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Gringas are Definitely Not Native

unknown species all over Costa Rica. check out the pink, petal-like "bracts" (modified leaves) and the tiny star-shaped flowers.

Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.

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

Not sure what Asclepias species this is, but many of this genus are vital host plants for monarch butterflies.

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.

a beautiful unknown

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.

banana flowers provide nectar for these black bees

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.

butterflies are the natural pollinator of torch ginger, which makes sense considering they don't hover like hummingbirds, nor are small like many bees, so they need a substantial place to sit.

the parts that look like petals are actually "bracts", or modified leaves.

medicinally, torch ginger is used for fever, headache, bronchitis, and dysentary. In the kitchen, its stems can be chopped and added to curries or soups.

This Thumbergia grandiflora was vine-ing all over the place. The Bangladesh native is considered a pest in many tropical places.

some heliconias are native to tropical Latin American, and some aren't. Not sure about this species. These otherworldly flowers were everywhere, though.

Emilia fosbergii (aka "Florida tassleflower") is a dandelion that's not native to Costa Rica (it seems no one knows were, specifically, it's from beyond "the Old World"). Like so many dandelions, it's become a naturalized weed. It is used medicinally to treat high blood pressure.

Ixora cocinnea is from India. It grows as a shrub, and offers nectar for pollinating butterflies and fruits for birds. Its common names make sense -- "jazmin rojo" and "flor de fuego" -- given its resemblance to both jasmine and fire.

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.

they called this "cranberry hibiscus". Not sure if it is native or not, but its leaves tasted tangy and were probably full of Vitamin C.

commonly known as "tropical asparagus" or "katuk", Sauropus androsynus was a succulent addition to salads and is a popular leaf vegetable in the tropics. It's native to Southeast Asia. Perhaps it will be the next arugala in chi-chi foodie restaurants?

hibiscus was one of the first flowers I saw and recognized upon arriving in Costa Rica. The center of this one is throbbing, psychedelic. I love the five fuzzy stigma pads emerging at the top of the style.

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:

!Bésame!

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.

Centropogon granulosus

Stachytarpheta frantzii

Costa Rica's indigeneous people use the leaves of rattlesnake plant to wrap their dead prior to burial.

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).

an unknown aroid species growing up a tree

a Dieffenbachia species -- another Araceae. This genus is native throughout the tropical Americas, and is another common houseplant.

Monstera deliciosa, a.k.a. "swiss cheese plant" is another Araceae that was found everywhere in Costa Rica. There are 24 species of Monstera in the small country alone. Though I've never seen one fruiting, the fruit is edible and supposedly tastes like a combination of pineapple and banana.

Begonias were another plant common in shade gardens in North America that were growing wild all over Costa Rica, which boasts 34 species.

this little begonia was growing next to a huge buttress root in Costa Rica's first protected area, Cabo Blanco.

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.

Costa Rican maids have mad skills.

 

 

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9 comments to Gringas are Definitely Not Native

  • curtis

    Pretty sure that’s Asclepias curavassica.

    What a wonderfully informative post. The quote I used last Friday for my weekly newsletter ties in with your discussion about the natives thing. It doesn’t describe natural or native, but “right.”

    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” -Aldo Leopold

    As always, the devil is in the deets.

  • Pat

    Great post, lovely photos.

    I would also think that is Asclepias curassavica, widespread in the tropics.

    The beautiful thing at the top that looks like a cross between a Bougainvillea and a Mirabilis is a Mussaenda, in the Rubiaceae. Not sure what species but it could be a hybrid or garden variety.

    http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/e52/musaenda.htm

    http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=4444+4444+0510+1263

    http://www.photomazza.com/?Mussaenda-erythrophylla&lang=it

    Thunbergia mysorensis or something very similar for the one across from the Asclepias curassavica. Just opening so not folded back as far as usual. Or a very close relative.

    http://www.flowersofindia.in/catalog/slides/Mysore%20Clock%20Vine.html

    http://toptropicals.com/catalog/uid/thunbergia_mysorensis.htm

  • Kane

    This is such an amazing post, not only for the plant aspect, but also for connecting the issue of plant nativeness to human nativeness. It brings to mind questions like, “Are there places where certain humans shouldn’t live?” I suppose people aren’t naturally inclined anyway to live in extremely alien places. But the idea of causing harm to a system by adding a foreign root is relevant to things like colonization and missionary activity. Humans, I guess, differ from plants and animals in that they can be mindful of where they put down such roots. That places an awesome responsibility on humans that I think few realize they have.

    Also, more restaurant kitties, please!

  • Hi Curtis — Thanks for the species, and the props. It’s so hard to get into right and wrong (or should I say, it’s so easy but I try to watch myself so as not to come off as a dogmatic freak). But you know, as the world — our life support system, our health, part of us, really — is trashed 24/7, it’s a constant challenge to not go insane.

  • Hi Pat — Thanks for all these links, all the research. Awesome! Mussaenda, I’ll have to remember that. I do recall the borrowed book I was using down there about Costa Rican flora said, I think, that Rubiaceae is the largest plant family in that country.

  • Hi! Thank you, glad you got to thinking…..I just always feel like a jerk when going off about native plants and how they’re so important and how the California Indians use(d) them, and then checking out my whitey white skin and thinking of my long lost ancestors back in the mother country. I mean, it’s a pretty moot point now, but it’s still, I think, something to at least remember. It’s a hard question — all my life I’ve expected to live somewhere far away and relatively isolated in the county. And as much as the City (any City) is a dirty seething cesspool where almost everything is trucked in with fossil fuels, it is also bikeable, vertical, and concentrated. It is, for the most part, already destroyed “natural” habitat, 100% homo sapiens. Whereas building my dream Airstream way out of the way would likely be on top of a gopher nest, or serpentine outcrop.

  • Gorgeous photos, Katie! I especially love the torch ginger. Good to FINALLY visit your blog again…it’s been a while. Blessings to you.

  • Tan Harrison

    Hi great post. I was looking for the orange pink version of stachytarpheta frantzii and found this site. I agree with you so much about being unable to find the beauty anymore in a pace overrun by non natives. I also had the same reaction when I came to costa rica and not knowing what was not natives, found everything enchanting only to be disillusioned when I found most of the ornamental plants in peoples garden are non native and many invasive.

    Recently I have decided to open a native plant nursery just so people actually have an option to use native plants and also to educate. I am astounded by the beauty of the native plants and want to get more but am having trouble locating nearly ANY native plants for sale. So far I have collected by roadsides and have convinced our gardener to let the “weeds” grow. So now we have a butterfly garden with mainly native lantana’s and verbena. It is amazing how many butterflies we have now and how enjoyable it is to visit.

    Instead of chopping the grounds we have we just made pathways through it and most of the vegetation growing up is native.

    Thanks again for the post I’m mostly looked at being a crazy lady cultivating weeds, so it good to hear some sanity from someone!

  • Andy Firk at Bamboo Grove

    Great post!!! I believe that the one that you have labelled as Monstera is actually Tree Philodendron.

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