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

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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.

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

Cattleya are a premier flower in the floral industry and are used by orchid enthusiasts to create hybrids (often with Laelia orchids) and prize plants. Their large, showy flowers often have a pleasant sweet or citrusy fragrance. An interesting adaptation of Cattleya orchids is that some have a pseudobulb on every leaf to store water and nutrients, which are used in the dry season. In the wet season, new leaves grow twice as fast. Many species grow in the trees so they don’t get water from the soil and instead depend on humid air.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia

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.

Dendrobium dichaeoides
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: New Guinea

This charming miniature orchid is included in the Pedilonum section of Dendrobium orchids. Because the genus Dendrobium contains over 1,200 species of orchids, botanists created sections to further group the species. The orchids in the Pedilonum section appear to drape down the trees in moss forests and grow at an elevation of 2,000 feet or higher. Most are native to New Guinea.  The stems grow downward, overlapping and hugging the host tree, which gives the plant a mat-like appearance. The leaves grow at right angles to the stem and the pink tubular flowers emerge in bunches of 5-10 at the end of the leafless cane.

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 mengtszeana
Family Name: Balsaminaceae
Native to: China

Impatience species have evolved to appeal to a particular pollinator such as birds, bees, moths, and butterflies. The lowermost 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 color. 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
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: Gesneriaceae
Native to: Central and South America

Kohleria is a genus of tropical herbs in the Gesneriaceae family. The leaves are hairy and the flowers are usually brightly colored, with attractive spotting. All Kohleria grow from scaly rhizomes. Rhizomatous plants have adapted to go through a period of dormancy. Much of the growth above the soil appears to die. The rhizomes beneath the soil, however, survive and wait for good conditions to return, at which time they will send up new growth. Kohlerias were very popular in England and Europe in the 19th Century because of their colorful and exotically patterned flowers.

Family Name: Orchidaceae
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 flower, the parts are easily identifiable. Three sepals are behind two 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.

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: Tiger Orchids
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: South and Central America

Maxillaria is a large and diverse genus of orchids with over 500 species. Orchids in this genus range widely in shape, size, and color. The large diversity of orchids within this genus has led some botanists and taxonomists to consider reorganizing or splitting this genus into several genera.  The flowers, often fragrant, grow singularly on a scape arising from the base of the pseudobulbs. The genus name is derived from the Latin word Maxilla, meaning jawbone, due to the resemblance of the lip and column to a jaw. This genus is commonly referred to as the spider or tiger orchid.

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.

Common Name: Dancing Lady Orchid
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Cental and South America

Some species of Oncidium have long bouncing stems with abundant flowers that flutter in the breeze and look like male bees. Pollination occurs when actual angry male bees attack the flowers thinking they are a competitor. The common name, dancing lady orchid, refers to the elaborate lip that looks like a dress with a full skirt. The petals and sepals look like the arms and head of a tiny lady. The Greek word “onkos” means pad or mass and refers to the fleshy, warty callus on the lip of many species. Some calluses are known to provide oil droplets, which are consumed mainly by bees.

Common Name: Lady Slipper Orchid, Venus Slipper
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Southeast Asia, India, China, New Guinea, Solomon and Bismark Islands

Most Paphiopedilums are lithophytes (plants that grow on rocks) found mostly on limestone cliffs or in humus enriched forest floors. Virtually all species require shade of a forest canopy. Most species temporarily trap their pollinator in their pouch-like lip and none are known to offer any reward. Insects are lured in by the smell of nectar. Numerous species attract flies or bees with odors that range from foul to pleasant depending on the type of pollinator.

Petrocosmea begonifolia
Family Name: Gesneriaceae
Native to: China

Petrocosmea begonifolia is an excellent example of a lithophyte, a plant that grows on rocks. The quilted, shiny, dark green leaves are very similar to those of African violets. They are both in the Gesneriad family. Petrocosmea begonifolia is loved by Gesneriad enthusiasts because of the spiral pattern formed by the leaves.

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.

Common Name: Bonnet Orchids
Family Name: Orchidaceae
Native to: Central and South America

There are over 1,000 species of Pleurothallis orchids. Although often very small, as a group they show the vast diversity and a huge range in vegetative form, growth habit (terrestrial or epiphytic), and can be found as tall cane-like plants, clumped or trailing, pendant or climbing, or delicate moss-like species that can grow on the thinnest of twigs.  Pleurothallis flowers are among the most diverse and unusual. Due to their small size, Pleurothallis orchids often 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 vegetatively. These new plants are often called a keiki (pronounced key-key), which is Hawaiian for “baby”.

Pleurothallis gargantua
Common Name: Giant Bonnet Orchid
Family Name: Orchidaceae
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.  While the flower is only a few 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.

Tillandsia umbellata
Family Name: Bromeliaceae
Native to: Ecuador

This unique Tillandsia is endemic to Ecuador where it is endangered in the wild due to habitat destruction. However, it is cultivated worldwide for its striking blue flowers. Tillandsia umbellate grows as an epiphyte on the trees of lowland and moist montane forests in Ecuador. As a member of the Bromeliaceae family, it is a relative of the pineapple.

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