Flowers of South America

Golden trumpet

Allamanda cathartica

Family Apocynaceae

The golden trumpet is a forest climber in its wild state, but can also be trained as a bush and is often grown in this fashion in gardens in tropical Africa. It will only thrive out doors in a very warm climate, but makes a good hot-house plant. It belongs to the same family as the periwinkles, the oleander and the famous frangipani tree, which is grown in many parts of the world for its powerful scent. Most of the South American members of the family are lianas, and some of them contain powerful and dangerous drugs which the Indian tribes use for making poisoned arrows.

The tropical regions of South America contain a greater number of beautiful flowering plants than any other part of the world. These are still economically backward areas, where the original vegetation remains to a great extent unspoilt, and the soil and climate combine to produce exuberant growth. Trees, climbers and herbaceous plants reach their full stature more quickly than in most other parts of the world, and their number and variety is astonishing. These tropical forests are especially rich in lianas and climbers and although some of them have become quite familiar garden plants in many other parts of the world, the majority are still virtually unknown except to botanists who specialize in South American plants. For example the rosy-flowered Mandevilla splendens from the mountain areas near Rio de Janeiro, and the Chilean jasmine, Mandevilla laxa, were introduced to Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, but there are over a hundred other members of the same genus which remain in obscurity. Pollination by bats or birds is quite a common phenomenon among plants in tropical South America. Cobaea scandens from Colombia, often known as temple bells, is a very rapidly growing climber with green or purple flowers and is cultivated in English gardens as an annual. Its faintly unpleasant smell attracts bats, who transfer the pollen on their furry bodies from one flower to another. The tiny humming-bird also performs the same service to many plants whose nectar-rich, often tubular flowers, attract them. Most of the hundred South American fuchsias are pollinated in this way.

The Bromeliads which include the pineapple family, are all of South American origin and a large number have become popular house and greenhouse plants. They vary a great deal in appearance and size, the largest and most extraordinary being the puyas which grow in the Andes. Immature plants consist of a thick round bunch of narrow, spiky leaves on top of a stout short trunk, but when the plants come into flower a tremendously tall spike develops from the centre of the crown. This sometimes reaches twenty feet or more in height and carries thousands of close-packed flowers, which may be greenish-white, blue or yellow. The leaves begin to droop, and when flowering is finished the plants die exhausted. The flowers produce abundant nectar which attracts birds as well as insects. One species, Puya berteroniana, has spiky shoots which grow out of the thick flower clusters to provide convenient perches for bird visitors that are unable to hover like the humming-birds.

Most of the Bromeliads have no stems, but consist of a rosette of stiff leaves, which are often spiny at the edges. In the epiphytic species these leaves form a kind of urn which collects water, and also acts as a trap for insects or small animals which are dissolved and absorbed. The leaves are often beautifully striped or coloured in red and yellow and the flower spikes have coloured bracts which contrast with the often rather small but bright flowers. In the pineapple, Ananas comosus, the flower cluster looks very like a huge pine cone and as the fruits ripen the bracts and ovaries fuse to form the juicy flesh. Pineapples are now grown in many parts of the world but the biggest plantations are in Hawaii.

The epiphytic orchids that grow on the forest trees in tropical America are famous and have been eagerly sought by collectors since the end of the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most famous of them all are the cattleyas, whose enormous pink and purple flowers are the most flamboyant of all the orchids. There are over 60 different wild species and any amount of cultivated hybrids. Other South American orchids include the strangely spotted odontoglossums, with many flowers on each spike, the pansy-flowered miltonias and the commercially important vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia, which is a climbing plant from tropical Mexico. The flavouring is derived from the seed pods, and was first used by the Aztecs in their chocolate drinks. The non-spiny cacti, like the Christmas cactus and the Epiphyllum and Rhipsalis species, also grow like the orchids on trees in the dense forests.

A number of popular garden plants which can be grown out of doors in Europe and North America, at least during the summer season, came originally from South America. The exotic looking canna, with red or yellow flowers, is a native of Brazil where it is found in boggy places. Its scientific name, Canna indica, is misleading but it has been introduced and naturalized both in Africa and parts of Asia. Begonia semperflorens, the ancestor of the popular summer bedding varieties, is another Brazilian plant, and the first tuberous rooted begonias, which had single flowers, came from Bolivia and the Andes. It was only in cultivation that they developed the heavy double flowers which we now know. All the begonias carry separate male and female flowers and many of them have decorative leaves.

The calceolarias, with their strange inflated blooms, grow right across the continent from Mexico in the north to Patagonia in the south. There are about 400 different kinds ranging from quite large shrubs to tiny herbaceous plants. The size of the individual flowers tends to increase as the plants become smaller. For example the flowers on the shrubby specimens may measure less than half an inch across, but the tiny Calceolaria darwinii, which grows along the Straits of Magellan and stands only two inches high, bears solitary flowers an inch and a quarter wide. This strange little plant is hardy in southern England.

The attractive annual Salpiglossis, with large veined flowers, is a native of Chile and so are many of the verbenas. The scarlet Verbena peruviana grows on the Argentine pampas as well as in Peru. The glorious blue dawn flower, Ipomaea learii was introduced from South America and so was the morning glory, I. purpurea and I. tricolor, whose white buds are streaked with red, but open a rich blue. The climbing bougainvilleas also hail from there and are now grown in gardens all over the world, wherever the winters are mild enough for them to survive. Their rich colouring comes from the bracts and not from the flowers.

Among outstanding South American plants that deserve a mention is Cochliostema jacobianum, an epiphytic plant which only occurs in Equador. It is not an orchid although its scented blue and mauve flowers have an orchid-like quality but belongs to the family Commelinaceae, which includes the many popular Tradescantia species. The wide strap-shaped leaves can reach four feet in length and several twelve-inch flower spikes appear at the same time. Europeans were amazed at the beauty of the plant when it was shown for the first time at the Paris exhibition in 1867. Another interesting plant is the giant water lily of the Amazon basin, Victoria amazonica, which can develop from seed to its full flowering size, with circular leaves six feet across, in a matter of seven months. It has eight-inch flowers, which open one at a time, and the stems may be eighteen feet long. It was first grown in the tropical house at Kew Gardens in 1846.

Caiophora coronata

Family Loasaceae

All the sixty-five species of Caiophora are South American natives and this rather appealing white-flowered species is a mountain plant. It is found among rocks and on scree in central Chile, usually at a height between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. The rough leaves are furnished with stinging hairs, and although contact with them is not as painful as with the common stinging nettle, they are certainly unpleasant to handle.

Phrygilanthus mutabilis

Family Loranthaceae

This rather strange plant has flowers that gradually change their colour from yellow to red as they age. It is a semi-parasite on Nothofagus, a South American tree known as the southern beech. Like its host, the parasite is evergreen and therefore capable of manufacturing part of its nutritional needs in its own leaves.

The genus includes 39 other species, some of them totally leafless. One of these, P. aphyllus, attacks the tree cactus Cereus chilensis, and its red flowers erupt directly from the stem of the cactus, as if they were its own blooms. The mistletoe is a member of the same family.


Tropaeolum polyphyllum

Family Tropaeolaceae

All the members of this Family come from South America and there are altogether some 80 different nasturtiums. They grow mainly in mountain forests and scrubland. Nearly all of them are climbers and there are both annual and perennial forms. T. polyphyllum has deeply lobed leaves, unlike the common nasturtium whose leaves are more or less circular in outline. It flowers very profusely, and is best planted at the edge of a wall so that the swags of bloom can hang down and be seen to advantage.

Aechmea pineliana

Family Bromeliaceae

Nearly all the members of the genus Aechmea are epiphytes growing on forest trees. Their stiff leaves form a hollow vase which collects rain water and are invariably furnished with small sharp teeth along the edges. The flower spikes, which rise singly from the centres of the plants, have brightly coloured bracts, which make a vivid contrast to the flowers. Several species are popular pot plants, and are grown commercially in large quantities. One of the largest is Aechmea fulgens discolor from Brazil, whose leaves are purple on the underside.

Alstroemeria gayana

Family Alstroemeriaceae

This very attractive plant grows on the sea shore in Chile. It belongs to the same Family as the climbing Bomarea, and the same genus as the lily-like alstromerias which are well known as garden plants. Unlike most of the so-called Inca lilies it is rather a low plant, with flower stems seldom more than six inches tall. It has the typical thickened leaves which are a common feature of plants growing close to the sea and which are subjected to salty spray. The fleshy roots are protected underneath the stones or in the sand, and during the dormant season the plant disappears from view.


Fuchsia magellanica

Family Onagraceae

This is the hardiest of all the fuchsias, and is the parent of many improved garden forms. It comes from the very southernmost tip of South America where it grows in the mountains of Magellan. It prefers semi-shade and in the warmer parts of Britain it makes a good hedge plant. In colder areas it is normally cut to the ground in winter but will survive and grow up again in the spring. All fuchsias make excellent pot plants and flower continuously through the summer. There are many other species in South America and also several in New Zealand, but the two groups will not hybridize although they belong to the same genus.

Brazilian coral tree

Erythrina crista gallii

Family Leguminosae

This fine, showy shrub is indigenous to Brazil and its waxy scarlet flowers appear between July and September. The trunks and branches are often rather spiny. It is not fully hardy in Britain but can sometimes be kept alive out of doors against a warm wall, if the root is also protected during the winter with a covering of bracken and straw, but it will not reach the size it does in warmer climates. The genus includes some 170 different kinds of shrubs and trees, found both in South America, tropical Asia and South Africa.

Passion flower

Passiflora antioquensis

Family Passifloraceae

This beautiful climber from Colombia is only one of the 400 different kinds of passion flower. Most of them are found in South America, but there are a few in south-east Asia and Australia and also on Madagascar. The first plants to reach Europe were brought by the Spaniards from South America, and it is likely that the species was Passiflora caerulea, which is now often grown as a pot plant. The flowers are greenish white with a central corona of red and blue filaments, five greenish stamens and three prominent nail-shaped stigmas. The strange appearance of the flowers was interpreted as symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ, the stigmas representing the nails through His hands and feet, the stamens His wounds, the red inner corona the crown of thorns, and the ten lobes of the flower the faithful Apostles.

Chilean bellflowers

Lapageria rosea

Family Philesiaceae

This outstandingly beautiful climber is the floral emblem of Chile. It used to be classified as a member of the lily family, but is now grouped with only eight other South American plants in a small and exclusive Family of their own. It is reasonably hardy, so it is possible to grow it out of doors in warm west country gardens in Great Britain. It thrives in the Scilly Isles where it flowers well. The large, trumpet-shaped blooms have a curious frosted appearance, as if the petals were made of pink ice, dotted with air bubbles. It is evergreen and prefers a shady moist situation.

Fire bush

Embothrium lanccolatum

Family Proteaceae

This beautiful shrub was found in the Norquino valley in Chile by Mr H Comber and well deserves its common name. When it is in full bloom the flower clusters clothe the branches completely in scarlet so that the whole shrub appears to be on fire. It is hardier than Embothrium coccineum and can be grown successfully in many parts of the British Isles, but it must have soil which is free from lime and rather moist. In Chile the fire bush is often used as a hedge plant and grows considerably larger than it does in Europe.

Bomarea caldesii

Family Alstroemeriaceae

There are over a hundred different members of the genus Bomarea, all of them natives of tropical America. They are climbing or scrambling plants, growing up through bushes and trees. B. caldasii was discovered in Equador in 1802, where it grows quite commonly in the mountains between 6,000 and 12,000 feet. The flowers are variable in colour, and may be yellow or orange-red and more or less spotted inside. Seeds did not arrive in Britain until 1860 but since then the plant has been grown in greenhouses and also out of doors in mild localities, especially in Ireland, where it is able to overwinter safely.

16. October 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Flower Garden | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Flowers of South America


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