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.
Bulbophyllum Elizabeth Ann ‘ Buckleberry’ is a hybrid between Bulbophyllum longissimum and Bulbophyllum rothschildianum. Up to a dozen flowers make up an inflorescence which hangs from a long stem. Each flower includes two sepals that have fused together that look like a tail, an erect hairy sepal on the top of the flower, two small petals on either side of the column that holds the orchid’s reproductive parts, and a pink lip that serves as a landing pad for the orchid’s pollinator.
Ismene narcissiflora is immediately distinctive for both its elaborate design and sweet fragrance. Six petals extend backwards in a star shape with stamens that extend out even further, like fireworks bursting from 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 with a rubbery texture and can grow up to two feet long. Both the leaves and roots are poisonous if eaten.
Medinilla is a genus of about 190 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, that can be up to 18 inches long. 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 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.
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. 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.
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 vary greatly in size ranging from 2 to 10 inches wide, but all are very short-lived and last either only a day or a week at most. The plants have lance-shaped leaves arranged along a reed-like stem and some species can grow 44 feet high.
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 genus has been under taxonomic review over the past few years resulting in some formerly recognized Cochlioda or Symphyglossum species to be changed to Oncidiums. This change has increased the diversity of pollinators to not only bees but hummingbirds as well. 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.
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.
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.
The Conservatory’s bleeding-heart vine boasts hundreds of flowers. The red petals burst out of white, pillowy sepals whose 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.
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.
Jasminum is a genus of shrubs and vines in the olive family, Oleaceae. It contains around 200 species native to tropical and warm temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Jasmines can be either deciduous (leaves falling in autumn) or evergreen (green all year round), and can be erect, spreading, or climbing shrubs and vines. Jasminum is the Latin translation of yasemin which means perfumed plant in Persian, this eludes to its very pleasant smell it emits.
The Musa genus is primarily known for being the source of bananas and plantains. Considered the fourth most important crop in the world, many cultures expand on the use of Musa plants for things like medicine, fibers, dyes, fuel, cordage, wrapping materials, and even steam for cooking.
Banana or Plantain?
Bananas and plantains are considered the same fruit botanically. However, they differ in genome which lead to the different classifications between cooking bananas, plantains, and dessert bananas. Plantains are larger and starchier than bananas.
Theobroma cacao is famous all over the world for producing chocolate. The genus Theobroma means ‘food for the gods’ in Latin and the species name comes from the Aztec word ‘xocolatl’ meaning bitter water. Edible properties of cacao were discovered by Central Americans over 2000 years ago. The Mayans and the Aztecs are known to have used it in religious and marriage ceremonies. Now widely grown across the equator, almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from Western Africa.
The flowers are tiny yellowish white to pale pink and bloom all year off of the trunk of this tree. In the wild only 5% of the flowers will mature into seed pods because of lack of pollination. The cocoa pods are about 15 to 25 cm long and are not only used to make chocolate but are also used medicinally to stimulate the nervous system, lower blood pressure, repair damaged skin, treat anemia or as a heart and kidney tonic.
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.
Bouvardia ternifolia blooms continuously in the Conservatory. Clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers burst from the tips of leafy branches. The spectacular red corolla (unit of petals) attracts and provides nectar for hummingbirds. The Spanish name trompetilla means “little trumpet” and refers to the corolla’s shape. Medically, Bouvardia ternifolia is used to treat inflammation but new research is being done to find a potential to therapeutic treat Alzheimer’s.
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.
The genus Dendrobium is one the largest genus of orchids with over 1,800 known species. The number grows as more are being discovered. The name Dendrobium is from the Greek dendron (tree) and bios (life). While the species name comes from the word glomeratus which is Latin for grouped in reference to the dense inflorescence. Dendrobium glomeratum is native to the West Pacific Islands of Maluku and Sulawesi, there they grow in old forests at 1200 meters or higher. These cool growing epiphytes bloom in the spring and summer with 3 to 10 flowers per inflorescence that glisten like glitter in the sunshine.
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.
Gossypium barbadense is a species of cotton grown for its extra-long staple fibers (ELS) and is associated with high-quality fabric, such as Egyptian cotton and Sea Island cotton. Cotton is one of the most important and earliest domesticated non-food crops. There are four domesticated Gossypium species, two in the Old World (G. arboreum and G. herbaceum) and two in the New World (G. hirsutum and G. barbadense). Archeological evidence indicates Gossypium barbadense domestication began as early as 2,500 BCE along the central coast of Peru and was tied to the fishing economy and marine-based lifestyle.
Cotton is a small shrub that is grown for its fiber. After a flower withers, it leaves a pod which is called a cotton “boll”. The boll is actually a fruit that contains small seeds surrounded by white fibers. As the boll ripens, it turns brown. The fibers expand, the boll splits, and cotton is exposed. The fiber is stripped from the seed by ginning and the lint is then processed into cotton.
Pachystachys lutea is a popular landscape plant in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. The plant’s long-throated, short-lived white flowers emerge sequentially from overlapping bright yellow modified leaves (bracts). These bracts are brightly colored and serve the function of attracting pollinating hummingbirds. These hummingbirds help the pollination process by brushing up against 2 stamens held under the upper lip and are rewarded by nectar at the bottom of the fused corolla.
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.
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 a now-extinct pollinator, 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.
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.
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