July 5, 2013

South American Cloud Forest Plants for your containers

Looking for something new and exciting for your summer containers that will make your neighbors jealous? I suggest using some of these newer introductions from South America - high elevation cloud forest plants ( available only from a few specialty growers on-line), that will have your outdoor decor ( and hummingbirds) looking totally swole.
For more about this discovery from my trip to San Francisco, click below.

Fuchsia boliviana, a tall tree-like Fuchsia with long, drooping corymbs which are very fuchsia-like, but with foliage and branches more like a tree than a tender shrub. Common in sub-tropical gardens, this is plant rarely found in northern temperate gardens, yet is worth seeking out for large containers for temporary summer color outdoors.

While exploring the many plantings at the San Francisco Botanic Gardens and Strybing Arobortum, both located at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,  I came across a surprise - a garden planted with only Meso-American Cloud Forest plants.  I wanted to share these with you since many of these plants make great tub and container plants for decks and terraces ( I will share sources at the end of this post - it's not too late to order a few now for summer color). The sub-tropical plants of Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina are diverse and interesting, for both collectors and every-day gardeners, as there are more and more new species being introduced. We always think of places like South Africa and Asia as locations where choice garden plants come from, but there are some very exciting plants from our Southern continent worth discovery.


Most of us are familiar with fuchsia hybrids, but there are many species and relatives which also make great garden plants in mild climates, and even better container plants for terraces and cool greenhouses if you live in a climate like mine.  My trip to San Francisco may have included many tours of gardens in the area, but I also took some side trips during my break to explore gardens that appealed more to my tastes - such as this one. I am preparing my orders now for many new plants that I saw at the SFBG, and, this trip helped inspire me to plan more side trips when I finally plan my trip to South America.

Fuchsia boliviana ( available from Annie's Annuals, yet they are currently sold out), can be planted in a large container in early summer, making an exotic looking colorful blooming plant for a shady deck or garden. Shade is essential, as these plants dislike heat and full sunshine. Generally, you will find two varieties, a red form  of F. boliviana, and a white form called F. boliviana ssp. alba, but don't be fooled by this name, only the outer part of the calyx is white, the rest is an attractive reddish magenta. F. boliviana is very pretty, and very exotic looking, something different for your shady, damp and cool spot.

Fuchsia boliviana var. alba has a white calyx, but still retains a reddish-magenta petal.

I think it's worth sharing what a mature plant looks like, as many of these cloud forest plants become woody with age suggesting that younger plants appear more healthy in containers. If one takes cuttings each year, plants will look more
tidy and dense. In the wild, these understory shrubs become branched and woody,
with blossoms appearing on new growth.


There are nearly 30 species of Alstroemeria native to South America, and most are native to the grasslands and Pampas areas, but a few grow in higher environments.  I wanted to include Altroemeria here mostly as a reminder that these common florist cut flower plants are from South America, and so that you can see how a colony may look when not grown in a container or greenhouse. Alstroemeria are still young in the world of garden plants, with new varieties being bred and selected for northern gardens where some are becoming more hardy and more tidy in habit, as most alstroemeria are rather messy looking in the garden, which is always a disappointment.

Most alstroemeria are summer dormant, with fleshy tubers and roots which can also be killed by summer dryness if a
little moisture is not provided. These are irrigated, yet will still slow down in a month once temperature rise. 
In the garden, Alstroemeria can be difficult to work into a design scheme, but if sited properly, where they can inter-mix with other plants which can provide support for their fleshy stems, the effect can be rather nice. I've
seen nice displays of newer hybrids in pots, if the pots are used in a mixed container display.


The vine-like Bomarea superba has been on my wish list for a long time, and now I think that it's time to get a few. The only source I know of right now is Telos Rare Bulbs, but if anyone knows of another source, please let me know. This relative of the Alstroemeria, is vine-like, and honestly, not very attractive in character, so finding the pefect place for it will take some creativity, as this is a plant which liked to tumble through branches and nearby plant growth as it reaches for the light, but the reason one must grow Bomarea is for its flowers, which are brilliant and unique, hinting at their relation to Alstroemeria, but with more flowers and brighter colors. Native to northern Peru, Bomarea are still rather new to most gardeners, and again, something special and unique for the right grower.

Bomarea superba, native to northern Peru, shows off with a brilliant head of flowers, and it's relationship to
Alstromeria - they are in the same family.

The flowers on Bomarea may indeed be 'suberba' but the plant often looks messy, so be forewarned.

Once a Bomarea blooms, all fear of ugly stems is gone.

This Bomarea had brilliant orange blossoms, and denser growth habit, maybe because it was getting a bit more sun?


Now for something different  - unless you live near Sydney Australia, you may not be familiar with Bartlettina sordida, but why am I mentioning Australia in a post about South American plants? Well, this is a species that might just be more common in Australia, than in its native land of Mexico, as it has escaped there, and has become a bit of a pest, and a weed. This is another one of those plants that look best when young, grown in a container or small garden, but then cut back hard, or tossed into the compost, after taking cuttings, of course. The photo shows how the plant looks like ageratum, but in real life, it is much nicer.

The blue, fuzzy flowers of the under-story shrub Barttletina sordida, look very Eupatorium-like, but it is no longer
included in that genus, now having one of its own.

Bartlettina sordida, a native of Mexico, if often thought to be a native to Austraila, but it has only been introduced there
and now, an escapee. 


Lobelias are found all over the planet, from the tiny blue-flowered annuals that we all are familiar with, to large trees in the Hawaiian Islands, but in Chile, there exists a very special lobelia, L. tupa - a giant as far as perennials, ( and Lobelias are concerned) that can grow 12 feet tall, and topped off with brilliant red, tubular flowers that drive hummingbirds mad. Apparently, the foliage can drive humans mad, as it has hallucigenetic effects, hence it's common name, Devil's Tobacco.

Lobelia tupa is a giant amongst lobelias, but it's worth planting in your sub-tropical garden if you want
hummingbirds - this is plant that will attract many of them.
Lobelia tupa looks more like a salvia, than a lobelia at first glance.


No post about South American contributions to horticulture could be complete without mentioning auricaria - the monkey puzzle tree, and Gunnera manicata, the prickly Chilean Rhubarb, a gigantic-leaved water-side plant often seen as a show-off plant in plant collector gardens, and at botanic gardens.

There are many everygreens native to Chile that can be grown in western gardens, from coastal California,
 to Seattle and Vancouver.

Gunnera manicata, growing at the San Francisco Botanic Garden.

More Gunnera growing along the edge
of a pond, just the conditions this plant loves. Some of these rough textured leaves can be 8 - 10 feet in diameter.


  1. Thanks for highlighting these cool plants! I'm already growing the Lobelia tupa and the Gunnera in my garden, but none of the others. I like that F. boliviana with the white calyx. I'll have to look into whether it will thrive here in the PNW.

  2. looks like you had a great time in s.f. and much better luck getting home than some people this weekend i hope!

    thanks for the last two lovely posts. why don't more americans grow monkey puzzle trees?


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