LOWLAND TROPICS

In the steamy, lush jungles of the Lowland Tropics Gallery, a light rain falls on the canopy of majestic palms. An enormous kapok tree lies on the forest floor while brightly colored orchids and falling water cascade around it. Coffee berries, cacao pods, and tropical fruits hang heavily from branches, and the sweet fragrance of jasmine and Stanhopea orchids mingle in the air. The gallery is also home to the Conservatory’s centenarians, including the towering Imperial Philodendron, a pygmy date palm from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, and 100-year old Cycads, which are primitive gymnosperms that pre-date the dinosaurs.

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

Click images to enlarge.

Acalypha hispida
Common Name: Chenille Plant
Family Name: Euphorbiaceae
Native to: New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago

The common name, chenille, means caterpillar in French. The fuzzy, pendulous inflorescence of the chenille plant range in color from vibrant red through a creamy white. The chenille plant is dioecious, meaning the male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers are on separate plants. The individual flowers which make up the inflorescence are very tiny, have no petals, and are made up of feathery pistils. These pistils are tightly packed into cylindrical flower clusters along the raceme called catkins. Flowers with catkins, including the chenille, are predominantly pollinated by the wind, and occasionally by insects.

Areca vestiaria
Common Name: Orange Crownshaft Palm
Family Name: Arecaceae
Native to: Eastern Indonesia, Maluku, and Sulawesi

This palm varies from a red crown shaft with maroon leaves, to an orange version with green leaves, and everything in between. It has been observed that there is substantial color variation depending on elevation, with the more colorful plants coming from higher elevations. This photo shows the three stages of the palm’s fruit – the yellow inflorescence emerging, the full-sized but unripe yellow fruit, and the ripe red fruit.

Carica papaya
Common Name: Papaya
Family Name: Caricaceae
Native to: Tropical America 

The papaya is commonly referred to as a tree, but it is technically a giant herb because it never produces true woody tissue.

The papaya typically has a single, unbranched, non-woody trunk. The trunk is topped by an umbrella-like canopy of palmately lobed leaves. The stems and leaves contain white milky latex. Papayas are dioecious with male and female flowers on separate plants, but many cultivars are hermaphroditic. Their yellowish-white trumpet-shaped flowers are fragrant and bloom throughout the year.

The papaya is used all over the world in traditional medicine for its digestive, wound-healing, and anthelmintic properties. These properties originate from the presence of the enzyme papain in the latex of the papaya plant and its fruit.

Coffea arabica
Common Name: Coffee
Family Name: Rubiaceae
Native to: Ethiopia

Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora are the two major commercially grown species of coffee. Coffea arabica is said to produce better tasting coffee because the lower caffeine content makes it less bitter.

Scientists have determined a number of ways coffee plants use caffeine to their benefit. When leaves die and decompose on the ground they contaminate the soil with caffeine which makes it difficult for other plants to grow. Coffee plants also use caffeine to deter insects from eating their young leaves and beans. With the high doses of caffeine contained in these plant parts, a bite can be fatal to insects. But the nectar contained in coffee flowers is laced with a small dose of caffeine. When insects feed on caffeine-spiked nectar, they are more likely to remember the flower and revisit it again, which aids in pollen dispersal.

Crescentia cujete
Common Name: Calabash Tree
Family Name: Bignoniaceae
Native to: Central and South America

Crescentia cujete, more commonly known as the calabash tree, has been cultivated throughout tropical Central and South America since prehistoric times. The light green bell-shaped flowers grow directly on the trunk and branches and are pollinated by bats. The fruit is botanically a berry and widely utilized to make bowls, jugs, utensils, and musical instruments.

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 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.

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 part of the flower that produces pollen. At the tip of the column are stigmas, where pollen lands and starts the fertilization process.

Musa
Common Name: Banana
Family Name: Musaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia and Australia

In horticulture, parthenocarpy (which literally means “virgin fruit”) is the natural or artificially induced production of fruit without fertilization of ovules. The fruit is therefore seedless. Seedlessness is seen as a desirable trait in edible fruit with hard seeds such as watermelon, clementines, grapes, and grapefruit. Bananas are another example of parthenocarpy, which explains how the Conservatory’s plantains and banana plants can bear fruit without a pollinator being present. The common banana is triploid, meaning it has three sets of chromosomes. Triploids cannot produce a functional seed, but they still develop good fruit through parthenocarpy. After the stalk has flowered and borne fruit, it dies.

So how does a banana plant reproduce? There are side shoots or suckers at the base of the main stalk, which can be removed and replanted.  Banana flowers are protected by bracts. The bracts fold away one-by-one and reveal hundreds of flowers. Female flowers appear first and develop into hands of fruit. The male flowers emerge last and do not become fruit. In Southeast Asia the male flowers are boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Bananas are cultivated in 135 tropical and subtropical countries.

Phoenix roebelenii
Common Name: Pygmy Date Palm
Family Name: Arecaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia

The Conservatory’s pygmy date palm is a prized relic from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Expo was held over 100 years ago in 1915. This elegant arching palm was donated to the Conservatory after the closing of the exposition. Each pinnate leaf, or frond, has 100 narrow, shiny leaflets. When in bloom, it drops hundreds of tiny white flowers that blanket the ground of the gallery. 

In 1889 James O’Brien, one of the most famous horticulturists of the 19th century, named the palm “roebelenii” in honor of the German orchid collector Carl Roebelen who was the first to completely document the plant in Laos. The pygmy date palm quickly became popular in landscapes and collections for its attractive leaves and trunk. By 1915, this palm would have been a common hot house plant.

Tabernaemontana divaricata
Common Name: Pinwheelflower
Family Name: Apocynaceae
Native to: India

Tabernaemontana divaricata, commonly known as the pinwheelflower, is native to India and cultivated throughout South East Asia. This small evergreen shrub grows to approximately 5-6 feet tall and the waxy, deep green leaves grow to 6 inches in length. The white, five-petaled pinwheel flowers bloom in small clusters on the stem tips. When broken, the stems exude a milky latex that is toxic. However, in prescribed quantities, parts of the plant are used to treat a variety of ailments ranging from hypertension, headaches, to scabies. Ecologically, Tabernaemontana divaricata is a host plant for the caterpillars of the oleander hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii).

Verschaffeltia splendida
Common Name: Seychelles Stilt Palm
Family Name: Arecaceae
Native to: Seychelles

Verschaffeltia splendida is only found on three islands in the Seychelles where it is threatened by habitat loss. This canopy or understory palm grows in moist rainforests on steep hillsides and ledges. The stilt root system is thought to have evolved to stabilize the palm on steep slopes and in strong winds. The spikes on the trunk of the palm protect it from hungry animals.

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