The Madrigal Family
Plant science in...

Plant science in Encanto

In 2021, the enchanting Madrigal family hit our screens in Disney’s 60th film, Encanto. The critically acclaimed film is set in Columbia and watches a family overcome transgenerational trauma through the medium of very catchy musical numbers. I haven’t stopped listening to the soundtrack since I first watched the film at Christmas.

One of the songs is performed by Isabela Madrigal (voiced by Diane Guerrero), a granddaughter blessed with the power to make plants grow. As you can imagine, I’m extremely jealous. Throughout the song, Isabela sings about those plants, some of which I’d not heard of before.

In looking for information on the plants from Encanto, I discovered this wonderful story from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the incredibly talented human who wrote the soundtrack that now lives permanently in my head. In a tweet, he writes:

“Our next door neighbor Fabian in our last apartment is a botanist for the NY Botanical Gardens. Called him in a panic, saying, “I need to know everything about Colombian plants, & other exotic weird plants you can give me.” An hour later, all these GREAT NEW WORDS!”

I love that Miranda asked the advice from a Botanist to write this song, using his own words to pull the song together. So let’s take a look at some of the native Columbian plants featured in Isabela’s song, “What Else Can I Do?”

Flor de Mayo by the mile

Flor de Mayo

As well as rows and rows of roses, Isabela grows Flor de Mayo (Cattleya trianae) by the mile. In English, Flor de Mayo means, “mayflower”. We also have a few plants known as mayflower here in England, for example the Cuckoo Flower, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. Unlike our mayflowers, Flor de Mayo belongs to the orchid family, a family that is quite prolific in Colombia.

Flor de Mayo is a particularly special orchid because it is endemic to Colombia, meaning that this is the only place in the world that you can find it growing naturally. It’s in part because of this that Flor de Mayo was chosen to be the Colombian National Flower.

It was also named as the national flower because it has the colours of the Colombian flag in its lip (yellow, blue and red), and because its Latin name was named after a Colombian botanist, José Jerónimo Triana. Triana cataloged thousands of Colombian specimens through the 1800s, studied their medicinal properties, including that of quinine, and set up his own herbarium.

Unfortunately Flor de Mayo is suffering a similar fate to many species right now. Due to habitat destruction and illegal harvesting, Flor de Mayo is now considered an endangered species and is on the National Red List of Colombia. Being at the heart of Colombia’s cultural identity, we can only hope that through strong conservation efforts, we can stop this species from going extinct in the wild.

A hurricane of Jacarandas

Jacaranda

Imagine walking down a street lined with these brilliant blue blossoms, their petals dancing elegantly on a summer breeze. It’s easy to see why Isabela would refer to them as a hurricane of Jacarandas! Blue Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are sub-tropical and native to South and Central America. It’s not impossible but unlikely that you’ll see them in the UK because they are not at all frost hardy.

Reading about this species, I found a brilliant and (hopefully true) story about their link to Australian exam season. Apparently, “Purple Panic” is a term used by Queensland students to describe exam stress in the summer. It just so happens that the trees are in blossom around their exam season, and so the presence of these magnificent flowers are now a symbol of impending stress! It’s also been given the nickname “exam tree”.

While Jacarandas are ornamentally planted in North America and invasive in South Africa, this species is listed as Vulnerable in its native habitat on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list. Species labelled as Vulnerable are considered to be at high risk of human-caused extinction without our intervention.

Strangling figs, hanging vines

Stranger fig

This next plant is a real favourite of mine, so hold tight. Stangling Figs, or Strangler Figs (Ficus aurea) as they’re more commonly known, are native from Florida to Panama and some parts of the Caribbean. Like me, you probably recognise it from adventure movies. The lead galavants through the jungle canopy to find an old stone temple, laden by Strangler Fig roots.

You might be able to guess how this fantastical looking plant got its name. Strangler Figs are epiphytes, meaning they draw their moisture and nutrients from a host plant. When their roots eventually reach the ground, they rapidly grow, stop living off their host and instead strangle it to death. Talk about ungrateful. The Fig then lives on the corpse of its former host as a fully independent plant.

Many Figs have an obligate mutualistic relationship with wasps, meaning they need each other to complete their lifecycle. Strangler Figs are no exception and are dependent on the Fig Wasp Pegoscapus mexicanus. The Figs need wasps to pollinate their flowers and wasps need the Figs to reproduce in.

Strangler Figs have many uses, besides having edible fruits. Latex from their trunks can be used as chewing gum and aerial roots can be used for fishing lines, bow strings and lashings. The plants themselves have been used as natural fencing by farmers. So while host plants might see a Strangler Fig coming as think it a nuisance, we find them quite useful.

Palma de Cera fills the air

Next up is another Colombian native that fills the air with its amazing height of 45m. Palma de Cera (Ceroxylon quindiuense) grows in dense communities along the Andes, making it quite a spectacle. It’s no surprise then that it has been named the national tree of Colombia.

Because of the dense population in which these trees grow, they create a fabulous environment for lots of important animal and bird species. One of which is the Yellow-Eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis), so named because of the yellow feathers that extend from their foreheads to their cheeks. This is particularly important because the Yellow-Eared Parrot is a vulnerable species, according to the IUCN. I read a really great article about its conservation and so I’ll leave the link here in case you’re also interested.

Palma de Cera is known by another name, the Quindío Wax Palm. It was given this name not because it has a waxy texture, but instead because it can be used to make wax for candles. I loved finding this out because the film Encanto centres around the magical candle that bestows the miracle on the family. I wonder if that same candle was made from Palma de Cera wax.

It pains me to write this, but just like the Yellow-Eared Parrot, Palma de Cera is on the IUCN list as Vulnerable. Unfortunately, the species has been both intensely harvested and cleared for agriculture and settlement. I’m starting to think Isabela sang her song to also raise awareness for the endangered plant species of Colombia.

A river of Sundew

Sundew

Last but certainly not least, I’m going to deliver us a river of sundew. There are many species of sundew and I was unable to identify which one they featured in Encanto so I’ll focus on the genus Drosera for this post. Although there is a Drosera colombiana, it’s really hard to find any information on this species.

Drosera is the sundew genus which consists of nearly 200 different species, making it the largest genera of carnivorous plants. That’s right, this sticky little cutie eats animals. The way they do this is by luring insects onto their leaves, which are covered in a sickly sweet, sticky secretion. Once the insects are stuck, the leaves produce enzyme that slowly digest them. This is arguably the goriest form of plant carnivory. Some species are even able to curl their leaves around the prey to entrap them as they digest.

Sundews have evolved carnivory in order to survive life in nitrogen poor soils. They entrap and digest insects so that they can break down the protein in their bodies to make up for this nitrogen deficit. Plant carnivory has evolved independently multiple times, meaning sundews aren’t related to all carnivorous plants. However, one it is related to is the Venus Flytrap, which we met in my Legend of Zelda blog post a while back.

My “Plant science in…” series has to be my favourite. What a great way to discover new species of plants from all over the world. I get excited watching shows and movies, reading books or playing games, thinking about the amazing plants they feature and wondering about their backstory.

Investigating the botanical world of Encanto has been a real treat. Lin-Manuel Miranda did a fabulous job of taking the advice from a botanist and weaving together a song that really encapsulated the amazing plants of Colombia. I’ve had such fun discovering them and writing about them here, and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about them too.

Image credits

Flor de Mayo: Alejandro Bayer Tamayo

Jacaranda: Tomas Castelazo

Strangler fig: GayleKaren

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