Exploring Mesoamerica: The Search for the Princess

Academy botanist Frank Almeda has discovered more than 100 new species of Mesoamerican "princess flowers," a plant family which he believes can be used to identify key habitats for conservation.

There's a strategy to finding a princess: instead of peas and mattresses, look for rich vegetation and moisture. "Princess flowers," so called by Almeda because their beauty is "fit for a princess," flourish in areas of high species richness and thus signify a healthy, diverse ecosystem worth protecting.

Mesoamerica's princesses, 60 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world, are favorites not only of scientists and gardeners, but also insects, birds, and mammals. The plant takes advantage of these faunal friends to spread its genes.

photo: Blakea scarlatina
Blakea scarlatina in the Melastomataceae (named by Dr. Almeda). The plant was spotted on the road to Reserva Forestal de San Ramon, Costa Rica. Insect is a Chrysomelid beetle.
Photo credit: Frank Almeda

 

map of princess flower species in Central America and Mexico
 

 

 

photo: Gordon McPherson and Frank Almeda
Botanists Gordon McPherson (left) and Frank Almeda (right) searching for plants in the Melastomataceae family in Fortuna, Panama.
Photo credit: Greg de Nevers

A bee that grasps the flower's stamen and vibrates its flight muscles causes pollen to be ejected from the flower's anther, earning the insect a nutritious reward, but so covering it in pollen that it unwittingly delivers some to the next flower it visits. In Costa Rica, rice rats feeding on energy-rich nectar at the flower's base must first pass their snouts through a ring of pollen-bearing stamens. The rat then carries this pollen to the next flower it feeds at. Bats and hummingbirds have also developed "pollinate-for-food" relationships with princess flowers.

Even with about 5,000 described species in the princess family, Melastomataceae, Almeda has returned from every expedition to Mesoamerica with a species new to science, making the Academy's collection from this region the most comprehensive in the world.

photo: Topobea fragrantissima
Topobea fragrantissima in the Melastomataceae family (named by Dr. Almeda). The flower is unusual for its sweet fragrance and was found in Fortuna, Panama.
Photo credit: Frank Almeda

Almeda is writing a chapter about princess flowers in an upcoming volume on the plants of the Mesoamerican region.