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Lamberts, M. 1990. Latin American vegetables. p. 378-387. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Latin American Vegetables*

Mary Lamberts

    1. Asian Vegetables
    2. Other Non-native Vegetables
    3. Specialty Vegetables of Latin America and the Caribbean
  6. Table 1
  7. Table 2
  8. Table 3
  9. Fig. 1
  10. Fig. 2
  11. Fig. 3
  12. Fig. 4
  13. Fig. 5


Imports of agricultural products, particularly fruits and vegetables, into the United States have increased 300% for fruits and 200% for vegetables during the period from 1975 to 1986. USDA-Economic Research Service (ERS) data show that fruits and vegetables accounted for 24% of total competitive agricultural imports (i.e., those that compete with products produced by U.S. farmers) in 1986. Nearly half was from Latin America (Mexico—27%; Brazil—13%; "Other South America"—8%) (Fig. 1, 2). The dollar value of total vegetable imports almost tripled from 1975 to 1986, rising from about $537 million to $1.6 billion with fresh and frozen being roughly half that value (Fig. 3). The value of total agricultural imports from Mexico doubled between 1980 and 1986 (Fig. 4), with a similar trend for vegetables during this period.


In considering "new crops" from Latin America and the Caribbean, there are two very different ways to view the situation. First, "new crops" can be taken to mean any crop which is not traditionally grown in the area, since it is a new crop in the eyes of the producer. Examples of these include globe artichokes from Chile, watermelons from Guatemala, cucumbers from Mexico and many more vegetables which are considered "traditional" North American crops, rather than Latin American crops. The other view of "new crops" focuses on crops now being grown in Latin America and the Caribbean which have not traditionally been a part of the North American/European diet, regardless of their origin.

This paper will briefly touch on the former group, presenting statistics of imports into the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean as a measure of the volume of production. USDA-ERS data from FY-1985 show ten countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, and Mexico, exporting some 60 fresh, frozen or dried vegetables which, for discussion purposes, are classed as "traditional" North American vegetables. Table 1 includes all vegetables under plant quarantine regulations imported from Latin America during FY-1985, where the imported amount accounts for at least 2% of total imports of that item (see also Fig. 5).

Of far greater interest to a symposium on new crops, however, are the 25 "non-traditional" crops which also appear in the USDA-ERS data. These crops are exported from: Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Jamaica and Mexico (Table 2). This group can be further divided into crops which are native to or generally associated with the region and those which are not. Crops which are not included in the USDA-ERS data but which appear in commerce in southern Florida, as imports and/or local products, will also be discussed. Tropical root crops and many Asian vegetables reviewed by O'Hair and Yamaguchi, respectively, in this proceedings will not be covered in this paper.


This discussion of specially vegetables will include: Asian vegetables, including crops now being grown in Florida which do not appear in import statistics, other specially vegetables, and specialty crops which are naive to or otherwise associated with the region. Current U.S. research efforts will be discussed as appropriate (not including most Asian vegetables). The countries from which vegetables are imported are indicated in square brackets, followed by the percentage of total imports for each country.

Asian Vegetables

Of the 25 crops listed in Table 2, eight are generally considered to be Asian vegetables: bamboo shoots (Bambusa spp.; Phyllostachys spp.) [Dominican Republic—62.2%], bittermelon (Momordica charantia L.) [Dominican Republic—99.8%], Chinese cabbage (Brassica chinensis L.) [Mexico—99.5%], Chinese cucumber (Cucumis melo L. var. conomon Makino) [Dominican Republic—100%], gingerroot (Zingiber officinale Rosc.) [Brazil—6.7%; Costa Rica—5.5%; Dominican Republic—4.3%; St. Lucia—3.2%], gourds (Cucurbita spp.; Luffa spp.; Benincasa hispida (Thunb.) Cogn.) [Dominican Republic—99.9%], snow peas or peapods (Pisum sativum L. var. macrocarpon Ser.) [Dominican Republic—45%; Guatemala—53.4%] and frozen snow peas [Guatemala—5.1%]. Reports from the Miami Terminal Market indicate that imports of bittermelons from the Dominican Republic, gourds [including fuzzy gourd (Benincasa hispida)] from the Dominican Republic, and snow peas from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala were very high during 1987-88 and are expected to increase. Researchers at the University of Florida-Bradenton have conducted cultivar trials with snow peas to determine their potential as a winter crop. Chinese cabbage is currently being grown in Florida as a winter crop by growers who raise summer crops in the Northeast and Canada.

There is limited production in South Florida of other lesser known Asian and other vegetables which may become important in the region as well. These include vegetables and a few fruits which are eaten as vegetables. This group comprises several botanical families: Anacardiaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Leguminosae, Solanaceae, Musaceae and Caricaceae.

Green mango fruit, Mangifera indica L. [Anacardiaceae], are popular among Southeast Asians and Latin Americans. They are eaten with salt or pickled.

Several cucurbits are being grown in South Florida: Chinese okra [Luffa acutangula (L) Roxb.], lauki or bottle gourd [Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Standl.], luffa [Luffa cylindrica (L) M. J. Roem], tindora or ivy gourd (Coccinia cordifolia Cobn.), and very small amounts of parvar or pointed gourd (Trichosanthes dioica Roxb.). Lauki used throughout the tropics and subtropics, and also tindora and parvar were recently introduced to southern Florida by East Indians. Chinese okra and luffa are popular with both South and Southeast Asians. There are reports that tindora has been imported from the Dominican Republic, but that the quality was inferior to tindora grown in the U.S. The edible portion of all these crops is the immature fruit. To date, research efforts in Florida with these minor cucurbits has been limited to disease and insect surveys.

Legumes grown in southern Florida include: guar or cluster bean as a green shell bean [Cyamopsis tetragonoloba (L.) Taub.], hyacinth or lablab bean (Lablab niger Medik.), yard-long or asparagus beans [Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis (L.) Verdc.], and winged bean [Psophocarpus tetragonolobus (L.) DC]. These legumes are eaten either as immature pods or as green shell beans. In some cases, such as the winged bean, overmature pods become bitter and unmarketable. Winged beans were produced commercially for one year in Puerto Rico, but were harvested when the pods were too mature. There have been no reports of additional plantings. A collection of winged bean cultivars was maintained at the University of Florida Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead until the mid-1980s. While there appears to be increasing interest in winged beans in the U.S., seed has been in short supply.

Thai eggplants (Solanum macrocarpon L.), Japanese eggplants (S. melongena L.) and Scotch bonnet peppers (Capsicum chinense Jacq.) represent the solanums. Thai eggplant, also called local garden egg, is originally from West Africa. Fruits of Thai eggplant are 5-6 cm long and 7-8 cm in diameter; those of Japanese eggplant are 5-15 cm long and 3-6 cm in diameter. Banana inflorescences and green papaya fruit are used as vegetables by Southeast Asians.

Several factors currently limit the production of these crops now being grown in southern Florida. These include: the scarcity of planing material for some specialty vegetable crops; the finite size of the current market, the need for all growers to harvest and ship only those items which are of the optimum size, quality and maturity; the lack of pesticides registered for use on these crops; and the high cost of both land and labor.

Other Non-native Vegetables

In addition to the eight Asian vegetables reported in the USDA-ERS statistics, another six (Table 2) do not fall into any easily definable category. These include: banana leaves (Musa spp.) [Dominican Republic—23.1 %; Guatemala—57.4%1, frozen banana leaves [Guatemala—60.9%], coriander (Coriandrum sativum L) [Mexico—99.1%], purslane or portulaca (Portulaca oleracea L.) [Mexico—100%], thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) [Jamaica—98.5%], and watercress (Nasturtium officinale R.Br.) [Dominican Republic—89.9%; Mexico—9.0%]. Of these, coriander and watercress are grown in various parts of the United States, including winter production in Florida.

Specialty Vegetables of Latin America and the Caribbean

This final group of crops is perhaps of greatest interest to a symposium on new crops, since it is least familiar. It includes such diverse items as cactus fruits (Opuntia spp.), tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa Brot. ex. Hornem), sorrel or roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L. var. sabdariffa) and others. These crops are imported into the United States in various forms including fresh, canned, processed and frozen (Table 3).

Cactus fruits are imported solely from Mexico. In the southwestern United States and perhaps Mexico, these fruits are processed into jellies. Cactus pads (also Opuntia spp.—not reported) are also imported from Mexico, either fresh or canned (Table 3).

Callaloo, a leafy green vegetable, is the main ingredient in the most famous soup of the Caribbean. It refers to the leaves of two very distinct genera of plants which are used interchangeably, depending on location and availability One is dasheen or taro [Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott.] and the other is Amaranthus spp., also known as Chinese spinach. Dasheen leaves [Jamaica—69.8%; Dominican Republic—29.7%] are found fresh in Oriental and Latin American markets. Amaranth is cultivated on a very limited basis in southern Florida during the winter and in a number of locations on the Eastern Seaboard, such as near New York City and other metropolitan areas with large Oriental populations, during the spring and summer. Canned callaloo (amaranth) is imported from Jamaica and possibly other locations.

Chayotes [Sechium edule (Jacq.) Swartz] [Costa Rica—77.1%; Mexico—20.4%] are sold almost year-round in many Florida supermarkets (Table 3). This pear-shaped fruit is grown on a very limited basis in southern Florida and to some extent in Puerto Rico. Chayotes have specific cultural requirements, including a 365-day growing season with no frosts and no high temperatures, which serve to limit its production in the mainland U.S. Florida chayotes have been found to be susceptible to target spot and other diseases and insects affecting cucurbits. There is an extensive germplasm collection at Centro Agronomica Tropical de Investigacion y Enseñanza (CATIE), Turrialba, Costa Rica. Much of the research on this crop has been and continues to be done in Costa Rica.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa Brot. ex Hornem) small tomato-like fruits, [Mexico—100%] are sold fresh, canned whole or made into salsa verde [green sauce] (Table 3). Jicama (or yam bean) [Pachyrrhizus erosus (L.) Urban.] and purslane (or portulaca) (Portulaca oleracea L.) are two other products which are imported as fresh vegetables almost exclusively from Mexico [99.9% and 100% respectively]. Very small plantings of jicama have been tried in southern Florida, though most of the soils are not suitable for this root crop. Jicama importers are enthusiastic about the acceptance of this vegetable and report that supermarkets are projecting sales increases. Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album L.) are also imported in small quantities solely from Mexico. Tender leaves and young shoots are the edible portions of both purslane and lambsquarters.

Palm fruit [Brazil—100%] and hearts of palm [not reported] are considered here as vegetables because of the way they are eaten. Canned hearts of palm are imported from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela (Table 3). Both palm fruit and palm hearts can be harvested from the multi-trunked pejibaye or peach palm [Guilielma gasipaes (H.B.K.) Bailey] which is grown in Costa Rica. Other palm species yield hearts which are edible and would lend themselves to cultivation.

Pigeon peas or gandules (Cajanus cajan L.) are sold fresh [Dominican Republic—87.1%; Peru—9.9%], frozen [Dominican Republic—92.5%], dried [not reported] and canned (Table 3). They are grown in Puerto Rico and to a very limited extent as green shell beans in Florida.

Pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata (Duch. ex Lam.) Duch. ex Poir.) [Dominican Republic-84.5%, Jamaica—9.9%; Mexico—3.8%], also known as calabaza, is also grown in south Florida. Imports have come into Florida from the Bahamas at various times. Imports from Costa Rica have been on the increase since early 1988 and were sufficiently high and inexpensive to discourage Florida growers.

Finally, the unopened flower buds of sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) [Dominican Republic—85.3%; Jamaica—14.7%], also known as roselle or flor de Jamaica, is used in making drinks, jams, jellies and sauces. Young shoots and leaves can also be eaten either raw or as a potherb.


Predictions as to which vegetables are likely to become the next `kiwi fruit' are difficult to make. If the past few years are good indicators, production of snow peas and icebox watermelons in Guatemala, Scotch bonnet peppers in Jamaica, bittermelons and snow peas in the Dominican Republic, pumpkins in Costa Rica, and jicama in Mexico certainly have great potential. Hearts of palm could also become more common. Others, such as the specially Asian vegetables now being grown in Dade County, Florida, may also become more popular. Some crops in this latter group will need careful marketing and may face limits to production due to scarcities of planting material. Part of the success of these products will depend on promotional efforts and the ability of the industrial and scientific communities in solving new problems as they arise.

Researchers need to improve their understanding of these crops, since in most instances growers are more knowledgeable. As cultivated areas increase, insect and disease problems are likely to increase as well. Vegetables with pesticide residues which exceed the limits set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been rejected at ports of entry into the United States. As inspections become more frequent rejections are likely to increase. This in turn will increase the demand for minor use registrations of pesticides, both for the United States and for Latin America and the Caribbean.


*Florida Agricultural Experiment Station Journal Series No. N-00010.
Table 1. 1985 United States imports of traditional vegetables under plant quarantine regulations from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Commodity Country Imports (kg) % of total
Artichoke, globe Chile 632,917 98.7
Asparagus Mexico 8,328,445 89.3
Chile 708,106 7.5
Asparagus-frozen Mexico 315,558 99.9
Beans, green Mexico 11,424,275 88.0
Dominican Republic 991,724 7.6
Beans, green-frozen Mexico 63,668 81.5
Beans, lima Mexico 3,615 99.1
Beans, other Chile 54,091 100.0
Beets Mexico 118,414 100.0
Broccoli Mexico 3,156,698 94.5
Guatemala 180,885 5.4
Broccoli-frozen Mexico 29,309,843 84.2
Guatemala 5,417,304 15.5
Brussels sprouts Mexico 7,731,078 98.8
Brussels sprouts-frozen Guatemala 1,948,560 61.9
Mexico 760,782 24.2
Cabbage Mexico 11,873,584 79.5
Cabbage-frozen Guatemala 38,952 100.0
Carrots Mexico 4,264,410 96.8
Carrots-frozen Mexico 53,716 14.3
Cauliflower Mexico 2,575,933 85.2
Guatemala 432,595 14.3
Cauliflower-frozen Mexico 13,910,282 89.5
Guatemala 1,479,981 9.5
Celery Mexico 1,233,065 64.2
Guatemala 686,060 35.7
Chive Dominican Republic 121,141 95.5
Chive-frozen Guatemala 4 100.0
Collards Mexico 270,425 100.0
Corn-frozen Dominican Republic 725 82.0
Chile 140 15.8
Corn-on-cob Mexico 3,872,620 98.8
Corn-on-cob-frozen Colombia 500 46.5
Guatemala 227 21.1
Cucumbers Mexico 177,065,496 92.9
Eggplant Mexico 15,425,316 90.6
Dominican Republic 1,582,157 9.2
Escarole Mexico 81,140 100.0
Garlic Mexico 10,671,656 70.1
Argentina 2,229,404 14.6
Kale Mexico 223,526 100.0
Lentils Mexico 913 49.9
Lettuce Mexico 11,231,305 98.3
Melons, muskmelon Dominican Republic 18,632,431 16.4
Mexico 86,610,031 76.6
Melons, muskmelon-frozen Honduras 19,765 100.0
Melons, other Mexico 25,118,439 49.2
Chile 6,516,150 12.7
Guatemala 6,421,800 12.5
El Salvador 3,067,267 6.0
Melons, other Dominican Republic 1,869,390 3.6
Honduras 1,502,863 2.9
Ecuador 1,393,770 2.7
Jamaica 1,145,782 2.2
Melons, watermelons Mexico 113,524,214 97.8
Mustard greens Mexico 331,676 97.9
Okra Mexico 19,229,053 98.0
Okra-frozen Dominican Republic 5,387,089 49.6
Guatemala 2,917,541 26.8
El Salvador 2,407,253 22.1
Onion Mexico 93,041,620 93.4
Onion, dried Mexico 2,639,587 99.9
Parsley Mexico 669,537 82.7
Dominican Republic 139,176 17.1
Peas, chickpeas Mexico 155,403 99.9
Peas, chickpeas-frozen Dominican Republic 459 100.0
Peas, cowpeas Mexico 3,168,091 99.9
Peas, garden Mexico 4,366,744 95.7
Peppers Mexico 109,920,578 90.1
Dominican Republic 6,497,365 5.3
Peppers-frozen Mexico 1,393 71.2
Guatemala 364 18.6
El Salvador 187 9.5
Peppers, dried Mexico 682,675 100.0
Potatoes Dominican Republic 825,530 100.0
Radishes Mexico 7,533,569 97.8
Spinach Mexico 834,489 88.1
Jamaica 77,558 8.1
Spinach-frozen Mexico 27,602 99.8
Squash Mexico 60,602,679 95.8
Dominican Republic 1,655,110 2.6
Squash-frozen Mexico 1,271,739 98.6
Sweetpotato Dominican Republic 8,303,145 100.0
Swiss chard Mexico 13,134 99.8
Tomatoes Mexico 389,061,138 98.8
Turnips Mexico 1,016,747 100.0
Source: Wright, Mary. 1986. U.S. Imports of fruits and vegetables under plant quarantine regulations, fiscal year 1985. USDA, Econ. Res. Serv., Int. Econ. Div. ERS Staff Report No. AGES860304, Washington, DC.

Table 2. 1985 United States imports of specialty vegetables under plant quarantine regulations from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Commodity Country Imports (kg) % of total
Bamboo shoots Dominican Republic 5,514 62.2
Banana leaves Guatemala 19,021 57.4
Dominican Republic 7,665 23.1
Mexico 6,428 19.4
Banana leaves-frozen Guatemala 1,196 60.9
Bittermelons Dominican Republic 1,262,906 99.8
Cactus fruits Mexico 667,019 100.0
Chayotes Costa Rica 4,470,238 77.1
Mexico 1,186,309 20.4
Chinese cabbage Mexico 162,418 99.5
Chinese cucumber Dominican Republic 7,079 100.0
Cilantro, coriander Mexico 5,946,117 99.1
Dasheen, taro leaves Jamaica 58,063 69.8
Dominican Republic 24,751 29.7
Ginger root Brazil 171,284 6.7
Costa Rica 139,349 5.5
Dominican Republic 110,706 4.3
St. Lucia 81,339 3.2
Gourds Dominican Republic 67,105 99.9
Husk tomato Mexico 6,418,338 100.0
Jicama, yam bean Mexico 7,722,733 99.9
Lambsquarters Mexico 885 100.0
Palm fruit Brazil 18,000 100.0
Peapods Guatemala 3,197,251 53.4
Dominican Republic 2,698,273 45.0
Peapods-frozen Guatemala 124,703 5.1
Peas, pigeon Dominican Republic 741,103 87.1
Peru 84,916 9.9
Peas, pigeon-frozen Dominican Republic 292,389 92.5
Pumpkin, calabaza Dominican Republic 4,234,110 84.5
Jamaica 495,901 9.9
Mexico 190,871 3.8
Purslane, portulaca Mexico 141,648 100.0
Sorrel, roselle Dominican Republic 63,567 85.3
Jamaica 10,926 14.6
Thyme Jamaica 42,503 98.5
Watercress Dominican Republic 50,905 89.9
Mexico 5,132 9.0
Source: Wright, Mary. 1986. U.S. Imports of fruits and vegetables under plant quarantine regulations, fiscal year 1985. USDA, Econ. Res. Serv., Int Econ. Div. ERS Staff Report No. AGES860304, Washington, DC.

Table 3. Fresh, canned and frozen non-traditional vegetables imported from Latin America and the Caribbean found in supermarkets in southern Florida.

SectionProductBrand nameCountry of origin
ProduceCactus fruit(Mexico)z
Cactus pads(Mexico)
ChayotesCosta Rica
Kirby cucumbersMexico
Scotch bonnet(Jamaica)
Snow peasGuatemala
TamarindDominican Republic
Pepino melonFrieda's
Salsa mixFrieda'sMexico
Tamarillo, purple & orangeFrieda's
Corn husksMojaveMexico
CannedGandules, pigeon peaCaseraDominican Republic
DianaDominican Republic
El JibaritoDominican Republic
GoyaDominican Republic
IberiaDominican Republic
Hearts of PalmEl BocheroPeru
Bras PalmBrazil
La CimaCosta Rica
Whole Peach Palm FruitCovapaColombia
YucaCanarioCosta Rica
EthnicNopalitosDona MariaMexico
Salsa Verde-TomatilloHerdezMexico
Tender CactusSan MarcosMexico
TomatilloSan MarcosMexico
Chilpotle peppers in adobo sauceSan MarcosMexico
FrozenGandules, pigeon peaFelaDominican Republic
MickeyDominican Republic
TruvyDominican Republic
CondimentsRecaito-culantrilloCondimixPuerto Rico
GoyaPuerto Rico
zParentheses indicate country from which product is often imported. Stores surveyed: Food Land, Homestead; Publix Fort Lauderdale; Sedanos, Miami; Table Supply, Naranja Lakes, Tropical Supermarket Miami Winn Dixie, Homestead; Xtra, Hialeah, Florida.

Fig. 1. 1986 Competitive agricultural imports, product share of total value. Source: General Accounting Office. 1988. Agricultural trade. Causes and impacts of increased fruit and vegetable imports. riefing Report to the Honorable Leon E. Panetta, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-88-149BR, U.S. Gen. Account. Office, Washington, DC.

Fig. 2. U.S. imports of fruits and vegetables by country/region of origin, 1986. Source: General Accounting Office. 1988. Agricultural trade. Causes and impacts of increased fruit and vegetable imports. Briefing Report to the Honorable Leon E. Panetta, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-88-149BR, U.S. Gen. Account Office, Washington, DC.

Fig. 3. U.S. vegetable imports, 1975-86. Source: General Accounting Office. 1988. Agricultural trade. Causes and impacts of increased fruit and vegetable imports. Briefing Report to the Honorable Leon E. Panetta, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-88-149BR, U.S. Gen. Account. Office, Washington, DC.

Fig. 4. U.S. agricultural imports from Mexico, 1980-86. Source: General Accounting Office. 1988. Agricultural trade. Causes and impacts of increased fruit and vegetable imports. Briefing Report to the Honorable Leon E. Panetta, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-88-149BR, U.S. Gen. Account. Office, Washington, DC.

Fig. 5. Number of traditional vegetables imported into the U.S. by country, 1985. Source: General Accounting Office. 1988. Agricultural trade. Causes and impacts of increased fruit and vegetable imports. Briefing Report to the Honorable Leon E. Panetta, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-88-149BR, U.S. Gen. Account. Office, Washington, DC.

Last update September 4, 1997 by aw