High above the tropical rain forests in Central and South America, the landscape rises to elevations upwards of 6,500 feet, the close tropical air cools to mist and fog and reveals an abundance of mosses, ferns and epiphytes. Amidst a backdrop of every shade of green imaginable, high moisture levels and cool year-round temperatures sustain plants that vie for precious sunlight. Here in San Francisco, conditions are ripe for cloud forest plants. We have mild temperatures and, especially in summer, plenty of fog. We started planting our Mesoamerican Cloud Forest in 1984. Over the decades, this garden has matured to represent a typical cloud forest plant community.
In their struggle for sunlight in the cloud forests of Central America, some normally herbaceous plants have a tree habit, developing huge leaves, large flowers and woody trunks. Telanthophora grandifolia is one such specimen, with its dinner plate size golden flower clusters (or inflorescences), 15-inch leaves, and 12-foot trunk.
This blooming super-hero, Fuchsia paniculata, is considered mite-proof. During the 1980's, it survived a gall mite infestation that devastated many fuchsias in the Bay Area.
One of the most enchanting of all flowering plants is the fuchsia with its recurved sepals half covering the dainty pendant flowers beneath.
Cloud Forest Resources
An Amazing Cloud Forest at the San Francisco Botanical Garden (EarthNews Journal)
Podcast with Curator, Dr. Don Mahoney
The Rare and Elusive Deppea (Pacific Horticulture)
Cloud Forest Daisies: Horticultural Treasures of Montane Mexico (Pacific Horticulture)
NAPCC Collections Profile
Mesoamerican Cloud Forest at San Francisco Botanical Garden
(Public Garden; PDF 3.1 Meg)
About the Collection
Anyone who's tried to grow a beefsteak tomato in San Francisco has bemoaned the fog at least once, but it's this cooling moisture that enables us to grow this wonderful plant collection. Found at 6,000-10,000 feet altitudes in Mexico's highlands, these plants thrive at sea level here because of our moist air and year-round, mild temperatures. A variety of species native to tropical mountains in Mexico, Central, and South America come together in the southwest corner of the Botanical Garden to recreate the feeling of an actual cloud forest – employing trees, shrubs, groundcover, ferns, vines and epiphytes to create a mass of dense vegetation.
In the 1960's and early 1970's, Dr. Dennis Breedlove, botanist and curator at the California Academy of Sciences, began work on the flora of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. In addition to collecting the standard herbarium voucher specimens, he also brought back seeds because he recognized the similarities in climate, and the possibility of preserving some of the rare and endangered cloud forest species in cultivation. Nearly 30 years later, Dr. Breedlove's experiment has matured into a collection of botanical exotics.
We began planting this collection in 1984 with seed collected by Dr. Breedlove and with propagules from the University of California at Berkeley Botanical Garden. The vast majority of these plantings were experimental, as almost all of these species had never been attempted in cultivation before. We were the first in North America to grow species such as Glossostipula concinna, Zinowiewia matudae, Lozanella enantiophylla, Weinmannia pinnata, Meliosma matudae, Cedrela salvadorensis, and Heberdenia penduliflora.
Over the decades, the collection has matured into a realistic representation of cloud forest habitat. Oaks, pines, alders, Chiranthodendron, and Zinoweiwia are now 20 (or more) feet tall, providing shade and shelter for a host of species such as Deppea, Monochaetum, Chusquea, Bartlettina, and Salvia. Vines such as Passiflora, Smilax, and Bomarea festoon some of the larger trunks and branches, creating a wild and jungle-like effect.