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 | West Gallery

Click images to enlarge.

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.

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: Southeast Asia

Grammatophyllum is a genus of orchids with approximately 13 species that are distributed throughout Southeast Asia. Grammatophyllum orchids are large plants with arching sprays of showy flowers. Orchids in this genus are epiphytic, meaning they grow on other plants for support. This genus includes some record-breaking species. Grammatophyllum speciosum is thought to be the largest orchid in the world with a single plant setting a record weight of 2 tons. The genus epithet is derived from the Greek roots for letter (gramma) and leaf (phyllon) and is a reference to the distinctive markings on the sepals and petals, thought to resemble writing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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