My Top 25 All-Star Tropical Permaculture Plants
Plants and trees only make up part of the permaculture systems we create. That said, it’s an important part, with plants and trees providing us with food, fuel, construction materials, fertilizer, shade, and much more. Being based in the Caribbean (i.e. the Tropics) I quickly realized one thing: most of the information about permaculture plants and trees available on the internet deals with temperate climates. Since I’m probably not the only one out there that has been looking for information on tropical permaculture plants I figured I’d put together my own list. Introducing: my top 25 All-Star Tropical Permaculture Plants!
Permaculture is all about using smart, integrated design and working with nature to create self-sufficient, abundant environments that are resilient over time. Self-sufficiency among other things means that these systems are set up in a way that allows for them to meet their own energy and growth needs: in other words, they are permanent systems that are able to sustain or even regenerate themselves over time (the word ‘permaculture’ is a contraction of the words ‘permanent culture’).
All of this is reflected in the types of plants and trees we tend to use in permaculture systems. They are ideally (but not necessarily):
- low maintenance, highly productive
- all of the above!
Let me briefly explain [or scroll down to skip this intro and go right to the Tropical Permaculture All-Star Plant list!]
Perennials are preferred over annuals
Perennials can remain productive for many years (if not a lifetime) once they’ve been planted in the right conditions. Since they only have to be planted once (as opposed to annuals, which need to be planted each year), this of course means less work for you as you develop your site. More importantly however, perennials don’t have to be uprooted or replanted, meaning you won’t have to disturb the soil, allowing for a healthy ‘soil food web’ to be established. The final result: systems that are way more productive and resilient.
Multi-functionality as a superpower
Permaculturists love to talk about systems containing elements that ideally perform multiple functions. I won’t go into too much detail on that here, but with regards to plants it is good to know that they can provide all sorts of functions as well. Examples of such functions are:
- helping build soil (for example by fixing nitrogen from the air to their roots)
- providing nutrition for other plants (for example, by providing abundant amounts of mulch/green manure for other plants)
- preparing a site for other plants to thrive (e.g. pioneer plants are able to grow in harsh environments where no other plants can grow)
- providing delicious fruits for humans, providing timber, etc.
- providing shade and keeping the soil moist
While many plants may play one or two of those roles, there are some that can play many roles at the same time. And of course, these highly multi-functional plants are of particular interest to us!
Low maintenance, high productivity
Finally, since we’re looking to create abundance, it greatly helps when a plant is highly productive. At the same time, our lives are made easier if a plant is easy to grow and maintain. And of course, if a plant or tree combines all of the above, we’re completely game!
Now, without further ado, here is my All-Star Tropical Permaculture Plants line-up! (Make sure to make it down to the bottom to find out who is my personal MVP on this list!)
My Top 25 Tropical Permaculture All-Star Plants
(In alphabetical order) (NOTE: I have uploaded this list despite me not having finished a paragraph for each of the listed plants. I will continue to do so in the coming weeks, so come back soon to check the additional details!)
Characteristics: Bamboos are evergreen, perennial flowering plants that belong to a subfamily of the grass family (yes, bamboo is a grass!). They include some of the fastest-growing plants in the world: there are some species of bamboo that can grow up to almost 1 meter in one day! Bamboo can be used as a building material: it has a higher specific compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete, and a specific tensile strength that rivals steel. It’s worth noting here that there are many different varieties of bamboo, and not all of them share the same characteristics. Two that I know off and that are well-known for their suitability as a construction material, are “Guadua” and “Gigante”. In addition, bamboo can used as a food source, as a raw material to make fiber (one of my favorite pair of sucks was made of bamboo fiber!), and in efforts to control erosion.
All-Star Superpowers: highly multi-functional, grows super-fast, excellent construction material, erosion control.
2. Banana (Musa spp.)
Characteristics: Banana is another amazing permaculture plant for the tropics or subtropics. Belonging to the genus Musa, bananas are large herbaceous (grassy/non-woody) flowering plants that are mostly known for their edible fruits which botanically speaking are… berries! The fruits can be divided into two categories: dessert bananas (your typical yellow banana that you can eat raw), and cooking bananas (typically called plantains, and which need to be … cooked ;-)). Bananas are not perennial (you harvest the plant with the fruits), but once planted its root stock will keep producing off-spring. They like water and nutrients but generally don’t need a lot of maintenance at all (I typically only plant the root stock and harvest the bananas, and that’s it!).
Bananas can be used in so many ways that it is almost hard to decide where to start: their leaves make for excellent mulch or ‘carbon’ in your composting system. They can also be used as a material to make food wrappers, biodegradable dishes and thatched roofs. Banana trees like water, and when planted together in a cluster (a ‘banana circle’) can be used to help treat grey water. The plant can also be used to make fibers, which can be turned into clothing, containers, twine and more. And finally, the fruits can be turned into vinegar and alcoholic drinks (I remember drinking banana wine and beer when I used to live in Rwanda). I’m sure I’m missing out many things here, but just for these reasons alone there is no doubt that Banana should be on my All-Star Tropical Permaculture Plant list!
All-Star Superpowers: food source, mulching, grey water treatment, fiber, super easy-to-grow and maintain.
7. Cranberry Hibiscus
15. Spinach (Malabar, Okinawa, Sissoo)
16. Mexican Sunflower
19. Perennial Peanut
20. Pigeon Pea
21. (Spineless) Prickly Pear
22. Sweet Potato
23. Turmeric (& Ginger)
My personal MVP
Many of the plants and trees on this list are amazing, and satisfy all of the criteria that make it qualify as an amazing permaculture plant. However, for me personally one stands out. And that is… MORINGA! Why? Well, it is truly multi-functional (both humans and animals can eat it, it produces a lot biomass, you can produce a high quality oil, use the seeds to filter water, etc). Moreover, it grows fast even in really poor soils AND is highly resilient. Moringa is like the Swiss Army Knife of tropical tree species!
(Note: some of you know I have done work with Moringa in Haiti. For more information about Moringa and that project, see the Haiti Moringa Project page on this website).
When putting together this list I decided to try and create a mix of plants and trees that provide you with a bit of everything: soil builders, nutrients miners, trees that produce tons of mulch, highly nutritional & medicinal plants, and plants that provide materials for construction. Of course, any list implies things (in this case plants and trees) that have been left off. And similarly there are of course many other criteria that can be used to put together a great list of tropical permaculture trees and plants… That said, I feel the plants and trees above make for a good starting point for anyone that is interested in working with tropical permaculture. And if I have left out any important ones I would of course love to hear about so I can make sure they are included too!
(Note: make sure to come back to check this post in the future, as I will continue to update it and include more useful information about each plant and tree)
I am Chris, a certified permaculture designer, sustainable development professional and DIYer. Join my mission to go beyond sustainable, one project at a time.
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