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.

Aeschynanthus radicans
Common Name: Lipstick Plant
Family Name:  Gesneriaceae
Native to: Malay Peninsula to Java

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.

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.

Calathea warscewiczii
Family Name: Marantaceae
Native to: Costa Rica and Nicaragua 

Calathea warscewiczii is pollinated by long-tongued Euglossine bees. The ivory bracts protect cocoon-like flowers that emerge only one or two at a time. The bee forces the flower open to get to the nectar. While being forced open, the flower’s spring mechanism is tripped and forces pollen onto the bee, which is deposited on the next flower the bee visits. Many Calathea plants produce leaves that have a dark green background and an attractive fishtail pattern on the top of the leaves. The dark color on the underside of the leaves helps them absorb more sunlight, an important adaptation for plants in the darkness of the forest floor.

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.

Hedychium gardnerianum
Common Name: Kahili Ginger, Ginger Lily
Family Name: Zingiberaceae
Native to: Himalayas of India, Nepal, and Bhutan

Hedychium gardnerianum grows to eight feet tall with long, bright green leaves clasping the tall stems. The fragrant pale yellow and red flowers are held in dense spikes above the foliage. The plant is an invasive species in certain areas. It is known as wild kahili ginger and is listed as a weed in Hawaii. It’s sticky seeds are easily spread by birds and roaming mammals, while the rhizomes crowd out seedlings of other plants by forming dense mats. Despite its vindictive tendencies in an unchecked environment, here in the Conservatory, it’s an especially striking addition to the gallery.

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
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.

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.

Platycerium
Common Name: Staghorn Fern
Family Name: Polypodiaceae
Native to: South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea

Platycerium is a genus of about 18 fern species. They are epiphytes that grow on trees. They can be found in the Conservatory growing 2-3 feet wide.  Staghorn ferns have two types of fronds, basal and fertile. The basil fronds are steril and often oval-shaped and help the plant adhere to the tree. The basal fronds also cover the roots to protect against damage, capture rain water, and trap leaf litter that decomposes and provides the plant with nutrients.  The fertile fronds in most Platycerium are shaped like antlers or staghorns (hence the common name). These fertile fronds hold the rust-colored reproductive spores.

Stanhopea
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Central and South America

This plant is noteworthy because its complex and usually fragrant flowers are generally spectacular and short-lived. Their pendant inflorescences are noted for flowering out of the bottom of the containers in which they grow. Most Stanhopea flowers last three days or less.

Stanhopea orchids have co-evolved with euglossine bees, and rely on the bees for mutualistic pollination. Male euglossine bees visit the fragrant Stanhopea flowers to collect odiferous compounds that they store in their hind legs and later use in courtship display. In the process of scraping the flowers for the fragrance, the pollen sacs (pollinia) get brushed on the backs of the bees who inadvertently deposit the pollinia on the next flower, thus pollination is achieved.

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