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.

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

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Acineta superba
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Southern Mexico to Venezuela, 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. Acinetas are epiphytes and grow on other plants, rather than in the soil on the forest floor.  Acineta orchids thrive in the cooler elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet in their native tropical montane forests.

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. Fragrance production consumes energy, so some orchids are only fragrant when their pollinators are most active.

Common Name: Tulip Orchid
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: South American Andes

The Anguloa orchid is commonly known as a tulip orchid because of the way the leaves resemble tulip leaves when they emerge from the forest floor.  The flower’s waxy petals and sepals form a cup that partially encloses the lip and column, which contains the reproductive organs. The lip acts as a landing pad for the pollinator and it rocks when landed on. This motion helps remove pollen from the flower and attaches it to the bee. The bee is attracted to the strong cinnamon scent of the flower.

Family Name: Araceae
Native to: Panama, Columbia, Brazil, and Ecuador

This Anthurium inflorescence is called a spadix, and is framed by a red, orange, white, or green spathe, which looks like a leaf or petal. The spadix holds the plant’s microscopic flowers. Each inflorescence has dozens of male and female flowers; however, these flowers are active at different times, so self-pollination rarely occurs. When Anthurium flowers are pollinated, the spadix fills with round, berry-like fruit.

Common Name: Flying Goldfish
Family Name: Gesneriaceae
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 come in shades of red, orange, or yellow in order to attract hummingbirds for pollination. Many species’ blossoms resemble the head of a dragon or the body of a goldfish, which inspired their common name, flying goldfish. The petals of this species are striking with the contrast of deep purple and chartreuse.

Columnea species are epiphytic plants, and grow on other plants for support. 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, 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.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
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.

Impatiens niamniamensis
Common Name: Parrot Impatiens, Candy Corn Impatiens
Family Name: Balsaminaceae
Native to: Tropical 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.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Mexico to Brazil

Masdevallia is a genus of 350 cool growing orchid species. They are best known for their unusual triangle-shaped flowers made up of sepals fused into a tube-like structure. Though the flower shape is similar from plant to plant, the difference in size and color is wide and wonderful.  Most Masdevallias are from high altitude cloud forests from Mexico to Brazil and require very cool conditions and abundant moisture throughout the year.  An interesting adaptation of this plant is the diverse scents, colors, and texture of the genus that relates to the small fruit flies that pollinate them. Scents range from rotting gorgonzola to a ripe peach or apple.

Common Name: Pansy Orchid
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Andes of Columbia, Panama, Ecuador; Brazil

This cheery orchid looks like a cross between a pansy and a butterfly. Native to cloud forests of the Andes, this orchid demands high humidity and cooler temperature. A number of species display markings on their lips that glow under ultra-violet light and are visible to bees, their likely pollinator. The Miltoniopsis orchid was once considered a Miltonia. A separate genus was later formed, but the two are so often hybridized that all but the most serious orchid growers call Miltonia orchids Miltoniopsis.

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.

Solanum quitoense
Common Name: Naranjilla
Family Name: Solanaceae
Native to: South America

Solanum quitoense is a spreading shrub native to the northwestern countries of South America. It is commonly called naranjilla, or little orange in Spanish, as a reference to the round, bright orange fruit. The plant is densely covered in purple hairs, botanically known as trichomes, that give it a wooly appearance. The flowers are fragrant and have 5 white petals and 5 prominent stamens. The flowers mature into bright orange fruits that have a distinctive sweet, citrus flavor likened to rhubarb and lime. The fruit can be eaten fresh and are often baked into pies, added to ice cream, or made into a fruit drink.

Vireya Rhododendron
Family Name: Ericaceae
Native to: Southeast 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.


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