Made in the Shade: Tropical Trees and Plants That Ain’t Starving for the Lime’s Light

I’m getting excited. I can’t help it. The deal is in the works, and my wife and I are but a few steps—however indefinitely long they take—to purchasing our own piece of land. We’ve decided that the tropics is the right climate for us. We couldn’t resist the year-round temperatures suitable for growing. We couldn’t resist the fantastic tropical fruits—the pineapple, mango, cashew apple, lime, coconut, jackfruit…there are so many!—and amazingly we can’t really resist the the shade-tolerant trees, either.

It’s something I’ve worried about from time to time. I want those mango and cashew trees. I want the breadfruit, the soursop, limes, jackfruit, and the others. All the while, I know that some of these trees are large, sprawling specimens taking up loads space in the food forest, and I want some other stuff, too. Luckily, it turns out that the understory—what’s growing at the edges and beneath these behemoths—are simply spectacular. I’ve been thinking about all that shade, and I’m pleased to say that, in many cases, it’s just what the grower ordered.

Most of the following plants I’ve had experience with, either growing them myself on others’ farms or learning about them from other farmers. Some of them simply tolerate some dappled shade, while others are all out dwellers of the underworld, content in the deepest, darkest jungle. All of them are useful and edible, and hopefully soon to be coming to a farm near me.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

Cacao Under Canopy
Cacao Under Canopy

Obviously, I’m excited to be settling in a place (the Maya Mountains of Belize) where cacao trees are almost an expectation in any food forest. They are extremely finicky plants, with very specific and narrow criteria for where they will grow. What’s more is that they are famous for losing a good percentage of crop and dropping buds during bad weather. But, it’s cacao! It grows wonderfully in the shade, underneath jungle canopies that are already there or contentedly beneath of food forest cultivated from the ground up, and it provides one of the most nutritious and delicious things on the planet.

At the moment, we are volunteering on an organic cacao farm, putting in some permaculture systems no less, and learning some of the ropes we’ll need to start growing, harvesting, and processing our own cacao.

Coffee (Coffea caniphora, aka robusto)

Coffee Under Cacao
Coffee Under Cacao

Another amazing perennial tree that digs the shade, as well as very specific tropical environs, is coffee. It’s something that I—and most people I know—drink every day, even though very few of us live in a place suitable for growing it. While I’ve lived in better spots, like the high altitude mountains in Guatemala, it’s still for sure good to grow coffee in the shade, and here in Belize, with the right care, we’ll likely be able to produce our own quality Robusto roast! (Arabica coffee, the more revered, is a little more selective about altitude and temperature.)

Emma and I actually got to run a permaculture class for a Green Camp on a coffee finca in Guatemala not long ago, so we got some interesting does and don’t of coffee growing and being productive with shade trees.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Young Ginger
Young Ginger

Ginger is a great way to usefully fill the space beneath trees. It thrives in the shade, and it’s very easy to grow and maintain. Ginger makes for a very hardy plant that doesn’t want for much in the way of sun. With the right combination of heat and humidity, they’ll handle things themselves, and then they can be harvested and replanted right away. This is perfect for us. We love including ginger in our food, as it is full of medicinal value, and I also make homemade ginger beer. Not to mention, much of the rest of the ginger family will work similarly, or for those not in the tropics, it can also be grown as an indoor edible houseplant.

We first started growing ginger during our project in Panama in 2014, and there we were doing it beneath a canopy of plantain and papaya trees in one spot and beneath a water apple in another spot. Here we are excited to also be adding turmeric, aka “yellow ginger” to the farm.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifola)

Vanilla Bean
Vanilla Bean

Vanilla, actually an orchid, is something that I’ve really been looking forward to working with. I originally heard about cultivating vanilla in magic circles with papayas providing the main fruit crop, as well as the trellis, and perennial chili peppers being a good ground cover bush. Then, I read a while back about a project partnering vanilla vines with cacao trees (what a combo!), and ever since, I’ve been really hip to the idea. It’s one of the few plants that really goes for deep shade, and of course, it’s a great flavor for food and cash crop for markets. However, I never had much luck locating vanilla with which to get the ball rolling.

Lo and behold, The Farm Inn, where we are volunteering in Belize, has quite a few vanilla vines growing amongst the cacao trees, so now, I’ve officially attempted to cultivate my first vanilla here. I’m very much looking forward to doing it for ours.

Katuk (Sauropus androgynous)

Katuk (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
Katuk (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Katuk, sometimes called Sweet Leaf, is an edible understory tree with leaves that are packed with protein, minerals and vitamins. It likes a lot of water but prefers the shade to direct sun. It is quite a common crop in Malaysia and Borneo, where the leaves and shoots are eaten raw and cooked a la spinach. The flavor is a bit nutty, and the trees produce best kept around meter and a half high. These trees are versatile enough to survive up the lowest parts of the US (Florida), where they freeze over winter but will generally return in the spring.

We first discovered and devoured katuk while volunteering on a farm—Totoco—in Nicaragua. While the farmer had struggled with growing any kind of traditional salad green, he’d done well growing katuk and Chaya, which were feed to the pig (and us). Elsewhere, we’ve had trouble finding it.

Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas)

Little Sweet Potato Vine
Little Sweet Potato Vine

In the tropics, sweet potatoes grow like crazy. We do little more than sticking a fresh shoot in the ground. They will quickly spread out, creating a thick carpet of ground cover to help keep the soil beneath moist and protected from bad weather elements. Plus, they produce a massive crop of, of course, the starchy sweet potato (we are already familiar with), but the leaves and shoots are also edible and perfect for tropical salads, as lettuce is a lot less likely to succeed in the heat. I’ve seen it work in the sun, and I’ve seen it happily climb about in the partial shade.

We’ve grown lots of sweet potatoes, starting with putting them in our banana circles in Panama and moving on to gardens in Guatemala and now Belize. We love the spud and the greens, and we plan on it being one of our staples in the future.

Brazilian “Spinach” (Alternanthera sisso)

Rogue Malabar Spinach
Rogue Malabar Spinach

There seems to be a plethora of perennial leafy plants throughout the tropics that get proclaimed fill-in-the-blank spinach. We are quite familiar with a vine called Malabar spinach, and we have it growing in abundance at The Farm Inn already. We’ve also heard of Ceylon and even tried Okinawan in a meal. We’d love to get our hands on any of these, but I’ve decided to officially list Brazilian spinach because I know its flavor and texture get a little more praise, and it is known to tolerate medium shade. Unfortunately, we’ve not had much luck finding it yet.

That said, we were able to eat quite a bit of Brazilian spinach a few years back when we were volunteering on a farm, Vago’s Place, near the south Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It was growing in abundance with absolutely no maintenance.

Of course, this is only the beginning, only the understory and that’s not even complete. We have others we hope to find and include. There’s galangal and cardamom in the spice section. There’s tea and mulberry on the drink menu. Possibly, with a stroke or two of luck, some mushrooms might work out. But, what a way to fill the dark spaces these would be. Knowing that we’ve already got access to five of the seven is incredible, and hopefully the list keeps on growing.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Other valuable tropical food plants that will grow in the shade include:
    Elephant Foot Yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius)

    Konjac (Amorphophallus konjac) – has commercial potential in the western world as a diet food.


    Sweet Corn Root (Callathea Allouia) – has delicious tubers. Repels some nematodes.

    Queensland Arrowroot (canna edulis)- edible tubers cooked really well they taste like potato

    Aibika _ New Guinea greens…better in partial shade

    Rungia – mushroom salad plant

    Betel Leaf

    Pinto peanut – edible yellow flowers, nitrogen fixing ground cover

    Galangal (rhizome used as flavoring like ginger)

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