Table of Contents
Aromatic, Spice and Medicinal Plants
Arkcoll, D. 1990. New crops from Brazil. p. 367-371. In: J. Janick and J.E.
Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
New Crops from Brazil
- SELECTING NEW CROPS
- Bactris gasipaes (Peach palm, Pejebaye)
- Astrocaryum aculeatum (Tucuma)
- Acrocomia aculeata (Macauba)
- Cuphea spp.
- Annona muricata (Soursop)
- Eugenia stipitata (Araçá-boi)
- Psidium angulatum (Araçá-Pera)
- Spondias lutea (Taperebá, Cajá)
- Theobroma grandiflorum (Cupuassu)
- Couepia longipendula (Egg nut)
- Couma utilis (Sorva)
- Paullinia cupana (Guaraná)
- Stevia rebaudiana (Stevia)
- Bixa orellana (Annatto)
Brazil and especially the unexplored regions of the Amazon, are extremely rich
sources of plant germplasm with potential as new crops. Establishing the
correct selection criteria is important to evaluate the true potential of the
many promising species by calling attention to their assets and to the missing
information and problems facing each species. This must be accomplished
efficiently to justify the considerable investment in relevant research needed
to develop the most promising plants into commercially viable crops.
Much of the current interest in new crops arises from the over production of
traditional cereals and soybeans by major producer and exporting countries.
This has led to the expensive practice of paying farmers to leave land idle in
the USA, clearly an undesirable situation. Furthermore, traditional markets
like Europe and the developing world are increasing their own production to
relieve their shortages and reduce their imports. In some cases, these
countries are even compelling in export markets with their surpluses. Examples
are the explosion of rape seed in Europe and the large amount of soybeans now
being produced by Brazil and Argentina. The tendency is to replace imports,
hence the interest in the USA in finding alternatives to rubber (e.g. guayule),
lauric oils (e.g. Cuphea) and cellulose (e.g. kenaf). This in turn will
force traditional producers of these products to search for alternative crops
There are many other good reasons for looking to new crops. These include the
need to diversify from vulnerable dependence on the few major grain crops, the
increasing interest in novelty foods, the industrial requirement for new
compounds (e.g. new colorants, polyvinyl plastics), and new nutritional
recommendations (e.g. gamma linolenic acid and new low calorie sweeteners).
There is also a need for new crops to expand agriculture into marginal lands,
especially in the tropics where few viable alternatives are found. New systems
like agroforestry and biomass production also may require new crops.
Ideally, having decided on a precise need, one would then look for a plant that
has the desired characteristics. In practice what has tended to happen is that
a botanist studies an interesting species and then tries to find a market for
it. However, there are a series of characteristics that a wild plant must have
if it is to ever make the large jump from botanical curiosity into viable crop.
These include agricultural industrial and marketing characteristics (Arkcoll
and Clement 1989). It should be easy to propagate, precocious, rustic,
productive, be easy to harvest, and fit into current farm practice. The
product must be easy to transport, store, and process. It should also be able
to enter an established market at a competitive price or should be so
attractive that a new market can be easily created.
We have been evaluating some of the most interesting species in this light in
an effort to reduce the number to a few with the greatest potential. These and
other species being developed in Brazil, are examined below to draw attention
to the current stage of development, the missing data and the major problems
that each one faces.
The Peach palm has attracted much attention in the last decade because of the
texture and composition of the fruit mesocarp which is usually similar to that
of a starchy cereal or root crop. It is consequently an important backyard
tree in much of tropical Latin America and is used as a dietary staple by some
Amerindian tribes (FAO 1986, Clement and Arkcoll 1989). The small crown and
very high yield of some trees have suggested that it could be a useful
plantation crop capable of producing large amounts of basic food in the wet
tropics. We have been studying this potential as an important part of attempts
to create ecologically attractive "food forests" to produce food from a
permanent perennial system (Arkcoll 1978, 1979, 1984). Some introductions are
very rich in oil (62% of mesocarp dry matter) suggesting that selecting for
this character would be an interesting alternative because of the local and
world markets for oil and protein rich meals (Arkcoll and Aguiar 1984). Most
fruit have a bland taste that is not exotic enough to export, however some with
a sweetish flavor may have more potential as a table fruit and at least expand
local markets. The crop has only been grown on a large commercial scale for
palmhearts in Costa Rica where over 2000 ha have been planted. The viability
of this venture has been dependent on Government subsidy as it is difficult for
plantations to compete with raw material coming from wild Euterpe edulis
in Brazil. It is especially interesting as a source of palmhearts because it
tillers and grows extremely fast (Gomes and Arkcoll 1987). Unfortunately, this
vegetative vigor is proving to be a problem in fruit production as the fruit
are produced too high above the ground to harvest after a few years. Precocity
has been observed and there are signs of different growth rates suggesting that
researchers might locate dwarf phenotypes. Managing tillers as in banana
plantations, is also being considered. While individual stem yields of over 80
kg/yr. have been recorded, plantation yields have been frustrated by uneven
bearing and tremendous fruit drop caused by poor pollination, drought, nutrient
deficiencies, and principally pests and diseases. It is hoped that these
problems can be controlled the crop is better understood. The successful
selection and combination of desired characteristics could make this crop as
important as the coconut in the wet tropics.
Tucuma, a heavily spined palm, is of interest because of the oily mesocarp and
large kernel. A very brief examination of a few dozen introductions from the
Manaus market, identified one with over 30% oil in the fresh fruit (Arkcoll et
al. 1986, Arkcoll 1988). However, the species is only used locally for the
direct consumption of the very thin pulp. This is bitter, nutty, and oily and
rarely appreciated by the newcomer. However, it is so appreciated by locals
that it costs as much as a dollar a dozen. Despite the premium price, tucuma
is not grown commercially because there are enough native trees to satisfy
demand. The species often becomes dominant in secondary forests because of
resistance to fire and perhaps this characteristic can be used to recover worn
out and abandoned pasture (FAO 1986). Difficulty in breaking seed dormancy and
slow initial growth, have dampened the enthusiasm of research workers, but the
large variation found in A. vulgare (Lima et al. 1986), a similar
species with several stems, suggests that both species deserve more attention.
Macauba palm is somewhat similar to the last palm in that its fruit have a
large amount of both pulp and kernel oil and together with several very similar
species, is widespread throughout central and Latin America often on poor
soils. Its apparent tolerance to drought, makes it an attractive species for
producing oil in regions that are too dry for the African oil palm and
coconuts. The very high yield predictions of 6 t/ha (Wandeck and Justo 1982)
have not been confirmed yet because of difficulties in breaking dormancy and
slow early growth. Rapid hydrolysis of the mesocarp oil and difficulty in
separating oil from the moist, fibrous and mucilaginous pulp, are among the
other problems that still have to be faced (FAO 1986, Arkcoll 1988).
The several hundred widely spread species in this genus have been of interest
for about a decade, because of the unique composition of their seed oils. This
varies with species, with the most interesting having over 80% lauric acid
(Graham et al. 1981, Graham and Kleiman 1985). As most species are small
herbaceous plants and many are adapted to the colder regions of highland
Mexico, it is hoped that a mechanized crop suitable for temperate climates
might be developed and reduce the dependency of lauric oil importing countries
on wildly fluctuating supplies from coconut producers. Satisfactory yields
have not been achieved in the USA because of shattering (Hirsinger and Knowles
1984, Hirsinger 1985). Attention has been drawn to several other problems such
as seed dormancy, slow growth and the variable chromosome numbers and fatty
acid composition observed in different species (Arkcoll 1988). Many wild
species have not yet been studied and an effort is being made to collect this
germplasm in order to locate desirable characteristics. Research is also in
progress to obtain indehiscence through mutations and also to splice the
appropriate Cuphea genes into a conventional crop such as rape (Thompson
1984, Tokay 1985). Sudden success in either of these efforts could lead
rapidly to the development of an important new crop to supply the enormous
market for lauric oils. It would also help to expand markets for medium chain
(mixtures of C8 and C10) triglycerides that have considerable commercial
potential, especially as lubricants and nutritionally desirable and medically
useful oils (Bach and Babayan 1982). There is considerable interest in the
pharmacological properties of extracts from the whole plant of some species
used as a cure-all in local folk medicine in Brazil. There is now scientific
confirmation of several potentially useful separate effects including
depression of the central nervous system and the ability to reduce blood
pressure in experimental animals (Ericeira et al. 1984).
The large fruit of the soursop is much appreciated in several Latin American
countries mainly as a sweetened juice but also as an ice cream and yoghurt
flavoring. Several small commercial plantations are now in operation with
about 2000 ha planted in Brazil and more planned. Yields have been
disappointingly low, rarely reaching 7 t/ha in plantations sown from seed.
Yields from individual trees very significantly suggesting that considerable
improvement could be achieved via clonal selection. Production problems
include low fruit set due to poor pollination and adverse climatic conditions
and the attack of several devastating pests and diseases (FAO 1986). The
flavor is somewhat volatile so pasteurized products are less attractive than
fresh ones, and the off white color can become an unpleasant grey unless
oxidation is prevented. The premature sale of several poor bottled products is
thought to have limited market penetration. Frozen and chilled products seem
more successful elsewhere (Arkcoll 1987), especially in regions where the fresh
fruit is well known and appreciated.
Araçá-boi, a little known fruit from the Western Amazon is very
attractive in appearance and has an exquisite fragrance. Although extremely
sour to the taste, the sweetened juice has performed well in acceptance trials.
In early performance trials two-year old bushes produced high yields (FAO
1986). The main production drawbacks are susceptibility to anthracnose, soft
fruit texture and volatility of aroma. Consequently, resistance is being
sought, firm fruit are harvested a little green with small loss in quality and
the market will probably be restricted to fresh and frozen products. Studies
on the aroma are planned as this may have a market in its own right.
This is one of the most interesting of the many wild acidic guavas known
collectively in Brazil as Araçá. Its sour juice is so
concentrated that it must be diluted 10 times and well sweetened to produce a
very acceptable drink. Once again, the delicate flavor is affected by heating
so that fresh and frozen products are superior to pasteurized juices. The
fruit comes from the eastern Amazon and there are only a few experimental
plantations at the moment. Initial impressions are that the plant is rustic
and productive although the yields are low compared to guavas. Interspecific
breeding may be promising. The leathery skin should avoid damage during
transport and together with the high acidity, give some resistance to insect
attack. Fruit are quite variable and clonal selection is needed to obtain
superior introductions (FAO 1986). Another wild acidic guava receiving
attention is Feijoa sellowiana from the extreme south of the country
Taperebá or Cajá is one of the most popular fruit in the North
and Northeast of Brazil. The fruit itself is rarely eaten directly as the pulp
is thin and usually quite sour, however it makes a superb sweetened juice and
ice cream or ice lollipop of excellent flavor. The flavor is volatile and
pasteurized products are not attractive. No plantations are known which is
surprising as the demand is in excess of the current supply from the many large
trees found scattered at low density over a wide area of forest. Trees grow
fast from seed but take over 5 years to fruit. Like most Spondias, they
can be propagated easily from large cuttings to fruit quickly and reduce the
size of the trees. This is important as the very soft fruit are often bruised
when harvested from the ground beneath large trees. Most fruit are small and
have a large seed and thin layer of pulp so a search is on for fruit said to be
as large as S. dulcis. The tree appears to be rather rustic and
productive although no data on yields is available (FAO 1986).
A highly perfumed pulp surrounding the seeds of Cupuassu, a large relative of
Cacao, is much appreciated in the Amazon region for making sweetened juice, ice
cream or charlotte desserts. It fetches the highest price of all fruits in the
local markets and there are now several hundred hectares planted to supply the
Belem and Manaus markets. Newcomers often find the aroma a little overpowering
at first, but soon acquire a liking for it. This volatile aroma could be
extracted and might find a market in the flavor and perfume industry. Yields
are low in the field (Calzavara 1987) and there is only about 40% pulp in most
fruit. Seedless fruit are known with larger amounts of pulp. However, the
seed can be made into a number of chocolate-like products and so could become a
useful byproduct if large scale production becomes viable (Arkcoll and Clement
1988). Selection for higher yield and resistance to witches broom is needed
Apart from the major Brazilian nuts, (cashew and brazil) there are many other
interesting examples. One of these is Couepia longipendula (egg nut)
because of its excellent flavor. This large tree is common in the forest
around Manaus but although widely eaten in the rural areas, it never reaches
the local market so is little known. The shell is hard and thick requiring an
ax to break it. Nuts with thinner shells are said to exist in the forest.
Trees are rather slow growing so grafting onto the more vigorous rootstock of
C. subcordata is being considered (FAO 1986). The kernels are rich in
oil which appears to have some unusual polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Over 5000 t of sorva latex are exported from this plant each year as a
substitute for chicle gum. Much of it is obtained by destructive tapping of
wild trees. Because these are being decimated quickly, Achras sapota
trees are slow growing and increasingly rare and industrial substitutes are
contaminated with heavy metals, there is considerable interest in establishing
plantations of C. utilis. A few experimental trees have grown very fast
on poor soil but tapping yields have not been obtained yet. The tree is also
very decorative and the good flavored fruit are sold in local markets. The
fruit might become a useful subproduct of latex plantations, however, they are
too soft and not thought to be interesting enough to consider more seriously in
their own right (FAO 1986).
Roasted seeds of this plant are ground up to make an interesting cola type
drink called guaraná. Over 1000 t are now produced annually in Brazil
on about 5000 ha of poor oxisols. Vegetative propagation of selected plants is
starting to increase yields and the local market is now thought to be
saturated. An export drive is now in progress and seems to be having some
success, especially in Japan. The drink owes much of its popularity to the
stimulation produced by its high caffeine content and the widely held belief in
its rejuvenating and aphrodisiacal properties (Cavalcanti 1988). Well
formulated products can be very good although several of the most popular
brands contained very little or no real guarana until recent legislation, aimed
at supporting growers, made the inclusion of a small amount compulsory.
Dried leaves from this small shrub from the south of Brazil, have been used as
a local sweetener and cure-all for generations. The main active ingredient,
stevioside, is said to be up to 300 times as sweet as sucrose. Extraction
processes have been developed in Japan and Brazil and over 100 t/year sold in a
purified form until recently when doubt has been cast over its toxicity and the
mutagenicity of the metabolite, steviol (Pezzuto et al. 1985, S. Cascon pers.
commun.). Studies are in progress to clarify this situation and some
derivatives that are believed to be safe, have been synthesized and patented
(Dubois et al. 1984). About a 100 ha are now planted annually in Brazil to
satisfy the local demand, mainly by natural health shops for dried leaves.
Yields of 2 to 3 t/ha of leaf with about 10% stevioside are obtained.
Restrictions on the use of many synthetic colorants and the relative
instability of most other carotenoids, are leading to the increasing use of
bixin, especially in the dairy industry. World production, estimated at about
3,000 t of annatto seed in 1983 (Anand 1983), is now thought to have risen
rapidly to over 10,000 t, about half of which comes from Brazil. Until
recently, annatto (or urucum as it is known in Brazil) was little more than a
back garden crop. However, high prices and the good yields have resulted in a
few farmers planting it on a larger scale. Yields, after 4 years, can pass 2
t/ha with 0.9 to 6.9% (average about 2.5%) bixin covering the seeds in a sticky
resin (Nicholson 1964, I. Guimaraes pers. commun.). Yields from seedling trees
are very variable as the crop is cross pollinated. Variation in the exact
composition of the colorants in the final extracted products limits
marketability. Vegetative propagation is easy and should make rapid advances
possible especially if the crop is selected for a combination of yield and
bixin content. The relatively small market for colorants could quickly become
saturated so there is interest in the potential of this rustic perennial crop
as an alternative grain for growing on exhausted tropical soils. The high
yield potential despite any scientific attempts at improvement, makes it a very
The above species have been identified by a series of multidisciplinary
criteria as some of the best Brazilian options for development into new crops.
They are found in various stages of development from early germplasm collection
to small commercial plantations. Attention is drawn to some of the missing
data and problems that they face if they are to overcome the risks of early
commercial plantations and make the large jump from botanical curiosities to
useful crops. Appropriate research is now underway to collect the missing data
and to resolve the problems, however it is bedeviled by a lack of continuity.
Germplasm maintenance and work with tree crops, especially breeding, are very
long term projects that funding bodies have failed to face so much research has
been wasted in the past (Arkcoll and Clement 1989). Thought is needed on how
one forms and keeps a multidisciplinary team together over many years in
countries with wildly fluctuating economies and poor working conditions.
It is also well known that few crops have been successfully exploited on a
large scale near their center of diversity because of indigenous pests and
diseases, so that local research will probably benefit other regions of the
globe. Thus, improvements in the exchange of germplasm are important if many
new crops are to be fully evaluated and developed.
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