Family Overview

Onagraceae through Zingaberaceae

Neotropical, most members in this family are herbaceous, i.e. they lack a woody stem. Each flower has four sepals, the green part forming the structure called a calyx, and four petals. The color and shape of these flowers are very attractive to humming birds. Members of this family are versatile. They grow in mud, sand, rocks, and grassy plains. Some can even be aquatic. Well known species are Evening Primrose and Fuchsia.

Fuchsia hybridaFuchsia hybridaFuchsia triphylla

Fuchsia hybrida...................................Fuchsia hybrida.................................Fuchsia triphylla

This is the largest family of angiosperms in the world. There are over 30,000 species that are terrestrial, saprophytic, or epiphytic herbs. Most are in the latter category and produce aerial roots. The flowers are typically zygomorphic and bisexual. There are two sub-families: the Cypripedioidea, which have two stamens, and the Orchidoideae, which have a single terminal stamen. The fruit in this family is usually capsular. Tropical orchids have large, showy, colorful flowers loved by florists for bouquets and corsages. Each species has evolved over time to fit a certain niche and require specific sunlight, heat, and fertilization to grow and flower properly. Growth is a slow process because the orchid needs to build a partnership with a specific fungus. It could take several years before an orchid appears above ground to flower. Some terrestrial species have taken over ten years to flower.

PhalaenopsisDendrobiumPhalaenopsis "Sunshine"

Phalaenopsis..........................................Dendrobium....................................Phalaenopsis "Sunshine"



A family of trees, shrubs, and lianas found in the Old World tropics, Pandanaceae has three genera: Pandanus, Sararanga, and Freycinetia. The screwpine, Pandanus veitchii, is sometimes found in cultivation at a greenhouse or home. It was discovered in the early 1980’s that the calcium oxalate needle crystals present in certain members of this family could be a dermatological hazard. The species Pandanus caricosus is traditionally used for weaving mats but also used in bedding and as canoe sails. Its leaves are thorny like those of the screwpine, and when they reach 5-6ft long they are cut off. The thorns and mid-rib are removed, boiled, and laid in the sun to dry. After scraping they are rolled into coils until needed for weaving.



Fleshy herbs and soft shrubs, the leaves are usually alternate. The nodes are commonly swollen or jointed. Flowers are typically bisexual and are densely packed into rat tail-like spikes. Each flower is associated with an umbrella-like bract. The fruit is a berry or a drupe. The genus Peperomia is widespread throughout the tropics and has a distinctive candle-like inflorescence.

Piper obumbratum

Piper obumbratum

Polypodiaceae (Ferns)
Ferns are an ancient group of plants pre-dating the dinosaurs. They are leafy plants that grow in moist areas under the forest canopy, along creeks and streams, and other sources of permanent moisture. Ferns are vascular plants because they have well-developed internal vein structures that promote the flow of water and nutrients. Unlike other vascular plants, ferns reproduce from spores, not seeds, and have an intermediate plant stage called a gametophyte. The Maidenhair is called “Culantrillo” in Peru and “Avenca” in Brazil. It is known for its many medicinal uses for cough, asthma, a diuretic, pectoral, sudorific, expectorant, urinary disorder, heartburn, bronchitis, gallstones, hair loss, menstrual difficulties, and a sour stomach. Scientists have recently discovered its antibacterial, antiyeast, antiviral, and antihypoglacemic properties within the last 16 years. Another fern is the Cyathea dryopteroides or Elfin Tree Fern, endemic to “elfin forests” or “cloud forests”, which are at elevations above 1,000m. Platycerium superbum, known as the Staghorn fern, is found in Queensland, northern new South Wales, and Malaysia. Staghorns are named due to the antler-shape of the fronds, which produce spores on mature plants. The plant is an epiphyte and at their peak may dangle up to two meters. They lack the ability to grow plantlets so they continue to get larger each season.

Polypodium aureumSphaeropteris cooperiPlatycerium willinckii

Polypodium aureum...............................Sphaeropteris cooperi..........................Platycerium willinckii

Adiantum capillus-vemeris

Adiantum capillus-vemeris

This is the family which contains Psilotum nudum or the Whisk fern. It is a primitive spore-bearing vascular plant, growing 2-3 feet tall. The Whisk is native to southeastern United States, Japan and Australia. This plant is grown ornamentally for its interesting skeletal or broom like fronds. Whisks are frost sensitive, subtropical or tropical and can be terrestrial or epiphytic. Triangular stems hold tiny triangular leaves that bear yellow sporangia. Some believe it represents what the first vascular plants looked like.

Psilotum nudum

Psilotum nudum

Rubiaceae consists mostly of trees and shrubs. The leaves are simple and entire and usually opposite. Flowers are commonly actinomorphic and bisexual. An epigynous nectary disc is usually present. The fruit is variable, often forming multiples. Coffea arabica or Arabian coffee is a shrub from tropical Africa that is important for its red berries, which are fermented, dried, shelled, aged, roasted, ground, and used for brewing the popular drink. This is the principal export crop of Costa Rica, grown primarily in the highland regions. Cinchona pubescens, the quinine tree, also belongs to this family and is known for its qualities in the treatment of malaria.

Coffea arabicaIxora coccinea

Coffea arabica...........................................Ixora coccinea

This family is made up of herbs, shrubs and trees with waxy dark green leaves. The flowers are sweet scented, bisexual, and actinomorphic or zygomorphic. Each flower has three to five sepals in its calyx and three to five petals in its corolla. There is a nectary disk between the stamens and the ovary. Fruits are variable. Casimiroa edulis is a small tree in Central America with an edible apple-like fruit. In Mexico its bark, leaves, and seeds are used medicinally for sleep. The Citrus limon, lemon, Citrus reticulate, tangerine, and the sweet orange also belong to this group. The sweet orange originally came from China before it was introduced to Europe. On Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 the fruit was brought to the New World. The sweet orange is mostly cultivated in subtropical areas because they produce a better quality fruit. The flowers are white and self-pollinating. However bees can assist the pollination process. The fruits are spherical to oblong and the intensity of their color is dependent upon the climate and cultivation.

Citrus sinensisCitrus sinensisCitrus limon

Citrus sinensis.................................................Citrus sinensis.................................Citrus limon

This family contains herbs, shrubs, vines and trees spanning 2,800 species. The leaves are alternate while the flowers are bisexual and actinomorphic or zygomorphic. A nectary disk is present around the base of the ovary and the fruit is a berry or capsule. Brugmansia suaveolens, known as “Queen of the Night” or Angel’s Trumpet, is planted often as an ornamental tree. The light coloration and hanging form of its flowers are clues that they are pollinated at night by moths and/or bats. They have a sickly sweet fragrance in the morning and evening hours. Despite its pleasing appearance the plant is very poisonous. Other known species in this family are Capsicum annuum, the chili pepper, Nicotiana tobaccum, tobacco, and Cyphomandra betacea, the tree tomato.

Brugmansia suaveoloensBrugmansia suaveoloensBrunfeldsia

Brugmansia suaveoloens........................Brugmansia suaveoloens.................Brunfeldsia

Cestrum elegans

Cestrum elegans

This family is known as the crane-flower family or bird of paradise family. It is distinguished by the bird-like appearance of the inflorescence of some species and the woody, capsular fruits. Strelitzia nicolai is the white bird of paradise; a small tree from South Africa with leaves resembling those of a banana. Its flowers are large and white with blue “tongues”. Strelitzia reginae is the bird of paradise, a short plant from South Africa with bright orange flowers and blue “tongues”. The Ravenala madagascariensis from Madagascar also has banana-like leaves and pure white flowers that resemble those of the bird of paradise. This species is also called the traveler’s tree because its leaf bases trap up to a quart of water that could be useful for an emergency drink by a weary traveler. Another genus, Heliconia, is grown for its beautiful, colorful flowering bracts, which can be erect, pendulous, or spiraling. The shapes of bracts range from bird’s beaks, to lobster claws, to fan-shapes colored red, pink, gold, and orange.

Strelitzia1Streletzia reginae

Streletzia reginae

Zamiaceae are gymnosperms. They are palm like plants that stand tall and erect. Usually they display un-branched cylindrical stems clad with persistent leaf bases. Leaves are simply pinnate and spirally arranged with no mid-rib and longitudinal veins. They are native to Africa, Australia, and North and South America.

Encephalartos ferox

Encephalartos ferox

The ginger family is largely made up of perennial herbs that have creeping or tuberous rhizomes. Their leaves are alternate and have strongly ascending veins. The flowers, born on spikes or racemes, are bisexual, zygomorphic, and have bracts. The fruits are capsules or berry-like. Gingers are common throughout the tropics and are especially abundant in Southeast Asia. They are distinguished by the presence of a labellum formed by fusion of two sterile stamens and by the presence of essential oils in the tissues. They are used for spices, ornamentals, and medicines. The genus Costas, or spiral ginger has foliage that spirals around bamboo in Costa Rica. They are common in gaps in the wet forests. Costas stenophylus, the “Red Snake” Ginger, is colored with alternating sections of brown and tan in a barber pole fashion. The bright red bracts with yellow flowers look like a snake’s tongue. This species is native to Costa Rica and is becoming rare in the wild. Hedychium coronarium is the familiar white ginger.

Costus hecanusianus

Costus hecanusianus

Thanks to Paul Campbell, Laurie Kasperek, and Julian Shepherd for their plethora of knowledge, their patience with my endless questions, and unfailing support.

Family References

Glossary References

Last Updated: 12/1/15