Walking with Willow

By Susan Mahr

Sign at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

Sign at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

This morning we visited Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve with Willow Zuchowski, author of A Guide to Tropical Plants of Costa Rica. It was awesome having a world-renowned expert leading us through the forest, stopping every couple of feet to look at another plant.

Willow tells the group about fig pollination.

Willow tells the group about fig pollination.

She enthusiastically told us about the specific things we saw, but also discussed the weather patterns of the area, seed dispersal in bromeliads, fig pollination, the relationship between hummingbird beak length and curvature and the shape of flowers, about begonia flowers and their method of pollination by deception, the most common families of trees that occur here – although there are over 180 plant families represented – and more. We made really slow progress on the narrow rock and dirt trail as there was a cool flower here, and interesting tree there, now an unusual plant with an interesting life history, and another beautiful flower.

Willow explaining about the palm Chamaedorea costaricana (L), red flowers of Razisea spicata (LC), yellow flowers (RC), tree fern (R).

Willow explaining about the palm Chamaedorea costaricana (L), red flowers of Razisea spicata (LC), yellow flowers of Burmeistera parviflora(RC), tree fern (R).

Blooming bromeliad Pitcairnia brittoniana on a tree (L) and inflorescence (LC), palm Prestoea sp. (RC), pink flower of Drymonia conchocalyx.

Blooming bromeliad Pitcairnia brittoniana on a tree (L) and inflorescence (LC), palm Prestoea sp. (RC), pink flower of Drymonia conchocalyx.

Begonia cooperi plant (L), female flower (C), male flower (R).

Begonia cooperi plant (L), female flower (C), male flower (R).

Centropogon solanifolius flowers (L), seeds of Pitcairnia brittoniana (C), Drymonia rubra flower (R).

Centropogon solanifolius flowers (L), seeds of Pitcairnia brittoniana (C), Drymonia rubra flower (R).

Millipede (LC), flowers of Cavendishia sp. (L), the group on the trail (R).

Millipede (LC), flowers of Cavendishia sp. (L), the group on the trail (R).

We learned about the thermogenic flowers of Xanthosoma, how some trees produce aerial roots that grow into the thick covering of mosses on their limbs, and the impact of climate change on some of the species here (including the disappearance of the golden toad that used to live only on the very top of the mountain).

Willow points to the inflorescence of a Zanthosoma (L), the flower closeup (C) and moss and epiphyte covered tree (R).

Willow points to the inflorescence of tall elephant ear, Xanthosoma undipes (L), the flower closeup (C) and moss and epiphyte covered tree (R).

Jim taking a picture (L) of Bomarea caldasii (R).

Jim taking a picture (L) of Bomarea caldasii (R).

We hiked up the steep trail to the Continental Divide, where we could see the Pacific Ocean way off in the distance in one direction, and the slopes going down the Atlantic on the other side. It was nearly hurricane force winds up on the exposed top – and the trees are shorter than lower on the slopes because of the stunting effect of the intense wind – but relatively protected when we were under the canopy. The strong wind made photographing small flowers especially challenging.

Looking east from the Continental Divide at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

Looking east from the Continental Divide at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

Of course we stopped to look at any birds we saw or heard along the way. For much of the time we were serenade by a black-faced solitaire, and periodically saw redstarts (two different kinds). Toward the end of the walk Willow heard a quetzal, and Gustavo was able to get the female bird in the scope for a short while before it flew off. The girl is not nearly as spectacular as the boy, lacking the long turquoise tail the male has. We searched in vain as we went through areas they had been seen in recently, but never saw another.  But we did get to see some of the small fruits of trees related to avocados that are their main food source.

Black guan (L), redstart (C) and female resplendent quetzal (R).

Black guan (L), redstart (C) and female resplendent quetzal (R).

Aguacatillo (“little avocado”, Ocotea sp. ) tree (L), and fruits (C and R).

Quetzal chow: aguacatillo (“little avocado”, Ocotea sp.) tree (L), and fruits (C and R).

Once we returned to the entrance we made a short visit to the hummingbird garden, where numerous species of the tiny, colorful birds zipped around the feeders.

Hummingbirds flock to the feeders (L), green crowned brilliant (LC), violet sabrewing in flight (RC), juvenile black-throated mountain gem (R).

Hummingbirds flock to the feeders (L), green crowned brilliant (LC), violet sabrewing in flight (RC), juvenile black-throated mountain gem (R).

After lunch we toured Jardín de Orquídeas (Monteverde Orchid Garden). This secluded garden right in the center of busy Santa Elena has more than 450 species of orchids, nearly all native to this area. We were issued magnifying glasses, as so many of these species are miniatures, with tiny flowers to go along with the tiny plants.

Entrance to Jardin de Orquideas (L), Maureen poses in the big orchid flower (LC),B’Ann inspects a tiny orchid flower (RC), Masdevallia striatella flower (R).

Entrance to Jardin de Orquideas (L), Maureen poses in the big orchid flower (LC),B’Ann inspects a tiny orchid flower (RC), Masdevallia striatellaflower (R).

Our guide first explained the working parts of an orchid flower and how they are pollinated, then took us around the winding paths, pointing out many interesting specimens. There are a few showy species with dramatic flowers, but most are so small that you could easily walk by the plants without even noticing them, much less realizing they are in flower – a lot of the flowers were less than ¼ inch long.

The guide points out an orchid to the group (L), blossoms on a grass-like orchid (LC), Becky and Linda look at a tiny orchid flower (R).

The guide points out an orchid to the group (L), blossoms on a grass-like orchid (LC), Becky and Linda look at a tiny orchid flower (R).

Leptanthes horrida (L), orchids growing on the small trees (LC), Speelinia leterina flowers (RC), Pleurothalis phyllocordia (R).

Leptanthes horrida (L), orchids growing on the small trees (LC), Speelinia leterina flowers (RC), Pleurothalis phyllocordia (R).

Most are mounted on the trees or were in hanging containers. Some look like typical orchid plants, but others resemble grass, ferns, or pepperomias. A flower spike may have a solitary flower at the end, or there may be dozens of blossoms in regular ranks along the spike. Some come out of the middle of the leaf, others are on gracefully arching stems.

An oncidium flower (RC), Brassia arcuigera (LC), C. discolor (RC), Dan, Kari and Willow look at orchids (R).

An oncidium flower (RC), Brassia arcuigera (LC), C. discolor (RC), Dan, Kari and Willow look at orchids (R).

Such a diversity of unique and interesting species! We even got to see Platystele jungermannioides, purported to be the world’s smallest orchid, in bloom – with little rounded leaves about 1/8 inch long and a flower only 2.5mm wide.

Dan looks at the smallest orchid in the world (L), the plant of Platystele jungermannioides (C) and its tiny flower in front of the end of the fingernail (R).

Dan looks at the smallest orchid in the world (L), the plant of Platystele jungermannioides (C) and its tiny flower in front of the end of the fingernail (R).

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