Plants are involved in just about everything we do; imagine a breakfast, lunch or dinner not involving a plant. Even driving your car, from its parts to its fuel, is some way related to plants. Human civilization began with agriculture, and we even depend on the remains of prehistoric plants for our fossil fuels today. Without a doubt, the economic importance of plants is huge. 

Check out some of the Duke Biology Department Greenhouse’s economic plants collection.

Vanilla (Orchidaceae)

Believe it or not, one of the key flavorings in baked goods actually comes from an orchid.  Vanilla is a genus of orchids whose seeds are used to make a flavorful cooking extract.  These plants are native to Central and South America and tally in at around 110 species.  Vanilla planifolia is the species most commonly cultivated for its high flavor content.  The Greenhouse at Duke has two species V. planifolia and V. pompona.

    • Orchidaceae
    • Vanilla planiflora

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Orchidaceae
    • Vanilla planifolia

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Orchidaceae
    • Vanilla pompona

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Orchidaceae
    • Vanilla pompona

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
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Coffea arabica (Rubiaceae)

Although native to the highlands of northeastern Africa, coffee is today cultivated across the world.  At least at Duke, from the pre-meds to the PhD candidates, we all must pay our respects to this amazing plant.  The caffeine alkaloid (alkaloid crystals are typical of the Rubiaceae family) serves as a neuro-stimulant believed to be a defense against predators.  Whatever the reason, this plant rocks. 

    • Rubiaceae
    • Coffea arabica

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Rubiaceae
    • Coffea arabica

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Rubiaceae
    • Coffea arabica

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
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Theobroma cacao (Malvaceae)

Straight from the rainforests of South America comes the Chocolate tree.  Seedpods grow directly on the trees’ trunk, turning ripe when yellow.  The seeds inside are then removed, roasted, ground, add some sugar and – voilà.  The Latin genus name Theobroma (theos, god, and broma, food) comes from the fact that Mezoamerican civilizations believed there were divine properties to chocolate.

    • Malvaceae
    • Theobroma cacao

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Malvaceae
    • Theobroma cacao

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Malvaceae
    • Theobroma cacao

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Malvaceae
    • Theobroma cacao

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Malvaceae
    • Theobroma cacao

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
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Piper nigrum (Piperaceae)

Black Pepper is the quintessential spice.  Native to India, the plants’ drupes (botanical term for its fruit type with single seed and fleshy outside – think cherry, peach, plum, berries) are picked at various degrees of ripeness to produce white, black, green, and yellow pepper seasoning.  Literally, wars were once fought over this spice as European traders battled for control of the spice trade in the East Indies.  Think plants are boring, think again.

    • Piperaceae
    • Piper nigrum

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon

Musa (Musacaeae)

Technically speaking, a monocot cannot truly be a tree since there is no secondary growth, which is responsible for a dicot’s width (that is, a monocot cannot grow to large heights without growing in width for added support).  But Banana “trees” can grow pretty high as far as monocots come (3 meters).  This genus is native to tropical Africa and southeast Asia, but is widely cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world.  The genus name Musa comes from the Arabic for banana, muz (موز). Bananas are among the most popular fruits in the world, humans and monkeys alike. 

    • Musaceae
    • Musella lasiocarpa

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Musaceae
    • Musella lasiocarpa

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Musaceae
    • Musa sp.'Siam Ruby"

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
    • Musaceae
    • Musella lasiocarpa

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
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Hevea brasiliensis (Euphorbiaceae)

Rubber hasn’t always been man-made, it used to come from the Rubber Tree plant.  Native to the Brazilian rainforest, this plant was of huge economic value. Rubber was made from the white latex secretions from the phloem (characteristic of the Euphorbiaceae family).  Henry Ford lost millions in the early 1900s when he tried opening a Rubber Tree plantation.  The project failed after farmers and biologists realized that the trees naturally grow in the understory of larger Amazonian trees that create a specific microclimate.  Lesson learned, don’t mess with Mother Nature. 

    • Euphorbiaceae
    • Hevea brasilensis

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Euphorbiaceae
    • Hevea brasiliensis

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
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Carica papaya (Caricaceae)

Papaya tree, yeah!

    • Caricaceae
    • Carica papaya

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Caricaceae
    • Carica papaya

    • Photo Credit: Jenny Gordon
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Sphagnum (Sphagnaceae)

This early diverging moss species, better known as peat, is responsible for many sources of fossil fuel. Peatbogs are still a source of fuel in rural Ireland, and many coal and petroleum deposits are the remains of ancient peatlands. Destruction of these ecosytems is a serious concern to climate change, as 1/3 of the total world's carbon is stored in sphagnum swamps.

    • Sphagnaceae
    • Sphagnum magellanicum

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Sphagnaceae
    • Sphagnum sp.

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
    • Sphagnaceae
    • Sphagnum sp.

    • Photo Credit: Jacob Golan
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Aquifoliaceae

Ilex paraguariensis (Aquifoliaceae) - maté 

Used to make a very popular gaucho tea in South America

Solanaceae

Nicotiana tabacum (Solanaceae) - nicotine 

The tobacco plant and one source of James B. Duke's fortune

Apocynaceae

Rauvolfia sp. (Apocynaceae) - reserpine

Alkaloids used to treat high blood pressure and psychosis

Sapotaceae manilkara zapota

Manilkara zapota (Sapotaceae) - chicle latex

Used to make gum (originally)

Zingiberaceae

Elettaria cardamomum (Zingerberaceae) - cardamon

Spice used in cooking

Bixaceae

Bixa orellana (Bixaceae) - annato

Cooking spice used for red coloring

Page by Jacob Golan

 
  • Equisetaceae
  • Fabaceae
  • Commeliniaceae
  • Ericaceae
  • Araceae
  • Begoniaceae
  • Araceae
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