introduced into Hawaii in the early nineteenth century, and the young entrepreneur J.D. Dole encouraged the natives to grow the plants as a cash crop. Since pineapples contain the proteolytic enzyme bromelain, they cannot be used in desserts containing gelatin or milk. [Try adding some pineapple juice to milk.] Because of this protein-digesting enzyme, pineapples have been used as a meat tenderizer.

Pineapple field on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. The pineapple is a multiple fruit composed of many berries embedded in a fleshy stem. Each section or hexagonal marking on the mature, conelike fruit represents the place where a flower was once attached. The remnants of the bracts and floral parts produce the prickles on the knobby stem surface.

Three examples of multiple fruits: A. Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus); B. Pineapple (Ananas comosus); and C. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis). All three fruits are refered to as "multiple fruits" because they are derived from the coalescence of ovaries from many individual flowers plus a fleshy stem axis.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), an epiphytic member of the bromeliad family that hangs from trees throughout the southeastern United States and Gulf Coast. The inconspicuous flower is only 5 mm across.

Madder Family (Rubiaceae)

Coffee (Coffea arabica) belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae), a large tropical family that includes many ornamental shrubs, such as Gardenia, Ixora, Coprosma and Galium. This family also includes madder (Rubia tinctorium), the red dye used to color the British red coats, the antimalarial alkaloid quinine from the bark of Cinchona ledgeriana (and several other species of Cinchona), and genip berries from the genip tree (Genipa americana).

Coffee is a shrub or small tree native to the mountains of Ethiopia, although it is now grown throughout tropical regions of the world. Coffee was originally roasted and used as a beverage in Arabia. Mocha, a city in Yemen, was an ancient center of coffee trade. During the 1600s, coffee houses sprang up in England, where they became popular centers for political discussions and meeting places. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was the main source of coffee imported by England, but a serious fungal disease (Hemileia vastatrix) destroyed the coffee plantations in 1869. Consequently, England switched to Ceylon teas which are the most commonly brewed beverage in Britain to this day. About half of the total world's coffee production comes from large plantations in Brazil and Colombia.

Coffee fruits are fleshy berries, each containing two seeds which are pressed together so that the inner (adjacent) side of each one is flattened. The coffee beverage is made from the ground, roasted seeds (called coffee beans) that are removed from the coffee berries (called coffee cherries). Expresso coffee is typically made by forcing steam through ground, dark-roast (deeply roasted) beans. Decaffeinated coffees are made from beans in which the caffeine has been removed, either through solvent extraction or water extraction. Some coffees contain adulterants, such as ground chicory roots (Cichorium intybus), which reduce the bitterness and enhance the flavor. Chicory is a member of the enormous sunflower family (Asteraceae), and is a common roadside weed in the United States. Coffee substitutes, such as Postum®, are made from molasses and roasted cereal grains, such as wheat, rye and barley.

In addition to caffeine, roasted coffee beans contain a number of other chemicals that affect the aroma and flavor. Some of these are sucrose, quinic acid, nicotinic acid and trigonelline. An Internet search will reveal a lot of information on the pros and cons of drinking coffee. Most of the cons relate to the excessive intake of caffeine which can cause insomnia in some people, and may aggrevate acid reflux disease and other gastrointestinal disorders. Coffee does have some beneficial qualities, particularly in the early morning, including a mild mental stimulant and a potential tooth decay preventative. There is some evidence to suggest that trigonelline prevents the common tooth decay bacteria (Steptococcus mutans) from adhering to tooth enamel.

Coffee berries grown in a plantation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. In this variety the berries (called cherries) are ripe when they turn yellow. On Kauai the shrubs are grown in full sunlight, but coffee (and cacao) varieties in Central America are often grown in the shade of legume trees (Erythrina and Ormosia), known locally as "madre arbol" and "madre de cacao."

Cola Nuts From Cola nitida & C. acuminata (Sterculiaceae)

Cola nuts come from Cola nitida and C. acuminata, two rain forest trees native to tropical Africa. Like Indian almond (Sterculia foetida), the nuts (seeds) are produced in five radiating follicles, typical of the Sterculiaceae. The bitter seeds are chewed by many African cultures as a stimulant to inhibit fatigue and to ease hunger pangs. Chewing the seeds also modifies the sensation of taste causing foods eaten soon afterwords to have a sweetish flavor. The seeds contain caffeine and are an important ingredient in several popular soft drinks, including Coca-Cola® and Pepsi-Cola®. In addition to multimillion dollar industries, the caffeine-rich seeds also discourage ravenous insects.

Foliage & distinctive acuminate leaves of Cola acuminata.

Cacao (Chocolate) From Theobroma cacao (Sterculiaceae)

Several well-known cauliflorous species are the source of delicious and economically important products. The chocolate or cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is believed to have originated in the Amazon Basin on the eastern equatorial slopes of the Andes. It is a small, shade-loving understory tree of wet tropical lowland forests. Many Indian tribes believed the plant came from the gods, hence the generic name Theobroma, meaning "food of the gods." In fact, it was so revered by native people that the seeds were used as currency by Aztecs and Mayas. In true cauliflory fashion, the curious blossoms grow directly out of the main trunk and branches. According to Daniel Janzen (Costa Rican Natural History, 1883), the flowers are believed to be pollinated by small ceratopogonid midges, although other small moths and beetles may be involved. The large, oblong fruits contain five rows of large seeds which are roasted and processed into cocoa. The seeds are dispersed by small mammals and monkeys as they break through the pod wall and eat the sugary pulp, leaving the seeds behind. Humans are very fond of the powdered seeds, especially when they are blended with milk and sugar to make highly caloric, heavenly-flavored confections, desserts and drinks. The seeds also contain the alkaloid theobromine, a caffeine relative with many reputed attributes, from a mild stimulant to a pleasant aphrodisiac. The latter quality may have evolved into the tradition of giving a box of these tasty morsels to a special romantic friend.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is a well-known cauliflorous tree with flowers and fruits that develop on the main trunk and branches. The ground seeds are the source of chocolate.

The fruit of cacao (Theobroma cacao) attached to the main trunk of a small tree. The ground seeds are the source of chocolate.

Noni: Morinda citrifolia (Rubiaceae)

One very interesting member of the madder family (Rubiaceae) is the painkiller tree or Indian mulberry (Morindia citrifolia), a small tree native to tropical Asia and south to Australia. It has been introduced throughout the tropical Pacific region and the Caribbean islands. In fact, its Pacific distribution coincides with many plants valued by the early Polynesians, such as breadfruit and taro. The yellowish-white, multiple fruit or syncarp is composed of numerous, fused, ripened ovaries, each derived from a separate white flower. Each section or hexagonal marking on the fruit represents the place where a flower was once attached.

The painkiller tree was used by people throughout tropical regions of the world. In the Caribbean region, the shiny green leaves were used by the Caribs as a poultice for wounds, rheumatic joints, fevers and headaches. The leaves were applied directly to the afflicted area to relieve pain. Polynesians called the plant "noni" and used the ripe fruit as a poultice. The mashed fruit was applied directly to the afflicted area, including deep cuts and broken bones. A medicinal drink was also made from the fruits and used as a remedy for tuberculosis. The fruits were also eaten (raw or cooked) as famine food. Noni fruits and tonic can reportedly cure a variety of ailments ranging from arthritis, rheumatism, sores, boils, and even eliminate head lice. To this day, noni is considered a cure-all and is widely used by Polynesians. According to A.K. Kepler (Hawaiian Heritage Plants, 1984), one of the active ingredients of noni is morindin, a tricyclic phenolic compound. A yellowish dye was also obtained from the roots of this plant, an important dye for tapa cloth (bark cloth).

During the last decade of the twentieth century, there has been a "herbal revolution" in the United States, with an increased interest in natural herbal remedies. Because of its remarkable cure-all reputation among Polynesians, a lot of attention has been focused on "noni" (Morinda citrifolia). Several companies are now marketing noni extract juice from the ripened fruits or dried extract in capsule form. The extract contains proxeronine (precursor of the amino acid xeronine) and the enzyme proxeroninase which catalyzes the conversion of proxeronine into xeronine in the human intestine. According to the literature provided by these companies, xeronine aids in the uptake of vital nutrients (amino acids, etc.) by cells lining the small intestine. To find out more up-to-date information about "noni" do an internet search.

Indian mulberry or "noni" (Morinda citrifolia). The immature fruit (right) is a multiple fruit or syncarp composed of numerous, fused, separate ovaries, each produced by a separate flower. Each section or hexagonal marking on the mature, yellowish-white fruit (left) represents the place where a flower was once attached.

References About "Noni" (Morinda citrifolia):

  1. Dittmar, A. 1993. "Morinda citrifolia L.--Use in Indigenous Samoan Medicine." Journal of Herbs and Medicinal Plants Vol. 1 (3).

  2. Kepler, A.K. 1984. Hawaiian Heritage Plants. The Oriental Publishing Company, Honolulu, Hawaii.

  3. Krauss, B.H. 1981. Native Plants Used As Medicine in Hawaii. Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii.

  4. Morton, J. 1992. "The Ocean-Going Noni, or Indian Mulberry (Morinda citrifolia, Rubiaceae) and Some of Its Colorful Relatives." Economic Botany 46 (3): 241-256.

  5. Honychurch, P.N. 1986. Caribbean Wild Plants and Their Uses. Macmillan Publishers Ltd, London.

Pin Cushion Plant: Nertera granadensis (Rubiaceae)

Pin cushion plant (Nertera granadensis), a colorful little plant in the madder family (Rubiaceae) native to moist, boggy areas of New Zealand and Tasmania. The decorative plants are sold in southern California during the fall months.

Pin cushion plant (Nertera granadensis), a colorful little plant in the madder family (Rubiaceae) native to moist, boggy areas of New Zealand and Tasmania. The decorative plants are sold in southern California during the fall months.

Tea Family (Theaceae or Camelliaceae)

Commercial black and green teas come from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a shrubby species native to China and cultivated throughout Asia. The grade of tea depends on the age of the leaves. In "golden tips" the youngest bud only is used; in "orange pekoe" the smallest leaf; in "pekoe" the second leaf; in "pekoe souchong" the third leaf; in "souchong" the fourth leaf; and in "congou" the fifth and largest leaf to be gathered. In green tea the leaves are dried and appear dull green. In black tea the leaves are fermented and then dried. "Oolong tea" is only partially fermented and is intermediate between black and green. The various pekoes, souchongs, and congous are black teas, while gunpowder and hyson are the most important grades of green tea. "Earl Gray," the favorite tea of Captain Picard aboard the starship Enterprise, is a special blend of black tea with oil of bergamot from the rind of Citrus bergamia. Earl Gray is commemorated for his "invention" of this tea. In California, the common garden camellia is C. japonica, a shrub or small tree native to coastal regions of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Over 2,000 cultivars have been named, with single and double blossoms in many color variations, from white, pink and bright yellow to many shades of red.

Camellia sinensis: Source of the many kinds of black and green teas.

One of the more than 2,000 cultivars of garden camellia (Camellia japonica). The black and green teas of commerce come from the leaves of the closely related species Camellia sinensis. Apparently, the cured leaves of the garden camellia can be used as a tea substitute, but the staff at Wayne's Word have never tried this.

An assortment of ornamental camellia cultivars.

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