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!