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Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory
By Lee McCoy
As we enter into the true winter season in Colorado, I am reminded that we are incredibly fortunate to live in a city where we have the luxury of escaping the cold, and enjoying the balmy, tropical environment of the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory. The Boettcher Tropical Conservatory itself is something of a marvel to behold as it is the largest single structure tropical conservatory in the United States, and houses plants from tropical and subtropical climates all over the world, many of which are threatened in their native habitats.
Upon entering the the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory from the lower, eastern entrance, we are met with an immediate sense of having entered a world quite different from the winter scape outside. The air is humid, and there is a damp, clean scent that serves to remind us that we have discovered another ecosystem entirely. Taking the path to the right, we find a pond that is home to two tropical ducks, Mendel and Tendril, whom you will most likely find either perched on their log or swimming about the pond. These two ringed teal belong to the Denver Zoo, but have been loaned to Denver Botanic Gardens to live in our Boettcher Tropical Conservatory in order to represent a more complete tropical ecosystem. In the wild, ringed teals live in the wetlands of South America, often residing in ponds, small streams, marshy clearings in low woodlands, and in forested habitats. They are members of the wood duck group, and as such are small ducks which are agile flyers, often perching and nesting well off the ground to avoid predators.
After admiring our feathered friends, we continue up to the next level, where we find one of my favorite winter blooming shrubs, Clerodendrum quadriloculare. Its deep green leaves with purple undersides are graceful and lovely in every season, but January is the month in which the creamy white flower buds open and elongate into tubular flowers. The clusters of tubular flowers are borne in clusters called cymes, and the cymes of this Clerodendrum can grow to twelve inches across!
Continuing along the north wall of the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory, we will find another stunning tropical plant: Heliconia orthotricha. This plant’s common name is lobster claw, which makes sense as the inflorescence (group of flowers) is each backed by a colorful bract that resembles the shape and color of a lobster claw.
One last botanical highlight of the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory this time of year is another stunning blooming shrub, Hibiscus schizopetalus, which is close to the western entrance of the Conservatory. Hibiscus schizopetalus, commonly called Japanese lantern, is native to tropical areas in eastern Africa. The common name of this shrub also alludes to its flowers, which droop from the branches in a manner reminiscent of Japanese lanterns. The specific epithet (schizo meaning split and petalus meaning petal) is in reference to the curved, divided petals of each flower.
Thank you for visiting Denver Botanic Gardens and taking the time to enjoy the winter wonders of the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory. There is much more to see, so please wander about, and be sure to bid the ducks farewell on your way back into the brisk and crisp Colorado landscape.
Photos from the Gardens Navigator