Medicines from the Rainforest

Rainforest Plants Produce Life-saving Medicines

Some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants. And according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, more than two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants. Examples abound. Ingredients obtained and synthesized from a now-extinct periwinkle plant found only in Madagascar (until deforestation wiped it out) have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to 80 percent.

Some of the compounds in rainforest plants are also used to treat malaria, heart disease, bronchitis, hypertension, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, arthritis, glaucoma, dysentery and tuberculosis, among other health problems. And many commercially available anesthetics, enzymes, hormones, laxatives, cough mixtures, antibiotics and antiseptics are also derived from rainforest plants and herbs.

Despite these success stories, less than one percent of the plants in the world’s tropical rainforests have even been tested for their medicinal properties. Environmentalists and health care advocates alike are keen to protect the worlds remaining rainforests as storehouses for the medicines of the future.

But saving tropical rainforests is no easy task, as poverty-stricken native people try to eke out a living off the lands and many governments throughout the world’s equatorial regions, out of economic desperation as well as greed, allow destructive cattle ranching, farming and logging. As rainforest turns to farm, ranch and clear-cut, some 137 rainforest-dwelling species plants and animals alike go extinct every single day, according to noted Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Conservationists worry that as rainforest species disappear, so will many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.

You can do your part to help save rainforests around the world by following and supporting the work of such organisations as Rainforest Alliance, Rainforest Action Network, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and by clicking special links on websites like The Rainforest Site, which contribute funds to organisations working on the ground to preserve rainforest land.

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Food from the Rainforest

The following foods all come from the rainforest:

Coffee, rice, chocolate, mangos, chewing gum, lemons, avocados, coconuts, pineapples and oranges.

Perhaps the most commonly known food to come from the Rainforest is the Banana. Click here for a downloadable article all about the growth and harvesting of Bananas and their journey from the Rainforest to the supermarkets.


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A trip to the rainforest

A short animated film following a class of Brazilian children, as they travel to their nearest Rainforest.

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Difference between a Jungle and Rainforest

What is the difference between a Jungle and Rainforest?

These two terms have often been confused, but they describe different patterns of vegetation that are mostly, though not always, associated with tropical climates. “Jungle” is a general term used to describe vegetation that is tangled and impenetrable — the kind that might seriously impede the progress of humans, and which may need to be cut through with tools such as machetes. It comes from the Sanskrit word jangala, which simply means uncultivated land. A rainforest is a type of dense forest, often with several layers of vegetation that is found in areas of high rainfall. The foliage in the upper parts is generally so dense that relatively little light reaches the ground, and because of this, ground-level plant life is quite sparse — it is, in fact, much easier to walk through rainforest than jungle.


In the past, the word jungle has been used rather indiscriminately to describe almost any kind of dense, tropical vegetation, including what is now called rainforest. The term “rainforest”, however, only came into common use in the 1970s. Plants need both moisture and light to grow well, and the kind of dense ground-level vegetation that thrives in jungle areas occurs in places that have plentiful rainfall for at least part of the year, and more or less unrestricted access to sunlight. Consequently, it differs markedly from rainforest.

Jungle, however, may well occur close to, and within, rainforests, since all that is usually required in these warm, moist areas for this type of vegetation to develop is an adequate supply of light. Therefore, in places where trees are sparse, jungle can thrive. Typically, jungle vegetation will be found at the edges of rainforests, along rivers within the forest, and in areas where trees have fallen due to natural disasters such as high winds, or where trees have been felled by humans, and the land then left to itself.

This kind of vegetation is not found in temperate areas, as constant high temperatures are required to allow the year-round growth of plants. When combined with moist conditions, and a plentiful supply of light, growth is rapid. Many kinds of plants have evolved to compete successfully for resources, and so jungle areas, like rainforests, have a great diversity of plant life; however, the main difference is in the ground level vegetation. Trees do not get a chance to grow, as faster spreading plants rapidly deprive small seedlings of space and light. Plants in these areas have evolved to grow and spread quickly, and in many cases possess thorns to defend themselves against predators, resulting in a thick, impenetrable tangle of plants that makes life difficult for explorers.


As the name implies, this type of vegetation occurs in areas of high rainfall. In the equatorial regions, conditions are ideal for rainforest, due to the frequent heavy rain, high humidity and year-round high temperatures. Rainforests, can, however, be found in some temperate regions, where rainfall is high enough. For example, many parts of the west coast of North America have forests of this type. These woodlands, however, have far fewer plant and animal species living in them than tropical forests.

The typical tropical rainforest has a high canopy of overlapping branches and leaves that absorb most of the incoming sunlight. The trees that make up this layer generally grow to between 70 and 100 feet (21 – 30 meters). Above this, there may be an emergent layer, consisting of a relatively small number of even taller trees, up to 180 ft (55 m) high. Below the main canopy, there is a shrub, or understory, layer, consisting of young trees and large-leaved plants that are able to exploit the relatively small amounts of light at this level. The ground layer has only a few shade-loving plants.

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The rainforest at night

The rainforest at night from National Geographic

Explore the rainforest by torchlight in this interactive activity from National Geographic.

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Deforestation and soil erosion

Deforestation, or the removal of forests, is a major problem that has devastating effects all over the world. Forests are home to most of the plants and species on the earth. As the forest are destroyed, many species die out – an estimated 50,000 species a year. At the edge of the rain forest, more sunlight passes through the canopy, so it is drier and hotter than the interior. Fewer forest plants grow at the edge because they prefer the humid and shady forest interior.  As a result, there are fewer animals there.

Here is a poem written about the disappearing Rainforests. You could share this with your class or ask them to write a similar poem together about protecting the environment.

Rain Forests
They’re really half a world away,
There’s nothing we can do.
“Rain Forests” might be just two words
To kids like me and you.

They’re really somewhere over there.
I may not even see
A Rain Forest in my entire life.
What should it mean to me?

I know that trees are being cut,
Faster than we know.
These trees are where the creatures live,
So now where will they go?

So, I know they’re half a world away,
Rain Forests I can’t see.
But I can learn and understand
Because the future starts with me!

You can make a difference.

Courtesy of Songs 4 Teachers ©. Feel free to share this poem with your colleagues. Visit for songs, poems and more.


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Where are the rainforests?

Did you know?

  • It is 5887 miles (9474 km) from England to the Amazon Rainforests of Brazil.
  • The Amazon River Basin is home to the largest rainforest on Earth, roughly the size of the United States.
  • The Daintree Rainforest in Australia is over one hundred and thirty-five million years old – the oldest in the world.

1. On a map of the world, draw a dotted line between England and South America and talk about how long it might take and how we might travel there. Click here to access a downloadable version of the image below to use for this activity.

Discuss with your class a simple journey from home to school. Can the children draw a pictorial map of their journey? What landmarks do they see on the way?

Discuss with your class how Acapella might have made her journey from the rainforest to England. Make up a story with your class about her adventure.


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What is a rainforest?

A rainforest is a special kind of forest that grows in warm, wet places. The trees are very tall and grow closely together. There are three main types of rainforests; Tropical forests, Cloud forests, and Temperate forests.

The biggest rainforest is in South America. It is so huge that a person could walk in it for thousands of miles without ever seeing the sky between the treetops. Streams and rivers flowing between the tree tops meet up to become the largest river in the world – the Amazon River.

What does a rainforest look like?
There are many, many trees and plants in the rainforest and they all need light to help them grow. There is a constant battle between them as every plant struggles to reach the sunlight. The trees grow as tall as they can and spread their leafy branches to the sky. Beneath them the plants and animals live in areas of increasing shade right down towards the dim forest floor.

Layers in the rainforest
We can think of the rainforest as a tall building with many floors. Each floor, or layer, is home to a different range of plants and animals.

In the canopy
The tops of the trees make up the roof of the forest, called the canopy. Most of these trees are about 40 metres tall. A few even taller trees called emergents, poke their heads through the canopy. The canopy is full of life – most of the animals live here. Monkeys swing from branch to branch. Birds nest here and feed on the nuts and fruits.

The understorey
Beneath the canopy is the understorey. Here climbing plants dangle down to the forest floor. There are plants that cling to the trees and take their water from the air or from tree bark.

The forest floor
Little light passes through the understorey down to the forest floor. Only small trees and palms can live in the gloom. It is damp and warm, so leaves and twigs rot quickly. Creatures such as termites, earthworms and spiders search the floor for food.


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