Botany Blog

Updates from the Selby Gardens Botany Department

  • 02/28/2013 - 10:18am

    Lychee (Soapberry Family)

    Origin: China

                    There are so many advantages to living in Florida, one of them is fresh tropical fruit. Just as many northerners have a summer tomato garden in the backyard, many people wouldn’t consider their home Floridian without their dooryard citrus or mango tree. For people who want an exotic tropical fruit that is easy to eat but don’t have a ton of room for a large tree, lychees may be the answer. One of the most delicious tropical fruits, lychee trees can be kept quite small (although they will get huge if allowed to grow unchecked) and can tolerate a light frost once mature. They are a bit more cold tolerant than a mango, but still cannot stand a hard freeze. Even if you can’t grow your own lychees at home, early summer is usually a great time to scour the local farmer’s markets for fruits, or your own neighborhood from trees laden with fruits. (Be sure to knock on the door and ask before taking anyone’s fruit. In old England, this crime was known as “scrumping,” and no one likes a scrumper. Especially not tropical fruit nuts.)

                    Lychees were one of the first fruits to start the tropical fruit craze in Florida in the forties. Nowadays, every major community in the central and southern portions of the state has a tropical fruit society of some kind, back then it was more of a magazine-driven industry. Lychees were easy to spread and grow because unlike many fruits, which require a living cultivar (clone) of a proven tree in order to produce satisfactory fruit, lychees can be grown from seed with good results. So although cultivars exist (most of them produce “chicken tongue” seeds, small, half-aborted seeds which leave more room for the delicious pulp), many older lychee trees, even production trees, were grown from seed. They are all delicious.

                    There are some huge lychee trees around Sarasota, many planted from seed back in the forties and fifties, some taking up whole lots. They produce heavily every two years, with a light year in between. Last year was not a great year for lychees, but this year is looking up, up, up. We have a small lychee tree, covered in flowers and baby fruits, in our Tropical Fruit Garden. Come check it out, and keep an eye out around town for the beautiful-formed, deep green trees full of delicious red fruits.


    Text by David Troxell

  • 02/14/2013 - 7:36am

    Osa pulchra (Rubiaceae)

    Osa (Coffee Family)

    Origin: Costa Rica, Panama

    Perhaps one of the rarest plants not only in cultivation but also in the wild, the Osa pulchra isknown from only two populations in Costa Rica, with a total of less than thirty individuals, and a recentlydiscovered population in Panama. Due to the Costa Rican plants’ proximity to human habitation,botanists have been hesitant to declare them naturally-occurring, thinking they may have been bred byhumans long ago, much like the brugmansias, which are commonly cultivated plants but of which nowild-growing populations exist. The recent Panamanian find, however, solidifies the monotypic genus asthe real deal.

    Many plants in the Rubiaceae family have small, star-shaped flowers, held by short pedicelsclose to the plant. The Osa, however, has large trumpet-shaped flowers, similar to many plants in theSolanaceae (e.g., Brugmansia, Solandra), which are pendent, borne on long pedicels, and have fusedpetals. Giant, white, and fragrant at night, this bloom is the showstopper to end all showstoppers.

    Growing an Osa is a major commitment. Since most of the known plants in cultivation are grownfrom a single seed pod brought to the U.S. through the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1996, there areissues with genetics and seed viability. This situation may be markedly improved by the introduction ofgenetic material from the newly-found Panamanian population. We shall see.

    In the meantime, if you want to see an Osa pulchra in glorious flower, get thee to our Tropical Conservatory in the next few weeks, and don’t forget to bring your camera. There are only a few botanical gardens in the world that have one, and we are proud to be one of them.

    Text by David Troxell

  • 01/11/2013 - 1:22pm

    The Boracayán Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica was the location of Selby Gardens’ latest tropical expedition, in mid-December, 2012. Three Selby Gardens staff members - Bruce Holst, Laurie Birch, and Angel Lara - joined photographer Daniel Perales and world-reknowned orchidologist Dr. Robert Dressler for a week-long visit to this amazing cloud forest. The 5000-acre refuge is home to many hundreds of plant species, including four new species discovered by Selby staff and collaborators after the first botanical inventory in 2003, and is a key location for migrating animals along Costa Rica’s southwestern coast. The major objectives of the recent trip were to train the Refuge staff on how to collect and preserve botanical specimens for their reference collection and to help initiate an on-site species-collection of living plants for conservation and horticultural purposes. In addition, the trip provided an excellent opportunity for Selby Gardens’ staff to experience the tropics and see plants growing in their natural habitats, information which is very helpful for the maintenance of the Selby living collection. Stay tuned for more information on the findings of the trip and for an announcement of a travelogue-lecture by Selby staff.

  • 01/11/2013 - 1:04pm

    Clerodendrum schmidtii (Verbenaceae)

    Chains of Glory (Verbena family)

    Origin: Thailand

    Our featured plant this time around is rare, even in cultivation. Clerodendrum schmidtii is a shrub to small tree, multi-stemmed, with a weeping habit. Each winter it grows long, pendent, dark red racemes, eighteen inches long, which fill with delicate white flowers. Fully open, the flowers resemble white butterflies, but each raceme will have many stages of growth present at once, and the unopened buds look like little white pearls. The plant blooms for us right around Christmas time, and the overall look resembles falling snow. It is one of the most delicate blooming plants in our collection.

    It is not uncommon for Clerodendron schmidtii to bloom twice in the winter. The blooming cycle is relatively short lived. This is a great example of a plant which you will probably never see outside the context of a botanical garden. Our schmidtii is planted right in front of the bench on the north side of the Koi pond. We dare you to walk by it without taking a picture!

    Text by David Troxell

  • 11/29/2012 - 9:07am

    Medinilla cummingii (Melastomataceae)

    Chandelier Tree (Melastoma Family)

    Origin: Philippines

    Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, we are really proud of our Tropical Conservatory. It is the starting point for most guests’ tour of the garden, and many return to make it the last stop on their way out. It is a temperature-controlled tropical rainforest under glass, so a visit during a hot rainy day in August and a cold skin-chapped day in February are just as sublime. We use the house to display some of our most lovely greenhouse specimens in rotation, as they come into bloom. A number of potted and mounted orchids and bromeliads make the rounds through the Tropical Conservatory every few weeks. There are also a large number of plants which are permanent residents of this house. Many of these are lithophytes which are mounted to the rock wall, or epiphytes growing on wooden beams. Some of the most striking permanent residents of the Conservatory are the medinillas.

    Members of the mostly-tropical Melastomataceae family, medinillas have a very distinct leaf, and a very distinct bloom. They have flowers clusters borne on long, pendent stalks, hence the common name chandelier plant/tree/shrub. The base of each cluster of flowers also has a large bract which covers the flowers like a hood. Many plants which live in rainforest environs have adapted ways of keeping their flowers dry. The leaves have pronounced veins which run parallel to the midvein which may help channel off water. The flowers are very colorful and range from fuchsia to purple to blue to almost glass-like. Medinilla magnifica is a large-growing species with very large leaves. It is available in specialty nurseries in Florida and can be found growing in some of the more exotic plant collections around town.

    We have several species of Medinilla permanently planted in the Tropical Conservatory. Right now a beautiful example, Medinilla cummingii, is in bloom and should be for a while. It is rooted on the rock wall across from the cacao tree. Check it out!


    Text by David Troxell

  • 11/20/2012 - 12:29pm

    Coffea arabica (Rubiaceae)

    Arabica coffee, mountain coffee (Coffee family)

    Origin: Ethiopia, now cultivated worldwide

    Coffee, one of the leading cash crops and one of the most popular drug plants of the last few hundred years (along with tea and tobacco,) may be this author’s favorite thing in the world.  Once found only growing at high altitudes in a limited range in Africa, Coffea arabica is now planted all over the West Indies, South and Central America, Tropical Asia, and the South Pacific, from Hawaii to Jamaica to Java. Almost all of the production takes place in developing countries, while most of the consumption goes on in the first world, which has historically riddled the industry with ethical problems. With the advent of fair trade and shade grown coffees this is getting better, but we still have a ways to go.

    Coffea arabica is an attractive shrub or small tree, usually kept under eight feet in cultivation, with lush, evergreen leaves and heavily scented white flowers. The gardenias are in the same family, and the fragrance of the blooms is similar. After the star-shaped white flowers are pollinated and fall, the “cherries” form, which are really 2-seeded berries. It takes several months for the berries to ripen and turn from green to bright red. The seeds, or “beans,” are removed, dried and roasted, then ground and brewed in hot water, then maybe mixed with cream, or sugar, or both. Yum. Of all of the species of cultivated Coffea,  C. arabica is renowned for its superior flavor, and contains the lowest levels of caffeine.

    The cultural stories behind the coffee plant are too many to list here, and have filled entire books but to summarize, it was a well-guarded plant for many years by those who possessed it, and moving it around the globe was no small task. Deception, thievery, seduction, betrayal, all helped establish it as one of the most world’s most commonly cultivated plants, in a very short period of time. Many growing regions can trace their stock back to a single plant. Certain regions, such as the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, or Kona in Hawaii, have become famous for their exceptional coffee beans, grown in rich acidic soil in high misty elevations. These plants do best in mountainous areas with tropical climates; Florida is a little too cold and a little too low for commercial production of coffee, but we can grow the plants outside if completely sheltered from frost. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have a few in our Tropical Fruit Garden, complete with ripe, red berries.  Come check them out while having a cup of joe from Local Coffee & Tea.


    Text by David Troxell

  • 10/29/2012 - 11:46am

    Tacca integrifolia ‘Nivea’ (Dioscoreaceae)

    White Bat Plant (Yam family)

    Origin: Tropical Asia

    Florida’s human population is a lot like its plant population; there are a few natives, and a lot of transplanted exotics. It is always a joy to see someone who has just moved here from “up North” see what their houseplants look like in the ground in a more tropical environment. Ficus, used as office plants in many parts of the country, become massive Banyan trees. Poinsettias, which only come around in December in most states, grow as small shrubs outside in the garden. All kinds of hanging basket plants, from spider plants to begonias, leave the windowsill and turn into groundcovers, forming thick mats. We are fortunate in that we live in a climate which allows for culture of true tropical plants outdoors, in protected areas. A great example is the Bat Plant.

    Tacca integrifolia is a rather unassuming herbaceous plant, growing to two feet in height. It has one of the most stunning blooms in the botanical world, comprised of a single inflorescence, with bracts and several flowers in various stages of budding and blooming. A couple of different types of bracts are presented, two large upright white bracts with purple coloration, which form the “ears” or maybe the “wings” of the “bat,” and long tendril bracts, dark purple in color and up to a foot long or more, which look like whiskers. This is yet another example of a plant with a bloom which to us, looks like a single flower, but which is actually a structure holding many flowers.

    These are relatively easy plants to grow at home. They need rich, well-draining soil, a lot of shade, and protection from frosts and northern winds in the winter. Not long ago this was an incredibly rare species, but they are now readily available at garden centers. If you don’t have as green a thumb as our Horticulture Department, but would like to see a Bat Plant in bloom, come on down to Selby Gardens. We have two rather large plants on display in our Tropical Conservatory which should be in bloom for a few weeks.

    Text by David Troxell


  • 10/18/2012 - 12:52pm

    Helianthus spp. (Asteraceae)

    Sunflowers (Sunflower Family)

    Origin: North America

    What is a flower? A flower is a plant’s sexual organ, typically consisting of male and female parts and the calyx and corolla. Some blooms which we see and consider as a single flower are actually hundreds of smaller flowers tightly grouped together. These flower heads, termed “capitula” (sing. “capitulum) are often composed of central, densely packed “disc” flowers surrounded by a ring of what appear to be petals, but which are the “ray” flowers. The sunflower family is the classic example of this type of flower arrangement. This is why a single sunflower “bloom” will produce so many seeds. It is actually many flowers packed in a single head. Once the flowers are pollinated, the ray florets will fall off, and seed production will begin.

    The sunflower is one of the most American flowers there is. They grow across the country in a broad spectrum of conditions, from the swamps of Florida, to the prairies of the heartland, and to the cold, dry mountains of Wyoming. The capitula typically face east, a result of heliotropism (following the sun) during their budding stage. Once the buds open the orientation remains fixed. Contrary to popular belief, they do not rotate through the day to capture the sun.

    Selby Gardens has several species of Helianthus currently in bloom. The best place to see these is at the south end, in our wildflower garden, where we have three species blooming native to Florida . Helianthus debilis,or “beach sunflower,” is a dune stabilizer native to our sandy coasts. Extremely tolerant of drought, salt, and wind, these plants colonize areas of the beaches in which conditions are too harsh for other plants. This species is prostrate and spreads rapidly. Helianthus angustifolius, or “swamp sunflower,” is native to marshes, swamps, and wet pinelands in the interior of the state. This is a much more erect plant than debilis, reaching several feet tall. It is extremely tolerant of poor drainage and standing water. The final species, Helianthus radula, is native to wet flatwoods and pinelands in the central and northern parts of the state. Unlike typical sunflowers, H. radula completely lacks ray flowers, which means that to us it looks like an older, bloomed-out seedhead whose petals have fallen off. This species consists of a low-growing rosette of leaves with an erect stalk which holds the capitula. Come check out the variety that nature has to offer today at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens!

  • 09/30/2012 - 12:37pm

    Powdery-strap air plant, lantern of the forest (Bromeliad family)

    Origin: Southern Florida to Brazil

    Our featured plant is an epiphytic bromeliad that is purported to be carnivorous.  Catopsis berteroniana grows high up in the trees, often times in bare trees in full sun, with little opportunity to catch the falling leaves or other detritus that many bromeliads use for nutrition. When bromeliad tanks are actually dissected and studied, we have found over and over that Catopsis contains many times more non-aquatic insects than the average bromeliad. This fact, combined with the chalky powder which coats the underside of the leaves and the plant’s habit of living so high and exposed in the canopy, have led to the popular theory that this is an actively insectivorous plant.

    Lots of carnivorous plants contain a chalky powder. It causes loss of traction, making the insects slip and fall back in the tanks, and it also reflects ultraviolet light, in effect rendering the plant invisible to insects. The theory is that the insect thinks it sees a straight shot up to the sky with nothing in the way, and then collides with the leaf, falling back into the tank. Catopsis berteroniana has adapted to the high light of the open canopy, and because of this it usually appears more yellow than green. The chalk amplifies this effect.  They can be quite striking when the sun is hitting them right, causing them to “glow” (hence their Spanish common name, lampara de la selva, or “lantern of the forest”) in the trees.

    And, for Floridians, yet another beautiful reason to go exploring in our own backyards. This is a plant that  you can find in the Everglades, and you don’t even have to leave the air-conditioned comfort of your family car. There, you can find Catopsis growing in scraggly, bare trees, buttonwoods and mangroves, right on the side of the highway in the National Park. Or you can come out to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, where we have one on display in our Tropical Conservatory. Check it out!


    Text by David Troxell

  • 07/25/2012 - 10:53am

    Dr. Toscano de Brito departured for Brazil last in early June and will be away for nearly two months. He will be doing field and herbarium work related to his project “The Pleurothallid Orchids of Brazil”, which is partially funded by the National Geographic Society and the IMLS. The project goal is to prepare a monograph of roughly 600 Brazilian Pleurothallid orchid species and involves molecular and taxonomic research. During his second field trip to Brazil (the first one was undertaken last year) he will be searching for species not yet sampled for his molecular and morphological studies in order “to fill gaps.” This not only requires field work, but also work in the herbarium as many species have been collected once and are only known by a single herbarium specimen. He will be also visiting several orchid growers and collaborating with serious amateurs in Brazil, many of them holders of important and rich orchid collections. He has just come back from the Amazon region, where he spent a week working in the herbarium of Museu Goeldi, in Belém, the capital of the state of Pará, and searching for endemic and rare Amazon orchids which grow as epiphytes on trees of flooded Amazonian forests (also known as Igapó forests).

    He has now returned to his field base, the little town of Rio de Contas, located on the high mountains of Chapada Diamantina in northeast Brazil, and plans to climb Pico das Almas, an almost 2000 m high peak. Last year he climbed Pico das Almas searching for a few endemic and apparently new Pleurothallid species, but they were not in flower. He will try again this time if weather allows it: right now it is wet and cold in Rio de Contas. In early July he will head to Espírito Santo, in the southeast, to visit patches of Atlantic forests, particularly those located in the municipalities of Venda Nova and Domingos Martins, both well known for their orchid-rich flora. After his field and herbarium work in Espírito Santo, he will then go to Curitiba, the capital of the State of Paraná, located in the south. He will be visiting orchid growers and will particularly work in the herbarium and molecular laboratory of Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR). Toscano will attend a number of meetings to discuss with his Brazilian colleagues at UFPR the status of his molecular research and also further scientific collaboration between Selby and UFPR. While at UFPR he will also lecture on his recent orchid studies.