Metro Parks Tacoma

Permanent Biological Collection

The W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory is home to a wide array of plants, many from
faraway places like Africa and South America.  Bring your family, your  class, or any other group to experience a unique place in Tacoma- a place where you can take a bit of the natural wonder of the world away with you!

The Conservatory’s permanent collection contains:
  • More than 250 individual plant species from all over the world!
  • More than 200 orchids, always in bloom!
African Milk Tree in the Conservatory African Milk Tree / Plant Family: Euphorbiaceae / Genus and Species: Euphorbia trigona
Ethnobotanical Facts: This plant may look like a cactus, but it is actually a succulent. It is often sold as an indoor or garden plant in warmer climates because of its interesting appearance and ease of growth. It is believed that sharing this plant with your friends will bring good luck. The cactus-like green and white variegated branches start from the sides and then grow to heights of 6-8 feet. Although the plant's name suggests that it produces food, all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, and the milky sap can cause skin irritation or allergic reaction when handled.
Observe: Can you guess why the name "trigona" is appropriate for this plant's appearance?
Native: Tropical Western Africa
Allspice Tree in the Conservatory Allspice / Plant Family: Myrtaceae / Genus and Species: Pimenta dioica
Ethnobotanical Facts: When crushed, the leaves exude a familiar aroma reminiscent of pumpkin pie. The combined scents of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper gives the tree its common name. Allspice was "discovered" in Mexico by 16th century Spanish explorers who called it "pimenta," confusing it with black pepper. Although allspice is grown commercially in all of its native areas, Jamaica is where the majority of allspice is produced. It is the only spice whose commercial production is exclusive to the New World. The fruit is a brown berry-like drupe, which is harvested before ripe, then is pressed to yield oils used for spice production.
Observe: The handsome whitish gray bark that peels in thin sheets.
Native: West Indies, Southern Mexico, Central America
Banana Plant in the Conservatory Banana / Plant Family: Musaceae / Genus and Species: Musa basjoo
Ethnobotanical Facts: The banana prefers full sun and very warm conditions but can survive to 28 degrees. Bananas have a chemical element in them called potassium which helps prevent muscle cramps. Bananas are also used as a medicine and the stalks and leaves are used to make cloth, utensils and houses. In his campaign in India in 327 BC, Alexander the Great relished his first taste of the banana. He is even credited with bringing the banana from India to the Western world.
Observe: Notice how the leaves unfurl as the plant grows.
Native: Southern Japan
Bottle Palm in the Conservatory Bottle Palm / Plant Family: Arecaceae / Genus and Species: Hyophorbe lagenicaulis
Ethnobotanical Facts: The bottle palm is used mostly for decorative purposes in landscaping. The palm tree is cultivated in nurseries because it was so extensively collected in its native habitat that at one point there were only 7-8 specimens left on the island.
Observe: The trunk of the bottle palm which is bottle-shaped.
Native: Round Island, part of the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean
Century Plant in the Conservatory Century Plant / Plant Family: Agavaceae / Genus and Species: Agave americana
Ethnobotanical Facts: This specimen is a "pup" taken from an older plant that resided at Seymour Conservatory until it flowered in 1988. Its flowering stalk was 30 feet high and necessitated the removal of glass panes. This dramatic life cycle is reflected in its name, "Agave," referring to the illustrious queen of Thebes in Greek Mythology. Their fibers are collected for use in ropes and other textiles. Just before flowering a rush of sap goes to the base of the stalk, Mexicans collect and ferment it to make their national beverage, pulque.
Observe: Note the sharp spikes on the leaves. Why are so many desert plants prickly?
Native: Deserts from SE California to Texas and well into Mexico, its primary habitat, where it is called the "Maguey"
Cocoa Tree in the Conservatory Cocoa Tree, Chocolate / Plant Family: Sterculiaceae / Genus and Species: Theobroma cacao
Ethnobotanical Facts: Real chocolate is a cacoa paste made from cacao seeds. The bitter paste is compressed into squares and used for cooking and baking. Ancient Mayans drank a chocolate drink made from cocoa. The cacao bean was so valuable that it was used for currency. Ten cacao beans purchased a rabbit. Unfortunately, one hundred beans purchased a slave. Most children of cacoa farmers have never tasted our chocolate bars. They do drink a bitter chocolate drink that sometimes has chilies in it, a real hot chocolate.
Observe: The new leaves are light colored. Can you tell which leaves are new and which are older?
Native: South America
Crown of Thorns in the Conservatory Crown of Thorns / Plant Family: Euphorbiaceae / Genus and Species: Euphorbia milii
Ethnobotanical Facts: This desert plant has thorny stems. The red part of the flowers are not petals but bracts (modified leaves). The Crown of Thorns was supposedly the plant used for Christ's crown of thorns. It was named after Euphorbius, a Greek physician in 1 AD, who used the sap to make medicine. However, the sap can cause skin irritation or blindness. It is popular at Christmas time along with a relative, the poinsettia.
Observe: Notice the colorful leaves. Ouch, watch out for the thorns!
Native: Madagascar
Egyptian Paper Reed in the Conservatory Egyptian Paper Reed / Plant Family: Cyperaceae / Genus and Species: Cyperus papyrus
Ethnobotanical Facts: This plant was used by ancient Egyptians as a source for making paper (papyrus). The original technique is still used to make expensive papers today. In southern Africa, the starchy rhizomes (underground stems) and culms (stems) are eaten, raw or cooked, by humans and young shoots are frequently grazed by livestock. The culms are also used for building materials.
Observe: The 'feather-duster' flowering heads of papyrus make ideal nesting sites for many social species of birds.
Native: Northern Africa
Giant Bird of Paradise in the Conservatory Giant Bird of Paradise / Plant Family: Strelitziaceae / Genus and Species: Strelitzia nicolai
Ethnobotanical Facts: The Giant Bird you will find here is actually a baby. This tree is named for its spectacular and exotically beautiful flowers composed of a dark blue bract, white sepals, and a bluish-purple tongue. The entire "bird" can be up to 7 inches high by 18 inches long, and typically grows just above the point where the leaf fan emerges from the trunk. Flowers are followed by triangular seed capsules. When fully grown, the tree's trunk can reach heights of up to 30 feet, topped with a fan-shaped crown of 6-8 foot banana-like leaves. These trees are used in large-scale commercial landscapes in warmer climates, and can also be found in shopping malls throughout the country.
Observe: Do you see any "birds" among the "fans," gracing the top of this palm tree?
Native: Sub-tropical South Africa
Harlequin Glorybower in the Conservatory Harlequin Glorybower / Plant Family: Verbenaceae / Genus and Species: Clerodendrum trichotomum
Ethnobotanical Facts: This deciduous plant can be grown as a shrub, or if pruned, as a small tree. Its jasmine-like flowers are very fragrant. After blooming the plant develops metallic blue fruit with magenta sepals. The genus name clerodendrum derives from the Greek terms, klero meaning chance, alluding to the unpredictable medicinal properties of plants in this genus, and dendron meaning tree. The leaves are used externally in the treatment of dermatitis and internally for the treatment of hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and joint pain.
Observe: The fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves. Can you smell the scent of peanut butter?
Native: Japan
Hawaiian Tree Fern in the Conservatory Hawaiian Tree Fern / Plant Family: Dicksoniaceae / Genus and Species: Cibotium splendens
Ethnobotanical Facts: The tree fern is also known as Hapuu in Hawaii. The soft brownish-yellow growth on the stem fronds, called pulu, was used for dressing wounds and stuffing mattresses and pillows in the 1800s. Young, coiled fronds are used in many recipes and require hours of soaking and boiling to make them edible.
Observe: The cotton like growth on the stem fronds and the curled young fronds. Can you find the spores (small brown spots) on the underside of the fronds?
Native: Hawaiian Tree Ferns are found in Hawaii
Ice Cream Bean Tree in the Conservatory Ice Cream Bean / Plant Family: Fabaceae / Genus and Species: Inga sp.
Ethnobotanical Facts: The ice cream bean has a sweet, edible fruit which has been eaten for thousands of years in Central and South America. The fruit is a long pod and the inside tastes similar to vanilla ice cream. The plants are also grown for shade for coffee, tea, and cocoa plants on plantations. The ice cream bean also has medicinal properties. It is used to treat arthritis, diarrhea, and rheumatism.
Observe: The symmetrical structure of the leaves that grow in dense spikes.
Native: Central and South America
Moth Orchid in the Conservatory Moth Orchid / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Phalaenopsis hybrids
Ethnobotanical Facts: Moth orchids are named for their butterfly/moth-shaped flowers. They are epiphytes, plants which grow above the ground surface, using other plants or objects for support, thus their major sources of water are dew, moisture in the air and rainwater running down the support plant. The primary use of these orchids is ornamental; growers create hybrids, mixing the best qualities of different orchids. They are well suited to home orchid growing because they are easy to keep and the flowers can bloom for up to four months.
Observe: The drooping, glossy, oval leaves. Leaves can range in color from deep green-purple to gray-silver. Do you think the flower looks like a butterfly or moth?
Native: Asia and Australia
Pacaya Palm in the Conservatory Pacaya Palm / Plant Family: Arecaceae / Genus and Species: Chamaedorea tepejilote
Ethnobotanical Facts: When harvested, the pacaya vegetable resembles a small ear of corn and can be eaten raw or cooked. The vegetable's taste is similar to asparagus. It has been cultivated and sold in markets for centuries. Understory palms or parlor palms, like the pacaya palm, are often sold as household ornamentals because of their slow growth and tolerance of indoor conditions.
Observe: The swollen white rings along the stem, they resemble bamboo.
Native: From southern Mexico to northern Columbia
Pitcher Plant in the Conservatory Pitcher Plant / Plant Family: Nepenthaceae / Genus and Species: Nepenthes maxima
Ethnobotanical Facts: This carnivorous plant attracts insects by secreting nectar. The modified leaves, or pitchers, are insect traps. Insects drink the nectar produced at the pitcher's rim, become intoxicated and fall into the pitcher, where they are digested and used as a source of minerals and nutrients that are missing from the soil. In the Odyssey, Helen of Troy gave nepenthes potion to soldiers to remove sorrow and grief, this inspired Carl Linneaus when he named the genus in 1737.
Observe: The similarities and differences between the upper and ground (lower) pitchers. See how the upper pitchers are more funnel shaped and have more intricate designs to attract insects.
Native: Southeast Asia, also found in Madagascar and Australia
Ponderosa Lemon Hybrid Tree in the Conservatory Ponderosa Lemon Hybrid / Plant Family: Rutaceae / Genus and Species: Citrus limon
Ethnobotanical Facts: This evergreen shrub with its sweet smelling flowers is very useful. It is rich in vitamin C which fights off infection. It was once a legal requirement that sailors should be given an ounce of lemon each day to prevent scurvy. Besides many medicinal uses, the juice, the rind, the leaves, flowers, and essential oils (made from the rind) are all used as flavoring in drinks, salad dressings, and desserts. The lemon is now thought to have been "The golden apple of mythology."
Observe: How do these lemons compare in size to our supermarket lemons?
Native: Maryland, USA
Red Oak Tree in the Conservatory Red Oak / Plant Family: Fagaceae / Genus and Species: Quercus rubra
Ethnobotanical Facts: Oaks produce acorns once they reach about 20 years old and produce one crop per year. Oak trees can live to be over 200 years old. Some oak trees, such as one in Louisiana, are believed to be over 1,000 years-old! The oak is said to represent strength and was voted America's National Tree. This tree is known as the Teddy Roosevelt Oak, it was planted in 1903 in honor of Teddy Roosevelt's visit to Tacoma.
Observe: The wide reaching branches that provide shade and the ridged bark which resembles ski tracks.
Native: Red oak trees are found in Canada and the eastern to Midwestern areas of the United States.
Sago Palm Tree in the Conservatory Sago Palm (Queen Sago) / Plant Family: Cycadaceae / Genus and Species: Cycas circinalis
Ethnobotanical Facts: This sago palm was started from seed over 100 years ago! Slow-growing sago palms (which aren't "true" palms) are living fossils that dominated the landscape over 150 million years ago. Once each year a single row of spiked leaves appears around the trunk. The new leaves uncoil and form a rosette that sits just above the existing crown of leaves. As the previous years leaves fall, the trunk is left with a new row of rough diamond-shaped scars. Sagos are dioecious: each plant is male or female. Males produce a 12-18 inch yellow cone-shaped rod in the center of the plant. Females produce a globe-shaped yellow center cone from modified leaves. When fertilized, the scale-like leaves cover bright orange seeds.
Observe: Can you tell if the plant is a male or female (Hint: look for old, long seed scales)?
Native: Southeast India
Silver Vase Plant in the Conservatory Silver Vase Plant / Plant Family: Bromeliaceae / Genus and Species: Aechmea fasciata
Ethnobotanical Facts: These showy tropical epiphytes are popular as indoor plants because they are easy to grow. The plant is named for its appearance – the Silver Vase Plant (also known as the Silver Urn Plant). The flower stalk emerges from the tight center rosette of leaves, and is composed of rosy pink bracts in which nestle pale blue flowers that change to a deep rose. The plant can be forced to bloom by supplying ethylene gas, which provides conditions that allow for bud formation. If the plant is enclosed in a plastic bag with a ripe apple for 7-10 days, a flower will appear in 1-2 months!
Observe: Admire the grey stripes and silver cross bands on the blade-like leaves. Could you have guessed that this plant is related to the pineapple plant?
Native: Brazil
Spanish Moss in the Conservatory Spanish Moss / Plant Family: Bromeliaceae / Genus and Species: Tillandsia usneoides
Ethnobotanical Facts: Though hard to believe, Spanish moss is in the same family as pineapples and is not, therefore, a true moss. Almost all members of this family are epiphytic, which means that they grow on other plants without parasitizing them. Though not grown commercially, it is gathered, cured, and baled for use in expensive furniture and mattresses. Long ago it was also used as the binder in plaster. The fibers are extremely resilient, and not eaten by any insects though many animals live and hide among its foliage in the wild. Spanish Moss absorbs moisture and nutrients though tiny scales ("trichomes") on its leaves.
Observe: Notice the fuzzy scales on the leaves.
Native: Virginia to Argentina
Staghorn Fern in the Conservatory Staghorn or Elkhorn Fern / Plant Family: Polypodiaceae / Genus and Species: Platycerium bifurcatum
Ethnobotanical Facts: This epiphytic fern normally grows on tree limbs without parasitizing them. It catches water and nutrients within the flat central leaves which seem to make it's own pot. The longer forked leaves bear spores and are responsible for the plant's common and scientific names.
Observe: The velvety spore zones under the forked leaves.
Native: Australia, New Guinea and parts of Indonesia / Lowland Tropical
Strawberry Guava Plant in the Conservatory Strawberry Guava / Plant Family: Myrtaceae / Genus and Species: Psidium litorale var. longpipes
Ethnobotanical Facts: With its glossy evergreen leaves and peeling bark, these attractive small trees are cultivated around the world. They also bear pleasant edible fruits which taste like a cross between a regular guava and strawberries and are high in vitamin C. In some subtropical areas they have escaped into natural areas and become a weed, spreading via root suckers.
Observe: The bark that peels off reveals a harder inner bark. Why might a plant might shed its outerbark?
Native: Eastern Brazil
Tree Philodendron in the Conservatory Tree Philodendron / Plant Family: Araceae / Genus and Species: Philodendron bipinnatifidum
Ethnobotanical Facts: Its name refers to the fact that it loves to climb trees: "phil" means love and "dendro" refers to trees. It can, however, stand on its own. It has deeply lobed leaves which is reflected in its specific epithet, bipinnatifidum which means "twice cut." Its flowers are very tiny and grow on a stalk subtended by a bract (modified leaf) which looks like one big petal. This type of flower is called a "spadix". The flowers on this species can raise their temperature by 36°F above the ambient temperature, intensifying the fragrance. They are typically pollinated by moths at night. The fruits are tiny capsules with about 30 seeds each.
Observe: See the large round scars where the leaves attached to the stem. And notice the little vein scars within them.
Native: Brazil

The Conservatory Education committee designed, researched, and photographed this plant tour in 2004.

Adriene L. Brown, Tacoma Community College
Sue Habeck, Tacoma Community College
Kathy Heimann, Blix Elementary
Amy Ryken, University of Puget Sound
Kathie Stork, Geiger Elementary
Lila Transue, Bellarmine Preparatory

Adriene L. Brown, Tacoma Community College

Book Design
Amy Ryken, University of Puget Sound
Megan Fish, University of Puget Sound