During the rainy winter season, Costa Rica’s foliage is abundant, lush, varied and beautiful. For plant lovers, it is awesome; for birders, it’s very cool and also very challenging. In many places, the tall trees, like the Cecropias, towered over mid-canopy trees, shrubs and ground cover, creating dense foliage where we were challenged to spot birds on twigs and behind leaves.
When you are in the rain and cloud forests and wearing glasses, it can also be frustrating – in some areas where we were birding, my spectacles (a nice old-fashioned word!) fogged up every half-second.
Our guide used a laser pointer (the green spot on the right) to indicate when he had found a bird among the leaves — “Look a foot or two to the left, right, above or below” — and we attempted to locate the winged visual target. Sometimes I found the bird and other times, I just couldn’t focus with glasses that required constant wiping and getting good photos was really out of the question.
Fortunately, photographing plants was somewhat easier than creating avian portrait. Heliconias (of which there are about 200 species) can be seen throughout Costa Rica. They are very attractive with their elaborate “inflorescences” – flower heads that include stems/stalks, bracts (modified leaves or scales from which a flower emerges) and the blooms themselves. The large colorful hanging or erect structures on them might seem to be the flowers but those are the bracts.
Some heliconias are called false birds of paradise as they closely resemble the Asian birds of paradise flowers (Strelitzia reginae).
Others are called by avian and animal names as well.
Lobster claw (Heliconia caribaea)
Expanded lobster claw (Heliconia latispatha)
Parrot’s beak (Heliconia and Heliconia psittacorum)
One yellow flower is called the rattlesnake plant (Calathea crotalifera); it was featured in a “Garden of wisdom” at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.
The name comes from the bract’s resemblance to a rattlesnake’s tail. Our guide told us that venomous yellow pit vipers will wait in the plant to ambush hummingbirds that come to feed on the flowers. Eyelash pit vipers will return to familiar ambush sites during spring bird migration!
Some of the foliage was enormous in size. The elephant ear (Xanthosoma) is a plant with huge leaves that can be seen along roadsides and in nature reserves. Other large leaf plants, likely philodendron species, serve as insect food.
Mushrooms similar to those we see in North Carolina were in almost all the habitats we visited. Here are just a few of them.
At one point, we birded near a small coffee (Coffea) plantation.
In one of the reserves, we came across cacao trees (Theobroma cacao). A member of our group touched the sticky insides of one fallen fruit and found it quite smelly.
Various species of palms were common and we were able to see some in bloom.
Elsewhere, we saw how small trees are pruned to form living fences along fields.
One of the most interesting plants we saw was the Columnea consanguinea. The green leaves are distinguished by translucent red heart-shaped patches on their undersides. These are visible from above the leaves as yellow-green areas.
The purpose of these markings is to attract the plant’s main pollinator, the green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula).
When they see the yellow-green/red hearts, they know the plant’s inconspicuous flowers will be lying nearby against the plant’s stem.
This plant with aerial roots had been cut off somehow; it was now in the process of covering itself with a gel-like substance, intended to discourage animals from chewing on it before the roots reached the ground.
Here are a few more lovely flowering plants that I couldn’t identify but certainly enjoyed seeing.
To conclude this focus on Costa Rican plants, I’d like to show a photo kindly shared by Nan DeWire – it reflected our attitude as we toured the marvelous natural areas.
The next Costa Rica blog will feature some of the mammals which we were lucky to encounter as we moved from place to place. However, a quick side trip to North Carolina will take place first to document a lucky event for a birder.