Global Gardens: Plants of South America
Many plants in South America are not only beautiful to look at but are commonly used in South American foods and have various medicinal properties.
Spilanthes oleracea also known as eyeball plant is a herb native to Brazil with unique flowers and glossy green foliage. This plant has been used in dishes and stews in Northern Brazil to add flavor and nutritional value.
The eyeball like flower has unique properties. The flower bud has a grassy taste followed by a strong numbing sensation—it can also give a cooling tingle in the throat. Spilanthes flowers have medicinal properties and have been utilized to relieve toothaches as a urinary antiseptic, as well as a treatment for malaria and yellow fever by the indigenous people of the tropics. The active ingredient in Spilanthes is called Spilanthol. Spilanthol is an antiseptic alkaloid found throughout the entire plant but the greatest concentration is in the flowers.
Solanum quitoense, the naranjillia is native to Ecuador, Columbia, and Panama. Naranjillia leaves cannot be missed as they have large spines that protrude out of its fuzzy foliage. The fruit is appreciated for its citrus flavor, sometimes described as a combination of rhubarb and lime. The juice of the naranjilla is green and is often used as a juice or for a drink called lulada which is made by adding sugar and water to the freshly squeezed fruits.
The history of the dahlia (Dahlia sp) has been known to Westerners since 1525 when Spaniards reported finding the plants growing in Mexico. Dahlia’s were used as a source of food and medicine by the indigenous peoples and were both gathered in the wild and cultivated in the Mexican territory to the northern regions of South America. The Aztecs used the flower to treat epilepsy. They also utilized the long hollow stem of the plant for water pipes.
Today, the dahlia is still one of the native ingredients in Oaxacan cuisine; several cultivars are grown especially for their large tubers. Dacopa, a mocha-tasting extract from the roasted tubers, is used to flavor beverages throughout Central America. In Europe and America, prior to the discovery of insulin in 1923, diabetics and consumptives were often given a substance called Atlantic starch, derived from inulin, a naturally occurring form of fruit sugar extracted from Dahlia tubers.