Yep, just started this post with a cliche. Forgive me, or don’t.
For instance, I’ll be hiking Mt. Sutro with a friend, who will say, “Oh, this is so gorgeous!” and I can only think, “No, it’s not. It’s an ecosystem that’s been overrun by two species, blue gum Eucalyptus and Cape ivy, uggg. All I see is creeping death.” Or I’ll be working below Inspiration Point in the Presidio and visitors will comment that the newly restored serpentine grassland, brown in the summer and fall and studded with the periwinkle, magenta, and golden otherwise, is ugly. Then I can only think, “This is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the state, supporting rare endemic species. Do you know how much seed collecting, baby-plant nurturing, and ecological knowledge was devoted to restoring this habitat? This is gorgeous.”
Such subjectivities were a topic of conversation recently in Costa Rica.
Take it from this dozing restaurant kitty, or from the insistently loving mama goat: Phyte Club isn’t morphing into a blog about Costa Rica. Plant-wise, I’m not even that in to the tropics. However, I did just spend the first couple weeks of December tromping the country’s slippery trails, which necessitates at least a few posts. The nature there is effortlessly extravagant. And though the ecological interdependency isn’t greater, per se, than in the Cali desert or coastal foothills, there’s a lot of different stuff going on. Be prepared for a lot of green. As the local “Ticos” say, “PURA VIDA”.
Initially, it was enjoyable to be totally ignorant of the what species were native or invasive in Costa Rica. What a relief! The politics get old, and viewing the landscape divided by plant loyalties does, too. But as I increasingly felt non-native as a gringa tourist, being a foreigner within the entire ecosystem started wearing on me. I was not “at home” in the world, couldn’t locate my “place” within the humid and slithery jungle. I needed some bearings, some names, some familiarity and community.
The native/exotic split was a useful dichotomy to begin understanding the terrain. When a friend I was traveling with asked what the big deal is about whether a plant is native or not, I quickly snapped, “Well, it just depends on whether one values
biodiversity or not.” Which is true, though I didn’t mean to sound like such a dogmatic jerk: An ecosystem with native plants and animals has been able to work on fine-tuning an almost infinite number of relationships over evolutionary history. These species are adapted to local conditions. Throw in a particularly aggressive species from another land, and it can make the whole system go out of balance.
Predictably, we then got into a long conversation that became a humorous thread throughout the trip about what is “natural”. If humans are part of nature, and we fuck things up, isn’t that just “natural”? At what point do you stop playing god once you’ve started?
What about a sense of responsibility and stewardship to the biotic community, as part of the biotic community? And in terms of habitat restoration, there’s a whole ‘nother slew of politics — what gets “fixed”, who decides, what ecosystem is the reference point for the restoration, and can we even understand the complexity enough to model and construct a functioning natural system?
The “what is natural” conundrum can be circularly argued to infinity (don’t believe me? Ask any student of environmental ethics.). Perhaps arguing the meaning of “natural” is like debating the existence of “God”. There is no easy answer, and maybe there’s not “one answer” but instead, lots of grey areas to be negotiated as best as possible. Here are, however, lots of photos of plants from Costa Rica — some native, some non-native, and others unknown. Pardon the philosophical delay!
Many of the non-native species were from tropical regions in Southeast Asia or India. Even bananas (Musa acuminata), Costa Rica’s historic and controversial cash crop, are originally from the East.
Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior), which was familiar to me from Maui and Kauai, was aflame all over Costa Rica. Again, it is indigenous to none of these places, but to Java and Malaysia. One ID book said this species is used in Costa Rica to delineate property lines. What a beautiful alternative to chainlink or barbed wire or even wooden fences.
In terms of edibles, Costa Rica is lush with tropical fruits. Being rather ignorant, however, and not inclined to poison myself, I wasn’t going around sampling plant parts in situ. We did stay at a sustainable living center, where we ate lots of unfamiliar greens straight from the garden.
There are about 10,000 cataloged native plant species in Costa Rica, an area equivalent to the size of West Virginia or Nova Scotia. In the entire United States, there are about 30,000 indigenous species, only three times the amount found in Costa Rica in an area about 192 times the size.
The distinction for sexiest native Costa Rican plant has to go to Psychotria poeppigiana, commonly called “labios de mujer” or “labios de novia”. “Mujer” means “woman” and “novia” translates to girlfriend. “Labios” needs no further translation:
As with the aforementioned torch ginger, the red things that look like petals are actually bracts. The small yellow flowers in the center eventually turn into blue fleshy fruit. There are approximately 117 species of Psychotria in Costa Rica. I doubt they all look like lips, though that would be hot.
Along edges or in gaps of the tropical forest could be found Calathea crotalifera, or rattlesnake plant. Again, another example of bracts making the much smaller flower inside more noticeable. Rattlesnake plant has developed a complex trigger system to give and receive pollen to and from orchid bees, their main pollinator. This is an apt instance of the importance of native species. If an insect were to be introduced to that ecosystem and outcompetes the orchid bee, the rattlesnake plant could be affected because its pollinator would have disappeared. In turn, other species that depend on the plant for food or shelter would have to adapt or die.
Another commonly seen native was Centropogon granulosus, which blooms all year. Stachytarpheta frantzii, or porterweed, was all over, too, in shades from strawberry pink to a happy purple. Porterweed is a butterfly attracter with some significant ethnobotanical properties, as well, from stimulating menstruation to fighting bronchitis and eek, gonorrhea.
It’s a trip to walk around the tropical forest and see species you recognize as houseplants from thousands of miles away. These plants are perfect for the warm, low-light conditions of the indoors. About 62 species of Philodendron (“love” + “tree”) call Costa Rica home. These are part of the Araceae, or “aroid” family, which are often given away by their arrow- or heart-shaped leaves, as seen in the calla lily and devil’s pothos (perhaps the most common houseplant in the world, by my estimation; neither of those species are in the Philodendron genus, by the way).
Begonias were another plant common in shade gardens in North America that were growing wild all over Costa Rica, which boasts 34 species.
This final flower is definitely not native, though it was one of my favorites. It is most likely indigenous to China or India. Ethnobotanically, I found it very useful for relaxing after bathing, and as an anti-depressant.