Highland Tropics - What's in Bloom?

The Conservatory of Flowers is one of only four institutions in the United States to feature a Highland Tropics display. The gallery mimics the misty cloud forests of tropical mountaintops. Dense mosses, Impatiens, and Gesneriads engulf rocks. Majestic Rhododendrons and tree ferns grow from the forest floor. Also featured is the renowned collection of delicate high-altitude orchids. Many of these orchids are epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants, including the infamous Dracula orchids that hang throughout.

Click Bloom thumbnail to enlarge

Acineta superba

Location in Conservatory: Highlands Gallery

Native to: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

 

The orchid’s name, Acineta superba, is derived from the Greek word ‘akinetos’ which means immobile and refers to the flower’s rigid lip. Acineta are epiphytes, which means they, like many orchids, grow on other plants, rather than in the soil on the forest floor.  Acineta orchids are native to the tropical mountain forests from Mexico to western South America and they thrive in the cooler elevations of 2,000-6,000 feet.

 

Fragrance production consumes energy, so some orchids are only fragrant at the times of day when their pollinator is most active. Acineta flowers are pollinated by male euglossine bees. It’s thought that a distinct blend of fragrance chemicals is produced by each Acineta species. The unique odor attracts only a single type of pollinator, thus ensuring the bee will exclusively visit flowers of that species. 

Cavendishia grandifolia

Common name: tropical blueberry

Location: Highlands Gallery, center planting, best seen from the north side

Native to: Central and South America

Cavendishia grandifolia belong to the same family (Ericaceae) that includes Rhododendrons, azaleas, heathers, and edible crops like cranberry and the temperate zone blueberries. Research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food chemistry states that the Cavendishia grandifolia berry has two to four times more antioxidant capacity than conventional blueberries.
The Conservatory's plant is a sprawling epiphitic shrub. Dozens of waxy pink, white, and green flowers dangle from long inflorescences. Pink bracts add another pop of color.

 

Cavendishia grandifolia belong to the same family (Ericaceae) as Rhododendrons, azaleas, heathers, and edible crops like cranberry and the temperate zone blueberries. Research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food chemistry states that the Cavendishia grandifolia berry has two to four times more antioxidant capacity than conventional blueberries.

 

The Conservatory's plant is a sprawling epiphitic shrub. Dozens of waxy pink, white, and green flowers dangle from long inflorescences. Pink bracts add another pop of color.

Coelogyne Orchids

Native to: India, Southeast Asia, Philippines, Indonesia

 

The orchid genus Coelogyne is comprised of about 200 species. A number are on display in the Potted Plants Gallery. Most of the species are relatively easy to grow and produce long-lasting, fragrant flowers, and they can go weeks in their winter dormant season without water. They often have elaborately marked lips to attract pollinators, which include bees, wasps, and beetles.

Columnea

Common name: flying goldfish

Location: Highlands Gallery, south planting growing on a tree 

Native to: Central and South America

 

Columnea is a genus with approximately 200 species of herbs and shrubs. They are known for their brightly colored tubular flowers, which comes in shades of red, orange, or yellow in order to attract hummingbirds for pollination. Many species’ blossoms resembles the head of a dragon or the body of a goldfish, which inspired their common name, ‘the flying goldfish plant’. The petals of this species are striking because of the contrast of deep purple and chartreuse.

 

Columnea species are epiphytic plants, which means they grow on top of other vegetations. In the wild, they can be found climbing on tree trunks and branches. Constant precipitation provides the roots with moisture, and the excellent drainage prevents the water from standing and rotting the roots.

 

Carl Linnaeus named Columnea after Fabio Colonna (the latinization of Colonna is Columnea), a 16th century Italian botanist. Colonna was honored for his historical compilation of botanical data published in 1592, the first of its kind illustrated with copper plates.  

Dracula Orchid

Location in Conservatory: hanging in the Highland Gallery 
Native to: South and Central America

This plant is a Dracula orchid in the subtribe Pleurothallid. You might assume that the name is a reference to the fictional vampire, Count Dracula, but in Greek, Dracula literally means "little dragon". When fully open, the flower resembles a dragon’s face. 
 
Living in the cloud forest of the tropics, Dracula orchids are a remarkable example of mimicry. Mimicry is an adaptation that allows an organism to look like another plant, animal, or in this case, a fungus. Dracula flowers look and smell like fleshy mushrooms to attract pollinating flies.

You might assume that the name "Dracula" is a reference to the fictional vampire, Count Dracula, but in Greek, Dracula literally means "little dragon". When fully open, the flower resembles a dragon’s face. 

 

Found in the cloud forest of the tropics, Dracula orchids are a remarkable example of mimicry. Mimicry is an adaptation that allows an organism to look like another plant, animal, or in this case, a fungus. Dracula flowers look and smell like fleshy mushrooms to attract the flies that pollinate them.

 

Some Dracula species, like D. vampira, have burgundy or maroon flowers that hang like pendants below the plant. Others have white flowers on erect stems. 

Impatiens mengtszeana

Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery

Native to: China

 

Like orchids, Impatience species have evolved to appeal to a particular pollinator such as birds, bees, moths, and butterflies. The lower most sepal of this I. mengtszeana is elongated and forms a spur that is filled with nectar to attract pollinators. The petals of I. mengtszeana are pale yellow and blush colored. The four lateral petals of the flowers are always united in pairs and each pair appears to be one large petal. This rare plant can grow in Bay Area gardens under the right conditions.

Impatiens niamniamensis

Common name: parrot Impatiens, candy corn Impatiens

Location in Conservatory: Highland and Potted Plants Galleries

Native to: East Africa

 

Impatiens niamniamensis is an evergreen, perennial species that usually grows 2 to 3 feet tall. The unusual flowers bloom all year and dangle off the branches like little tropical birds. 

 

An interesting adaptation of this plant is its method of seed distribution. The scientific name Impatiens is Latin for "impatient" and refers to the plant's seed capsules. When the capsules mature, they explode when touched, sending seeds several yards away. 

Lycaste Orchid

Location in Conservatory: Highlands Gallery

Native to: Mexico to Peru

 

This orchid genus produces large, long-lasting, waxy, sometimes fragrant, triangular flowers. The plants are distinctive for their egg-shaped pseudobulbs and broad, pleated leaves. 

 

Lycaste flowers, like all orchid blooms, have three petals and three sepals. With some orchid species, it's difficult to identify these parts. Masdevallia orchids, for example, have fused sepals and a hidden petal. In this Lycaste photo (click on the photo to enlarge) the parts are easily identifiable. Three light green sepals are behind two spotted white petals. The third petal is in the shape of a pitcher spout. This third petal is often called the lip or labellum and provides a perch for the flower's pollinator. Protected by the petals and lip is the column, the orchids reproductive parts, which include the pollen. 

Magnolia liliifera

Common name: egg magnolia

Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery, north side

Native to: northern Thailand, North-East India, endangered in its native habitat

 

The egg magnolia is one of the most valuable ornamental trees of Asia because of its fragrance. The flowers are small relative to many varieties of magnolia, but the scent of the flowers is intense. When blooming, the fragrance of tropical fruit fills the Highland Gallery. The flowers themselves grow on the upright tips of stems and last only a day. The common name ‘egg magnolia’ derives from the egg like shape of the blooms.

Common name: egg magnolia
Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery, north side
Native to: northern Thailand, North-East India, endangered in it's native habitat
 
The egg magnolia is one of the most valuable ornamental trees of Asia because of it's fragrance. The flowers are small relative to many varieties of magnolia, but the scent of the flowers is intense. When blooming, the fragrance of tropical fruit fills the Highland Gallery. The flowers themselves grow on the upright tips of stems and last only a day. The common name ‘egg magnolia’ derives from the egg like shape of flowers.

 

 

Medinilla

Native to: Africa, Madagascar, Asia, Pacific Islands

 

Medinilla are a species of evergreen shrubs with white, pink, or orange flowers. The flowers are arranged on a "panicle", which is a branched cluster of flowers. When pollinated, the plant bares showy berries. The leaves on many species of Medinilla are arranged in a whorl or are alternating. This allows the maximum amount of sunlight to hit each leaf instead of blocking sun from hitting the leaf below it on the stem.

Pleurothallis gargantua

Common name: giant bonnet orchid

Location: Highland Gallery, on the tree with the orchid sculptures

Native to: Ecuador

 

This terrestrial orchid can be found in the steep mountain forests in Ecuador, between 4500 and 7500 feet above sea level. It grows in cool and wet conditions, but can tolerate wildly fluctuating temperatures such as those found in its native habitat.

 

Despite its flower only being inches wide, the Pleurothallis gargantua has the largest bloom of its genus. Its lower sepal is a dark burgundy, while its upper sepal is lighter with veins of the same color. The flower grows out of the base of the leaf, and is pollinated by tiny insects such as gnats or grass flies. It has two pollinia, a trait that it shares with the rest of its genus. 

Pleurothallis Orchids

Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery

Native to: mostly highland areas in Central and South America

There are over 1,000 species of Pleurothallis orchids. Although often very small, as a group they show a huge range in vegetative form. They are terrestrial (in the ground) or epiphytic (on a plant), and can be found as tall cane-like plants, clumped or trailing, pendent or climbing, and delicate moss-like species that can grow on the thinnest of twigs.
Pleurothallis flowers are among the most diverse and unusual and specialize in using tiny insects such as gnats for pollination. The flowers of many of the species at the Conservatory grow from the base of the heart-shaped leaves. Also emerging from the leaves are ariel roots and new plants. Pleurothallis orchids reproduce vegitatively. These new plants are often called a keiki (pronounced key-key), which is Hawaiian for "baby".

 

There are over 1,000 species of Pleurothallis orchids. Although often very small, as a group they show a huge range in vegetative form. They are terrestrial (in the ground) or epiphytic (on a plant), and can be found as tall cane-like plants, clumped or trailing, pendent or climbing, and delicate moss-like species that can grow on the thinnest of twigs.

 

Pleurothallis flowers are among the most diverse and unusual and specialize in using tiny insects such as gnats for pollination. The flowers of many of the species at the Conservatory grow from the base of the heart-shaped leaves. Also emerging from the leaves are ariel roots and new plants. Pleurothallis orchids reproduce vegitatively. These new plants are often called a keiki (pronounced key-key), which is Hawaiian for "baby".

Pleurothallis restrepiodes

Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery

Native to: mostly highland areas in Central and South America

 

Pleurothallis flowers are among the most diverse and unusual and specialize in using tiny insects such as gnats for pollination. The flowers of many of the species at the Conservatory grow from the base of the heart-shaped leaves. The Pleurothallis restrepiodes inflorescence also emerges from the leaf. The purple and white flowers dangle in a claw-like position and the foul smell attracts it's pollinator. Also in bloom towards the top of this tree is the P. truncata, which is recognized by the inflorescence of a dozen tiny orange flowers.

Sobralia Orchid

Location in Conservatory: Highland Gallery, Potted Plants Gallery

Native to: South and Central America

 

The large fragrant flowers of Sobralia orchids have beautiful multi-colored lips. The Highland Gallery features plants with pink or yellow flowers. Flowers can be 6 inches across and appear sequentially on the inflorescence. The flowers are very short-lived, lasting a day or less. The plants have lance-shaped veined leaves arranged along the stem, which can grow as tall as 20 feet depending on the species. Most orchids are epiphytes but many Sobralia species are terrestrial, which means they grow in the ground rather than in the trees.

Tillandsia umbellata

Location in Conservatory: Highlands Gallery

Native to: Ecuador

 

The flower of this Tillandsia is an uncommon blue. It loosely resembles a native California iris but is actually in the Bromeliad family. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests and subtropical or tropical moist montane forests. It is threatened by habitat loss.

 

Vireya Rhododendron

Native to: S.E. Asia

 

Vireyas grow in cool mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, either as epiphytes high in the tall trees of the cloud forest or on open ground in shrubberies.

 

There are over 300 Vireya species, comprising approximately one third of all Rhododendrons.

 

Many Rhododendrons make poisonous nectar. This poison helps to keep herbivores away, but is harmful to humans who consume honey made with the nectar.