Botany Blog

Updates from the Selby Gardens Botany Department

  • 03/26/2014 - 4:23pm

    Strongylodon macrobotrys (Fabaceae)

    Origin: Philippines

    The geographical tropics, found in between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, is home to the most incredible array of animals, plants, and fungi found on the planet. The further you travel toward a pole from the earth’s equator, the less and less species diversity you’ll find in each habitat, until you end up with ice. This is one of the reasons that conservation efforts in the earth’s tropical regions are so important, and why the destruction of the earth’s tropical rainforests is perhaps the greatest threat that the planet has ever faced. The diversity of the tropics is not restricted to the number of species present…it includes the colors, textures, and patterns you’ll find in tropical plants and animals that are not found in temperate zones.

    The jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, is an example of such a plant. Much of the year the vine looks like many in the legume family (think beans and peas); their leaves consist often of three leaflets presented in a trident pattern, and the vine itself gently twines and rests in its host trees (or trellises, the best way to showcase cultivated vines) before “pushing up” again, the behavior typical of tropical climbers. It’s the type of vine you would walk right past in our conservatory and wonder why it’s there, if you’d think anything about it at all.

    Right now though, it’s impossible to walk past our jade vine, once you see the brilliant turquoise blooms. It’s the kind of thing that you take pictures of to show your friends, because you can’t believe it’s real. It’s the kind of thing that, if you’ve never seen before, you just stare at for minutes on end. The flowers, which present themselves on pendant flower clusters which can reach several feet long (our vine is young, and the blooms probably hang down a foot or two), are true to their common name and a color that you almost never see in nature. Maybe in a few species of butterflies, or tropical fish, or coral, or birds-of-paradise, but definitely never outside of the tropics. They are brilliant turquoise with purple petioles, they are pollinated by bats, and they look as if from outer space. Our jade vine is blooming for the first time in our Tropical Conservatory. Don’t miss it!

    Text by David Troxell

    Category: News
  • 02/05/2014 - 2:53pm

    Brunfelsia densifolia (Solanaceae)

    Origin: Endemic to Puerto Rico

    We have featured the “Yesterday-today-tomorrow” Brunfelsias before, and mentioned there are two main groups of the genus. The yesterday-today-tomorrows have a pansy-like flower with a very short corolla, held closely to the stem. They change in color from purple to white over a period of a few days and then fall off the plant. Some are slightly fragrant. For the most part they come from South America; they are widely cultivated in gardens.

    Our featured plant this time around falls in the other group. Hailing mostly from the Islands around Florida (Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico) and growing in poor soils, these less-cultivated plants are much more fragrant typically, and have a flower similar to the other group except for two key differences: the petal presentation is identical, but this group has an incredibly long corolla, making the whole thing appear like a pansy on a long tube. The other difference is the color; the group from the islands has yellow to cream-colored flowers.

    They are easy to grow, require little care once established, and bloom heavily once the weather cools. The only problem with growing a specimen in Florida might be finding one to begin with, although there are probably more specimens in cultivation around the world than remain in the wild. The species is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss to agriculture. Its range was so small to begin with, and the ecology of an island is unforgiving. Islands are like canaries in the mine for the rest of the planet, and we should pay attention to what is going on. As populations and the oceans both continue to rise, there will be less and less space to live, to grow food, and to allow nature to flourish.

    At the moment, Brunfeslia densifolia is emitting a most pleasant aroma just south of our newly opened Children’s Rainforest Garden, where children can learn about the importance of helping to conserve the world’s rainforests.

    Text by David Troxell

    Category: News
  • 12/12/2013 - 5:50pm

    Eriobotrya japonica (Rosaceae)

    Origin: China

    Loquats are highly ornamental fruit trees with a strange habit of flowering in the winter. Most fruit trees in the Rosaceae (think peaches, plums, etc.) are from colder climates, and go completely dormant in the winter time, blooming as soon as spring arriveswith their fruits ripening in the summer. Loquats, however, begin their flowering cycle just as many deciduous trees are beginning to drop their leaves. The leaves can handle very cold temperatures (down to eighteen degrees,) but a hard frost or dry cold below thirty degrees can cause the young fruit to abort. This combination of circumstances allows the loquat, which can be a bit of a messy tree in areas where it sets fruit, to be used as a street tree in areas with regular mild freezes.

    The fruit itself is sweet and acidic, and tastes much like a nectarine. The fruits are small, from the size of a grape to a golf ball, and must first be peeled of their hairy skin before being eaten. There are usually three to ten seeds inside. This need for cleaning such a small fruit translates into a lot of work to make a pie or jar of jelly, but this author has made both and they are well worth it. The flowers are magnificently fragrant, although the tree is mainly pollinated by flies, and loquats are grown by many people as fragrant plants rather than fruit trees (especially in areas which experience light freezes). The worst pest for loquat fruit in Florida is the Caribbean Fruit Fly.

    There are hundreds of cultivars of loquats in Asia, where they have been grown and prized for many centuries; the cultivar we have growing here in our Tropical Fruit Garden is ‘Christmas,’ which has been selected because its fruit ripens earlier than any others, usually before the warm weather comes.


    Text by David Troxell

    Category: News
  • 11/11/2013 - 2:40pm

    Hamelia patens (Rubiaceae)

    Origin: Tropical and subtropical Americas

    Butterfly gardens are getting more and more popular these days; there is something very special about watching colorful insects flutter around the garden. One of the best plant choices to attract butterflies and hummingbirds in Florida is Hamelia patens, the native firebush. It is sensitive to frost, Central Florida being the northernmost edge of its range, but in areas where the ground doesn’t freeze Hamelia will come back every spring. It is totally adapted to a number of harsh conditions including full shade, full blazing sun, drought, flood, and nutrient-poor soil. Firebush are capable of growing quite quickly as long as they are watered, and make an excellent choice for a privacy screen as well as a specimen in any garden.

    Hamelias are in the same family as the coffees and gardenias, but their flowers look unfamiliar. Rather than star-shaped and white, Hamelia flowers are long and tubular, with very small petals at the end of an extended and prominent corolla tube, which is the basic flower form hummingbirds prefer. A firebush under stress for some reason, either cold, sun, or drought, will oftentimes display a striking red coloration on the foliage as well; the typical green leaves with red veins become much more burgundy, which when combined with the almost-black cascading fruits provides a beautiful range of color.

    There are two species of Hamelias commonly sold at nurseries in Southern Florida, “dwarf firebush,” Hamelia nodosa, is native to Mexico and has dramatically shortened internodes, meaning that although the plant still becomes quite tall, it grows back “tighter” after pruning and therefore responds well to shearing. Hamelia nodosa is a little less adapted to our Sarasota climate, however, and doesn’t do as well in shaded conditions or overly wet conditions as does H. patens. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have both species as well as a few hybrids and varieties planted around the grounds. To do a comparison of the two species, head on down to our Wildflower Garden, where you can see one of each planted on either side of the sidewalk.

    Text by David Troxell

    Category: News
  • 10/07/2013 - 10:29am

    I arrived in Costa Rica on July19, excited to meet the 20 students that had been selected from 10 countries to participate in the biannual graduate-level Spanish-speaking course on tropical botany and plant systematics (the study of plant relationships). The course is run by OTS, the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of universities and natural history museums around the world, and which just marked its 50thanniversary in June, 2013. My role as an invited professor, is to help share the knowledge I have gained through 30 years of tropical botanical studies.

    The course, officially known asSistemática de Plantas Tropicales (Tropical Plant Systematics), runs for five weeks, with five invited professors attending for a few weeks each, and two full-time course coordinators. The course visits four distinct habitats in established Costa Rica OTS Biological Stations (BS): a cool montane tropical forest (Las Cruces BS), a high-altitude oak forest (Quericí BS), a tropical dry forest (Palo Verde BS), and finally a lowland tropical rain forest (La SelvaBS), which, for the last two weeks, is where my participation began and the course ends in a few days. La Selva BS is a famous station, and one of the best known pieces of tropical forest in the New World. Dozens of researchers have worked year-round for the past 50 years to learn about the biology and ecology of the site, and to understand the complexity of tropical forest dynamics.

    The coordinators of the course, Dr. Mario Blanco from the University of Costa Rica (a former Selby Gardens intern who went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Florida), and Dr.Lucas Majure, a research botanist at the University of Florida, are the ones who do the heavy lifting, putting in many months of planning before the course, and who bear the brunt of the day-to-day teaching and logistics. Shepherding 20 curious, intelligent, fun-loving graduate students from city to field, and back, is no easy task.

    The students don't have it easy either, every single day filled with fieldtrips, lectures, independent and group projects, practicals, and quizzes. Students and professors stay in basic accommodations provided by OTS at the various field stations and are provided with three hot meals a day. They enduret he elements from very hot and humid to frigid and damp, so one's wardrobe has to be complete!

    For myself, being at the very hot and very humid La Selva BS was an amazing experience... not just seeing the beautiful, lush flora and forest scenery, but being able to work with the students. Their experience here will provide them with a better understanding of plant diversity, distribution, and evolution, and reinforce the need to protect natural ecological systems. I have no doubt that these students will go on to be ambassadors for natural science at many levels, and help make a difference in our understanding, and conservation of tropical forests.


  • 09/17/2013 - 12:10pm

    Wild banyantree; short-leaved fig (fig family)

    Origin: Florida, Mexico, Caribbean, Central America south to Paraguay  

    One of the most tropical sights that Florida has to offer is that of a banyan, the common name for Ficus trees which produce aerial roots. Hawaii and Florida are both home to many beautiful and large, non-native banyan trees, some of which have become invasive in both states. There are only two species of Ficus native to North America, and they are both native to Florida; Ficus aurea, the Florida strangler fig, and the lesser-known Ficus citrifolia.

    Both start their lives typically as epiphytes; a fruit is eaten by a bird and soon thereafter the seeds are “deposited,” in Florida they are often deposited in the boot of a cabbage palm or on a branch of a massive cypress tree. After the seed germinates, the plant puts out long tender roots which hang toward the ground, and for years the little tree waits. After a while the roots touch the ground and grow thick and strong. At this point the tree grows faster, drawing nutrients and water from the soil for the first time. No longer an epiphyte, the banyan begins to surround the host tree and also may “walk,” growing lateral limbs far from its main trunk which drop their own aerial roots, and on and on, occasionally eventually occupying hundreds and hundreds of square feet. Palm trees can often survive a banyan’s presence until they become so shaded out they can no longer produce food through photosynthesis. In the case of cypress trees, the banyans may eventually strangle and kill the tree.

    Ficus have incredibly close relationships with their pollinators, so much so that most species of fig have only one species of wasp able to pollinate it, and that wasp can only survive on that one species of fig. In order to retain and nourish their pollinating wasps, the trees must constantly bloom.  This means that they are very often in fruit, which is the easiest way to tell the two native species of Ficus apart: Ficus aurea, which also usually has larger leaves, has yellow fruits when ripe that are borne close to the stem. Ficus citrifolia, which has smaller leaves and finer leaf venation, has red fruits when ripe that are borne on slender stalks.

    Residents of Sarasota can see examples of both species growing wild, especially on our nearby barrier islands, and all are welcome to come view ours! Selby Gardens has a massive collection of banyan trees, including Ficus citrifolia, now in fruit on our shell mound located along the bayfront.

    Category: News
  • 07/01/2013 - 4:56pm

    A popular Florida landscape tree due to its cold-hardy nature, Peltophorum dubium, also known as yellow Poinciana or yellow jacaranda, is a tropical tree in the bean family from South America and the West Indies. Find Selby’s Peltophorum in full, majestic bloom just southeast of the Great Room by the Bay.

    Category: News
  • 06/04/2013 - 1:59pm

    Origins: New World

    The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens prides itself on its living collection of epiphytic plants, the largest in the world, as well as its standing in the world of taxonomy and systematics. So you may have heard here before that we stress, when speaking about plants, that the proper name (the “scientific name” or “binomial”) be used whenever possible, and not common names. “Cereus” is a large genus of cacti which used to be a huge genus, at one time comprising most columnar cacti. Recent name changes and splitting have shrunk the number of true Cereus species, but the name remains as a common name for many columnar cacti, including some epiphytes.

    Many plant families can be recognized by their types of flowers and the Cactaceae is no exception. Large, white, and multi-petalled, with a ton of stamens and a stigma which protrudes somewhat from the rest of the flower. Many of these flowers open at night, and for several good reasons. Many cacti live in desert climates, arid areas with no humidity which can be oppressively hot during the day, but cool down very quickly after sundown. Many living things in the desert are nocturnal, spending their days hiding from the sun and their nights hunting for food and mates. Many cacti flowers are animal pollinated (especially moths) and many desert animals and insects (especially moths) are most active at night. Not to mention the fact that it’s so hot and so sunny during the day that the delicate blooms wouldn’t last very long.

    Many cacti bloom at night, and many cacti referred to as Cereus are, in fact, not. So, as you can see, “Night-Blooming Cereus” is a bit of a misnomer at best. But if your neighbor happens to excitedly tell you that his night-blooming cereus is going to bloom that night, do check it out, it is a somewhat rare (once a year or so) event, and always beautiful, no matter the species of cactus. Right now at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, we have several plants which would be referred to as night-blooming cereus, which have just bloomed, in our parking lot and perimeter gardens. As you come through the Orange Avenue gate, immediately to your south in the Perimeter Succulent Garden is a true Cereus, Cereus hildmannianus, a tall, free-standing bluish-green columnar cacti with many stems. Growing as epiphytes in a couple of the oaks nearby is Hylocereus undatus, a triangular-stemmed epiphytic “night-blooming cereus,” which yields “Dragon Fruit.” We also have Epiphyllum oxypetalum, a flat-stemmed cacti which looks like an undulated leaf with blooms coming off of it, also common in the area as an epiphyte.

    It’s beautiful inside the Gardens, but beautiful just outside of them as well. Local residents in the know get out early to jog, run, or walk the dog along our public sidewalks, where they can catch a glimpse of night-bloomers still open. And the price of admission is just right!

    Text by David Troxell

    Category: News
  • 05/01/2013 - 4:17pm

    Hoyas, known commonly as wax plants, are a mostly epiphytic genus consisting of about two hundred species found mostly in Asia, India, and the South Pacific. They exhibit an interesting flowering habit, involving an inflorescence with multiple flowers borne on short pedicels, known as an umbel. An upside-down umbrella, is what is looks like! Wax plants get their common name because their flowers and leaves look so waxy. All flowers have five triangular petals, which look like a star, with a star-shaped corona on top, which also looks like a waxy star. Many species have a mutual relationship with ants, who keep the plants clean of pests, while living in special chambers on the stems and leaves known as domatia. The flowers are also laden with nectar, eaten by the ants as well as pollinators such as moths and flies. Hoyas are typically seen growing as basket plants, even in temperate climates indoors, where they cascade gracefully and bloom profusely. Many species and especially the hybrids are fragrant. Most of the flowers are cream colored to pink, although there are always exceptions, there are several yellow to orange bloomers, as well as a few which are almost black.

  • 04/16/2013 - 2:39pm

    Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow (Potato Family)

    Origin: New World Tropics

    Brunfelsia is a genus of beautiful blooming shrubs and small trees. Many species have a peculiar habit of color-changing flowers. The most common of these are B. australis and B. grandiflora, which share the common name “yesterday, today, tomorrow” because the petals of their flowers emerge dark purple, then fade to a lavender, then completely to white. These plants are available in the nursery trade and can be grown in the frost-free areas of central and southern Florida. They are relatively drought tolerant once established. B. grandiflora requires a little more sun than B. australis to bloom, but both do best in a bit of shade. In their natural habitat, brunfelsias tend to grow in non-flooding woodlands as an understory shrub. Most species are incredibly fragrant, a smell almost identical to that of the heady petunias, a close relative. Like the petunias, most of the brunfelsias are more heavily scented at nighttime.

    There are roughly one hundred and fifty species in the genus Brunfelisa. While the flowers look different, they all have five wide petals. Many species, particularly those native to the islands of the West Indies, have flowers with long corolla tubes that are four or five inches long which hold the rest of the flower at some distance from the plant. These flowers tend to be yellow or cream colored, hold small amounts of nectar, and are heavily fragrant at night, all meant to attract their moth pollinators.

    Like most members of the family Solanaceae, many brunfelsias contain toxic and medicinal alkaloids, and have been used by Central and South American Indian tribes for centuries for a variety of reasons. The roots and bark of Brunfelsia grandiflora, called Chiricaspi by some Amazonian tribes, are commonly brewed on their own (scopoletin is apparantly very effective against fevers and depression) or added to ayahuasca brews. Timothy Plowman, an expert in neotropical ethnobotany and an early associate of Selby Gardens, provided the first and only taxanomic treatment of the genus, and a species (B. Plowmanii) is named in his honor. The genus was named after the early German herbalist, Otto Brunfels. The genus is on ASPCA’s list of “Bad Plants,” because of dog and cat toxicity. There have been more than a few cases of poisoned pets involving these deadly beauties. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have many species of Brunfelsia, most of which are currently blooming. Come on by to see and smell the flowers… just don’t eat them.

    Text by David Troxell