Notable floras of Rollins College


A guide to the lovely, strange, and notable floras of Rollins. And the stories behind them.

By Jay Hamburg | Photos by Scott Cook | Styling by Candice Stevens

You wouldn’t know it by strolling Rollins’ well-manicured grounds, but scattered about are plants that signify scientific pursuits, personal connections, environmental lessons, aesthetic tastes, heroic efforts, romantic tributes, and the just plain weird.

Tabebuia Tree

A Passing Splendor

The flowers of the trumpet tree sound a message that spring is fast approaching.

“It waits all year and then awes us with its sudden profusion of vivid yellow blooms that rapidly shed a carpet of color on the grass,” says Rollins President Emerita Rita Bornstein ’04H.

Bornstein loves the colorful tabebuia, which count hummingbirds and bees among its devotees. Indeed, her admiration led a landscape architect to plant a small grove that still puts on a cheery show in February or March.

“The flowers seem to burst forth overnight, and one morning, they magically appear,” Bornstein says. “It makes me happy to know that many others at Rollins also eagerly await the arrival of this spectacular flash of color in the spring. In the blink of an eye, the ephemeral flowers have come and gone. And we wait again for their arrival.”

Tabebuia Tree

Scientific name: Tabebuia chrysotricha
Native to: Central and South America
Height: 15 to 25 feet
Average life span: 40 to 150 years
Flowering months: February to April
Fun fact: They are often called trumpet 
trees because of the shape of their flowers.
Find it on campus: Rice Family Bookstore

Longleaf pine

Nature’s Networker

For hundreds of years, longleaf pines were the backbone of the diverse ecosystem of the southeastern U.S. They receded in the wake of European settlers who cut down the trees for timber, cleared them for farming, or tapped them to make turpentine.

“Less than 3 percent of that original habitat still exists,” says Professor of Environmental Studies Lee Lines.

The remnants remain vital to the maintenance of the open woodlands. Their dry pine needles pile up and form tinder ignited by lightning. Swift ground fires clear underbrush and cull competing hardwoods, whose canopies would otherwise block sunlight and limit diversity.

The longleafs usually survive the flames, shielded by their moist, spongy inner bark, and grow tall enough to offer shelter to several protected species, such as the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker, and Sherman’s fox squirrel. Fox squirrels, in particular, have a mutually beneficial relationship with the trees, eating pine nuts and nibbling on fungi that grow near the roots. In return, the squirrels transfer spores of the fungi to other longleaf pines. While drawing sustenance from the tree roots, the fungi grow outward and play a key role in helping the longleaf collect nutrients in dry, sandy soil.

“There’s a real beauty to it,” says Lines, who made sure saplings were planted near the environmental studies building. “You get a sense of the complexity of nature and of how things are interconnected through the trees."

Longleaf Pine

Scientific name: Pinus palustris
Native to: Southeastern U.S.
Height: 80 to 100 feet
Average life span: 300 years
Fun fact: A good example of longleaf pines and their sandhill habitat can be found at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka.
Find it on campus: Beal Maltbie Center

Corpse plant

The Strangest Flower

Rare and stunning, this flowering plant often stands taller than a basketball player and blooms just once a decade.

However, when it does, the exotic giant creates a sensation in the botanical world similar to the birth of a panda in the zoological. Visitors line up to gawk. People snap photos. Gardens hold naming contests for the new arrival.

And, yes, congratulations may be in order for the Rollins greenhouse. If all goes as expected, this may be the year Rollins has its first Amorphophallus titanum bloom. If so, it will be one of the very few to bloom in Florida and perhaps one of 200 ever to bloom in cultivation around the world, according to Alan Chryst ’93, Rollins’ greenhouse manager.

During its 36-hour blooming cycle, the plant reveals a flowering protuberance that may stand several feet tall. You would hope that one of the world’s largest, single-stemmed flower clusters would also have the world’s most fragrant aroma. But breathtaking though the plant may be, the corpse plant more than earns its name. “It smells like carrion or decaying meat,” Chryst says.

Chryst, who grew the plant from some seeds he traded for a few cocoa seeds 10 years ago, is excited about the impending arrival. “I’ve never seen one in person,” he says. “For most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”

Corpse Plant

Scientific name: Amorphophallus titanum
Native to: Rain forests of western Sumatra
Height: 6 to 8 feet in cultivation, up to 20 feet in the wild
Average life span: 40 years
Fun fact: The first corpse plant to bloom outside its natural habitat occurred in London’s Kew Gardens in 1889.
Find it on campus: Greenhouse

Jacaranda Tree

Symbol of a 40-year Marriage

Steve Phelan and Jean West were English professors at Rollins when they met, fell in love, and decided to plant a jacaranda tree to commemorate their wedding in 1974.

The couple chose the tree because they had seen them growing in Winter Park and thought their lavender and purple flowers were beautiful. They chose Orlando Hall’s courtyard for the tree’s location so that every day, as they went to work, they could see it grow and thrive.

They didn’t ask permission to plant it. The rules were perhaps not as strict as they are today or maybe it was informally approved. After all, they did add a homemade note to their little jacaranda. “We put a tag on it,” West says. “It read, ‘Wedding tree. Do not disturb.’ ” And no one did.

Phelan says that although they were proud of their tree and their marriage, they were a little worried when after a decade the tree still hadn’t bloomed. On the other hand, it had endured some of the worst freezes in Florida history during the 1980s. That was thanks, in part, to its placement in the courtyard—housed between the protective walls of Orlando Hall and Sullivan and Woolson houses—which provided some shelter from the freezing winds.

When it finally did burst out with purple blooms after more than 20 years, West and Phelan were delighted. So were all those who passed by.

“It was encouraging,” Phelan says. West added with a touch of pride: “It’s a survivor.”

Jacaranda Tree

Scientific name: Jacaranda mimosifolia
Native to: South America
Height: 25 to 40 feet
Flowering months: April to June
Fun fact: In Pretoria, South Africa, legend holds that if a jacaranda blossom falls on the head of a student during final exams, it means academic success.
Find it on campus: Orlando Hall’s courtyard

Pitcher Plant

The Benevolent Carnivore

Here is a strange fact about the carnivorous pitcher plant: It feeds on some ants while helping others survive.

The insect-eating plant produces a sugar that lures bugs into what might be viewed as its wide mouth. However, only a few ants fall down the plant’s throat. The slippery inside walls of the pitcher plant and its inwardly curling top edge make it all but impossible for the insects to crawl out. The few that do fall in will eventually dissolve in a mixture of trapped rain and digestive juices secreted by the plant. The rest steal sugar and carry it back to feed the colony.

“They are actually helping their prey,” says Paul Stephenson, associate professor of biology, who grows them in the greenhouse and has been researching them for several years.

While giving free sugar to the escaping prey might not make the pitcher plant the most efficient carnivore, it does keep the plant deeply entwined with its habitat: rain forests and jungles.

But why do they need to eat insects in the first place? Answer: To absorb needed nitrogen. Even though pitcher plants live in tropical climates, where vegetation grows and decays quickly, they can’t absorb much nitrogen from the acidic jungle floor, and frequent rain washes away nutrients usually found in decaying matter.

“I find the plants very fascinating,” says Stephenson, who is working to identify the digestive enzymes—of which there are still many to be discovered—produced by the plants.

Pitcher Plant

Scientific name: Nepenthes ventricosa
Native to: Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Thailand, Borneo, India
Length: About 6 inches
Fun fact: Larger, related species can digest lizards, frogs, and rodents.
Find it on campus: Greenhouse

Live Oak

Still Standing

The live oak tree that stands on the slope above the Cornell Fine Arts Museum is estimated to be more than 100 years old. It was such a dominating, reliable presence that for years, Scott Bitikofer, director of facilities management, liked to joke that he was no more likely to leave campus than the big tree itself.

But the engineer never expected to have his humorous boast tested. So he took it a little personally when Hurricane Charley blew through Central Florida in 2004 and pinned the big tree to the ground, threatening to completely uproot it—a certain death sentence. Before the winds had fully died down, Bitikofer and a few assistants were out on the hill, fashioning a temporary prop to stop the colossus from collapsing from its own weight.

Emergency times called for emergency measures. With no lumberyards open, Bitikofer went to the only source he knew: a pile of heavy timbers slated for the College’s presidential home.

Bitikofer engineered a temporary fix that also withstood two additional hurricanes that fall. Later, he fashioned a permanent metal brace in his home shop. The final support system includes a concrete base with a sitting area, and Bitikofer especially likes seeing students relaxing there under the shade of the curving giant.

“We just felt that the tree was the appropriate tree for the museum,” he says. “That’s a tree built by an artist.”

Live Oak

Scientific name: Quercus virginiana
Native to: Southeastern U.S.
Height: 60 to 80 feet
Average life span: 200 years
Fun fact: The USS Constitution reportedly received its nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 because its live 
oak hull was so tough that British warships’ cannonballs bounced off it.