The magical pools in the Aquatic Plants Gallery simulate the flow of a river winding through the tropics. The gallery features carnivorous pitcher plants, warm-growing orchids, and brightly painted Heliconia and Hibiscus. Giant taro leaves line the pond and the flowers of hundreds of bromeliads emerge from their water-filled buckets. A sculpture of a Victoria amazonica water lily hangs suspended in the air. The Victoria amazonica, lotus plants, and colorful water lilies grow in the ponds during the summers when water conditions are just right.

You can visit all the galleries: Potted Plants | Lowland Tropics | Highland Tropics | Aquatic Plants

Click images to enlarge.

Aeschynanthus radicans
Common Name: Lipstick Plant
Family Name: Gesneriaceae
Native to: Malaysia

Hanging throughout the Conservatory is Aeschynanthus radicans, an epiphyte with red flowers that emerge from a dark red tube. A. radicans truly earns the common name the lipstick plant. Long stamen emerge from the red tubular, curved corolla. The corolla is made up of five partially fused petals. This flower shape suggests pollination by hummingbirds.

The genus is in the gesneriad family along with the African violet. The name Aeschynanthus is derived from aischyno (to be ashamed) and anthos (flower), referring to the red flowers.

Family Name: Bromeliaceae
Native to: Brazil

Billbergia is a genus of flowering plants comprised of approximately 60 species in the Bromeliaceae family. Many species in this genus are endemic, or unique, to Brazil. However, the native range of Billbergia extends from southern Mexico to the West Indies, and down to Argentina. The plants in this genus are primarily epiphytic, meaning they grow on other plants for support. Billbergia can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. The leaves are generally tall and tubular, forming a tight rosette, and often variegated or mottled. The showy flowers can range in brilliant displays of red, purple, pink, and blue. The genus was named in honor of Gustaf Johan Billberg (1772-1844), Swedish botanist and zoologist.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Tropical and Subtropical Asia and South Africa

Calanthes are terrestrial orchids. The genus is divided into two groups – deciduous species and evergreen species. Many of the species found in the Conservatory are deciduous. The pleated leaves shed at the end of the growing cycle, leaving behind only the pseudobulbs. The new inflorescence emerges from the pseudobulb at the start of the next season. In Greek, calanthe means “beautiful flower”. The flower’s delicate pink or white petals and sepals form a fan shape that tops the prominent lip.

Common Name: Necklace Orchids
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia

Dendrochilum is a genus of about 150 species of orchids. The genus is sometimes known as the necklace orchids because of their pendant-like inflorescences, or clusters of flowers. Some visitors find the distinct fragrance of the miniature, star-shaped flowers pleasant, others a bit strong and musty. Dendrochilum species grow at higher elevations in the humid rainforests throughout Southeast Asia including New Guinea, Borneo, and Java.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Tropical and Subtropical Americas; North Carolina to Peru

Epidendrums have long, reed-like inflorescences that produce brightly colored bunches of flowers in shades of orange, red, yellow, and pink. In almost all species of Epidendrums, the flowers have a fringed lip that’s fused to the column along its entire length.  Some Epidendrums are well suited for novice orchid growers because they are forgiving, vigorous growers, and can tolerate mild evening temperatures outdoors.

Guzmania conifera
Family Name: Bromeliaceae
Native to: Ecuador and Peru

Guzmanias have spectacular flowers that seemingly last forever. With a few exceptions, bromeliads are monocarpic plants. This means that once they are done flowering, the plant dies. Fortunately, the flowers usually last months and many bromeliads produce offsets from the parent plant, called pups. Guzmania conifera is a popular houseplant cultivated for its vibrant flowers and spineless leaves.

Heliconia psittacorum
Common Name: False Bird-of-Paradise
Family Name: Heliconiaceae
Native to: Panama, Tropical Americas

Heliconia is a genus of flowering tropical plants with approximately 225 species. The majority of Heliconia species are native to tropical Central and South America; however, several species are found on islands in the West Pacific. Heliconias thrive in tropical conditions and habitats that have an abundance of water, sunlight, and rich soil. The inflorescence, or cluster of flowers, are quite distinctive and range in colorful hues of red, orange, yellow, and green. The inflorescence consists of brightly colored, waxy bracts (specialized leaves at the base of flowers) arranged alternately on the stem that encloses and protect small flowers.

Heliconias support a diversity of ecological relationships with various organisms. Hummingbirds are the principle pollination of Heliconias in the Americas. The flowers produce an abundance of nectar and the color, shape, and curve of the flowers are adapted to specific hummingbird species. Several species of Heliconia open their flowers at night to attract nectar-eating bats for pollination. Additionally, multiple species of bats use the leaves and foliage to construct habitats and shelters. Heliconia species with upright bracts are known to collect rainwater and support a community of minute, aquatic fauna. Interestingly, the name Heliconia is derived from Mount Helicon, a mountain in southern Greece that is known in Greek mythology to be the home of the Muses.

Family Name: Malvaceae
Native to: Temperate, Subtropical, and Tropical Regions

The Hibiscus captures the magic of the tropics by combining the lush, deep greens of the foliage and the bright colors of the flowers. The plant serves many purposes in different cultures.  The red Hibiscus flower is traditionally worn by Tahitian women. A single flower, tucked behind the ear, is used to indicate the wearer’s availability for marriage. Dried hibiscus is edible, and is a delicacy in Mexico. The tea made from hibiscus flowers is known by many names in many countries around the world and is served both hot and cold. The beverage is well known for its color, tanginess, and flavor. Certain species are also beginning to be used more widely as a natural source of food coloring, replacing synthetic dyes.

Many of the 300 species have a classic structure with five overlapping petals arranged in a trumpet-like whorl. A long reproductive column protrudes from the center of the petals. The column is covered with stamens, the part of the flower that produces pollen. At the tip of the column are stigmas, where pollen lands and starts the fertilization process.

Hoya carnosa
Common Name: Wax Flower
Family Name: Apocynaceae
Native to: India, Burma, China, and Australia

Hoya carnosa, commonly called wax flower, is a climbing or trailing perennial of the dogbane and milkweed family. Stems will climb counterclockwise around thin trellis-like structures. Plants feature glossy, elliptic, fleshy, dark green leaves and rounded clusters of 10-30 fragrant white flowers. The tiny flowers are a distinctive, star-shaped, red-centered corona. The genus name honors Thomas Hoy, late 18th century gardener to the Duke of Northumberland.

Common Name: Tiger Orchids
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: South and Central America

Maxillaria is a large and diverse genus of orchids with over 500 species. Orchids in this genus range widely in shape, size, and color. The large diversity of orchids within this genus has led some botanists and taxonomists to consider reorganizing or splitting this genus into several genera.  The flowers, often fragrant, grow singularly on a scape arising from the base of the pseudobulbs. The genus name is derived from the Latin word Maxilla, meaning jawbone, due to the resemblance of the lip and column to a jaw. This genus is commonly referred to as the spider or tiger orchid.

Nepenthes bicalcarata
Common Name: Fanged Pitcher Plant
Family Name: Nepenthaceae
Native to: Borneo

The fanged pitcher plant is a myrmecophyte noted for its mutualistic association with a species of ant, Camponotus schmitzi. Myrmecophytes are known as “ant-plant”. These plants possess adaptations that provide ants with food or shelter. In exchange, ants aid the plant in pollination, seed dispersal, defense, or gathering of essential nutrients. What makes the N. bicalcarata so unique is that the fluid in the pitcher contains far less acidic enzymes than other Nepenthes species. This is what allows the ants to survive inside the pitcher. Ants travel down the pitcher walls, drag the other drowned insects back up, and then rest the insect on the lip where it is devoured. While eating and swimming, the ants defecate in the pitcher and fertilize the plant. 

The two fangs that give N. bicalcarata its name are unique to this species and bear some of the largest nectaries in the plant kingdom. The purpose of these structures has long been debated among botanists. They have been thought to deter mammals from stealing the contents of the pitchers, though the more intelligent mammals like monkeys have been observed tearing open the side of the pitcher. Other botanists suggest that the fangs likely serve to lure insects into a precarious position over the pitcher’s mouth, where they may lose their footing and fall into the pitcher’s fluid, eventually drowning and becoming prey to the ants.  

Nepenthes rafflesiana
Common Name: Raffle's Pitcher
Family Name: Nepenthaceae
Native to: Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo

Nepenthes rafflesiana is a carnivorous tropical pitcher plant native to Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. The pitchers of Nepenthes are modified leaves that attract, trap, and digest organism for nutrients. Nepenthes rafflesiana is highly variable in pitcher size and color and includes numerous varieties. Pitchers range in color from green to purple and are often speckled or heavily splotched in reds or purples. Each plant produces two district types of pitchers. The bulky lower pitchers of N. rafflesiana are large, squat, and winged while the upper pitchers can be narrow and funnel-shaped.

The species in named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), a British statesman best know for founding Singapore. The genus name Nepenthes was coined by Carl Linnaeus who recalled Homer’s The Odyssey where Helen of Troy threw the drug nepenthe into wine to alleviate soldier’s sorrow.

Nepenthes truncata
Family Name: Nepenthaceae
Native to: Philippines

Nepenthes truncata is a tropical carnivorous plant endemic to the lowland rainforests of the Philippines. The pitchers of Nepenthes are modified leaves that attract, trap, and digest organism for nutrients. While the plant is relatively compact, enormous cylindrical green pitchers hang down from large heart-shaped leaves. The pitchers of N. truncata are considered one of the largest tropical pitchers. Pitchers can reach up to fourteen inches long and are adorned with prominent wings that run the length of the massive pitchers. Nepenthes truncata is endangered in its natural habitat.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia, East Asia, New Guinea, and Australia

The Vanda orchid has some of the most magnificent flowers in the orchid family. The genus is made up of warm-growing plants with colorful flowers. Growers have hybridized the Vanda in efforts to get a flower that’s the biggest, showiest, and most colorful. The blue and purple species are the best known Vandas, but there are a wide range of other colors, which makes for striking hybrid combinations that are popular in the floral trade.

Vandas have monopodial growth habit, which means they grow vertically and reach incredible heights. Their height is compounded when a new stem forms from the end of a spent flower spike, and leaves and flowers are then produced along the new stem. Succulent leaves store the nutrients and moisture required for the new growth. Many Vanda orchids are endangered and vulnerable due to habitat destruction so the export of wild-collected specimens of Vandas is prohibited worldwide.


Whether you’re a native San Franciscan, a visitor from another side of the world, or a classroom of budding botanists, the Conservatory of Flowers offers an intimate up-close experience with rare and endangered plants unlike any other. Come see what treasures await you!

Golden Gate Park | 100 John F. Kennedy Drive | San Francisco, CA 94118| 415-831-2090