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.
The orchid genus Coelogyne is comprised of about 200 species, commonly called Necklace Orchids because of their long pendant like inflorescence. Most of the species are relatively easy to grow and produce long-lasting fragrant flowers. In their winter dormant season, they can go weeks without water. They often have elaborately marked lips to attract pollinators, which include bees, wasps, and beetles. You can find our numerous Coelogyne orchids displayed in the Potted Plants Gallery.
In every stage of its blooming cycle, this Medinilla magnifica is true to its name. The magnificent flower clusters, called panicles, begin as a dewdrop-shaped pendant. Protecting the pendant are pink bracts, which look like petals but are actually modified leaves. As they unfold, the bracts curl upwards and reveal clusters of tiny pink and purple flowers. The flowers leave behind berry-like pods which remain on the plant for weeks. These beauties often grow on trees in their native habitat, the Philippines, but do not extract nutrients from the tree.
Despite its beautiful rose scent, the winter-spring blooming Strophanthus gratus is not as friendly as it appears. The plant contains high concentration of cardiac glycosides, which are organic compounds that increase the output force of the heart. Ouabain is the main glycoside found in the seed, it is odorless but very bitter and extremely toxic. Extracts containing ouabain have long been used by Somali tribesmen and other groups to poison hunting arrows. It is rumored that a sufficiently concentrated ouabain dart can bring down a Hippopotamus, probably as the result of respiratory or cardiac arrest. The leaves are used to treat gonorrhea and constipation, as well as applied externally to treat snakebites and to cure fever. The root is said to be an aphrodisiac. Most notably the seeds contain the highest concentration of glycosides which can be extracted and used as a rapid cardiac stimulant. More recent studies have found a novel use that can prove relevant for metastatic prostate cancer. This plant is still poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting, and heart problems if not used properly.
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. Hibiscus has been used around the world for a variety of remedies. It is useful to relive conditions such as high blood pressure, bacterial infections, or to treat heart and nervous conditions.
This giant terrestrial bromeliad can be found growing on inselbergs (isolated rock outcrops) in southeastern Brazil. The genus is named after the last emperor of Brazil, Don Pedro II de Alcantara and the specific name is Latin for imperial. It takes between 8-20 years to flower and will flower for up to 12 months. This species plays an important ecological role as it stores rainwater in the pockets created by its leaves, offering a home to frogs, insects, and even other small aquatic plants. Alcantarea imperialis is becoming increasingly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss, which in turn affects the creatures that are dependent on the plant.
The fanged pitcher plant is named such because of the ‘walrus-tooth-like prickles’ that protrude from the pitcher. The meaning of the specific epitaph also eludes to this unique characteristic, Latin ‘bi’ means two and ‘calcaratus’ means spurred. The plant has a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant called, Camponotus schmitzi. The plant has 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. N. bicalcarata is ranked as vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List.
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.
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 wet montane forests at elevations of 800 to 1950 meters.
Acineta superba flowers are pollinated by male Euplusia concava bees. It’s thought that a distinct blend of fragrance chemicals is produced by each Acineta species. The unique odor and distinct shape of the flower 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.
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.
Cavendishia grandifolia is native to the forests of Ecuador, but it is now endangered, primarily due to habitat loss, according to the IUCN Red List. 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 significantly more antioxidants than blueberries but have a very bland taste.
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 to attract hummingbirds to pollinate.
Dendrobium smillieae is a robust orchid that is found in Queensland Australia and New Guinea. They grow epiphytically on tree limbs and trunks or lithophytically on rocks in the lowland rainforests. The pseudobulb stems grow in a dense mass and can reach a height of 5 feet. The waxy, tubular flowers grow in a dense cluster, known as a raceme, and are greenish white to pink in color. A beautiful bird named the Canary Honeyeater (Stomiopera flava) pollinates and feed off the nectar of these flowers that are arranged in a bottlebrush-like groups.
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. The genus was founded in 1978 by Carlyle Luer and about 118 species have been described as of today. Living in the cloud forest of the tropics between 300 and 2800 meters in elevation, 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 use visual cues in their patterned calyx, a showy labellum and smelly chemical signals to mimic mushrooms and attract mushroom-associated flies.
Epidendrum comes from the Greek words ‘upon’ and ‘trees’, which refer to their epiphytic growth habit. Carl Linnaeus initially grouped all epiphytes he ever encountered in this genus but after a time and more consideration some were removed from this group and even some non-epiphytes were added. Epidendrums have long, reed-like inflorescences that produce brightly colored bunches of flowers in shades of orange, red, yellow, and pink. In almost all species of Epidendrums, the flowers have a fringed lip that’s fused to the column along its entire length. They are pollinated by butterflies or hummingbirds. Some Epidendrums are well suited for novice orchid growers because they are forgiving, vigorous growers, and can tolerate mild evening temperatures outdoors.
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 have three petals and three sepals that are both dotted with reddish to purplish spots. Three sepals are easily recognized with colors ranging from yellow, orange, green or even reddish brown. The sepals sit nicely behind two obvious petals ranging in colors from yellow, white, or orange. 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. The blooms of Lycaste orchids can range from 5-10 cm wide, with sweet cinnamon or clove fragrances.
This terrestrial orchid can be found in the steep mountain forests in Ecuador, between 1500 to 2500 meters. 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 one of the largest blooms 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.
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 to 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.
Cycads are a unique, ancient lineage of plants that flourished in the Mesozoic Era approximately 170 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 50 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.
According to the IUCN Red List, Dioon spinulosum is currently endangered in the wild. It has experienced an overall population decline of 70% because of habitat destruction and severe over collection. Increasing education and awareness is a key tactic for conservation, which is why it is so important for our guests to see this magnificent giant in person.
This plant is noteworthy because its complex and usually fragrant flowers are generally spectacular and short-lived. Their pendant inflorescences are noted for flowering out of the bottom of the containers in which they grow. Most Stanhopea flowers last three days or less.
Stanhopea orchids have co-evolved with euglossine bees, and rely on the bees for mutualistic pollination. Male euglossine bees visit the fragrant Stanhopea flowers to collect fragrant compounds that they store in their hind legs and later use in courtship display. In the process of scraping the flowers for the fragrance, the pollen sacs (pollinia) get brushed on the backs of the bees who inadvertently deposit the pollinia on the next flower, thus pollination is achieved.
Strophanthus preusii is native to the forested areas of west to central Africa and belongs to the dogbane family, Apocynaceae . This species has clusters of small pale pink trumpet-shaped flowers with a rusty red base that bloom at the beginning of the dry season and the first part of the long rainy season. It is nicknamed the twisted cord flower or spider tresses for its distinctive twisted maroon tail extending from each of the five ovate petals extending to about 30 centimeters in length.
There are many traditional uses for all parts of S. preusii. The stem of the plant is used to construct hunting bows. The latex and young leaves are crushed in water and applied to treat gonorrhea, the young leaves can also be cooked and eaten as vegetables. The latex is used on sores and wounds to promote healing and used as a coagulate for making rubber. The fibers are used to craft fishing lines, nets, and ropes. The latex and seeds are used in poison arrow mixtures but are less toxic than Strophanthus gratus, therefore less desirable for this purpose.
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.
Bulbophyllum lobbii is found in tropical lowland and montane forests. This epiphytic orchid species grows on the trunks and main branches of trees. The bloom of the Bulbophyllum lobbii is a single large yellow flower that is fragrant. A specialized petal (labellum) functions to attract insects. It is hinged and nods up and down in the slightest breeze with food rewards attached, which attracts the attention of passing pollinators. Bulbophyllum lobbii is unifoliate, one leathery leaf arises from pseudobulbs. Pseudobulbs are storage organs holding water and nutrients common in epiphytic orchids and leaves and flowers arise from this structure.
Cattleya is 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. They are often used for prom or weddings in corsages which gives them their common name, Corsage Orchids. An interesting adaptation of Cattleya orchids is that some have a pseudobulb attached to 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.
Ixora coccinea, commonly known as scarlet jungle flame, is native to Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. It has been introduced to other tropical regions around the world and today is widely grown as a popular ornamental shrub. Ixora coccinea is a dense multi-branching evergreen shrub that is notable for its brightly colored blooms. The scarlet, tubular flowers grow in dense rounded clusters and can bloom year-round in the right conditions. Ixora coccinea is a member of the Rubiaceae family and is a showy relative of coffee. The genus name Ixora is a Portuguese translation of Isvara meaning ‘lord’ in Sanskrit and is a reference to the god Siva. The species name coccinea translates to scarlet and is a reference to the blooms.
Plants in the genus Phragmipedium is named after their shoe shaped pouches and are native to regions of Mexico to Southern Tropical America. The pouch is a modified petal, also called a lip. The pouch traps insects, which are forced to escape through a backdoor exit, depositing pollen as they squeeze out, thus pollinating the flower. A distinct trait of “Phrags” is that their flowers bloom sequentially, one after another. Each bloom lasts about two weeks; meanwhile, another bud is developing. The entire flowering season can last from six to eleven months. Depending on the species, the colors can range from green, to a soft mahogany-pink, to a dazzling orange-red.
Sarracenia is a genus comprising of about 11 species, all pitcher plants that are native to Northern American. Similar to the more famous Venus flytrap, these plants are carnivorous. But unlike the fly trap, which moves to trap its prey, the Sarracenia has a passive trap. The plant’s leaves have evolved into a funnel-shaped pitcher. Insects are attracted by a nectar-like secretion on the lip of pitcher, as well as a combination of color and scent. Slippery footing at the pitchers’ rim causes the insect to fall in. Once inside, tiny downward-facing hairs make it nearly impossible for an insect to crawl back out, and liquids at the bottom of the pitcher make tiny wings too wet to fly.
Sarracenia are often found in hot, sunny bogs of Texas and the east coast of the United States. Bog soil is acidic and lacks nutrients so digested insects serve as an important source of nourishment for the plants. When blooming, the Sarracenia’s dramatic umbrella-like flowers are usually on long stems well above the pitcher, to avoid trapping potential pollinators. Today, the IUCN Red List has named several species vulnerable, threatened or endangered because of human interference.
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.
Plants in this genus were once a part of the genus Lycopodium from which they differ by not having specialized spore-bearing cones. Spores from Lycopodium 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. Today, we know that Huperzia squarrosa also has impactful medicinal properties that are used to treat brain disorders, Alzheimer, and Parkinson diseases.
Microsorum musifolium is especially noteworthy for the texture of the leaves, the Crocodile Fern comes from the Malaysian Archipelago and makes a great house plant. The name Crocodile Fern comes from the beautiful dark green veins that wrinkle in a pattern that resembles the back of a crocodile. It is naturally an epiphyte and can grow on trees or even on rocks. It can tolerate medium shade and prefers to stay moist but well drained. If grown correctly, they can grow up to 1 meter tall and over 1 meter wide. The genus Microsorum means ‘small sori’ in Greek, which describes the cluster of spore capsules on the underside of the leaves. The species name musifolium means ‘banana-like leaves’ which references the elongated strap-life fronds.
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. There are about 17 accepted species, the most common is P. bifurcatum mature plant can be up to 3 feet across.
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