Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tropical Flowers

orchids,  Singapore
Here is are a group of bright flowers, in case you are deep in snow as I am, are heading for a tropical holiday, or just enjoy the dramatic colors -- a collection of common tropical flowers. The tropics are defined as between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area around the Equator between 23 degrees north and south. Except at high elevations, this region never freezes and is generally quite warm and rainy.

All over the tropics you'll see:

Orchids! Members of the Orchidaceae, the plant family with more species than any of the other 400+ plant families, orchids have great diversity, from small pale flowers to large purple or red ones. People love them, so there are thousands of cultivated varieties. The vast majority of orchids require warm temperatures and high humidity so are easily grown in the warm tropics and less visible elsewhere.

another orchid seen in Singapore

Bougainvillea. Bougainvillea is a woody shrub with thorns. The plant can be hard to get established but, once growing well, it is tough and drought tolerant. In the Nyctaginaceae, it is related to four o'clocks (Mirabilis). Despite the fact you see it all over the world, it is native to Brazil. Bougainvillea likes hot temperatures and lots of sunlight (blog about it: link).)

Bougainvillea in Spain
Hibiscus. Hibiscus is a huge genus with some 540 species worldwide, in the mallow family, Malvaceae, a really big worldwide family with more than 4,200 species, from cotton (Gossypium) to cacao (Theobroma, chocolate), hollyhock (Alcea) and linden trees (Tilia). Hibiscus flowers come in many colors and color combinations. The distinctive flower structure makes recognizing hibiscus and its close relatives pretty easy.

Hibiscus seen in Hawaii
another hibiscus ('cause I like them)


Plumeria, also called frangipani and Indian temple tree, is a symbol of immortality in Asia. It is the flower of choice for leis in Hawaii. The fragrance is absolutely marvelous. Part of the very large plant family Apocynaceae, plumerias are in the genus Plumeria, and, despite the name Indian temple tree, they are native to the Americas. Recent blog about plumeria: link.


Heliconias. These very striking plants with huge leaves and dramatic flowers are in the genus Heliconius from the Heliconiaceae, a New World family of plants. The flowers are actually small, forming inside the big colored bracts and one at a time protruding, so the big bracts stay bright for weeks or months while flower after flower within them develops, opens and wilts. If you live in the tropics, these big showy plants are easy to grow.

Heliconias seen in Bali.
Spider lilies. Spider lilies are indeed, lilies, in the lily family, the Liliaceae. The family was once huge, but now includes "only" about 600 species because species like agave and asparagus have been split off. The spider lilies are actually several quite different species of tall white lilies that all go by the same common name.

Spider lily, seen in Hawaii
Begonias. They are members of the plant family Begoniaceae, classified in a family of their own because they are distinctive as well as diverse and colorful. Often their leaves are dramatically  asymmetrical (see better in online pictures than mine link).

And some tropical flowers we like so much we grow them as annuals in temperate regions:

Morning glories. These are in the genus Ipomoea, in the bindweed family Convolvulaceae. They are vines that climb all over everything, with cheerful flowers that open in the morning, and have wilted by afternoon. Some will reseed themselves in temperate zones, but in the tropics they are perennial and the vines of a single plant can spread over a large area.

morning glories
morning glory
Nasturtiums. These are Tropaeolum species, with tart edible leaves and flowers. From the New World tropics but now grown all over the world, the flowers range from yellow to orange. Their plant family, the Tropaeolaceae, has just the one genus Tropaeolum and 105 species, indicating they are so special they're in a family by themselves. Blog about nasturtium: link.

Marigolds. In the genus Tagetes, the marigolds are group of species from the American tropics, now loved all over the world, tropical and temperate. They are in the sunflower family, Asteraceae, and have a distinctive spicy fragrance. Originally orange to yellow, now you can find varieties with white, reddish and multicolored blossoms. Blogs about marigolds:  marigold and calendula, marigolds from the Americas.

marigolds, Tagetes
marigolds, Tagetes
There are certainly others I could have included. This is just a glimpse of handsome tropical flowers.

Of course not all tropical flowers are large and bright, but many are. Against all the green leaves that warm temperatures and ample rainfall produce, flowers often have to be dramatic for pollinators to pick them out from the green background. And once drawn to the attention of people, we've selected for variation and new colors, so all the plants mentioned have numerous varieties to delight visitors and gardeners.

Comments and corrections welcome

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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