AQUATIC PLANTS

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.

Ananas comosus
Common Name: Pineapple
Family Name: Bromeliaceae
Native to: South America

The pineapple plant is in the bromeliad family. The fruit is actually made up of hundreds of berries that have fused together.

On his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to taste the sweet fruit. Because it resembled a pinecone, Columbus dubbed it “The Pine of the Indies.” It was then introduced to Spain when Columbus brought it back, as a gift, for queen Isabella.

In the Victorian Era, the pineapple became an icon of hospitality after seafaring captains placed fresh pineapple on their gateposts to signify the man of the house was at home and receiving guests. They were also a sign of wealth because they were expensive and difficult to procure. Some people who couldn’t afford to purchase them rented pineapples to display in their homes.

Gossypium barbadense
Common Name: Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton
Family Name: Malvaceae
Native to: South America

Gossypium hirsutum is the most widely planted species of cotton in the United States. After the flowers wither they leave pods which are called cotton bolls. Moist fibers grow inside the boll and push out from the newly formed seeds. As the boll ripens, it turns brown. The fibers continue to expand under the warm sun. The boll then splits and exposes the cotton. Cotton plants have a variety of other uses. Seeds yield a semi-drying and edible oil, used in shortening, margarine, salad and cooking oils, and for protective coverings.

Cottonseed meal is protein rich and is fed to livestock. Archeological evidence from Mexico shows the cultivation of this species as long ago as 3,500 BC. After a flower withers it leaves a pod which is called a cotton “boll”.  The boll is actually a fruit that contains small seeds surrounded by white fibers.  As the boll ripens, it turns brown. The fibers expand, the boll splits, and cotton is exposed. The fiber is stripped from the seed by ginning and the lint is then processed into cotton.  Cotton plants have a variety of other uses. Seeds yield a semi-drying and edible oil used in shortening, margarine, salad and cooking oils, and for protective coverings. Cottonseed meal is protein rich and is fed to livestock.

Gossypium hirsutum
Common Name: Mexican Cotton, Upland Cotton
Family Name: Malvaceae
Native to: Central America

Gossypium hirsutum is the most widely planted species of cotton in the United States.  After the flowers wither they leave pods which are called cotton bolls. Moist fibers grow inside the boll and push out from the newly formed seeds. As the boll ripens, it turns brown. The fibers continue to expand under the warm sun. The boll then splits and exposes the cotton.

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

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 (also called “pups”).  Guzmanias have spectacular flowers that seemingly last forever. As a result, they are commonly cultivated as house plants. Another attractive feature adding to their popularity is that their leaves have no spikes. Though they are monocarpic, Guzmanias are not easy to keep alive past the flowering stage because they often don’t live long enough to produce offsets.

Heliconia
Common Name: Lobster Claws, False Bird-of-Paradise
Family Name: Zingiberales
Native to: Tropical Americas, Pacific Islands

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 enclose 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.

Hibiscus
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 “male” part of the flower that produces pollen. At the tip of the column are five spots, or stigmas, which are the “female” part and act as the receivers of the pollen.

Hibiscus schizopetalus
Common Name: Japanese Lantern, Spider Hibiscus
Family Name: Malvaceae
Native to: Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique

The red or pink flowers of this Hibiscus are distinctive in their frilly, finely divided petals that curve up and create a globe shape. A long reproductive column protrudes from the center of the petals. The column is covered with stamens, the “male” part of the flower that produces pollen. At the tip of the column are stigmas, which are the “female” part and act as the receivers of the pollen.

Medinilla
Family Name: Melastomataceae
Native to: Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and Pacific Islands

Medinilla is a genus of about 150 species in the family Melastomataceae. Most species are evergreen shrubs with white, pink, or orange flowers. The flowers are arranged on a panicle, a branched cluster of flowers. When pollinated, the plant bears showy berries. The leaves of many Medinilla species are arranged in a whorl or are alternating. This allows the maximum amount of sunlight to hit each leaf.

 The genus Medinilla was named in 1820 after J. de Medinilla, governor of the Mariana Islands, which are off the coast of the Philippines. There are more than 100 endemic species of Medinilla in the Philippines alone.

Medinilla magnifica
Common Name: Pink Lantern
Family Name: Melastomataceae
Native to: Phillipines

In every stage of its blooming cycle, this Medinilla magnifica is true to its name. The magnificent flower clusters, called panicles, begin as a dewdrop-shaped pendant. Protecting the pendant are pink bracts, which look like petals but are actually modified leaves. As they unfold, the bracts curl upwards and reveal clusters of tiny pink and purple flowers. The flowers leave behind berry-like pods which remain on the plant for weeks.

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.  

Nymphaea
Common Name: Water Lily
Family Name: Nymphaeaceae
Native to: Cosmopolitan Distribution

Water “lilies” are not related to true lilies nor are they related to the lotus.  The plant’s name Nymphaea comes from the Greek word for “nymph”, which are supernatural feminine beings associated with springs.  The blue water lilies found in the Conservatory are striking because of the contrast of the blue sepals and petals and the yellow stamen which contain the pollen.  Some Nymphaea need tropical climates and others can be grown in a Bay Area backyard. The leaves of hardy water lilies, which can be grown in non-tropical areas, have smooth edges. The leaves of water lilies found in tropical regions, like the Amazon, have scalloped edges.

Phragmipedium
Common Name: South American Slipper Orchid
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Mexico to South America

Plants in the genus Phragmipedium are new world lady slipper orchids, named after their shoe shaped pouches. The pouch is a modified petal, also called a lip. The pouch traps insects, which are forced to escape through a backdoor exit, depositing pollen as they squeeze out, thus pollinating the flower. A distinct trait of “Phrags” is that their flowers bloom sequentially, one after another. Each bloom lasts about two weeks; meanwhile, another bud is developing. The entire flowering season can last from six to eleven months. Depending on the species, the colors can range from green, to a soft mahogany-pink, to a dazzling orange-red.

Punica granatum ‘Nana’
Common Name: Dwarf Pomegranate
Family Name: Lythraceae
Native to: Southern Europe to Northern India

The pomegranate, Punica granatum, has been cultivated for millennia throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, tropical Africa, and southeast Asia. The Spanish introduced the pomegranate into Latin America and California in 1769. Pomegranates are used in cooking, baking, juices, smoothies and alcoholic beverages, such as martinis and wine.

The pomegranate has been mentioned in many ancient texts, notably in Babylonian texts, the Book of Exodus, the Homeric Hymns and the Quran.  The French term “grenade” for pomegranate has given its name to the military grenade. Soldiers commented on the similar shape of early grenades and the name entered common usage.

Sanchezia speciosa
Family Name: Acanthaceae 
Native to: Peru and Ecuador

Sanchezia speciosa is an evergreen shrub that grows in the understory of tropical forests. The large variegated leaves have defined yellow veins and grow in an alternating pattern on the stems. The tubular yellow flowers emerge from red bracts. Many plants in the Acanthaceae family have a tubular flower or corolla and a showy bract, which helps protect the flower as it forms and attracts pollinators.

Strophanthus gratus
Common Name: Climbing Oleander
Family Name: Apocynaceae
Native to: West Africa

Despite its beautiful rose scent, the winter-blooming Strophanthus gratus is actually quite wicked. The plant is a source of ouabain, a glycoside poison that can cause heart problems. Extracts containing ouabain have long been used by Somali tribesmen and other groups to poison hunting arrows. It is rumored that a sufficiently concentrated ouabain dart can bring down a Hippopotamus, probably as the result of respiratory or cardiac arrest. Not realizing their toxicity, ancient Egyptians and Romans first used plants containing cardiac glycosides medicinally for heart ailments. Modern medicine has since developed synthetic forms of ouabain and tested it as a heart medication and for cancer therapies.

Strophanthus preussii
Common Name: Twisted Cord Flower
Family Name: Apocynaceae
Native to: Tropical West and Central Africa

Strophanthus preusii belongs to the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, and originated from the forested areas of western Africa. This species blooms most heavily from late spring to fall, with clusters of small pale pink, trumpet-shaped flowers with a rusty red base. It is nicknamed the twisted cord flower or spider tresses for the distinctive maroon tail that hangs from each of the five petals of each flower.

There are many recorded uses of S. preusii in several African countries. In southern Nigeria, the stem of the plant is used to construct hunting bows. In the DR Congo, young leaves are crushed and applied to sores and wounds to promote healing. In the Central African Republic the fibers are used to craft fishing lines, nets, and ropes. In Gabon, the leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. In Liberia and Congo, the latex and seeds are used in poison arrow mixtures, as they contain cardiac glycosides that in small dosages can treat heart arrhythmia, but extremely toxic in larger amounts.

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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