Cuphea (KOO-fee-uh), a sticky plant with colorful, showy flowers, originated in Central America and was domesticated a few years ago by Oregon State University researchers. Currently, there is no cuphea market, but its tiny seeds are rich in laurate, a fatty acid also found in tropical oils such as palm and coconut. Laurate’s sudsing quality makes it desirable for soaps, detergents and cosmetics.
Of the 45 cuphea varieties, 18 are potential agricultural crops. Various species grow from eight to 16 inches high and are cross- or self-pollinating. Researchers are breeding cuphea cultivars for lauric acid and medium-chain triglycerides for markets such as candy and chewing gum.
There are no commercial oil processing plants for cuphea. And because the plant is sticky and seeds shatter easily, current production equipment can’t be used. Some companies are experimenting with a transgenic sunflower, incorporating a cuphea gene to solve production problems.
Currently, cuphea is grown in many third world countries as well as the United States, where most research is being conducted. Research is also being conducted in France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Since cuphea was domesticated only recently, it has many wild characteristics. Producers and manufacturers are leery of some of the annual’s traits: it does not tolerate frost, the seeds shatter easily, flowering is unpredictable, and the stems, leaves and flowers are covered with sticky elastic hairs. Breeding could overcome such undesirable traits as frost resistance, but researchers debate about developing non-sticky varieties, as the hairs immobilize aphids and other insect pests. Germination is slow (14 to 20 days), yet the plants grow quickly and seeds ripen in only six weeks, making it ideal for short-season temperate climates
The plant has done well in west central Minnesota field tests, especially if planted by mid May. Trials suggest cuphea could be planted with traditional farm equipment and rotated with corn and soybeans every three years.
Because cuphea is a rich source of laurate, Proctor & Gamble has long been interested in it, not only for detergents, but also for nutraceuticals and pest and disease control. The company is sponsoring research in the Midwest, where cuphea could be profitable – although commercial production is likely years away. If cuphea oil were substituted for all imported tropical oils, 2.75 million acres would be required to produce the seeds (a value estimated at $1.12 billion). In Minnesota, the seed value from 153,000 acres would be almost $100 million per year.
Despite all its production obstacles, cuphea is highly desirable because a single crop can produce a string of high-value fatty acids: caprylic, capric, lauric and myristic. Currently, the only commercial sources of these acids are coconut and palm kernel oils, and price rises are spurring interest in alternatives. Perhaps no other oilseeds in the United States can economically replace fatty acids from imported tropical oils.
Areas of opportunity
Chewing gum and confections: Cultivars are being designed specifically for candy and chewing gum. The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company has patented a base formula for chewing gum, replacing saturated fatty acids and plasticizers like glycerine with cuphea oil, which improves flavor and reduces saturated fat. Cuphea oil also works well as a flow carrier and solvent in candy manufacturing.
Detergents and cosmetics: This is a high-volume market area – a half-billion dollars annually in the United States – where cuphea could replace imported palm kernel and coconut oil. Fatty acids such as laurate act as a defoaming agent and booster in soaps and detergents.