Search site
Flower and leaves

Plants (The Hothouse Trail)

Plantasia is home to plenty of tropical plants, from giant bamboo to grapefruit.

Please note that the numbered signs may not appear in numerical order as plants are sometimes moved according to their needs.

1. PASSION FRUIT - Passiflora edulis - Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, N Argentina (cultivated elsewhere).  Passion fruit is widely cultivated throughout the tropics and subtropics. As well as the ripe, fragrant fruit being eaten on its own it is used in many other things such as cakes, preserves, drinks and sorbets. Passion fruit juice is a good source of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and carotenoids (vitamin A).

3. JAPANESE SAGO PALM - Cycas revoluta - South Japan to Java.  This cycad represents an ancient group of plants that in earlier times, particularly during the Jurassic period, grew on earth in great variety. The 100 or so members that are still alive today are consequently the last representatives of an order of evolutionary importance. These are living fossil plants.  Cycas revoluta is one of the plants that give us Sago.

4. CARAMBOLA TREE, STAR FRUIT - Averrhoa carambola - India to China (cultivated elsewhere).  Commonly known as the 'star fruit'. This plant has evergreen leaves which close when touched, or at night, and has small, fragrant flowers which are white, marked with purple. This tree bears distinctively-shaped fruit of a pale yellow-brown colour and a delicate bitter-sweet flavour. When the fruit is cut across it produces a star shape.

6. HIBISCUS - Hibiscus rosa-sinensis - China (cultivated elsewhere).  Hibiscus is the state flower of Hawaii where 5000 varieties are known. Raw flowers are eaten to aid digestion. In Tahiti a flower worn over the right ear shows that one is looking for a mate. Juice from the petals was formerly used to blacken the hair and eyebrows and also served as shoe blacking.

7. BANANA - Musa cavendishii - South China (cultivated elsewhere).  The banana plant, though commonly known as a tree is one of the largest herbaceous plants known to man.  With its fragrant, edible yellow fruits the banana is one of the most economically important tropical plants. This variety is the dwarf banana, a popular commercially produced banana. It has a compact habit but its thin skin can make it difficult to transport. Bananas are generally consumed raw, but when they are ripe and still green, they can be made into a type of flour to which water and milk are added to make an important staple food. In ancient times the 'banana' is thought to come from the name for the plant in one of the native languages of West Africa. It was also introduced to South America and Europe.

9. CARDAMON - Amomum cardamomum - Java (cultivated elsewhere).  Flowering plant belonging to the ginger family with deep dull green, finely hairy leaves. The long, spear-like, leathery leaves give off a spicy aroma when rubbed.  The flowers are yellow and formed in cone-like spikes beneath the foliage; they are followed by rounded, fibrous pale green or black pods containing small, dark seeds, which have rich, essential oils. The fruits are harvested before they ripen to prevent them from splitting, and dried whole, very slowly. The dried fruits vary in colour from pale green to brown.  The seeds are strongly pungent, rich and warming and can be used to flavour sweet or savoury dishes. They are a constant ingredient in Indian cooking, especially curries, ground with coffee by Arabs and are a universal flavouring for liquers and sweets. The seeds are chewed to sweeten the breath, as an aid to digestion and to stimulate the appetite.  The Normans brought cardamon to Britain in the 11th century.

10. WEEPING FIG - Ficus benjamina - Tropical Asia.  Many species of fig begin life by climbing other trees, clasping their trunks with aerial roots which eventually thicken and throttle the tree which has acted as a support, giving it the common name of "Strangler Tree". The aerial roots seen on this tree not only aid the collection of food materials but also act as supports.

12. STAG'S HORN FERN - Platycerium bifurcatum - Australia/Polynesia.  An epiphyte which grows on branches or clings to the vertical face of jungle cliffs. Their dust-like spores are carried high into the canopy and germinate after lodging in a suitable crack or crevice. They are not parasitic and do not take any sustenance from their hosts, using them just for support.

13. PAPYRUS - Cyperus papyrus - Africa, Egypt (cultivated elsewhere).  This was an important economic plant in ancient times, but today is mostly grown as an ornamental plant. It originated in the tropics of central Africa and was spread by man through Egypt and Asia. Many rivers in Africa are bordered by wide strips of papyrus. The plants can grow 4-5m high and at the top is a tuft of fine, drooping leaves and a cluster of flowers. In ancient times the pith of the stem was made into an early form of paper (a word which comes from the Latin 'papyrus'). For this purpose the pith was cut in strips and laid side by side with the edge overlapping.

The next layer was laid crosswise. This 'paper' could only take writing on one side, as it was not sized. The Greeks called the material 'byblios' a word that has been preserved as 'bible'. In Egypt the pith of the plant was being used in the manufacture of paper as early as 2400 BC. The starchy roots used to be eaten and the outer covering of the stem used in making cords, mats and baskets.

14. MASTIC - Pistacia lentiscus - Meditteranean. Yields by incision the resinous substance known as "mastic".

15. SUGAR CANE - Saccharum officinarum - Southeast Asia.  The cultivation of sugar cane in the tropics goes back several thousand years.  Alexander the Great knew of the plant and Marco Polo reported on its cultivation in China in 1272. Between AD700 and 900 the Arabs brought sugar to the Mediterranean region. A century ago sugar was still a luxury commodity, sold only by chemists but since 1910 sugar cane production has risen dramatically. It has a clear lead over sugar beet and accounts for 55% of the total sugar production in the world.  Sugar cane is a reed-like grass which can reach 5-9m high. The stems can reach a diameter of up to 7cm, and the cells composing the soft interior are full of sugary sap. The highest sugar content is at the base of the stem and can be as much as 20%.

Harvesting begins when the leaves turn yellow or when core punches show there is a sufficiently high sugar content. As a rule, 10-14 months after planting out.  To extract the sugar, the canes are cut up, passed several times between rollers and crushed. The juice is first of all filtered and purified. It is then heated to concentrate it prior to crystallisation. The crystallised brown sugar is then separated from the molasses. The remaining crystal free molasses still contains 30-40% sugar and is used as animal feed and for producing alcohol.

16. LIVING STONES - Lithops species - Southwest Africa.  These masters of camouflage have characteristic markings, either by grooving or colouring, which makes them closely resemble the pebbles amongst which they grow.

17. PRICKLY PEAR - Opuntia species - North and South America.  Usually a branched and shrubby cacti with distinctive jointed stems, the cylindrical or flattened sections are known as pads. The short-tubed flowers have spreading petals, which are often colourful and are followed by fleshy, frequently edible, fruit.

These have adapted where nitrogen is in short supply eg. boggy regions.  Some plants have the power of digesting animal tissues, absorbing the resulting materials and thus obtaining supplies of nitrogen.

TRUMPET PITCHER PLANTS - Sarracenia species - Southern USA.  Conspicuous discs lure insects into the traps below. They move down into the tube attracted by nectar, but this is covered with long, slippery, downward-pointing hairs. They then get dissolved and absorbed by the plant.
SUNDEWS - Drosera rotundifolia - Western Australia.  These secure insects with sticky hairs, then over a period of hours the whole leaf bends to enfold it, the insect is then dissolved by digestive fluid contained on the hairs.
VENUS FLY TRAP - Dionaea muscipula - North & South Carolina, USA.  A fly is attracted by the glistening surface of the leaf, the two halves of the leaves snap together enclosing the insect. Acidic digestive solutions then pour from glands on the face of the lobes and start to dissolve the fly's body.

19. CENTURY PLANT - Agave americana - Texas, Mexico.  There are many species of agave, several of which are now cultivated, but their usefulness was recognised in ancient times. It is known from relics found in graves in Mexico that the coarse fibres of the agave plants were used 8000 years ago for making fishing nets.

This species is a monocarpic plant, meaning that the plant only flowers once in its lifetime and dies after flowering. It can live up to 100 years but this depends on the conditions it is grown in. Fermented sap from the cut flowering-stem gives the Mexican national drink, pulque.

20. MEDICINAL ALOE - Aloe vera - Canary Islands, Madeira (cultivated elsewhere).  Pulp used to heal sore burns and cuts. Used in shampoo etc.

21. SISAL - Agave sisalana - Mexico (cultivated elsewhere).  Sisal is named after a port in the Gulf of Mexico and it is native to Mexico. Of all the species of Agave, sisal is the most important as a source of hard fibre.  When harvested the leaves are cut off at the base by hand, but it is important that enough leaves remain on the plant so that there is no serious check to its development. The coarse fibres are obtained from the leaves through the process of crushing, while the non-fibrous tissue is washed away. After further washing and drying the glossy, yellowish white fibres are rendered pliable by beating and brushing. They are the basic materials used in the manufacture of twine, ropes, ships, cables, also nets, hammocks, upholstery and carpets.

A juice containing starch and sugar oozes from the flowering stem when cut, and is fermented to form as highly intoxicating liqueur known in Mexico as pulque.  After flowering the plant dies.

22. PINEAPPLE - Ananas comosus - Brazil (cultivated elsewhere).  The pineapple has a short stem and usually spiny leaves, arranged in a large formal rosette. A violet flower spike forms in the centre which, without being pollinated, turns into edible, fleshy fruit up to 30cm long.  The pineapple has been cultivated since ancient times and numerous forms were being grown and selected by various Indian tribes long before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World. Columbus was given some pineapple fruits after his second crossing of the Atlantic. Since then it has spread all over the tropics.

In England in the 17th century it was grown in greenhouses and was a symbol of good hospitality and status. Both the word 'pineapple' and the Spanish name 'pina' were given to the fruit because of its resemblance to a pine cone. 'Na-na means 'fragrant' in the language of the Indians who lived in the region where the fruit comes from, hence the latin name 'ananas'.  The edible part of the fruit contains an enzyme, which breaks down proteins and promotes digestion, a fact that was known by the early Indians. The plant has also been cultivated as a fibre plant. The fibre is obtained from the leaves by steeping and bleaching to make articles suitable for tropical climates.

23. COCOA - Theobroma cacao Central America (cultivated elsewhere).  Cocoa seeds were held in high esteem by the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs. At the beginning of the 16th century they were the basis of the monetary system in Mexico and for a long time served as coinage within the distribution area of the plant.  Cocoa was known in Europe as a drink as early as the 17th Century.  Theobroma means "food of the gods".

24. BREADFRUIT - Artocarpus communis - Polynesia (cultivated elsewhere).  When roasted they can supply a flour which can be used for making bread. Unripe fruits can be dried, cut in slices and baked to make biscuits. The ripe pulp can be fermented to produce food with a consistency of cheese. The bark produces a fibre for weaving and binding and the timber can be used for boat building.  In 1779 Captain Bligh had 1,000 young breadfruit trees loaded on his ship the "Bounty" at Tahiti when the famous mutiny took place.

25. RED HOT CAT'S TAIL - Acalypha hispida - Indonesia.  Showy, tropical shrub that can grow several metres high. Has bright red flowers that hang down like cats tails. These catkin-like flowers are all female; the male flowers grow on a separate plant.

26. BLACK PEPPER - Piper nigrum - Malaya and Java.  Black pepper has been one of the most important spices since ancient times and originates in the southern foothills of the Himalaya and the hilly districts of Assam and Burma.  Fruit first green, then red and finally black. Black pepper is made from the whole fruit. White pepper is made from the fruit with the black skin removed.

27. PAW PAW - Carica papaya - Central & South America (cultivated elsewhere).  Paw Paw is one of the most frequently cultivated fruit trees in the tropics, often planted on small farms for the farmers own use.  The protein splitting enzyme papain obtained from the sap is used medicinally in cases of weak digestion and also as a meat tenderiser.

28. BIRD OF PARADISE FLOWER - Strelitzia nicolai - South Africa.  Exotic plant related to the banana. The bracts are boat-shaped and vary in colour from metallic blue to reddish purple. The outer parts of the flower are milkywhite covering the light blue petals inside.

29. KAPOK, SILK COTTON TREE - Ceiba pentandra - Central & South America (cultivated throughout the tropics elsewhere).  This is a large tree; when young the trunk is densely covered in sharp, conical spines. The branches are often colonised by epiphytes. It has large clusters of small, fragrant flowers - rosy outside, yellowish inside. After pollination by bats the flowers develop into a leathery fruit which resemble cocoa pods. This capsule contains up to100 round, brownish-black seeds embedded in long, silky, yellowish-white hairs known as Kapok. The soft, cotton-like fibres come away when the fruit is ripe. They are lustrous, water-repellent and elastic, but unsuitable for spinning.

Kapok is used as a filling for articles such as life-jackets, as well as for cushions and for soft furnishings.  In the ancient Indian cultures of Central America the tree had great mythological significance. Today it is cultivated throughout the tropical regions of the world.

30. AVOCADO - Persea americana - Central America (cultivated elsewhere).  The name 'avocado' is derived from the Aztec word 'ahuacati' and the plant itself was in cultivation 8000 years ago. In 1519 the Spanish stumbled upon the fruit but it was the middle of the 19th century before it reached Asia.  The trees reach a height of 20m. Small yellowish-green flowers are produced in large numbers, but in spite of the abundance of flower only 1 in 5000 result in fruit.  The fruits are green to reddish-brown and vary in size from a few cm to 25cm according to variety. The flesh of the fruit has a nutty taste and contains 25% fat, a very high proportion.

31. GUAVA - Psidium guajava - South & Central America.  The guava is a small rather gnarled tree, which grows up to 10m in height. The guava produces fruits which are very rich in vitamin C. The fruits are 4-10cm long and are used in the manufacture of aromatic jellies and jams.

32. RUBBER PLANT - Ficus elastica - Southeast Asia.  Widely known as a houseplant, but in the wild it can grow into a large tree some 30m high. Has large urn shaped flower-clusters and small fruits.  The whole plant contains latex canals which exude a milky sap when cuts are made in the trunk. In earlier times it was a source of rubber, especially in Southeast Asia and West Africa, but its importance as a source of rubber has declined considerably in favour of other species.

33. PITCHER PLANT - Nepenthes species - Southeast Asia.  The tendril of the Pitcher plant, over a period of 2-3 weeks, inflates to form a liquid filled trap. Their trapping strategy is the same as the trumpet pitchers - using a drugged nectar which intoxicates the insects that fall into the pitcher where an acid liquid containing pepsin digests the insects body.

35. ARABIAN COFFEE - Coffea arabica - Ethiopa, Angola. An evergreen shrub. The pure white, fragrant flowers give way to brilliant crimson, pulpy berries which are sun-dried and then roasted into coffee.

The word 'coffee' is derived from the Turkish and Arabic languages and probably goes back to the word 'Kaffia' the name for that region in Ethiopia where the wild form originated. The plant was probably first cultivated in the Yemen between AD 1000 and 1300. The Arabs took control of its cultivation and were responsible for spreading coffee throughout the world. Coffee first reached Western Europe in the 16th century and coffee houses grew on popularity. Of the three species of Coffea the relatively small Arabian coffee plant is the most important, producing 74% of the total world crop.  They thrive best in the shade.

36. SOUR SOP - Annona muricata - Central & South America.  Widely planted in Latin America this tree can grow up to 12m high. Large yellowish flowers are followed by pendulous fruits that can weigh up to three kilos.  The fruits grow together giving the impression of a single large fruit.  The leathery green rind is smooth apart from the fleshy spines, which represent the tips of the individual fruit. The pulp has a woolly, almost fibrous texture like white cotton. It is strongly aromatic and has an acid taste and is used to make custards, chilled sherbet and refreshing drinks, hence its common name of custard apple.

37. LIME - Citrus aurantifolia - Limes grow in tropical and subtropical climes such as Mexico, California, Florida and the Caribbean. It is estimated that India grows 16% of the worlds lime, with Mexico (14.5%), Argentina (10%), Brazil (8%) and Spain (7%) following behind.

Limes are an excellent source of vitamin C, limes were fed to British sailors as a scurvy preventative.

38. SAUSAGE TREE - Kigelia africana - West Africa (naturalized elsewhere).  Economic importance-used externally for many medical purposes.

40. DUMB CANE PLANT - Dieffenbachia - South America.  This plant has glossy, green leaves with various markings. The sap contains needle-like crystals (raphides), which can swell the tongue, causing speechlessness (hence the name), and in severe cases can even cause death. This plant is used in a 'curare' of some native south americans.

41. GIANT BAMBOO - Dendrocalamus apus - Malaysia.  Found in mainly damp places near streams and rivers the stems of this plant can reach as much as 30meters. Speed of growth is very fast, as much as 30-50cm in a day. These larger species of bamboo flower very rarely.  Besides being woven into screens, roofing mats and deck housing, split lengths are peeled and their fibres made into ropes and cables of great strength.  Bamboo is also used to make rods to hold sails to the mast of certain boats, and as scaffolding.

42. LOLLIPOP PLANT - Pachystachys lutea - South America.  An ornamental plant with a striking, flower cluster of bright yellow, heartshaped bracts arranged in four rows. Creamy white flowers arise from these bracts.  This plant grows to about 2 metres tall.

43. URN PLANTS - Bromeliads - Central & South America.  Some species of Bromeliad are known as urn plants because of the pool of water that is trapped in the tube formed by the leaf-bases. These tiny reservoirs provide ideal breeding sites for numerous insects with aquatic larvae, which in turn form an abundant food supply for the growing tadpoles of the several species of tree frog which also lay their eggs in them. Sustenance is obtained by the plant from the ensuing rotting material.

44. GRAPEFRUIT - Citrus paradisi - West Indies.  The precise origin of the grapefruit is unknown or certain, but is thought to have originated in the West Indies more than 200 years ago.  Deliberate cultivation of the plant as a fruit began about 1880 in Florida. The trees grow up to 10m in height and its flowers are typical of all citrus fruits.

45. SPANISH MOSS - Tillandsia usneoides - Tropical Americas.  Hangs from trees as a silvery-grey, threadlike mass, up to 6m long. Densely covered by grey scales which are a means of receiving and holding moisture and enabling the plant to exist without roots. This plant has small green flowers.  Once commercially collected in Florida as a mattress stuffing.

46. TAMARIND - Tamarindus indica - Africa (cultivated elsewhere).  The name Tamarind is derived from the Arabic 'tamar - Hindi' meaning Indian Date. There is only one species of this plant but it is found throughout the tropical regions of the world. The tamarind grows up to 25m high; its trunk may be up to 8m in circumference. It has beautiful yellow flowers, streaked with red.  The seeds of the tamarind are surrounded by a sticky brown pulp, which was at one time used as a mild laxative. Tamarind is also used in the manufacture of syrup and sweets and its timber being both hard and durable is used in the manufacture of many different implements.

Powered by GOSS iCM