​Bird of Paradise or “False Bird of Paradise”? (Strelitzia or Heliconia)

While easily confused by the similar paddle-shaped leaves and spectacular “bird-like” flowers, these plants are native to different regions of the world and require different conditions in order to thrive.

Heliconia, sometimes called “lobster claws” or “parrot flowers”, is found in South America, Mexico and Central America. Hummingbirds are the main pollinator in the rainforest environment of this “false bird of paradise”.

Strelitzia is a South African native pollinated by sunbirds . They like a moist soil but can survive without much water once they are established. This plant is often called “crane flower” and is the one which bears the common name “Bird of Paradise”.

Colorful bracts (false leaves) protect the flowers of the Heliconia while the inflorescence (flower) of the Strelitzia emerge from a stout horizontal spathe. The spathe provides a convenient landing surface for the sunbirds that pollinate the Strelitzia. The bird lands on the spathe and its weight opens the spathe at which time the flower releases pollen onto the bird's feet. The flowers of the Heliconia, some of which have upright facing flowers and some of which have flowers which dangle down from the main stem, require the long proboscis of the hummingbird to get to the nectar (and pollen) of the flower.

Photos by Sue Dunn

Heliconia (Lobster Claws)

Heliconia (Lobster Claws)

Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise)

Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise)





Goat's Beard, Aruncus Dioicus

Goat's Beard, also known as bride’s feathers, is a perennial in the rose (Rosaceae) family. Native to the northern hemisphere in North America, Europe, and Asia, this plant generally grows in moist woods, meadows, and along streams. It is tolerant of most soil conditions and can grow in full sun in the northern part of its range.

Goat's Beard is a very showy plant growing up to six feet tall in large bushy clumps. Feathery clusters of tiny cream colored flowers grow on long branched spikes high above the leaves and give a spectacular display from late May through mid July. Goat's Beard is a dioecious plant meaning each plant has either all female flowers or all male flowers. Plants with male flowers produce showier blooms than plants with female flowers. The word “Aruncus” comes from the Greek word aryngos (goat’s beard) and refers to the plume of flowers. 

Native Americans have used Goat's Beard for medicinal purposes. For example, poultices made from the roots have been used on sores and bee stings. Infusions from the roots have been used for a variety of cures including rheumatism, sore throats, fevers, and blood disease.

Goat's Beard is in bloom now in the Botanical Center's summer garden and can be found in sunny Bed 6 at the southern end of the perennial garden on the hillside behind the bench. It is also blooming in the shade in Parallel Worlds behind the Welcome Center.

USDA Forest Services

Viola labradorica (​Labrador Violet)

This little viola is a fantastic ground cover for a cool, moist shady environment. It has rich dark purple foliage during the cool weather of spring and fall. Plants can be cut back in early spring to remove winter-damaged foliage and/or they can be sheared after the main flush of flowers to stimulate new blooms. It spreads by creeping stems and by self-seeding, naturalizing the area in which it has been planted. You will find it growing along the path from the ticket booth to the Conservatory underneath the shade of the amazing lace bark pine trees and the majestic dawn redwoods.

This plant is a nectar source for butterflies and other pollinators, a larval food source for many fritillary (similar in appearance to the monarch) butterflies, and cover for small wildlife. The seeds of the Labrador violet are a food source for cardinals and other song birds. It's a small plant with many benefits.

Photo by Layanee DeMerchant

Date Palm - Phoenix dactylifera

Although its place of origin is unknown, the date palm probably originated in the area around the Persian Gulf. In ancient times it was especially abundant between the Nile and Euphrates rivers.

The date palm is dioecious, having separate male and female plants. Dates are naturally wind-pollinated, but in both traditional oasis horticulture and modern commercial orchards, they are entirely pollinated manually. The males are of value only as pollinators and one male can pollinate up to 100 females, allowing the growers to use most of their land for females.  Some growers do not even maintain any male plants since male flowers become available at local markets during pollination time.

The date palm was much revered and regarded as a symbol of fertility. It was depicted in bas relief and on coins. The literature devoted to its history and role in romance is voluminous. 

Two of our date palms, both located in the Conservatory, are in bloom now. Each has 4-5 pod-like spathes from which the yellow wheat-like flowers are emerging.

Alpinia zerumbet, shell ginger

Alpinia zerumbet, shell ginger

Alpinia zerumbet, shell ginger

This plant is a perennial species of ginger native to East Asia. The plants can grow up to 8-10 feet tall and bear colorful funnel-shaped flowers. They are grown as ornamentals and their leaves may be used in cuisine and traditional medicine. Zongzi, a traditional Chinese food, made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings may be wrapped in the large flat leaves of Alpinia zerumbet. The ground leaves of Alpinia zerumbet have been sold as both an anti-hypertension and anti-stress medication.

The common names of the plant include shell flower, pink porcelain lily, variegated ginger or butterfly ginger. The individual pink flowers, especially when in bud resemble sea shells. The flowers droop from the ends of leafy stems rather than rise directly from the plant rhizomes. This feature distinguishes Alpinia zerumbet from other members of the ginger family.

The genus name honors Prosper Alpino a 16-17th century botanist.

Bismarck Palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

2014 Photo Contest Best Use of Lighting Award Photo by Valerie Kline

2014 Photo Contest
Best Use of Lighting Award
Photo by Valerie Kline

The Bismarck palm is native to the island of Madagascar which is off the east coast of Africa. It is named for the first chancellor of the German empire, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), one of the few cases where botanists  named a species after a politician.

The Bismarck palm has fan shaped fronds each of which may have a spread of 6-9 feet. The combined effect of the multiple fronds branching out from the trunk of the tree is spectacular. The majestic appearance is further enhanced by the attractive blue-grey color.

Come see the Botanical Center's wonderful specimen. You will find it in the main Conservatory.



Euphorbia pulcherrima

Poinsettia is part of the euphorbia family which includes spurge, crown of thorns and other milky sap plants. While they are native to Mexico and Central America the plants were introduced to the United States in 1825 by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. 

At the Botanical Center, we have  23 varieties of Poinsettias and about 500 plants.  Sparkle is the splatter designed one. Tapestry is a short variety with green and gold foliage. 

In the wild, Poinsettias may grow  to ten feet on one stalk. Growers pinch the stems of houseplants as they mature to induce branching. The goal is to obtain 6 to 8 branches each with an inflorescence. The bright colored leaves are called bracts and the "flower" or  inflorescences is called a cyathium which is  a central female flower lacking any petals and surrounded by male flowers reduced to a single stamen.  This is enclosed in a cup-shaped ring of tiny incompletely fused bracts with one or more nectar glands on their sides.

Poinsettias are naturally pollinated by insects and produce flowers in response to day length called photoperiodism. The milky white sap, called “crud”, if released will stick to a leaf or bract and turn that spot brown.

Poinsettias should be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch, but it is imperative that flowers and leaves not get wet. Brown spots will result if the leaves and bracts are hit with water.

The plants at the Botanical Center were grown by Master Gardeners at the University of Rhode Island greenhouses. Starting in July 2014,  Master Gardener volunteers worked 6 days a week to grow 1500 poinsettias, including 73 varieties.   URI is a test site for poinsettia growers and it is the only Master Gardener volunteer program among the test sites. 

Master Gardeners measure the growth, note reversions back to original plant, track irregularities, and report each day's maintenance procedures back to the breeders. White fly is battled with sticky traps and BT is used on fungus gnats. Keeping a very clean greenhouse is the first line of defense against insect infestation.  

The widespread belief that poinsettias are poisonous is a misconception. There is ample scientific evidence demonstrating that poinsettias are safe. The primary information resource used by most poison control centers, states that a 50 pound child would have to ingest over 500 poinsettia bracts to surpass experimental doses. Please note, however, that individuals may experience an allergic skin reaction to the poinsettia sap.

Photos by Sue Dunn.

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed)

This showy plant is a species of milkweed native to eastern North America. It is frequently grown from seed in home gardens and rewards the gardener with brilliant orange flowers that have a long bloom period from late spring through the summer. The flowers attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other insects and provide a good nectar source. The leaves are a food source for monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars). Because the tough root of this plant was chewed by the Indians as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, Butterflyweed was given its other common name, Pleurisy Root. While it is sometimes called Orange Milkweed, this species has no milky sap. Flowers give way to prominent, spindle-shaped pods (3-6” long) which split open when ripe releasing numerous silky-tailed seeds for dispersal by the wind. The seed pods are valued in dried flower arrangements.

Sedum Autumn Joy

The long row of Autumn Joy sedum in one of the summer garden beds makes for a showy display in the late summer and fall garden. The interesting “broccoli type” foliage grabs your attention during the height of summer and these drought tolerant plants reward us later in the season with a showy display of dusty-pink flowers that are massed together in heads that may be 3 inches or more across. The flowers deepen to a rich bronzy-red and even when no longer blooming the spent flower heads continue to stand upright,  add interest throughout the winter, and provide birds with plenty of seeds.

The Sachem (atalopedes campestris) spends most of its time in sunny environments that offer many nectar sources.

Photo by Sue Dunn




Echinops, commonly known as globe thistles, are a tall upright perennial with steely purple-blue spherical flowerheads and spiny leaves. This herbaceous perennial commands attention, even from the back of the border.  Flowerheads attract bees and make great cut- and dried-flowers arrangements. For best drying results, cut the flowerheads just before the blooms expand. Much like cone-flowers Echinops will respond well to pruning in July, producing more flowers and sturdier plants that will stand better during the winter and feed the birds.

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'

Baptisia x 'purple smoke' also known as False Indigo

Baptisia x 'purple smoke' also known as False Indigo

This false indigo hybrid (B. australis x B. alba) is a shrubby perennial native to the United States. It features smoky violet, lupine-like flowers (from B. australis) and gray-green, clover-like foliage on charcoal stems (from B. alba). Flowers appear in mid-spring and give way to cylindrical, bean-like seed pods which have good ornamental interest sometimes used in dried flower arrangements. Native Americans used the pods as rattles to amuse their babies and they used the flowers to make blue dyes. The common name of false indigo is in reference to the fact that the dyes made from Baptisia (Baptisia originates from the Greek word bapto, to dip or to dye) are quite inferior to the dyes derived from the true indigos (genus Indigofera) which usually grow in more tropical areas such as the West Indies.

These perennials are deer resistant, heat and humidity tolerant, and drought tolerant once established. They are excellent, attractive, low-maintenance plants.

Photos by Sue Dunn

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)


Recognized by its brown-mottled leaves (a characteristic that is the basis for two of the common names for this plant, deer tongue and brook trout), this is one of the most common spring ephemeral wildflowers. It is found in sizable colonies spreading by stolons. Many spring wildflowers offer a reward to their pollinator. Trout lily is one of them. Unlike some other ephemerals such as hepatica and bloodroot (Saguinaria canadensis), trout lily produces nectar and is pollinated by ants, bees of several families, and blowflies. Field experiments have confirmed that the more successful trout lilies are those that are cross-pollinated. After a seed is planted, it will take up to seven years to make a mature plant and only plants with two leaves will flower. Trout lilies grow best in a deciduous woodland environment where they receive filtered light in the spring. They prefer humus rich soil

Native Americans used trout lily in a variety of ways depending upon the cultural practices of the individual tribe. Iroquois women ate raw leaves for contraceptive purposes; the Cherokee chewed the root and spit it into the water to attract fish. A medicinal tea was prepared from the leaves and was used for fevers, ulcers and swollen glands.

You will find the trout lily in bloom at the Botanical Center if you follow the path past the daffodils that are displayed under the lacebark pine trees.

Learn more at Sierra Potomac's website.

Photos by Sue Dunn

Corylopsis spicata

The spike winterhazel shrub sited near the Conservatory entrance at the top of the winter garden entry path has put on quite a show this year. It's been a long winter and we are eager to accept the beautiful bright yellow sweet smelling pendulous blooms as a sign that spring has finally arrived. We will continue to be rewarded even when the blooms disappear; the graceful deep-veined heart shaped foliage puts on a wonderful color show throughout the summer and fall. 

Photos by Sue Dunn

Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku')

The Japanese maple cultivar 'Sango Kaku' is prized for its winter interest of colorful bark and you will find it bordering the entry path that goes from the admission booth to the Conservatory. This pathway is designated the Winter Garden at the Botanical Center where plants have been chosen because they provide excellent winter color or contrast to winter landscapes.

The leaves of the Coral Bark Maple, which are delicate and palmate, emerge in April and display a pleasing yellow-green with plum to red edging. As the young leaves expand they turn light green for the rest of spring and then take on autumn-like hues of red and orange beginning in early summer. In the autumn the bark on the new twigs turns bright coral red (almost fluorescent) after the leaves fall.

Sango kaku translates from the Japanese to coral tower, a perfect description of how the tree appears in winter without its leaves. 


Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite' (Himalayan Cedar)

Cedar deodara_2.jpg

This irregularly mounding, compact conifer is a graceful dwarf which sends out ivory-white new growth that turns creamy-yellow. The unique, mid-size plant develops a leader with age, but stays small and compact compared to the species.  It is best grown in part shade where the bright foliage will practically "glow in the dark". You will see it on the right as you approach the Conservatory near the top of the winter garden path. It will surely catch your eye with its silvery shimmering needles.

Cedar deodara_1.jpg

Calamondin Orange tree

This tree, in the Mediterranean Room, is a hybrid between species in the citrus family (tangerine and kumquat).

The Calamondin bears a small citrus fruit and while the taste of the fruit is quite sour it is used in beverages such as tea, soft drinks, water, and cocktails. It can be used whenever any other sour citrus would be used and it is often made into a marmalade.

Medicinal uses are varied and include eliminating the itching and irritation from insect bites, bleaching freckles, helping clear up acne, and serving as a laxative when its juices are slightly diluted and heated. Combined with pepper it is used to expel phlegm, and it can be used as a shampoo and hair conditioner as well as a body deodorant. Quite the versatile plant!



Calliandra haematocephala

Powder puff tree

The name of this tree describes it perfectly. Calliandra comes from the Greek kallos meaning beauty and andros meaning stamen or male. Haematocephala comes from haimatos meaning -of blood and kephale meaning -a head. The photo shows a beautiful tree with showy flowers displaying a powder puff of long red stamens.

The flower buds are small and look like raspberries, first green and then red.


Calliandra haematocephala 2.jpg
Calliandra haematocephala 1.jpg

Acalpha hispida

Chenille plant

Chenille plant

Chenille plant, Philippines Medusa, Red hot cat's tail, Fox tail

The female plant bears flowers that look like catkins- long, pendulous, crimson red, and fuzzy. It is the flowers that give the plant its various common names.

At the Botanical Center we refer to the plant as the Chenille plant. Chenille is French for caterpillar which is what the red fuzzy flowers resemble particularly if you handle them and make them move. Americans pronounce chenille (sh' kneel) like the material that is used in bedspreads, but that pronunciation in French means dog kennel, so be aware of your audience when sharing this information. The correct French pronunciation is (sh' knee), but that will probably confuse Americans.

The plant thrives in hot humid summer climates and it will flower all year long in favorable temperature conditions such as those at the Botanical Center. It makes a good houseplant and it can be placed outdoors in the summer.

All parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested by animals and the sap (it is in the euphorbia family) may cause skin irritation.

Muhlenbergia capillaris

Muhlenbergia capillaris

Muhlenbergia capillaris

The genus is named for Gotthilf Heinrich Muhlenberg (1753-1814).  Muhlenberg was an accomplished botanist, chemist and mineralist, but he is most famous in the area of botany. He was a German educated Lutheran minister and the first president of Franklin College now Franklin and Marshall in Pennsylvania.  The plant is a warm season plant which means it starts growing in the summer and blooms in the autumn, September-November. It is a clump forming grass with a double layer; the green leaf like structure appears in summer and the purple pink flowers “out-grow” from the bottom up creating a feathery mass in the fall. 

This wonderful stand of grasses did not survive the winter of 2013-14 at the Botanical Center despite the fact that the USDA gives it a zone 6 hardiness level.

wildflower.org , missouribotanicalgarden.org, wikipedia.org