Blooming beautifully in the Conservatory is Warszewiczia coccinea, a small tree in the coffee family with fire engine red sepals that offset small yellow flowers. The name, a tongue twister, remembers Josef Warszewicz, a 19th Century botanist who found an enormous number of orchids and sent them to England to be described. Warszewicz was of Polish descent, born in 1812, but as a young man had to leave his homeland because of a revolution. He worked at the Botanical Garden at Berlin for four years, and then in 1845 answered an advertisement to hunt for plants in Guatemala. Yellow fever sent him back to Europe in 1850, but after a few years, he was restless to hunt again for plants and headed to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He discovered Cattleya dowiana, Cattleya warscewiczii, Cynoches warscewiczii, Sobralia warscewiczii and many other orchids bearing his name. Another bout of yellow fever in 1853 sent him back to Europe, where he became supervisor of the Cracow Botanic Garden. He died in 1866.
The first time I saw Warszewiczia coccinea was in Costa Rica at La Selva Biological Station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. The late ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who wrote more than 40 books and was a world expert on Central American birds, described the Warszewiczia in his book A Naturalist in Costa Rica. “The glowing color is provided by a single lobe on each calyx, which becomes two or three inches long.” He initially suspected the flowers would attract hummingbirds and honeycreepers, “but I watched for hours without seeing a single feathered visitor. Butterflies of many colors, along with smaller insects, seemed to be the chief pollinators.”
Sometimes called a wild poinsettia, the Warszewiczia grows in seasonally wet/dry forests throughout Central America to Peru and Bolivia as well as the West Indies. It likes well-drained soil.