Some plants are hauntingly beautiful; others are grand oddities. And then there are some, like the hot lips, that are just flouncy flirts.
To call the flowers of this plant unusual would be an understatement. Its blooms resemble not only human features, but also many pop culture references, from the Rolling Stones to Lulu Guinness, the Rocky Horror Picture Show to the work of Andy Warhol.
Hot lips, hot tropics
Hailing from the tropical areas of Central and South America, Psychotria elata (now known as Palicourea elata) grows in the understory of rainforests and can reach up to three metres (10 feet) in height.
The bloom looks most like a pair of pursing lips just before maturity.
Aside from its more playful name, it is also known as hooker’s lips and, in the many Spanish-speaking countries it resides, labios de puta.
Kisses for whom?
The ‘lips’ of P. elata are not petals, but modified bracts, similar to those of a Poinsettia or crown-of-thorns. However, this plant is more closely related to coffee.
The true flowers are held deep within these bracts and are pollinated by hummingbirds and butterflies. With their long bills and proboscises, these pollinators ‘kiss’ the bloom to access the rich nectar within.
As the bloom matures, the true flowers appear, which are white and fragrant.
The bracts look less lip-like as they mature to expose the true flowers.
Indigenous cultures have used hot lips for their medicinal properties. The Kuna tribal society of Panama traditionally uses the plant to treat dyspnoea, a condition of shortness of breath.
Throughout Central and South America, other local inhabitants use the bark and leaves of this small-growing tree for the treatment of coughs, skin rashes and earache.
The blue-black berries produced after flowering also add to the hot lips’ uncanny appearance!
Many unusual plants can be grown in the home, but hot lips are a little trickier. They are challenging to obtain, and seeds are usually are the only means of growing available on the market.
Secondly, plants need to be quite mature to produce flowers. As P. elata grows to the size of a large shrub/small tree and comes from regions with high heat and humidity; a conservatory is needed.
There are over 200 species of Psychotria, click on the link for more information about a more commonly-grown relative, the black-bird berry:
One last kiss...
Unfortunately, P. elata is now under threat from deforestation and fires in its native range. Moreover, P. elata is also one of few host plants for the rare golden silk moth. Both the plant and moth have become severely endangered.
With its iconic, whimsical flowers, the hot lips have become one of a number of species which truly highlight the plight of the rainforests and how humans are having an increasingly savage impact on the planet's valuable ecosystems.
Let's not kiss goodbye to one of nature's most unusual and eccentric flowers.