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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 large fragrant flowers of Sobralia orchids have beautiful multi-colored lips. The striking blooms appear sequentially on the inflorescence and range widely in color from purple to pink, yellow, and white. The flowers are very short-lived, lasting a day or less. The plants have lance-shaped leaves arranged along a reed-like stem and some species can grow 20 feet in length.
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This handsome, but unpleasant smelling flower is the largest of the Bulbophyllum species of orchids. It has a moveable warty lip. The lip on an orchid is a modified petal that is attractive to pollinators. The lip of the B. echinolabium has a spiny texture and the color resembles raw or rotten meat. The smell of the flower has been described as a stink bomb, a decomposing rat, and just plain appalling. The fragrance, texture, and color are designed to fool carrion flies into believing that the flower is a piece of rotting meat.
The Conservatory’s bleeding heart vine boasts hundreds of flowers. The red petals burst out of white, pillowy sepals. The appearance may be likened to a line of dangling hearts, each emerging from the other. The plant can be grown in the Bay Area in moist, well-drained soil.
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.
Plants in the Globba genus are commonly known as the dancing lady ginger due to their yellow flowers that dangle and dance in the wind. This dance is likely performed to attract the plant’s pollinators. The purple petal-like structures are called bracts. Bracts are modified leaves that protect the flowers as they emerge and may also attract pollinators by providing a colorful backdrop for the flowers. A greatly elongated, arched stamen contains the plant’s pollen. Notice that the flowers are symmetrical when divided in half, much like a face or an orchid flower. Globbas are members of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, and like all gingers, they grow from creeping rhizomes that form clumps underground.
Tacca chantrieri is a flowering plant in the yam family, Dioscoreaceae. Its wing-like bracts are a deep purple and have the appearance of bat wings. The purpose of the bracts is to protect the flowers while they mature. As the bracts open they reveal about a dozen flowers on pendulant stems. The bracts also reveal long filiform bracteoles which look like whiskers. The purpose of the bracteoles is undetermined. It’s possible they are attractive to pollinators, however, this is still under debate. Tacca chantrieri are effective self-pollinators, and in one study, researchers removed the bracteoles from half the plants in the study and found the pollination rate was the same as the plants with bracteoles.
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