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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The name Aeschynanthus is derived from aischyno (to be ashamed) and anthos (flower), referring to the red flowers. The genus is in the gesneriad family, Gesneriaceae, along with the African violet. Purple stamen emerge from the yellow and red tubular, curved corolla. The corolla is made up of five partially fused petals. This flower shape suggests pollination by hummingbirds.
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.
Impatiens species have evolved to appeal to particular pollinators such as birds, bees, moths, and butterflies. The lowermost sepal of this I. mengtszeana is elongated and forms a spur that is filled with nectar to attract pollinators. The petals of I. mengtszeana are pale yellow and blush color. The four lateral petals of the flowers are always united in pairs and each pair appears to be one large petal. This rare plant can grow in Bay Area gardens under the right conditions.
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.
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.
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.
Dendrochilum is a genus of about 150 species of orchids. The genus is sometimes known as the necklace orchids because of their pendant-like inflorescences, or clusters of flowers. Some visitors find the distinct fragrance of the miniature, star-shaped flowers pleasant, others a bit strong and musty. Dendrochilum species grow at higher elevations in the humid rainforests throughout Southeast Asia including New Guinea, Borneo, and Java.
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.
Heliconia is a genus of flowering tropical plants with approximately 225 species. The majority of Heliconia species are native to tropical Central and South America; however, several species are found on islands in the West Pacific. Heliconias thrive in tropical conditions and habitats that have an abundance of water, sunlight, and rich soil. The inflorescence, or cluster of flowers, are quite distinctive and range in colorful hues of red, orange, yellow, and green. The inflorescence consists of brightly colored, waxy bracts (specialized leaves at the base of flowers) arranged alternately on the stem that encloses and protect small flowers.
Heliconias support a diversity of ecological relationships with various organisms. Hummingbirds are the principle pollination of Heliconias in the Americas. The flowers produce an abundance of nectar and the color, shape, and curve of the flowers are adapted to specific hummingbird species. Several species of Heliconia open their flowers at night to attract nectar-eating bats for pollination. Additionally, multiple species of bats use the leaves and foliage to construct habitats and shelters. Heliconia species with upright bracts are known to collect rainwater and support a community of minute, aquatic fauna. Interestingly, the name Heliconia is derived from Mount Helicon, a mountain in southern Greece that is known in Greek mythology to be the home of the Muses.
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.
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 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.
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 orchid genus Coelogyne is comprised of about 200 species. A number are on display in the Potted Plants Gallery. Most of the species are relatively easy to grow and produce long-lasting, fragrant flowers, and they can go weeks in their winter dormant season without water. They often have elaborately marked lips to attract pollinators, which include bees, wasps, and beetles.
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.
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.
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