Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 1 – gingers and bromeliads

Our trip to Costa Rica in August this year took place during the rainy season, making for some challenging wildlife photography but giving us good views of lush vegetation everywhere we traveled. Our journey went through Guanacaste province with dry scrub, salt flats and mangrove swamps, the Monte Verde tropical cloud forest, the area around the Arenal volcano, and Caribbean lowland rain forests.

We traveled along highways lined with rocky walls featuring drainage pipes to help prevent landslides, as well as some narrow mountain roads with very deep and steep drop-offs alongside our driving lanes – at those times, I wasn’t necessarily looking out the window, especially when we had a nerve-wracking encounter on a narrow road with another vehicle requiring some backwards driving by our well experienced driver!

At one point we visited some salt flats to get a view of some water-loving birds such as plovers and sandpipers.

Other times, it was a pleasure to gaze out at the passing landscapes featuring forests, plantations, small settlements and homesteads, lush valleys, waterfalls and rivers.

 

Our arrival in Costa Rica immediately drew attention to the need to protect plants as the airport had numerous signs warning travelers about bringing in Fusarium wilt, a disease that can wipe out banana plantations within a short period of time. Along roads and in nature reserves, the banana plants (Musa) fortunately looked healthy.

   

While I enjoy gardening and am slowly replacing lawn with native plants around my house, I’m no horticulturist or botanist; identifying plants is a challenge for me. But I hope to show you a little here of the beautiful vegetation we saw in a two-part blog. And perhaps some of my fellow travelers may be able to identify some of the plants pictured (like those below) or correct anything I’ve mis-identified.

 

Guanacaste province, where we started out, has dry terrain as this region does not receive much rain and has consistently high temperatures. This contrasted with the tropical cloud forest in the Monte Verde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves where we spent time. Rain gear and umbrellas are a definite boon when spending many hours walking outdoors in these areas.

These forests may be chilly with temperatures at night sometimes falling to 55°F (13°C). The humidity can be close to 100% and we had to change our itinerary a couple times to avoid slick mountain roads when some storms came inland.

The tropical rain forests see the most rain and the temperatures usually range from 70˚F (21˚C) to 93˚F (+34˚C). We were fortunate to visit the La Selva Research Station owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies which has many species of plants and ants. Less than 10% of our world is (still) covered by tropical rain forests, but scientists have found that the rain and cloud forests are home to about 50% of the earth’s terrestrial species.

The natural areas where we stayed and visited offered up a wealth of wonderful flowers and plants. The gardeners among us especially appreciated the variety of foliage and colors. It wasn’t always easy to figure out which plants we were seeing, especially because many of the gardens and reserves also feature tropical plants from other regions of the world. They did put signs by some plants but not all of them; of course if your area is home to over 2000 plant species, as in La Selva, keeping signage up to date would be an endless task.

African blue butterfly bush (Clerodendrum ugandense)

Bougainvillea

As mentioned, many gardens and reserves in Costa Rica feature plants that originated in other world regions. One of my favorites, true ginger (Zingiber spectabile) is one of these. It is commonly known in the Western hemisphere as beehive ginger. The tubular bracts fill with rainwater and emit a ginger-like fragrance, which attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The bracts start off yellow in color and eventually achieve a wonderful red hue. The actual flower is a white petal protruding from the bract.

This type of ginger is promoted as a decorative cut flower as the bracts and flowers can survive long after having been cut. It has been used to treat illnesses in Indonesia and an academic study has indicated that this plant has antimicrobial properties; it also contains an enzyme that could possibly be effective in the treatment of colon cancer.

Other ginger plants were also lovely.

 

Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata)

 

Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) – one of my favorites!

 

 

Indian head ginger (Costos woodsonii) at left.

There are about 2500 species of bromeliads around the world and Costa Rica has its fair share. These plants can use water more efficiently than other plants because they have a specialized form of photosynthesis.

 

 

 

Bromeliads (Tillandea cyanea at the right)

The tank bromeliads feature leaves that hold water at their base in a kind of reservoir; the largest ones can hold up to two gallons of water. We were fortunate to see blue dacnis birds (Dacnis cayana) enjoying baths in a large epiphytic bromeliad. The reservoir in this air plant must have been a nice bathing spot since a line formed of birds awaiting their turn.

 

A flower that is probably familiar to US residents who have visited botanical gardens it the Angel’s trumpet (with white blooms, Datura arborea; with pink and yellow hues, Datura sanguinea). There is also a Brugmansia arborea, a tree with white blooms, that has been declared extinct in the wild. The Costa Ricans call this plant the Reina de la Noche – Queen of the night.

 

One newspaper article touted this plant as a form of aromatherapy because it has a fragrant and “relaxing” scent. However, my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda warned me that it is a highly poisonous plant and this has been confirmed.

The flowers below might have been Anthurium species.

 

                       Next blog – the heliconias!

Costa Rican rambles 1: a flower-laden arrival

Traveling to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas was a privilege I really enjoyed as part of my work in health care, gender and rights for immigrants and people living in developing countries. That frequent travel came to an end due to the circumstances of my retirement, so it was with enormous pleasure that I just participated in my first post-career trip to Costa Rica, giving me the first stamp in my most recent passport!

    

This was only my second time traveling as part of an organized tour (the first time was in the 1970s on a visit to the Soviet Union). While I would have liked to linger longer in some places, the accommodations and good food arranged by the trip organizer, our birding guide’s wit, our driver’s helpfulness, and my fellow travelers’ good spirits made for lots of laughter, interesting sightings and delicious, companionable meals – and it was relaxed as I didn’t have to worry about how to get somewhere and find a place to stay.

Costa Rica’s natural beauty was a daily delight, and I’d like to share some of what I saw in a series of blogs. Many blogs nowadays are short on text; my blogs will be long with lots of photos, which may be a challenge to some readers in these days of imited time (attention spans) and Internet surfing. But I hope those of you who stick it out will enjoy the descriptions!

Since this was a birding trip, the series will mostly feature avians, but I managed to get some photos of mammals, insects and reptiles, too. But to start, we’ll take a look at the abundant flora in the 10-acre Santo Domingo hotel garden where we spent our first afternoon and next morning. The Hotel Bougainvillea received the Costa Rican National Gardening Association’s award as the best botanical garden in Costa Rica and it was a pleasure to visit.

Not being a botanist and having never studied plants, it took me an inordinate amount of time to identify some of the plants; half-way through my searching, I finally understood that this garden also features tropical plants from other continents. I wasn’t able to ascertain the names of many flowers – if anyone can identify the unnamed ones, please leave a comment!

The bougainvillea were blooming and an African blue butterfly bush (Rotheca myricoides) also caught my eye.

 

The native Heliconia flowers were abundant and varied, appealing not only to humans strolling about the gardens, but also to the birds who sheltered among them, searched for insects there or drank the floral nectar. Some of these plants are also called lobster claws, parrot flowers and wild plantain.

 

 

 

Some of the 40 species of heliconias can grow up to 30 feet high; there are heliconias whose flowers grow upright and others that hang. Their bracts – modified leaves or scales that surround a flower – may be larger and more colorful than the actual flower.

 

 

        

 

I quite enjoyed the bromeliads, like this one (Guzmania lingulata); we saw them in abundance throughout the trip and it made me long for some in my own trees.

There were plants with which I am familiar such as lantanas and lilies.

 

 

      

I’ve seen the Angel’s trumpet in the NC Botanical Garden; all parts of this plant are toxic, as my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda pointed out. All seven Brugmansia species are listed as extinct in the wild. These flowers were either Brugmansia versicolor or insignis.

 

I had also seen the Anthurium and passion flowers (Passiflora coccinea) before.

  

One tree had me stumped; it reminded me of a mimosa but was different. It took more than an hour searching the Internet but I was finally able to identify it as the pink shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum)! It became one of my favorites.

 

Another favorite, which I would love to have in my garden, is the torch ginger (Etlingera elatior). Near it were some attractive golden shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea).

 

A few plants had handy name signs by them, like this mateares cactus (Pereskia lychnidiflora), which is almost extinct in Costa Rica (but abundant in other parts of Central America). It was right next to what looked like a type of prickly pear cactus.

Some of the non-Central American plants were really lovely. The bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) is endemic to Mauritius. The fan palm may have been a native though.

 

The blue-green jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), which looked like someone had dyed it, comes from the Philippines, while the bright orange flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is a Mexican plant.

  

    

The lily of the Nile (Agapanthus) is native to Uganda and Kenya.

The balloonplant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus), native to southeast Africa, didn’t look like a type of milkweed to me!

There were some lovely orchids, like a purple one that could be Guarianthe skinneri or perhaps Guaria morada (the national flower) and a yellow one, which I thought was Oncidium sphacelatum.

 

This type of lady slipper orchid had a name tag but unfortunately I forgot to write down the name!

    

And then there were the ones I couldn’t figure out.

  

  

 

 

The garden also featured a couple tables with examples of geological specimens for the mineral and rock collecting enthusiasts.

 

 

One part had what I think was petrified wood.

If you visit San José, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the hotel garden. Next up –  wildlife in the garden!

  

A morning at the Butterfly House – with birds, butterflies and more!

I have all these ideas for blogs in mind, and photos to accompany them as well, but I keep taking new photos and then get behind in posting. One day, the thought came that I could just not go out to photograph and settle down to writing some blogs, but going out for nature walks as often as possible has become a real need in my life. Scientists are saying that “forest bathing” is good for your health and being outdoors and observing and learning about the flora and fauna certainly contributes to my having a happier state of mind, while contributing to my overall stamina (but not weight loss, more’s the pity). I also enjoy “shoreline, field and meadow, creek, river, and backyard bathing.”

It came to me today, after spending 3.5 hours tearing out invasive plants from my yard, that one blog that doesn’t need to be postponed because I keep getting new shots to include is this one – my visit to the Durham Museum of Life and Science Butterfly House with the Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association.

The Museum had opened the Butterfly House for the morning for our group alone so that we could take photos for several hours without people walking in front of our shots. The Butterfly House is a 35-foot tall, glassed-in dome with many tropical plants such as the Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia). One of the four species of birds living in the conservatory, the Oriental white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus), was enjoying a meal of tropical flowers. The bird would pluck a petal from the stem and then insert its beak into the base; the white-eyes have a special brush-like appendage at the end of the tongue which helps them forage for nectar and pulp.

   

The white-eyes were brought into the conservatory to help control leaf pests and ants.

 

The butterflies were gorgeous and the subject of many photos in our group. The postman butterflies have variations within a species.

  

Common postman (Heliconius melpomene)

 

Red postman (Heliconius erato)

Another group were the longwing butterflies.

  

Cydno longwing (Heliconius cydno)

  

Sara longwing (Heliconius sara)

 

Tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale)              Doris longwing (Heliconius doris)

  

Numata longwing (Heliconius numata)

As we looked at the butterflies that landed low on flowers, we were able to see the Crested wood partridges (Rollulus roulroul) that are endemic to Asia. They breed in the conservatory, laying their eggs behind dense shrubs, and they help control soil pests in the Butterfly House.

   

Male                                                                        Female

At one point, a museum staff-member brought us a group of insects to see up close. One of them, I certainly would not have touched, although it was fascinating to watch: the Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus).

      

The Chilean rose tarantula (Grammaostola rosea) was a really beautiful tarantula that blended in well with the tree against which it was placed.

The dragon-headed katydid (Eumegalodon blanchardi) was an interesting creature. I do think its head looks more like a horseshoe crab, though!

 

   

The rhinoceros beetle was nice and shiny – I once saw a young boy in Thailand who had one as a pet; he was taking it for a walk in the forest and it looked to be about as big as his hand.

 

It’s interesting how the patterns on the dorsal and ventral sides of a butterfly can be so very different – you may need to look up both sides to get a good ID of the species. This is especially true of the Blue morpho (Morpho peleides).

   

The same is true for the male scarlet peacock (Troides amphrysus)

    

The female shows similarities in her dorsal and ventral wings.

   

 

The owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) was an impressively large individual.

 

 

 

 

 

The Malayan birdwing (Troides amphrysus) spent much of its time huddled up against the windows but I was able to catch it on a flower.

 

 

 

Two kinds of black-and-white butterflies were fluttering about, the Asian paper kite (Idea leuconoe) and the zebra mosaic (Colobura dirce) from Central and South America.

 

 

 

   

 

There is a glass case in the conservatory that has lines of chrysalids hanging on wires. At any time, you may see one or several butterflies that have just emerged and are unfolding and drying their wings. This individual was perched against the glass for the unfurling, giving an excellent view of beautiful feathery antennae.

 

 

 

There were two more birds in the Butterfly House that were beautiful to see. Both from Australia, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) was difficult to photograph as it spent a lot of time very high up in the dome.

  

The most beautiful – to me – was the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). The colors are a bit like the American painted bunting but they look as if they were put on in blocks of color like a kind of avian Mondriaan painting. I followed this bird around several times in the hopes of getting some nice photos and finally succeeded in my opinion. I’d love to have this bird coming to my feeders!