Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fantastic Flora

For those with a botanical bent, Costa Rica is a land of constant discovery. I'm sure there are many species of vascular plants there that have yet to be discovered. But the learning curve to get to where one might be able to find something undescribed is a steep one, and mastering all of the known flora is no small feat. I certainly don't pretend to be anywhere near that point.

But I do enjoy searching, and learning.

Not only are many of the plants interesting in appearance, some have very interesting habits. One might think of the jungle as a botanical New York City. Many want to live there, and there is little room for expansion. So, one must grow up, since there is no room to grow out. The tiers of plant communities - and consequently animals - is altitudinally oriented in the jungle. I want to share one of the more fascinating plants, when it comes to eking - or is it bulldozing? - out a niche.

But first, an orchid. Costa Rica has lots of them. Some 1,200 species, I have read. Some obscure and inconspicuous, some very much in your face. The one below falls in the latter category.

We were driving along one day, beginning to reach the higher elevations of the Caribbean slope, when I looked out the window and WOW! Like I almost always do at such moments, it was STOP! This plant jumped from the grassy slopes like a kangaroo on burning coals. I was ecstatic to see that it was an orchid, and one I'd not seen before. Noel Urena, our guide, knew its name - Spanish Flag, Epidendrum radicans. We were to see many of them in this region, but I never tired of seeing their brilliant crimson-orange blooms.
The common name stems from the colors, which approximate just that - the flag of Spain. Now, that's a fine flag and I've got no quarrel with any Spaniard, but that flag really doesn't hold a candle to the vibrant colors of this plant. It's hard for me to see how anyone could see such a thing, and not have to take at least one moment to admire it up close.

Now, to the baron of the jungle plants - the King of hostile botanical takeovers.

We are looking straight up the trunk of one of the jungle behemoths, a massive tree stretching 100 feet or more skyward. And it's doomed. Those pipe-like stems along the side that resemble water pipes are the start of a Strangler Fig, of the genus Ficus. There are several species and I'm not sure which one this is, but no matter, they behave similarly. This fig is not growing UP the tree from the ground - it is growing DOWN from the canopy. It begins life growing as an epiphyte high in the canopy, from seeds deposited, most likely, by a bird or possibly a mammal like a Kinkajou or monkey. After a while, it enters the primary hemi-epiphyte stage, when the plant sends down water-seeking roots, which eventually reach the ground and root. Depending on the height of the tree, it might take several years for the roots to touch down.

A bit closer view on those aerial roots. Note how they send out lateral roots which encircle the host tree's trunk. The strangulation has begun in this rather grisly botanical death battle. I felt and shook those aerial roots, and I can report that they feel just like steel rods. I'm told these roots are dense enough to quickly dull the teeth of a saw.

Stage Three, strangulation, is well under way and nearly complete in this specimen. By now, the strangler fig has enwrapped its host completely, and is the figs roots are melding together as one.

Finally, the fourth and last stage has been reached. The fig is a free-standing tree in its own right, the once numerous strangling roots having fused as one. The host, once enclosed inside, has largely rotted away, leaving the interior hollow. The crown of the fig is leafy, and it produces flowers and fruits. It may actually be overshading by the nearly mature fig's crown that shades out and puts the final knockout blow on the host.

No one said life in the jungle is easy, even if you are just a plant.

Several people have asked me if I was ever going to try and condense my photos from three trips worth of Costa Rica into some sort of coherent program. I am, and will have a visual journey through Costa Rica from Caribbean to Pacific ready soon. I'll be giving this PowerPoint program on April 9 at 1:00 pm in Worthington, Ohio. It'll be at the meeting of the Worthington Hills Garden Club, and they are a lively and welcoming bunch. With advance notice, anyone is welcome and they'll even serve you an excellent lunch, if you choose, for a nominal fee.

If you would like to attend, just e-mail me at and I'll see that you are included.

Be tolerant if I don't reply very fast, though. I'm leaving for the jungles of Guatemala for a spell this Saturday.


Tom said...


Have fun in G-mala. I saw strangler figs like this in Australia back in 1999, and I'm pretty sure they were Ficus as well. Interesting how two continents so far away could have such similar looking trees, but I'm guessing there's a gondwanan connection here.


thepowerguides said...

have fun sounds like will be a great trip

Steve From
The Power Bird Watchers Guide