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.
WHAT’S IN BLOOM
See which plants are currently in bloom at the Conservatory.
Commonly known as the Darwin orchid. Charles Darwin was the first to hypothesize that the flower’s pollinator was a moth with a very long proboscis. His prediction was not verified until 20 years after Darwin’s death when the large sphinx moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, was discovered. Nectar is stored at the bottom of the flower’s spur, which looks like a long tail. In order to reach the nectar, the moth must have a very long proboscis. While the moth attempts to get the nectar, other parts of its body pick up or deliver pollen to the orchid’s reproductive column. Many species of Angraecum are critically endangered due to habitat loss and over-collection for trade.
Anthuriums are best characterized by the distinctive inflorescence which has two parts – a bisexual or unisexual spadix that is surrounded by a solitary spathe that resembles a leaf or large petal.
The fruits develop from the flowers on the spadix. They are berries varying in color, usually containing two seeds. The spathe of Anthurium flavolineatum is maroon with fine vertical pinstripes. In Latin, flavolineatum means “marked with yellow lines”. The spadix has the interesting characteristic of exposing its pistils, which gives the spadix the look of a hairy caterpillar. The new leaves emerge a light brown color.
Ismene narcissiflora is immediately distinctive for both its elaborate design and sweet fragrance. Six petals extend backwards in a star shape with stamen that extend even further out like a firework that sits on a leafless stem. Depending on the variety, the flowers are either white or pale yellow, with green stripes appearing inside the tube. The strap like leaves are dark green and have a rubbery texture and can grow up to two feet long. Notably, leaves and roots are poisonous is eaten.
This is one of the rarest plants in the Conservatory of Flowers’ collection. Osa pulchra is found only on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula and a small area in Panama. Only a few dozen individual plants of this species are known to grow in the wild. The Conservatory of Flowers, one of few gardens in the world to display the species. It bloomed for the first time in March 2020.
Sanchezia speciosa is an evergreen shrub that grows in the shady understory of tropical forests. The large variegated leaves have defined yellow veins and grow in an alternating pattern on the stems. Sanchezia speciosa comes from the Latin work speciosisus meaning beautiful or brilliant, which was for its splendid tubular yellow flowers that emerge from red bracts often in a spiky ear-like pattern (spriciform).
It is suggested that the leaves have special properties that can be beneficial to humans like anticancer, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. In Thailand the root is also used to treat impotence and increase sexual desire.
The Hibiscus captures the magic of the tropics by combining the lush, deep greens of the foliage and the bright colors of the flowers. Though well-known for its beauty, Hibiscus is also famous for its economical uses across cultures. It can be worn decoratively, cultivated for food and drink, and even used as a natural dye. More recently, scientists were able to extract silver and gold nanoparticles from Hibiscus during an effort to find more sustainable sources for biosynthesis.
The fanged pitcher plant is a has a symbiotic relationship with with a species of ant called, Camponotus schmitzi. The plant possess adaptations that provide the ant colony with food or shelter. In exchange, ants aid the plant in pollination, seed dispersal, defense, or the gathering of essential nutrients.
Nepenthes truncata is a tropical carnivorous plant endemic to the lowland rainforests of the Philippines, and is endangered in its natural habitat. While the plant is relatively compact, the cylindrical green pitchers can reach up to fourteen inches long. Nepenthes pitchers are modified leaves that attract, trap, and digest organism for nutrients.
The Vanda orchid has some of the most magnificent flowers in the orchid family. 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.
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.
Cavendishia grandifolia, or the neotropical blueberry, belongs to the same family (Ericaceae) that includes rhododendrons, azaleas, heathers, and edible crops like cranberries and blueberries. The Cavendishia grandifolia berry has two to four times more antioxidant capacity than conventional blueberries according to research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
The Conservatory’s plant is a sprawling epiphytic shrub. Dozens of waxy pink, white, and green flowers dangle from long inflorescences. Pink bracts add another pop of color.
Once native to Chiapas, Mexico, Deppea splendens is now thought to be extinct in the wild. Dr. Dennis Breedlove, former Curator in the Botany Department at the California Academy of Sciences, discovered it in 1972 in Chiapas, Mexico. Ranging in height from 15–25 feet, it appeared as either a large shrub or small tree and was found in a steep canyon cloud forests with magnolias, pines and oaks at 6600 feet elevation.
Breedlove, who spent over 30 years studying the flora of Chiapas, brought back seeds of the Deppea in 1981. They were distributed and grown at SFBG and other California botanical gardens and nurseries. Most plants perished during the freeze of 1990, however one of the SFBG plants survived and cuttings were distributed to enable continued propagation.
Breedlove reported in 1986 that the only known site for Deppea in Chiapas had been cleared for farming and the plant was presumed extinct in the wild. For all the interest and attention, this spectacular plant was not formally named and described until 1987.
One might assume that the name is a reference to, Count Dracula, but in Latin, 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.
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. Masdevallias have a wide variety of diverse scents, colors, and textures that relate to the small fruit flies that pollinate them. Scents range from rotting gorgonzola to a ripe peach or apple.
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.
While commonly known as the white ginger lily, Hedychium coronarium is not a lily but is actually in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. Hedychium coronarium is native to the Eastern Himalayas where it grows from rhizomes and requires heat and humidity. The fragrant white flowers resemble butterflies and are the national flower of Cuba, where is it referred to as mariposa due to the shape of the flowers.
Impatiens niamniamensis is an evergreen, perennial species that usually grows 2 to 3 feet tall. 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.
Aeschynanthus radicans is an epiphytic evergreen vine. It truly earns the common name the lipstick plant with its bright red flowers that protrude from a darker tube-like structure. The genus is in the gesneriad family along with the African violet.
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.
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.
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. It is also commonly known as ‘pinang yaki’ or monkey pinang to native Indonesians, possibly because the Sulawesi crested macaque frequent this palm to enjoy the sweet ripe fruit. 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.
Clerodendrum quadriloculare, commonly known as starburst or shooting star, blooms clusters of long white tubular flowers, among the green leaves with deep purple undersides. It is naturally occurring as a shrub, but can also be grown as a small tree.
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.
Cycads are a unique, ancient lineage of plants that flourished in the Mesozoic Era approximately 250 million years ago. Commonly mistaken as a palm or fern, the cycad is in fact not closely related to either. This particular cycad is over 100 years old.
Dioon spinulosum is one of the tallest cycad species in the world, growing to 40 feet high. A cycad is either male or female and the cones of each sex are usually quite different in size and shape. When the female cones ripen and open they will reveal hundreds of orange, unfertilized ovules. For the cone’s ovules to be fertilized, the Conservatory would need pollen from a male plant of the same species, which we do not have at the Conservatory. So, this giant Dioon will repeat it’s cycle of producing unfertilized cones, year after year, without producing offspring. Fortunately, cycads can also produce stem offshoots, often called pups. These can be separated from the parent and rooted to create new plants.
The ashoka tree is prized for its beautiful and fragrant flowers. The cluster of yellow flowers emerge in the winter and fade to an orange and then crimson color with age and increased sunlight. Long crimson stamens give the flower clusters a hairy appearance.
Both Buddhists and Hindus consider the tree sacred and plant it around their temples. The blossoms are used for religious offerings and the tree is found in the literature and artwork of both religions. The bark of the ashoka tree is highly regarded for its medicinal value, and aids in the management of hemorrhoids, uterine fibroids, and discomfort caused by menstruation.
In the wild, cacao trees may bloom thousands of tiny flowers annually, of which roughly 5% will mature into seed pods. Edible properties of cacao were discovered by Central Americans over 2000 years ago. Now widespread across the equator, almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from Western Africa.
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 Potted Plants Gallery pays homage to the Conservatory’s late 1800’s Victorian roots when plant collectors stored their exotic tropical treasures in opulent glass greenhouses to protect them from cold European climates. Rare flowering plants are potted in an incredible assortment of decorative urns and containers from all over the world including copper containers from India, Javanese palm pots, ceramic pots from Burkina Faso and a historic urn from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Aeschynanthus ‘Thai Pink’ is especially attractive because of the glossy, chartreuse leaves and the pink flowers that emerge like a bubble from the pink sepals. Many species of Aeschynanthus are called lipstick plants due to the appearance of the developing buds. These epiphytes grow on trees in their native habitats. They have long, trailing stems and bright flowers pollinated by birds.
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. Anthuriums’ also contain calcium oxalate crystals which are highly poisonous if ingested.
Bright orange cones of blooms emerge from the upright inflorescence. Dozens of individual flowers open successively over a period of two weeks. The plant also has handsome deep green leaves and dark red stems. Burbidgea is a genus of plants in the ginger family (Zingerbaraceae) with five known species that are all endemic to Borneo.
The genus Dendrobium is one the largest genus of orchids with over 1,200 known species. And the number grows as more are being discovered. The name is from the Greek dendron (tree) and bios (life). The species name parthenium is a reference to the Greek goddess Athena Parthenos. It has large white flowers and attractive dark green leaves that grow on long canes. Dendrobium parthenium is found in hot lowland forests near streams.
Dendrobiums grow in virtually every environmental niche throughout the plant’s geographical range of tropical Asia. They are found as epiphytes growing high in the rainforest canopies, on old wooden stumps in forest clearings, in trees suspended above riverbanks, and even as lithophytes growing among pebbles and on rocks.
Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is a tropical plant cultivated for its spotted stems and showy violet-blue flowers. While it is commonly known as the blue ginger, Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is not a ginger but rather a close relative of spiderworts in the Commelinaceae plant family.
This striking Medinilla has translucent pale bluish-white petals over burgundy calyxes and flower stems. The flowers mature into red berries that turn a deep magenta as they age. Medinilla is a genus of about 150 species in the family Melastomataceae. The most well-known plant within the family is the princess flower, Tibouchina semidecandra. 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.
After trekking through the tropics respite can easily be found among the fronds in the West Gallery. From the New Zealand Tree Fern dominating the southwest corner to the delicate looking Tassel Fern hanging from above, and coupled with ample seating, the West Gallery offers a gentle recharge.
Spores of this aerial fern are highly flammable, and were once a primary ingredient in fireworks and in flash powders used in photography. The dry spores are also hydrophobic, which makes them repel water, and were used as a waterproofing powder for pills, and surgical gloves. Plants in this genus were once a part of the genus Lycopodium from which they differ by not having specialized spore-bearing cones.
Noteworthy for the texture of the leaves, the Crocodile Fern comes from the Malaysian Archipelago and makes a great house plant. It can tolerate medium shade and prefers to stay moist but well drained. The genus Microsorum is a combination of the Greek words mikros meaning small and soros meaning a cluster of spore capsules which refer to the small spore patches on the underside of the leaves.
Staghorn ferns have two types of fronds, basal and fertile. The sterile, oval-shaped, basal fronds not only help the plant adhere to trees, but also cover the roots to protect against damage, capture rain water, and trap leaf litter that decomposes and provides the plant with nutrients. The antler shaped fertile fronds hold the reproductive spores.
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