Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 2 – heliconias and special plants

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.

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!