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, Malaysia

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.

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.

Chamaedorea tepejilote
Common Name: Pacaya Palm
Family Name: Arecaceae
Native to: Mexico, Central America, Colombia

The immature male inflorescences of this understory palm are considered a delicacy in Guatemala and El Salvador. The unopened inflorescence resembles an ear of corn in appearance and size. The word tepejilote means “mountain maize” in the Nahuatl language, a reference to the resemblance of the inflorescence to maize or corn. Though it has a bitter taste, pacaya is eaten in salads and battered and fried and served with tomato sauce.  Once open, as seen in this photo, the inflorescence begins to form long strands of pollen-producing flowers.

Coffea arabica
Common Name: Arabian Coffee
Family Name: Rubiaceae
Native to: Tropical Africa

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.

Family Name: Asparagaceae
Native to: Western Pacific Ocean

Cordylines are an evergreen plant that grows in many colors including red, pink, yellow, and white and some have flowers that match their vibrant foliage. The Conservatory features hybrid plants with brilliant red leaves in the Potted Plants and Lowlands Galleries. Cordyline makes an excellent house plant. The long leaves of some species are used for thatching and clothing, and the thick, sweet roots are used as food.

Costus curvibracteatus
Common Name: Orange Tulip Ginger, Spiral Ginger
Family Name: Costaceae
Native to: Costa Rica and Panama

This plant produces bright orange flowers surrounded by red bracts. The wide leaves attach to the stem in a spiral fashion. The arrangement of the leaves make it a good ground cover and under the right conditions, it will bloom year round. While the plant is commonly called spiral ginger, Costus curvibracteatus is not a true ginger and the rhizomes are not edible.

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.

Pavonia strictiflora
Family Name: Malvaceae
Native to: Brazil

The flowers for this beauty bloom right from the branches. This adaptation is called cauliflory. Cauliflory is a botanical term referring to plants which flower and fruit from their main stems or trunks rather than from new growth and shoots. This can allow trees to be pollinated or have their seeds dispersed by animals which cannot climb or fly. Plants in the Pavonia genus belong to the mallow family, Malvacaeae, along with chocolate and hibiscus.

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.

Zamia roezlii
Family Name: Zamiaceae
Native to: Columbia and Ecuador

Cycads are a unique, ancient family of living plants. Cycads flourished in the Mesozoic Era some 250 million years ago. Zamia roezlii is one of the most primitive cycads, and also one of the largest and most majestic.

At a distance, this cycad is easily mistaken for a palm, which it resembles in both size and habitat. Z. roezlii grows in swamps along the Columbian coastline. Locals use the seeds contained in the cones as food and consider it a delicacy.

Specialized woody growths on the cones, called sporophylls, either produce pollen on a male plant or large ovules on a female plant, which if fertilized develop into colorful seeds. A cycad plant is either male or female and the cones of each sex are usually quite different. The color and erect position of the cones on this plant indicates that it is probably a male.


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