Walt Disney Animation Studios’ newest feature film, Encanto, is not a movie about plants. But plants are far more than background greenery in this story. They play an important role as the plot unfolds, and take center stage in one of the more lively musical numbers. Even the plants that are in the background serve a purpose.
Below is a closer look at some of the more notable plants featured in Encanto, along with some insight from the botanist with St. Louis ties who helped this fantastic flora come to life on the big screen.
Rows and Rows of Roses
The story takes place in the mountains of Colombia, centered around the Madrigal family. Each child in the family is blessed with a magical gift—except for the film’s protagonist, Mirabel.
Plants feature prominently throughout the movie, but perhaps nowhere more so than from Mirabel’s older sister Isabela, a “golden” child whose perfection manifests in her ability to grow plants and flowers at will.
Isabela’s botanical breadth is on full display during the song “What Else Can I Do?” after confronting a difficult truth seems to unlock her ability to create more than just perfectly symmetrical flowers. First, a cactus. Then, as the song unfolds, a “hurricane” of jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia), strangler figs (Ficus species), and hanging vines.
“One plant that I recognized in the song, and was accurately portrayed, was the sundew (Drosera), a type of carnivorous plant,” says Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturist Daria McKelvey. “Isabela says ‘Can I deliver us a river of sundew? Careful, it’s carnivorous, a little just won’t do.’ I remember seeing sundews in Central Texas, around the Austin area, though apparently they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.”
Although Isabela’s botanical talents grab most of the spotlight, she’s not the only Madrigal who harnesses the power of plants. Mirabel’s mom, Julieta, was gifted with the ability to heal through food. If you look closely, you’ll notice her apron filled with specific herbs like chamomile and mint.
A St. Louis Connection
Disney Animation Studios goes to great lengths to build true-to-life environments as the settings for their films. For Encanto they enlisted the help of the Colombian Cultural Trust. This group of experts consulted with the filmmakers on subjects such as architecture, clothing, indigenous culture, food, and of course plants. The botanist who helped advise the animators can count the Missouri Botanical Garden as one of the places that helped shape his career path.
Felipe Zapata is a native Colombian who now studies evolutionary biology at the University of California Los Angeles. Zapata earned his PhD at the University of Missouri St. Louis, working closely with Garden botanist Peter Stevens and botanist Elizabeth “Toby” Kellogg. His research in St. Louis focused on the genus Escallonia, and a number of his plant collections during that time are part of the Garden’s herbarium.
It was Zapata’s expertise that helped Disney animators accurately depict the plants from his home country in the movie, and he says the attention to botanical detail was impressive. “A recurrent theme in all our meetings was the very detailed questions the team had prepared for me about general plant morphology, including leaf colors, leaf shapes, leaf attachment to the stems (phyllotaxis), flower variation, flower symmetry, etc. It was truly fascinating for me to see the level of detail and how careful were the team of illustrators and animators to get things right!”
Paying Attention to Trees
One plant that is ever-present throughout the movie is the wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense). This magnificent palm can grow to about 150 feet tall, and gets its common name from the wax that covers its trunk. It is the national tree of Colombia, and can be found in forests high in the Andes Mountains.
The wax palm is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List because of over-harvesting of the trunks for wax and the palm fronds for religious ceremonies.
“There are very few places remaining in Colombia where one could see a pristine forest of wax palms, so it was great to see this plant in its native habitat playing a central role in the movie,” says Zapata. “As a botanist, I was also paying attention to details in the background that most people perhaps may not be paying much attention to, and I was so excited to see one of my favorite plants, Cecropia trees. These are landmark trees in the Andes, so easy to identify from the distance because of their large, silvery leaves.”
A non-native but culturally and economically important tree also features prominently in the movie—coffee (Coffea arabica). The ripe red berries can be spotted outside the Madrigal family home, sitting in large burlap sacks next to a machine used to separate the pulp from the bean (really a seed). In other scenes, small plantations of coffee trees are seen dotting the hillsides. Although the coffee plant is originally from Africa, it is widely grown throughout Central and South America, including Colombia.
Just Scratching the Surface
The examples above only touch on some of the many ways plants are highlighted in Encanto. Zapata says viewers can be on the lookout for members of the Araceae (aroid), Melastomataceae, and Heliconiaceae plant families, among others. Pollinators also play a role. Yellow butterflies are featured throughout the movie and carry a special symbolism within the story line.
The film is a wonderful vehicle to highlight the amazing biodiversity of tropical habitats, and Colombia specifically.
Zapata says that representation is important, “I think this sort of representation in movies like this one is important because it can accomplish a few things. First, I believe this sort of realistic representation respects and acknowledges the local biodiversity and culture of other countries (in this case, Colombia) in a genuine way. This in turn exposes people who watch the movie to a more autochthonous perspective of a country and its attributes rather than to an ‘outsider perspective.’
Second, for many people this sort of representation could empower and develop a sense of belonging when they identify themselves or their local environments represented in a truthful way. This could potentially foster learning by local people about their biodiversity, history, and culture.
Lastly, I believe movies which could reach a broad and worldwide audience like this one are ideal vehicles for disseminating accurate scientific information (also historical and cultural information). Popularization of science, even if subtle, can generate awe and wonder, which in turn can result in a new generation of scientists and develop general interest in science by local communities or even political authorities.”
Senior Digital Media Specialist