Totally Tropical Flavors

Photo by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

When browsing the grocery store and piling items in a shopping cart, it’s easy to give little thought to where the food came from. As eating local and farm-to-table movements become more commonplace, labels identifying the city, state, or number of miles from which your produce came are helping shoppers make more informed choices about the sources of their food. But what about the tropical foods you eat on a daily basis?

The bananas your kids eat as a snack certainly weren’t grown in Wisconsin, but have you ever thought about where they come from? Where do they grow? What does a banana look like before it’s harvested? Or what about the cinnamon you use to spice up cider or an apple pie? Did that fragrant powder even come from a plant?

You don’t have to travel far to find the answers—you can travel to the tropics without leaving Madison! The Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens houses more than 650 plants native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including common food plants that travel from the rainforest to your pantry shelves.

Photograph by Katy Plantenberg


The beans that make your coffee travel great distances to provide your morning dose of caffeine. Brazil exports the most coffee, shipping more than $4.6 billion worth of coffee worldwide. That’s more than 14 percent of the total global coffee exports.

There are several steps coffee beans go through before they’re ground and brewed. The small coffee plants are grown in nurseries until they’re a few feet tall, and won’t start producing fruit until they’re three to five years old. Called coffee cherries, the fruit is ripe when it turns red. Inside each individual cherry are two blueish-green coffee beans that will be processed into the final aromatic product we know and love.


Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid? It’s the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a bean pod. While there are many different varieties of vanilla orchids, only one produces the fruit that makes 99 percent of all commercial vanilla— Vanilla planifolia. If you’ve thought vanilla has become more expensive, you’re right; prices have increased more than 10 times compared to just a few years ago due to unfavorable weather and the length of time it takes vanilla plants to reach maturity and produce fruit.

While vanilla is one of the most used flavors, it’s also one of the most complicated crops to grow. In order to produce fruit, it must be pollinated by hand with a small applicator. While vanilla is native to Mexico, most commercial vanilla is grown in Madagascar. There are no natural vanilla pollinators in Madagascar, thus requiring hand pollination. The timing of pollination also has to be precise, as vanilla flowers only last for 24 hours and have a tiny 8-hour window in which they can be pollinated.

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens


Fun fact: bananas don’t grow on trees. Really! Contrary to popular belief, a banana tree is actually the world’s largest herbaceous perennial. (Herbaceous plants have no woody stems above ground.) The trunk of the plant is made up of long, overlapping leaves.

Bananas have been part of our diet for thousands of years, and written references to their consumption date back to around 500 BC. In fact, some horticulturists believe that bananas were the first fruit on earth.

Today, they’re the most popular fruit in the world, with more than 1,000 types to choose from. The typical supermarket banana is the Cavendish banana. Other popular types include red bananas, tiny “Lady Finger” bananas, and the starchier cooking bananas known as plantains.


Cinnamon is a distinctive flavor and aroma that’s used in many products, from cinnamon gum to cinnamon candy to cinnamon candles. But did you know it’s actually derived from the bark of a tree?

To produce cinnamon, the bark is harvested twice a year, starting when the trees are about three years old. Most comes from Sri Lanka and is always harvested immediately after each of the two rainy seasons, when the rain-soaked bark can be more easily stripped from the trees. Cinnamon peeling is a highly skilled technique handed down from generation to generation, almost entirely unchanged from ancient times. Large bands of bark are ground into powder, whereas smaller stems are used to make those cinnamon sticks we put in drinks.

Photograph by Jane Nicholson


Chocolate. Probably one of humankind’s favorite foods that some may even consider its own food group. The scientific name, Theobroma cacao, gives a clue to its taste. The genus name derived from the Greek word theos, meaning god, and broma, meaning food. It’s literally the food of the gods.

Would you be surprised to learn that delicious, velvety chocolate comes from a small bitter seed? The cacao tree is native to the tropical regions of the Americas, and the seeds of its fruit, cacao beans, are the basis of chocolate. The earliest evidence of cacao being used in this way goes back as far as 1900 BC, during the early Olmec civilization in Mexico. Cacao beans were so valuable that there’s evidence they were used as a form of barter currency to exchange for clothes or food in ancient Mayan civilizations.

The next time you grab a chocolate candy bar in the checkout lane, bake a cinnamon-spiced apple pie, give your kids bananas to tide them over to dinner time, or sip a frothy vanilla latte, take a minute to remember how those tasty treats started—as plants from some of the largest rainforests in the world.

Katy Plantenberg is the public relations & marketing manager at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Dive deeper into the world of tropical plants with Garden to Glass: Totally Tropical, a guided sensory tour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Bolz Conservatory. Smell, touch, and taste your way through the tour and encounter plants both familiar and unique. And, at the end, you can enjoy a signature drink created with ingredients derived from rainforest plants served in a souvenir glass. It’s an insider’s view of this indoor oasis, where you can discover the plants, stories, and people that make it one of Madison’s most iconic places. For more details and registration information, visit .