The Amazon Rainforest is one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth. Home to more animal species than anywhere else, it’s the plants that provide food and homes for forest life.
There are around 80,000 species of Amazon Rainforest plants, which grow as trees, shrubs, bushes and vines creating a wildlife-filled environment.
Here, we will mention 29 of the most interesting plants to find in Amazonia.
Brazil Nut Tree
One of the most iconic trees in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) grow to a fantastic height and have a unique shape. They have a straight trunk and bush-like crown of leaves and branches. These trees grow to 50 meters (160 ft) tall with a trunk 2 meters (6 ft) wide.
As one of the largest trees in Amazonia, the Brazil nuts are fantastic trees to encounter in the rainforest. Their nuts were first described by the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in the early 1800s on his voyage down the Amazon River. The fruit pods housing the nuts are extremely hard and can only be cracked by macaws and a type of large rodent called an agouti.
As a fantastic symbol for well managed tourism, the trees will only produce fruit if pollinated by euglossine bees and the bees requires the scent of a delicate orchid to attract a mate. The Brazil nuts are therefore intricately linked to the health of surrounding rainforest.
Native to the Amazon Rainforest and other tropical regions of the Americas, cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao) were prized for their seeds and grown by many ancient cultures, including the Maya and Olmecs (the oldest known civilization in Central America). The trees themselves grow to around 6 – 11 meters (20–40 feet) in the rainforest understory. The cocoa tree is well known for its fruit, which are the cocoa pods that contain seeds used to produce chocolate. The seeds have been used to make a cocoa drink and in trade for thousands of years.
Passion flowers (Passiflora spp.) are are one of the favorite flowers to encounter in the rainforest. Missionaries thought the flower resembled a crown of thorns worn by Jesus for his crucifixion leading to their name. Many different animals pollinate the colorful flowers, including bees, wasps, hummingbirds and even bats. However, many species of passion flower are specific to a certain pollinator.
Dotting the tropical forests of South America are many different colors and varieties of passion flowers. Some occur as woody vines and others are shrubs with colorful flowers from white through to bright red. The fruit of Passiflora edulis is the most familiar species and its fruits are used in juices and desserts. Other passion flower species have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
One of the most diverse plant families, orchids have much-loved flowers you can find in the rainforest. Their delicate and often colorful flowers have a unique shape and there are many varieties to encounter. With their intricate relationship with pollinators, orchids fascinated Charles Darwin and he wrote about their pollination mechanisms in Origin of Species. He also wrote an entire book dedicated to orchid pollination called Fertilisation of Orchids (1862).
Many orchids are colorful and fragrant. In fact, when exploring the Amazon Rainforest and cloud forest you can detect the fragrance of some species before you see the plant. Unknowingly familiar to many people, the most famous orchid is the vanilla orchid. This produces the popular vanilla flavoring and is the only orchid with a commercial use. Popular ornamental varieties include the slipper orchids with their slipper-like flowers and orchids in the genus Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium, which are found in many flower stores. The orchid Prosthechea fragrans is one of the fragrant species found in the Amazon Rainforest.
A favorite plant and flower to find in the Amazon Rainforest, the monkey brush (Combretum rotundifolium) has a unique appearance. The flowers resemble small bright red and yellow brushes due to their long stamens.
The plant grows as a vine either on its own or as a parasite on other plants. It’s when they bloom that they takes on a fantastic appearance due to impressive flowers. Their bright colors attracts hummingbirds, which drink the nectar and pollinate the plants. They are found throughout the Amazon Rainforest and can often be seen near waterways.
Lianas are climbing woody vines and are a classification of how a plant grows, such as a tree, bush or shrub. There are many plant families that grow as lianas. Although the most diverse type of plant in a tropical rainforest, lianas are often overlooked. These woody vines are what hold up large trees in an expansive and complicated network. This is because tropical rainforests have shallow soil and vines provide the support system. This also means that when large trees fall, the network of vines bring down surrounding trees opening up the canopy for seedlings and the next generation of growth.
Lianas grow to around 200 meters (650 ft) with some growing much longer connecting many trees and plants. The vines start life on the forest floor like most of the rainforest plants and then grow towards sunlight using trees as support. Rainforest communities use a few species for drinking water whereas others are a source of poisons, such as the famous curare.
An iconic plant in the Amazon Rainforest, strangler figs (Ficus spp.) have a fascinating and sinister life history. Their towering forms are often pointed out on rainforest walks. Although a giant tree, strangler fig adults start as small seeds deposited on a branch. From here, they grow towards the ground in a seemingly delicate and gentle manner around the tree. It’s only when it reaches the forest floor that the strangler fig swells to engulf its host.
The strangler fig’s roots take the nutrients that previously fed the host often killing the original tree, which leaves behind a case-like form. The lattice trunk provides homes for many rainforest animals and attracts more when the tree fruits to produce figs. They are also a fantastic sight for tourists to imagine this extraordinary life history, which can last for over 200 years.
Huimba (Ceiba samauma) are among the tallest trees in the Amazon Rainforest and grow over 50 meters (160 ft) tall. They are a canopy species and hold a special place among many tribal groups. Fearful of canopy species, tribes like the Tacama (a Bolivian tribe) believe that the trees are home to evil spirits. They believe that passing the trees or cutting them down may cause disease. With the link between deforestation and novel diseases, there is a kernel of truth to the mythology.
A famous and highly prized rainforest tree, Brazilian mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is growing rare in the Amazon rainforest. This species of mahogany is an emergent tree and grows to 70 meters (230 ft) tall. The Brazilian mahogany fruit mature in the rainy season. The seeds are wind dispersed and helicopter down to the ground. Despite the trees’ IUCN status as vulnerable, Brazilian officials in 1998 estimated that 80% of all mahogany production was from illegal logging operations driven by consumer demand.
A very noticeable plant with its bright red flowers, the hot lips (Psychotria elata) plant is found in tropical rainforests of Central and South America. The flowers are modified, colorful leaves called bracts that serve the same purpose as true flowers. They attract different hummingbirds and butterflies that drink the nectar, collect the pollen and pollinate the plants.
Another Amazon Rainforest plant unknowingly familiar to many people is achiote (Bixa orellana), as the plant is still used to color foods with its red or yellow dye. The dye is also used by many Amazon cultures to decorate their bodies, as well as for medicinal use. The plant grows wild in the Amazon Rainforest and occurs as a small shrub in the understory about 8 meters (26 ft) tall. When in bloom, the plant produces beautiful white or pink flowers. The fruits of the achiote plant are spiky capsules that contain the dye producing seeds.
Seen in garden centres worldwide, Heliconias (Heliconia spp.) are native to tropical forests of Central and South America. They have become naturalized in a number of other countries and are a favorite ornamental plant.
Heliconias grow to around 4.5 meters (15 ft) and are a colorful and distinct plant. It’s the modified leaves called bracts that give the plants their shape and color. Within these protective bracts are the actual flowers. The nectar can be reached by birds with the right shaped beak, such as different hummingbirds.
True to their name, ironwoods include many species of hardwood tree. In the Amazon Rainforest it refers to trees in the genus Dipteryx. Growing to 50 meters (164 feet) with a lifespan of over 700 years, these are a high value tree threatened by deforestation. They provide home to many rainforest animals including the famous macaw parrots. The trees are also a favorite nesting site of harpy eagles, which are one of the world’s most powerful birds of prey.
Rubber trees are what drew people from many different countries to find their fortune. They made people rich and grew cities, but resulted in enslavement and even extinction of many Amazon groups. The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) found itself the focus of the rubber boom of the 1880s. This is when its gum was collected to make the original rubber used in tires for bicycles and cars. It remains the main source of natural rubber. Rubber trees are a comparatively small tree and grow to around 30 meters (90 ft) tall.
Giant Water Lily
As the world’s largest lily, the giant water lily (Victoria amazonica) is a fantastic plant to find in the slow-moving tributaries of the Amazon River and oxbow lakes. The leaves measure 3 meters (10 ft) across and can support the weight of a small child if the weight is evenly distributed. The stalk is also impressive and reaches down to the riverbed, which can be 8 meters (26 ft) down. The flowers are white when they open and later turn pink. Even the flowers are large at 40 cm (16 in) in diameter.
Living as epiphytes, you can spot the different bromeliads in the Amazon Rainforest perched high on the branches of rainforest trees. Here, their thick leaves collect water and provide home for insects and tadpoles. As well as providing a home, the bromeliads are a source of water for many rainforest animals. There are over 1,000 species of bromeliad and the entire family of Bromeliaceae are native to the Americas with only one species native to Africa. The most famous bromeliad is the pineapple.
Originally from southeast Asia, bananas (Musa spp.) have been domesticated in many different regions and are now grown by many Amazon communities. Suited to the tropical environment, many villages in the Amazon region grow plantains and bananas. Plantains are often found as the carbohydrate in many dishes and differ from bananas by being much less sweet and having a starchy flavor. When on tours in the Amazon, you’re sure to see plantations of these plants at the edge of villages. The leaves are also used in cooking to wrap fish and vegetables and sometimes as a plate to serve the food.
A tree familiar to a few Amazon Rainforest visitors, the tangarana tree (Triplaris americana) has many different names. This is probably linked to its defense. They look very similar to other rainforest trees at first glance. However, on closer inspection, you will see small holes at various places along the branches. If disturbed, ants swarm the tree for protection. The protectors are a species of fire ant (Pseudomyrmex triplarinus) that have a potent sting. These live in a mutualistic relationship with the trees, which provide a home for the ants. Scale insects live inside the tree and feed the ants a sugary fluid creating a partnership of three different species. The trees grow to around 30 meters (98 ft) tall.
Palms are thought to be the most abundant plant in the Amazon Rainforest. The most abundant is the açai palm (Euterpe oleracea), which is a canopy species growing over 20 meters (65 ft) tall. Their berries feed a diversity of animals, including macaws, parrots, toucans, monkeys and more. The palms are often harvested for their inner core known as ‘heart of palm’, which is used in different dishes. Removing this kills the plant. If not well managed, this activity quickly becomes unsustainable and damages the forest.
The water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) can be seen on many slow-moving tributaries of the Amazon River. They are floating plants and their roots hang in the water below. The water lettuce is a favorite food of river turtles and Amazon River manatees. They can reproduce rapidly. When there are not enough animals living in the river, the water lettuce covers large areas blocking sunlight and reducing water oxygen, which causes ecological damage. Many of these plants can be seen in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in northern Peru. Manatees are being reintroduced to the waterways, which will bring back balance to the forest.
Another canopy species, the lupunas (Ceiba pentandra) are known as kapok trees after the fibre from their seeds, which is used to fill mattresses, pillows, and sleeping bags. This is one of the most common large trees to encounter in the Amazon and is known for its smooth trunk.
Kapoks are common along forest edges and rivers. They drop their leaves in the dry season exposing their white flowers to bats, which along with several other animals pollinate the flowers that open just before dark. They grow to around 50 meters (160 ft) tall.
The rainforests of South America are strangely similar to the rainforests of western Africa. The link is associated with the breakup of the Gondwana continent about 130 million years ago, however, dispersal of seeds may have played a significant role. This species of kapok is also widely distributed in tropical Africa possibly linked to the exceptionally strong winds between Brazil and west Africa. The winds could have carried kapok entangled seeds. The fruits or seeds may have also crossed between continents due to the rivers expelling seeds to the ocean.
Camu Camu Plant
The camu camu plant (Myrciaria dubia) is best known for the camu camu fruit, which is a small tart citrus fruit. The plant grows as a small shrub near rivers and lakes. Unusually, the fruit is dispersed by fish. The fruit is used to flavor desserts, sauces and is a favorite juice in Amazon regions. The camu camu fruit itself is very high in Vitamin C and has one of the highest concentrations of any fruit. Some protected areas to see camu camu include the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve in northern Peru.
The piripiri plant (Cyperus articulatus) is a tropical reed that grows across the tropical region worldwide and is known by many different names. You can find the plant in or near waterways and lakes in the Amazon Rainforest. The plant has many traditional and medicinal uses. Many cultures use the plant to treat a wide range of conditions. This is one of the plants you will be shown if you choose a tour with a medicinal garden or would like a jungle survival course. The plant is also used in handicrafts and as a flavoring.
The walking palm or cashapona (Socratea exorrhiza) is an interesting plant to find in the rainforest. They are very common in the rainforest and grow to over 25 meters (80 ft) with a very distinctive root system. The stilt-like roots grow out from the stem between 1 to 2 meters (7 ft) off the ground. With the distinctive roots, it’s easy to imagine the myth of the plants walking around the rainforest, which led to the palm’s name. The reason for the unusual roots is still unknown, however, the most likely reason is that it has something to do with quick growth and stability.
The cumaceba tree (Swartzia polyphylla) is used to make arrowheads by some Amazon communities. The trees grow to around 15 meters (49 ft) tall and live throughout the Amazon Rainforest. Some remain in the understory while others grow into the canopy. The bark is also used in traditional medicine.
The mountain soursop tree (Annona montana) is best known for its fruit, which is used mainly in traditional medicine. The plant grows as a shrub or tree in tropical rainforest of Central and South America. At its maximum height, the plant grows to around 15 meters (50 ft). In addition to growing in lowland rainforests, true to its name the plant can also be found at higher altitude to around 2,000 meters (6,500 ft) above sea level. Although less popular than its close relative the guanabana, the fruits are also eaten in desserts.
You can find the cupuaçu plant (Theobroma grandiflorum) throughout the Amazon Basin, which grows as a tree reaching around 20 meters (66 ft) high. A relative of cocoa mentioned further up, cupuaçu fruits are used in different desserts, jams, ice creams and snacks. It is even used as an alternative to chocolate in Brazil.
A fascinating plant found in tropical forests from Central America to South America, the trees of Cassia grandis grow to over 30 meters (98 ft) tall. The tree is in the Fabaceae pea family of plants and it blooms with beautiful clusters of light pink flowers. However, it’s not the tree or flowers that are the most fascinating feature of the plant. What really makes the tree stand out are its fruits.
The bean-like fruiting pods of Cassia grandis are 50 cm (20 in) long, which are sometimes used to make a sweet syrup. The fascinating thing about them is what Daniel Janzen noted about the plants when trying to identify the animals that disperse the 2 cm (0.8 in) long seeds: There are none.
Most fruits evolve with specific animals to distribute their seeds and are suited to a particular type of dispersal agent. The animal that used to eat the fruit of Cassia grandis is now extinct and the fruit is known as an anachronism. A possible animal that once ate these fruits and distributed the seeds is a giant ground sloth, which went extinct over 10,000 years ago.
A fascinating area to find in the Amazon Rainforest, Devil’s gardens seem strange when you first find them. You will emerge from highly diverse forest to areas home to only one species of tree called Duroia hirsuta.
The trees have a mutualistic relationship with a type of lemon ant, which live within the trees. They help defend the trees and also weed the area of other plant species by biting the stems and spraying the competing plants with formic acid.
The trees also release chemicals from their roots that help limit growth of other species, which creates these fascinating areas of rainforest. These puzzled people who found them leading to their mysterious name.