Descriptions of Plants Characteristics

Plant name: common or scientific
Common plant names vary by country, region, town and generation. Because of this, we encourage the use of scientific names. All living organisms have been named in an orderly system that is primarily defined by their reproductive characteristics, generally derived from latin or greek descriptive, and often including a person’s name. For example, there is a fern genus Gaga named after Lady Gaga, a lichen Caloplaca obamae named after Barack Obama, and a fly Eristalis gatesi named after Bill Gates.

The entire classification system is Domain/Kingdom/Phylum/Class/Order/Family/Genus/Species but most often the genus and species are sufficient to classify an organism. Latin names are written in italics, genus is capitalized and species lower case.  The genus (plural: genera) is a group of closely related plants and the species are the individuals.  For example the genus Ficus (fig or higo) contains more than 900 different species.



The family is a taxonomic group of organisms composed of genera and species with common characteristics. Families are used by botanists to recognize broad similarities among larger groups of plants, and are useful for forestry as many plants within a family have similar cultural preferences.


Native to

A species is native to a certain place if it naturally grows there, meaning with no human intervention. This may happen because the plant evolved in that environment or it may have been brought there through natural means, including seed dispersal by wind, birds, or other animals.

This category is divided in the following ranges:

Azuero: Includes all plants that occur naturally on the Azuero.  Native plant species provide benefits to their home ecosystems as they have co-evolved mutual support systems with other native flora and fauna in their natural habitats.

Neotropics (Central/South America): Although the Azuero does form part of the Neotropics, for the purposes of this database we are using this category to differentiate between plants that grow in the Azuero and plants that grow outside of the Azuero peninsula. This category also includes plants that are found in other parts of Panama but not in Azuero.

Asia/Africa (old world): includes plants whose natural range encompasses Asia and/or Africa.



For purposes of the selection process, plants in this section are divided into broad categories:

Trees are woody plants with a main trunk growing to considerable height. Usually branches are present at some distance from the ground.

Shrubs are woody plants smaller than trees, usually having multiple branches from or near the ground.

Herbaceous plants lack a permanent woody stem. Many of these plants are found in the forest understory, but some species also grow on the branches of trees such as epiphytes.

Palms are plants that belong to the Arecaeae family. Most of them have a straight, unbranched stem with large evergreen leaves at the top of the trunk.

Cactii are plants that belong to the Cactaceae family. This is a group that is native to the Americas and usually grows in dry areas.

Vines are plants that have a weak stem and support themselves by climbing, twining or creeping along branches, trees, or other surfaces.



Average Height reached by the plant in its adult stage. This will vary according to the environmental condition where the species is planted.


Speed of Growth

Three general categories are used for describing the speed of growth of plants during their first years of development, with values recorded on tree plantations. It is important to note that this is an average value and is shown as a general guide. The speed of growth is a relative value that will change during the lifespan of the plant and will vary depending on the environmental characteristics of where it is planted.

Fast refers to species reported to have a growth of more than 1.5 m of height per year. Generally these are pioneer species, such as Guazuma ulmifolia and Bursera simarouba.

Medium refers to species that report growth between 1m to 1.5 m per year. These are species such as Byrsonima crasifolia and Diphysa americana.

Slow refers to species that grow less than 1 meter in height per year. Generally speaking these are hardwoods that are shade-tolerant and usually found in mature forests. These include valuable timber species, such as Calophyllum brasiliense and Couropita guianensis.



Deciduous refers to plants that lose their leaves during the dry season and evergreen refers to plants that keep their leaves throughout the year. Semi deciduous plants partially lose their leaves during the dry season or lose all their leaves for a very short time.


Flower Color

Flowers have developed vibrant colors to attract pollinators. In addition to their color, the flower shape, odor, nectar and structure are used by plants to create relationships with their pollinators and in this way guarantee the transfer of pollen between flowers of the same species. The more specific this relationship is – meaning that only a specific group of pollinators will visit this species – the more likely the pollen of that species will be transferred successfully to another flower of the same species and not wasted on a flower of a different species.


Flowering Time

The flowering months given here represent the months when different individuals of the same species usually bloom. It is important to note that the time in which plants bloom is highly dependent on seasonality, this means that the flowering time may have small shifts from year to year depending on the weather patterns of that specific year. For example, irregular weather events caused by El Niño or La Niña may affect the flowering of that specific year, making plants flower in months different than an average year.


Fruiting Time

Plants produce their fruits after their flowers are pollinated and so it follows that. The fruit production season depends on bloom season and pollination. For edible fruits and other crops it is always important to keep a healthy community of pollinators, in many cases that will involve having some forested areas around the croplands.


Difficult Conditions Tolerated

Plant species that are adapted to difficult conditions such as areas along seashore or areas with degraded soils or strong wind.

Degraded soils imply low fertility, compacted soil and/or erosion. These conditions are usually present in steep slopes where vegetation has been removed or burned, or areas that have been grazed over long periods of time, leaving the soil highly compacted and with low fertility. Most of the species capable of growing in this type of environment are pioneer species, capable of fixing nitrogen into the soil, helping in its rehabilitation and starting the natural process of forest regeneration. Albizia adinocephala and Andira inermis are good examples of tree to plant on degraded soils.

Wind has many effects on plants. Wind increases the gas exchange on the leaves and damages the foliage, it causes trees to sway, pulling and stretching their roots, affecting the water absorption and creating stress on the plant. Trees that are able to support wind usually are species with flexible, strong branches and deep roots, such as Dalbergia retusa and Cassia grandis.

The seashore experiences strong winds and high levels of salinity. The salinity can be present in the soil and the foliage of the plants through salt spray. Salt presence in the soil reduces the capability of the roots to absorb water. In very high concentrations, salt will dehydrate roots through osmosis and produce what usually is called “salt burn”. When sun and wind evaporates water droplets, the salt ions are left in direct contact with the plant. The salt ions can penetrate leaves, buds and stems causing damage. The plants included in these categories have developed mechanisms that make them less prone to be affected by either wind or salinity. These are species such as Bursera simaruba and Terminalia catapa.


Sun/Shade Required To Establish

Although some plants will tolerate full sun as adults, they may need a few years of shade when young.  This is generally a function of trees that are later pioneers or mature forest species.  They germinate and spend their youth in the shade of the early pioneers but eventually grow up into the full sun.  Early pioneers must establish themselves in areas with little or no existing vegetation and therefore must tolerate full sun to establish.  They are usually later shaded out and disappear from the mid and late successional forest.



With more than one third of the plant species in the world, the neotropical forests contain many plants whose parts can be used as a source of food and/or medicine. Traditionally many of the people living in the Neotropics have used the fruits, leaves, roots, seed, bark, and flowers from plants for medicinal purposes such as treatments for dysentery, diabetes, or pain. For example, people boil in water the bark of Bursera simaruba to create an anti inflammatory solution that can be poured on inflamed parts of the body. In this database we mostly refer to the traditional medicinal uses of the plant; however, there are still many medicinal uses of plants that remain undiscovered. Tropical plants have many undiscovered chemical compounds that may be important for developing drugs to combat various diseases.


Other Uses

List of the most common uses of the plants, which includes:

Charcoal – Even though charcoal production is not common in Azuero, it still is an option for homes that currently use firewood for cooking. Typically, charcoal has a higher energy value than firewood, meaning it burns hotter, makes cooking faster without producing smoke, and it is easier to transport.

Fence posts – This refers to plants that can be used to make dead posts for fences.

Firewood – In some regions of Azuero, especially in areas far from towns, firewood is still commonly used for cooking. Not all woody species are good for firewood, and if firewood is needed, planting trees that are known to be good as firewood is a more reliable option than gathering dead wood from the forest.

Fodder – Leaves that are used as cattle feed. These are species that are mainly used in silvopastoral systems. In the Azuero cattle ranchers either allow cattle to eat leaves straight from the tree or they cut the branches and give it to them.

Fragrance – Plants that are used for their aroma. Even though this is not a very common use for plants in the dry tropics, there are a few species that are used for their fragrance. One of the most known examples is the “aceite de camibar” a very fragrant compound made from the sap of the Copaifera camibar tree, which also is known to have several medicinal uses.

Handicrafts – Many different things can be made from plants and its use will depend mostly on the creativity of the artisan. Some of the most common handicrafts made from the plants in this list range from jewelry to carved wooden sculptures. Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) is a highly valued and threatened species due in part to its demand for carved wooden sculptures.

Insect repellant – These plant species are used traditionally to keep away annoying insects. For example, burning coconut fiber is a well-known method to keep away annoying “chitras” (sand flies).

Live fence – This refers to plants whose cuttings can be planted and used as live fence posts. This type of fence offers great ecological benefits for increasing the biodiversity of pasturelands because of its ability to connect wildlife between forest patches.

Ornamental – These are plants that due to the color of their flowers, bark, size, shape or foliage are attractive and commonly planted in parks and yards.

Shade – These are trees that are commonly used as shade for livestock and/or people. Most of these trees have big, wide crowns and keep their leaves all year.

Timber – These are species that due to the characteristics of their wood (fiber size, color, texture) are used as structural material for construction and/or furniture making.


Wildlife Attracted

Animals have a very important relationship with plants as their pollinators, seed dispersers, and germinators. For example, the Azuero Spider monkey is responsible for the dispersal of fruits with large seeds. These large seeded fruits mostly belong to mid-successional and mature forest tree species, which shows the importance that the Azuero spider monkey has on maintaining the health of the forest. Other monkeys, such as the howler monkey are folivorous and eat leaves and flowers. Hummingbirds, bees and some species of bats visit flowers for their nectar and in the process of eating the nectar they pollinate the plants that they visit. Small mammals, such as “conejo pintado” (Cuniculus paca) eat fruits that have fallen from the trees, and by digesting and excreting them help the seeds germinate, a process that in some cases tree nurseries try to replicate through the scarification of the seeds.


Reforestation Type

Ecological restoration: The objective of this type of reforestation is to initiate the recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged as the direct or indirect result of human activities. The re-establishment of the ecosystem functions involves the restoration of the nutrient cycle and the planting of species that attract pollinators and seed dispersers. All these activities will increase the overall biodiversity of the damaged site helping it follow the process of natural regeneration. Species used in this type of reforestation are early successional, nitrogen fixing plants that grow well and fast in full sun and on degraded lands.

Riparian restoration: The objective of this type of reforestation is to prevent erosion, protect water quality, and provide wildlife corridors. As undisturbed ecosystems are commonly used as a reference in restoration activities, many of the species in this group are species that naturally occur along the streams of Azuero. Usually these are evergreen species with fruits and flowers that attract different species of wildlife.

Silvopastoral: The objective of a silvopastoral system is to combine forestry and grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way. In the case of Azuero this involves using trees that provide different benefits to both humans and cattle. Shade, fodder, timber, live fences and nitrogen fixing are some examples of what is looked for in this type of reforestation.

Timber: Reforestation for timber production is one of the most common types of reforestation in the world. If it is done on a small scale it can provide economic benefits without the help of a forestry professional but if it is done on large scale – planting several hectares at a time– it is highly recommended to have the support of a professional forester whose guidance can guarantee the success of the economic investment. Traditionally, reforestation for timber is done by planting only one economically attractive species that has been proven to grow well in the conditions of the site, but other techniques, such as planting mixed species, are known to have been successful.


Successional Type

Forest Ecologists have divided tree species into the different stages in which they appear during the process of natural regeneration. The lines between different successional types are not always clear and may be debated between scientists due to the different factors that can be used to mark the boundaries. We refer to the different stages of succession as having the following general characteristics:

Early successional: plant species that first colonize pastureland or land that is devoid of woody vegetation. This successional stage is often called thicket or rastrojo in spanish. The plant species in this successional stage grow in degraded soils, grow very fast, require direct light to grow well, and its seeds are dispersed by wind.

Mid successional: plant species that are found in secondary or altered forests. They are generally plant species that grow slower than early successional species and in many of these species birds disperse their seeds.

Mature forest: plant species that in most cases grow in the shade under the forest canopy. Many of these tree species grow very slowly with large fruits and seeds dispersed by terrestrial mammals, monkeys and/or bats. Many of these species will ultimately become part of the canopy while others will remain in the understory.


Ecosystem Services

Erosion control: Usually these plants’ thick vegetative cover protects the soil surface from raindrop impact and the erosive capacity of flowing water. The type of root system of this group of plants also helps in decreasing runoff by holding the soil, improving its physical condition and increasing the rate of infiltration.

Habitat: These are species that provide food and shelter to a variety of wildlife. Many of these species have fruits that attract a large number of animals, which are important to plant if the goal of reforestation is to attract wildlife.

Nitrogen fixation: These are species that help to incorporate nitrogen in the soil, increasing its fertility. All these species belong to the Fabaceae family, a family where many of its members have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria of the genus Rhizobia. This type of bacteria is capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. The nitrogen-fixing process takes place in special structures called root nodules and become available in the soil after the plant dies.

Pioneer species: These are plants that colonize areas that previously were pastures or areas degraded by intensive agriculture or soil mismanagement. These are plants that belong to the first successional stages of the forest, species with seeds dispersed by wind, capable of growing in degraded areas and in full sun.


Ease of Propagation

In many cases propagating plants from seeds requires special care to improve the germination and survival of the seedling. Germination of a viable seed is regulated by external and internal factors. Moisture, temperature, oxygen, and – for some species – light, are the external factors ruling germination. Hard seed coats, impervious to water and gases will affect the speed and germination rate of some species. It is important to have this in mind because these species will require some extra manipulation to improve their germination, a process also known as seed pre-germination treatment.


Best Propagation Method

Refers to the most recommended way to propagate that specific plant. This information is based on the literature and local experiences. Local experiences are important especially due to climatic differences between Azuero and other areas of Panama or Central America where most of the consulted literature is based. An example of these differences is the Anacardium occidentale tree, which is noted as being used for live fences in Panama, but according to the locals it won’t root if planted as live fences in the dry climate of Azuero.

Seed scarification is one of the most common techniques used in nurseries to allow moisture and air to move through the hard seed coat and reach the embryo inside the seed. Cutting a small section of the seed coat or rubbing it with sandpaper are common ways of scarification. For some species it is also recommended to soak the seed in hot water and/or cold water for certain amount of time to simulate the natural processes that will break the hard coat. All species that require these types of pre-germination treatments are considered difficult and the recommended treatment is noted on the Growing Tips section.

There are also species that due to their internal factors are extremely difficult to germinate or have very low germination rates (less than 50%) even if pre-germination treatments are applied. These species are also considered difficult. One interesting characteristic is that many of the early successional species belong to this type of difficult propagation.

We also considered difficult species some that the literature and local growers note to be difficult to handle in nurseries, especially due to the small size of the seedling or its survival after transplanted. If this happens, the special characteristic that makes it difficult is noted on the Growing Tips section.

Native to Azuero Includes all plants that occur naturally on the Azuero.  Native plant species provide benefits to their home ecosystems as they have co-evolved mutual support systems with other native flora and fauna in their natural habitats.