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.
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.
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.
Famous for its enormous leaves, which allow it to absorb as much sunlight as possible, the giant water lily’s individual leaves can grow 4-6 feet in diameter. Supported by large spongy veins, the leaves have upturned edges and the leaf underside (and stem) are covered in sharp spines, as a possible defense against herbivores such as fish and manatees. LEARN MORE
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.
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.
This giant terrestrial bromeliad can be found growing on inselbergs (isolated rock outcrops) in southeastern Brazil. 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.
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.
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 cooler elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet in their native tropical montane forests.
Acineta flowers are pollinated by male euglossine bees. It’s thought that a distinct blend of fragrance chemicals is produced by each Acineta species. The unique odor 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.
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.
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.
This cheery orchid looks like a cross between a pansy and a butterfly. Native to cloud forests of the Andes, this orchid demands high humidity and cooler temperature. A number of species display markings that glow under ultra-violet light and are visible to bees, their likely pollinator.
Miltoniopsis or Miltonia? Although given recognition in 1889 most botanists continued to lump Miltonia with Miltoniopsis until the mid 1970’s. However, even today hybrids of Miltoniopsis are still registered as Miltonia.
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.
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.
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 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.
Phalaenopsis orchids are perhaps the most easily recognizable orchids and the most popular orchid genus in cultivation. The genus is composed of approximately 40-50 species that grow natively across Southeast Asia from the Himalayan Mountains to Australian. Phalaenopsis thrives in three distinct habitats: seasonally dry, seasonally cool, and constantly humid and warm.
Phalaenopsis orchids produce a large spray of flowers that can bloom for several weeks. There is a great diversity of color between species with flowers showing spotted, marbled, or barred color patterns. The shape of the flower is thought to resemble moths in flight, which contribute to the common name the moth orchid. The beautiful blooms and hardiness, in combination with the ease of hybridization, have contributed to their success as popular houseplants. Phalaenopsis orchids were some of the first tropical orchids in Victorian collections.
Strophanthus preusii belongs to the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, and originated from the forested areas of western Africa. This species blooms most heavily from late spring to fall, with clusters of small pale pink, trumpet-shaped flowers with a rusty red base. It is nicknamed the twisted cord flower or spider tresses for the distinctive maroon tail that hangs from each of the five petals of each flower.
There are many recorded uses of S. preusii in several African countries. In southern Nigeria, the stem of the plant is used to construct hunting bows. In the DR Congo, young leaves are crushed and applied to sores and wounds to promote healing. In the Central African Republic the fibers are used to craft fishing lines, nets, and ropes. In Gabon, the leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. In Liberia and Congo, the latex and seeds are used in poison arrow mixtures, as they contain cardiac glycosides that in small dosages can treat heart arrhythmia, but extremely toxic in larger amounts.
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.
Allamanda cathartica, as known as the golden trumpet, is cultivated in the tropics as an ornamental plant for its large, fragrant yellow flowers which contrast with dark green leaves. It can thrive as an annual or indoors in cooler climates. The plant has milky sap and is considered poisonous.
The pineapple is a member of the bromeliad family, Bromeliaceae. The fruit is actually made up of hundreds of berries that have fused together.
During the Victorian Era, the pineapple became an icon of hospitality after seafaring captains placed fresh pineapple on their gateposts to signify the man of the house was at home and receiving guests. They were also a sign of wealth because they were expensive and difficult to procure. Some people who could not afford to purchase them rented pineapples to display in their homes.
This 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 and look like a tail, an erect hairy sepal on the top of the flower, two small petals on either side of the column, which holds the orchid’s reproductive parts, and a pink lip that serves as a landing pad for the orchid’s pollinator.
Cymbidium are noteworthy because although there are approximately only 44 species, thousands of hybrids exist. Many of the showier hybrids have large striped petals and sepals and a ruffled lip of a contrasting color. Cymbidiums are popular in the florist trade for corsages and floral design. Cut flowers last for weeks. They are widely grown in Bay Area gardens and bloom in the winter.
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.
Huernia zebrina is a stem succulent native to Southern Africa. The yellow star-shaped flowers have zebra stripes and a dark red center rim, that give the plant its common name, the life saver plant. The flowers emit a strong odor similar to that of carrion or rotting meat to attract fly pollinators. This low-growing succulent has four-sided stems edged with teeth. The Huernia genus is in the Apocynaceae family, along with Stapelia.
Most Paphiopedilums are lithophytes (plants that grow on rocks) found mostly on limestone cliffs or in humus enriched forest floors. Virtually all species require shade of a forest canopy. Most species temporarily trap their pollinator in their pouch-like lip and none are known to offer any reward. Insects are lured in by the smell of nectar. Numerous species attract flies or bees with odors that range from foul to pleasant depending on the type of pollinator.
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