Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
March, 2007
Regional Report

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This white-faced capuchin greeted us at our cabin in the Costa Rican rainforest .

Costa Rica Dreaming

I'm walking beneath towering fuchsias with long, pendulous, lipstick red blooms dangling above my head. Giant blue hydrangeas grow wild along the roadside, banks of wild impatiens and bougainvillea spread as far as the eye can see, and branches of the majestic trees above are laden with bromeliads and orchids. Monkeys hoot and screech in the treetops. This may sound like the fantasy of a New England gardener longing for spring, but it came true as I reveled in the abundance of flora and fauna on a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Though the country has become a popular ecotour destination, it's easy to get off the beaten track and find its wild beauty. Especially if you hire a local guide and slow down and look closely. One minute, necks craned, I'm using binoculars to spot sloths, monkeys, coatis, and kinkachoos high in the tree canopy; the next minute I'm on botanical pursuits. What are those skinny, black pods hanging from vines overhead? Oh, vanilla beans! The large oval fruits growing right out of the tree trunks? The raw ingredients of my morning cocoa! I catch a glimpse of something purple at my feet and recognize the tiny leaf as a wandering Jew in miniature. Huge lantana shrubs clothe the riverbanks and wild angel wing begonias climb all over the steep cliffs.

Many of the plants are wild cousins to the well-bred versions we grow at home. But in their natural habitat the plants have stories to tell: the split leaves of the philodendron are an adaptation that allows light to pass through to plants beneath while the vine climbs toward the tree canopy. The water reservoirs of bromeliads house a mini ecosystem of insects and organisms dependent on that environment, including the tree frog that lays its eggs in their handy receptacles. Some of these reservoirs can hold up to 2 gallons of water!

Trailing down trees and across the forest floor are streams of industrious leaf cutter ants carrying back to their colony impossibly large green scraps of leaves they excised from the tree canopy. They chew the leaf tissue into pulp and use it as a substrate to grow a particular fungus that's actually what the colony uses for food. After learning this, I tread carefully. Of course, watching where you put your foot is essential because of the poisonous snakes, but that's another story.

Local Wisdom
On our many hikes and overnight campout in the rainforest, we talk with the local guides about the effects of global warming and loss of habitat on their country. We've all heard about these pressures, but once you walk through primary forest, which can never be recreated, you realize what a jewel it is. While much of the primary forest has been lost, a considerable portion of Costa Rica's land has been protected since the 1970s, when the national park system, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and other land protection efforts were created. And numerous tracts of land once cleared for cattle raising are being reforested.

From Dulce, a staffperson of the nonprofit Friends of Monteverde Cloud Forest, we learn about the organization's projects to protect the unique cloud forest environment, with the help of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are local schoolchildren not intimidated about, say, fighting a developer's project that would have diverted a stream (they won).

Dulce also teaches us the smell of howler monkey pee, which is an indication that the monkeys are nearby and we might see some (we do). And she finds for us the most spectacular bird in the world (I've been longing to see one for years) -- the resplendent male quetzal, with his 2-foot-long tail in full courting plumage. He would have made the trip worthwhile by himself.

Back home I'm dreaming of a garden of towering tropicals and lush vines, and trees dripping with epiphytes. Of exotic birds, and butterflies like that electric blue morpho. To my relief, we didn't see any poisonous snakes, but let me tell you about the night walks and those tarantulas ...

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