Tropical Treats

Banana trees, vanilla orchids, cacao trees and thousands of other plants in Upland Tropical Rain Forest make the exhibit worth a trip!

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The National Aquarium's immersive Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit re-creates the heart of a South American rain forest, forest, one of the most biologically diverse—and rapidly disappearing—habitats on Earth.

There are about 145 different species of plants in the exhibit, with a horticulturalist on staff dedicated to their care. According to Curator Ken Howell, rain forest plant care duties include watering, fertilizing, trimming and pruning, propagating, and managing pests through biological methods that are safe for the animals. All these plants are native to tropical climates and happiest with high levels of heat and humidity.

Banana Tree

There are more than 500 varieties of bananas in the world but most of us are familiar with only one. The inexpensive variety found in every American grocery store is called the Cavendish. There are two banana species growing in Upland Tropical Rain Forest, one of which is the Blue Java cultivar that tastes like vanilla ice cream. (Yes, the lucky animals get to eat them!) Individual bananas on a plant are known as fingers, while each row of bananas is called a hand. Each stalk only produces one bunch of fruit and then dies.

The bananas that grow in Upland Tropical Rain Forest become food for the animals there.

Banana trees are native to Asia but are now cultivated in tropical habitats all over the world. And they aren't actually trees at all; they're the largest herb on the planet and are related to lilies and orchids.

Vanilla Orchid

The long, brown seed pod of this plant is the source of the vanilla flavor that's so familiar in ice cream, cakes, cookies and other treats. Endemic to Central and South America, vanilla orchids are now widespread throughout the tropics. The vanilla orchid is a vine that climbs up a host plant but does not draw nutrients from it. In a mature plant, the vine can reach as long as 100 feet. The flowers of the vanilla orchid range in color from white to creamy yellow to pale green, sometimes tinged with pink or red, and they are short-lived; each bloom only lives for about 24 hours.

Cacao Tree

Cacao is a tropical evergreen tree native to Central and South America. Its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, translates to "food of the gods," and chocolate lovers probably won't argue with that description. Two parts of the cacao plant are edible—the seeds or beans, which are dried and used to make chocolate, and the fruit, which is not widely available in the U.S. today. Cacao seed pods grow directly on the tree trunk, and their skin turns from pale green to yellow-orange to deep mahogany as they mature. Inside, the dark seeds are encased in sticky white flesh.

Cacao pods like the this one hold seeds that are dried and used to make chocolate.


There are about 2,500 species and several thousand hybrids and cultivars of bromeliads. Pineapples are one well-known variety; air plants are another. One thing all bromeliads have in common is that they take in water and nutrients through trichomes, which are small scales on their leaves, rather than through their roots. Their roots serve as anchors whether they grow in soil (terrestrial species), on rocks (saxicolous species) or on other plants, like trees (epiphytic species). Bromeliad leaves hold rainwater. Large bromeliads can hold up to a gallon of water in their whirl of leaves, while smaller ones hold about a tablespoon. Either way, bromeliads create important aquatic habitats, often high in the trees, that many organisms rely upon for survival.

Leaves of bromeliad plants hold rainwater and create important aquatic habitats.

Panama Hat Palm

This evergreen shrub with fan-shaped leaves lacks a woody trunk and is therefore not a true palm. Native to Central and South America, it's now found in tropical habitats all over the world and is cultivated for its appearance as well as the fibers of its immature shoots. These shoots are woven into the plant's namesake hats (which actually originated in Ecuador, not Panama), as well as mats and bags. Its leaves are used to make brooms, and its leaves, shoots, fruits and roots are all edible.


Bougainvillea is a colorful plant native to South America. There are 18 species that grow as shrubs, vines or small trees and vary in color from pink and purple to orange, yellow and white. These colors come not from the plants' flowers but from bracts—papery leaves that surround the actual flower, which is small and inconspicuous. (Poinsettias are another example of a plant with colorful bracts and inconspicuous flowers.)

Bracts, which are papery leaves that surround a small flower, give bougainvilleas their bright color.

Bougainvilleas grow in two distinct cycles—a vegetative period when new leaves, stems and buds appear, and a blooming period, when little or no vegetative growth occurs. Each period typically lasts for several weeks.

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