Exotic Flowers

 

Orchids, birds of paradise, flamingo lilies: are these exotic flowers or creatures frozen in mid-metamorphosis?

 

 

Say the phrase "exotic flowers" to most people and the first word that comes to mind will be "orchids." The Orchidaceae family is indeed the largest of the flowering plant families, with a mind-boggling variety of species and hybrids–some 20,000 to 30,000. But for the sake of diversity–which orchids so clearly revere–we've singled out some other exotic flowers in addition to orchids that home gardeners might find to be a worthwhile challenge.

 

Anthurium

 

Anthurium andraeanum, or the flamingo lily, is an epiphytic evergreen tropical perennial native to Colombia and Ecuador. It can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 11 and 12, though it's grown throughout the U.S. as an indoor plant.

 

The flowers of the flamingo lily are composed of a yellow spike known as a spadix sticking straight up from a large, waxy red bract or modified leaf known as a spathe (typically about six inches in diameter). These exotic flowers look a bit like miniature versions of Titan arum, though they don't smell anything like the famous "Corpse Flower." Other exotic flowers in the Anthurium genus feature spathes colored white, orange, or pink.

 

When it's happy, flamingo lily flowers freely throughout the year. It prefers bright, indirect sun and consistent moisture.

 

Bird of paradise

 

A species in the genus Strelitzia, bird of paradise displays some of the most colorful exotic flowers in the world. S. reginae is the species properly known as bird of paradise. Its wing-like exotic flowers flaunt a dizzying blend of whites, oranges, blues, greens, and yellows.

 

Bird of paradise grows up to five feet tall, and if grown from seed, will take about five years or so to display its exotic flowers. If grown in a region where temperatures drop below 50 degrees, it should be kept indoors. Bird of paradise prefers full sun and moderate humidity.

 

Heliconia

 

For truly original-looking exotic flowers, consider one of the many species of heliconia. Heliconia's exotic flowers are panicles, or loose branching clusters of flowers, usually long, and either erect or drooping in habit. With their hot, bright colors, they look like something you'd buy at a carnival and eat with dipping sugar.

 

Some of the most exotic flowers of the Heliconia genus can be found on H. psittacorum. The cultivar "Sassy" features panicles that are light green on the bottom and orange in the middle, with a black band just beneath the white tip.

 

Orchids

 

A great deal has been written about orchids in the past few years, but one of the joys of these exotic flowers is that there's always more to discover.

 

It seems counterintuitive that such a large and well-known flower family as Orchidaceae could still be considered mysterious and exotic. But then you might say that the orchid is the Johnny Depp of flowers, loved by the masses and the cognoscenti.

 

Which isn't to say that these exotic flowers don't have their nerd appeal also. Taxonomical phrases like Oncidium Alliance sound more like potential Star Trek movie subtitles than groups of related orchids. And it takes commitment to be able to reel off genus names like Odontoglossum, Paphiopedilum, and Cymbidium.

 

If we seem reluctant to dig into the details of these exotic flowers, it's only because there are so many. If there's one thing that orchids are not, it's typical. Some are terrestrials. Some are epiphytes. Some are lithophytes. Some orchids actually look like exotic flowers, while others appear to be experiments in alien DNA.

 

Orchids are a lifelong commitment, producing the sort of madness so famously documented in Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Orchids aren't so much exotic flowers as they are obsession-inducing botanical creatures. So tread lightly: here there be dragons.

 

--Joshua Avram

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