Heliconia and other beautiful and bizarre plants of Costa Rica

Colorful berries in the bracts of a Heliconia stricta, (photo by Corrie Wingate)
Colorful berries in the bracts of a Heliconia stricta

The many species of flora in Costa Rica offer a vibrant introduction to the kaleidoscopic plant wealth of the tropics, including heliconias, orchids and even plants that grow on other plants.


The big hitters

Many visitors’ first contact with Costa Rica’s spectacular plant life comes at the hotel reception desk, which is often adorned by a vase of heliconias – strikingly angular red or orange flowers, also known as lobster claws, which grow in the country’s forests.

Heliconias are typical of the outsize blooms that flourish in Costa Rica’s warm and humid climate. As a rule of thumb, the biggest and most robust flowers – including heliconias – are pollinated by birds or bats, while more delicate flowers are pollinated by insects. This second category includes most of the country’s orchids – another group of plants for which Costa Rica is justly famous.


waxy torch ginger flower

The scepter-like flower of the waxy torch ginger is also called emperor's rod


Origins of the species

Costa Rica has a prodigious number of native plants, including approximately 1,000 different species of trees. To add to this botanical richness, many other species have been introduced from different parts of the tropics, for food or for ornament. Food plants include bananas, which arrived in the early 1500s; coffee, mangoes, and sugar cane; and also the African oil palm, first cultivated on a large scale in the 1960s. Many of the showiest garden and road-side plants are from distant parts of the world. Among the most eye-catching are jacarandas, South American trees that produce a mass of purplish-blue flowers.


A budding Costa Rican fern

Humid, dense forests harbor more than 800 species of wild ferns, ranging from low-lying plants blanketing the rainforest understory, to tree ferns that can soar as high as 25 meters (82ft). Costa Rica also exports a huge number of cultivated ferns, used to adorn flower bouquets worldwide.


The plants that grow on plants

Costa Rica’s forests are home to an immense variety of epiphytes, or plants that grow on the shoulders of other plants, often far above the ground. Epiphytes manage this remarkable feat by collecting rainwater and by scavenging nutrients from any organic debris that is washed or blown their way.

Of all the country’s epiphytes, bromeliads are the most conspicuous. Tank bromeliads collect water by funneling it into a central reservoir formed by their leaves. These plants can measure more than1 meter (3ft) across, and their tanks can hold several liters of water. Other epiphytes, including most orchids, have specialized roots that absorb water and nutrients before they have a chance to evaporate or drain away.

In forests, a different collection of plants – including philodendrons and the Monstera deliciosa, also called the Swiss-cheese plant for its huge leaves pitted with a pattern of holes – start life rooted in the ground, but soon head for the sunlit treetops. In the wild, the Swiss-cheese plant and its relatives have a bizarre growth pattern. If the plant climbs up a tree that turns out to be too short, it simply drops back to the forest floor and searches for another likely, taller, host.


A ‘hot lips’ plant in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

A ‘hot lips’ plant in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

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Keep following the blog for more articles on Costa Rica and Tico culture throughout August, from Costa Rican coffee and the country's volcanoes, to the best adventure sports and top beaches...

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