An ethnobotanical inventory
Geo Coppens d'Eeckenbrugge and  Dimary Libreros Ferla


Among the vast heritage we have received from the Amerindian civilizations, one of the most impressive is the agricultural biodiversity that they have developed in all the ecosystems of the Americas. Their highly skilled grower-breeders have domesticated such vital plants as maize, potato, and cassava, first rank vegetables as tomato and peppers, and impressive fruits as pineapple, papaya, and avocado. Many American fruits have enriched the domesticated flora of the tropical and subtropical world, penetrating slowly but regularly the lives of the people shopping on the global market. Thus minor fruits as passion fruits (maracujas, sweet granadilla, and banana passion fruits), soursop and cherimoya, naranjilla, tree tomato, and the wrongly named Cape gooseberry are enriching our table with their extraordinary aromas and colors. Other delicious newcomers will follow them, with exotic names as cupuaçu, araza, jaboticaba, or camu-camu. The American fruit diversity is far from exploited. More than 100 different fruits compose the offer of the traditional markets of the continent and the present inventory includes more than 1100 native American fruits, at all stages of domestication, some still collected in the wild, while some of their successful relatives are cultivated intensively.

Martín et al. (1987) inventoried 800 minor fruit trees for the American tropics, a number which can be compared to ours, which also includes major species and herbaceous species. The same authors report 1200 minor species for Africa, and 500 for Southeast Asia. We can also appreciate the New World contribution to the list of the 18 more important tropical species according to Martín et al. (1987), excluding the date (of subtropical origin): banana, sweet orange, lemon, pomelo, mango, pineapple, avocado, papaya, maracuja, guava, litchi, cashew, Para nut, macadamia, coconut, breadfruit, oil palm, and cocoa. America contributes with eight species, Asia and the Pacific with nine (if we accept breadfruit) and Africa with one (if we accept oil palm). Thus the contribution to the global diet does not depend on the natural diversity. The success of a fruit seems to depend on its size, easy cultivation, conservation, transportation, and market. Historical factors, artificial selection and the development of specific technologies have also been determinant, as shown by the cases of citrics (selection and adaptation to subtropical conditions), bananas (maturation control), and pineapple (canning industry, fast transportation). Undoubtedly, the progress in post-harvest technology may benefit to many tropical fruits. The traditional consumption of fruits in countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia favors their re-discovery by the consumers of the great Latin-American cities.

Native fruits present unique opportunities to widen or re-conquer domestic markets, to diversify agricultural production and for the sustainable development of particular areas, as the fragile ecosystems of inter-Andean valleys or the Amazon. The recovery of information dispersed in the "gray literature" and in anthropological or ethnobotanical publications is the first step to put the fruit diversity at work for human development. We hope this inventory will contribute to this task. In a second step, to respond the need of urban markets, the crops must be adapted to new conditions of cultivation and the requirements of new consumers. Pests and diseases take importance when the plant is grown out of the traditional home garden. The first studies must focus on reproductive biology, heredity of main traits, the existence of the gene pool available for breeding, including landraces and cultivars as well as related species, wild or at an intermediate stage of domestication. These data are crucial, not only for the genetic improvement of the new crops, but also for the safe conservation of their diversity, to preserve our ability to answer future needs. The cost of these studies and the transnational distribution of the germplasm impose international collaboration.

To answer the growing interest of the American public, growers, investors, scientists, and governments, in their native fruit diversity, the CIRAD-FLHOR/IPGRI Project for Neotropical Fruits has started to gather the available information in this inventory. This list of more than 1100 species - 1128 have been listed so far in our inventory - is distributed among 66 families and 285 genera. The families with the greatest diversity of American fruits are the Myrtaceae (102 species), the palms or Arecaceae (86 species), the Rosaceae (74 species), the Sapotaceae, Passifloraceae and Leguminosae (approximately 60 species each), the Annonaceae (39 species), the Solanaceae (26 species) and the Malpighiaceae (19 species). Other families contribute with species of particular importance such as the pineapple (Bromeliaceae), the papaya (Caricaceae), the avocado (Lauraceae), and the Brazil nut (Lecythidaceae).

Excellent inventories of tropical fruits have been produced by great experts (e.g. Kennard et al., 1960; Fouqué, 1972; Martin et al., 1987; Verheij and Coronel, 1992), but none has been widely diffused because of the limitations inherent to the paper support. In the present work, we have recovered this information and presented it in a systematic way, following the botanical classification. We first had to define the content of our database. We have included species producing fruits or pseudo-fruits (in the botanical sense) that are generally consumed or prepared separately, in hand or in juices, marmalades and pastry (candies, creams, sherbets, sweets), contrary to vegetables, which are generally consumed with the main meal, in salads, cooked and/or condimented. This boundary is obviously relative. The most common case is the tomato, generally classified among the vegetables, but also used, as many fruits, in juice, for cocktails, or for homemade jams. Another case is the fruit of the peach palm, which is consumed cooked and salted, but always classified with fruits. In those cases, we have followed the general acceptation. Nuts, almonds, and dry fruits follow another category. We have included them because of the similarity of uses with the fruits. The limit between tropical and temperate fruit seems clearer than between fruits and vegetables. However, temperature is more important than latitude in many species, and certain families, as Rosaceae, better represented in the North, include very interesting species in the Andes. In a genetic resources inventory, the genepool concept dominated on geographical classification, so our inventory includes all the American species.

Obviously, the present list cannot be exhaustive. Given the importance of the American biodiversity, a fruit inventory is a huge and never-ending work. This is why this page is under constant revision and we solicit contributions from a wide range of experts and institutions, including enthusiastic private groups. Every contribution, comment, new information, or illustration of fruit species, is welcome.

This first version is provisionally located on a local server. It can be accessed from the IPGRI page. It should be also accessible from the CIRAD page soon. A more elaborate version, including more specific database functions, is being prepared, which will be accessed directly from the IPGRI server, ensuring an easier consultation.


Cali, Colombia, December 15, 2000.


IPGRI/CIRAD-FLHOR, A.A. 6713, Cali, Colombia; 
Email: Geo Coppens d'Eeckenbrugge

IPGRI-Americas, A.A. 6713, Cali, Colombia; 
Email: Dimary Libreros Ferla 

Acknowledgement: The taxonomy was revised by Dr. Freddy Leal Pinto. IPGRI-UCV

Page design by : Nelly Giraldo H.

Links to web sites with information about American fruit diversity

flecha izquierda.gif (1487 bytes)
Family chart                                                        

width height