Dave Looks for Plants

Journal of a plant explorer

Archive for the ‘#01-Costa Rica: June 2005’ Category

First time in the jungle – Costa Rica 2005

Monday, June 27th, 2005

My first trip to the neo-tropics to look for Costus plants was filled with anticipation.  I had researched extensively on the internet trying to plan a productive trip.  I had spent many hours listening and repeating back the Spanish phrases from the Pimsleur Language tapes.  I would walk our dog around Lake Ella with earphones in my ears, repeating out loud in my fledgling attempts to pronounce those new sounds.  ¿Buenas tardes senior, como estas?  ¡Mucho gusto en encontrarlo!  Over and over again as I walked around the lake.  People would look at me and shake their heads, thinking that poor man must be a bit crazy talking to himself like that. 

By the time I boarded my flight to San Jose, I had everything all lined up.  Upon arrival I would go to the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) in Santo Domingo to meet with the famed Costa Rica botanist Barry Hammel of the Missouri Botanical Gardens.

The next day, a flight south and two days at Wilson Botanical Gardens near San Vito.  Their accession list on the internet indicated there were over 34 different taxa of Costaceae there that I could see growing in the gardens.  What better way to quickly see many different species and know what to look for later in the wild.

Then I would go to the Austrian, University of Vienna research station at “Tropenstation La Gamba” which is at the edge of the Piedras Blancas National Park.

Then to top all that off I would cross the Golfo Dulce by ferry and meet up with the famed parataxonomist Reinaldo Aguilar, who had agreed for a reasonable price to guide me around the forests of the Osa Peninsula looking for Costus.  Little did I know that Reinaldo would become my closest friend in Costa Rica and that I would see him again on several more trips to the peninsula.

The flight was on time and when I arrived that afternoon in San Jose I took a taxi to INBIO Parque and Barry was waiting there.  We walked around a bit and talked about the plants I was interested in, then another taxi to Alajuela where I stayed the night in a small hostel.

Wilson Botanical Garden

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

The next morning was my Sansa flight to a small airstrip near the Panama border known as “Coto 47”.  The aircraft was a small Cessna single engine and I was sitting behind the pilot and copilot.  As we descended, all I could see below was white as a low fog had completely covered the oil palms below.  As we got down just above the oil palms, the pilot and copilot stood up in their seats and stared intensely, obviously trying to see the runway through the fog.  They abandoned that approach and circled back around.  Again, they leaned forward trying to find the runway, then looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders….. and landed!  Good thing I am not a nervous flyer or my breakfast likely would have been on their backs.

I hired a taxi to take me to Wilson Botanical Gardens, which is a few km before San Vito.  Very nice facility, comfortable rooms, and by this time I had learned the Latin American customs for disposing of toilet paper and the so-called “suicide showers” for hot water.  

Wilson3r Wilson1r
 All in all though, Wilson Botanical Garden was a bit of a disappointment.  The 34 taxa of Costaceae I had read about on the internet were nowhere to be found. 

One evening during dinner I sat next to the former director there, Sr. Luis Diego Gómez.  Sr. Gómez explained to me that he had collected Costus with Dr. Paul Maas, many of which had been in the gardens there. He said that after Mr. Wilson died, Mrs. Wilson gave away most of the plants and the gardens fell in disrepair.  He said that some of them were taken to the USA by the famous Heliconia expert, Fred Berry.  I suppose that several of the plants that today are cultivated in our gardens here are clones propagated from the collections at Wilson Botanical Garden.

The only species I saw that seemed to be growing naturally in the area was Costus laevis.  In the gardens I did see a form of Costus guanaiensis and some Costus pulverulentus.  The only “new-to-me” species I saw there was Costus spiralis, which was growing right behind my cabin.

Wilson Botanic Garden Wilson Botanic Garden

La Gamba

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

(No, this has nothing to do with the Ritchie Valens song – you are probably thinking of La Bamba.)

The “Tropenstation La Gamba” is a biological research station operated in cooperation with the University of Vienna, Austria.  The director is Werner Huber, and although I have never met him (he has not been there at the same time I have) we have corresponded by email and I have written three chapters in a book he will soon be publishing on the Zingiberales of the Golfo Dulce Region.

The rooms in the main cabin are quite comfortable and meals are provided.

The facility is located on the edge of the Piedras Blancas National Park, so there is plenty of good forest nearby with well maintained trails.  Also nearby is a more luxurious lodge, the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, just a km or so down the road.

LaGamba04r LaGamba07r
There is a well maintained garden there with plants collected in the local area, including several species of Costaceae. I found Costus glaucus, Costus stenophyllus, Costus comosus, Dimerocostus strobilaceus, and Costus plicatus .  Here I am working away at photographing the details of C. plicatus.


During my stay there I walked all the marked trails as well as some that were not marked at all, as described in my next post “Hiking Rio Bonito”.

Hiking Rio Bonito

Friday, July 1st, 2005

This was my first real experience alone in the rain forests of Costa Rica.  Thinking back, I was pretty foolish to be going alone, my first trip in the tropics, leaving the main trail, and wading up a remote river but this experience (and others on this trip) is what made me fall in love with the tropical rain forests.  The sights, the sounds, the smells – all come together to give me a strange euphoric feeling and keeps me coming back to the tropics again and again.

I shot some short video clips that day 10 years ago on my old digital camera.  The footage is shaky, the camera lens was fogged over at first and the overall quality is horrible, but this really gives the best rendition of the experiences and feelings I had that day. 

I have combined the clips and uploaded them to YouTube for convenience.  Click on the link  below to view the 3 1/2 minute video.

My first venture into the tropical jungle off the trails.\


The three Costus species I saw on that hike are listed below with hyperlinks to the datasheets at www.gingersrus.com.

Costus laevis, Costus osae, and Costus pulverulentus

Exploring the Osa Peninsula

Monday, July 4th, 2005

After a great experience at La Gamba I got a ride down to the town of Golfito on the Golfo Dulce to start the next part of my adventure.  It is an interesting little town, with few tourists but there is a duty free zone there and shoppers fly in from San Jose to buy merchandise.  The town is strung out along the coast between the coastal hills and the gulf.  A ferry, La Launcha, makes regular trips back and forth between Golfito and Puerto Jimenez on the peninsula.   I took the one-hour ferry ride across the gulf, interrupted by a short stop part way across to pick up another passenger who had missed the boat.

When I arrived at  Puerto Jimenez, Reinaldo and his wife Catherine were waiting for me on the dock. We went to a local botanical garden where I saw Costus guanaiensis, then to dinner, and then I checked in to a small hotel.

Exploring the Osa Peninsula

Tuesday, July 5th, 2005

While at La Gamba I had met an Austrian botanist, Eva Schembera, who specialized in plants of the family Leguminosae.  She had a few days off and was going to be on the Osa Peninsula with nothing else to do, so I invited her to join Reinaldo and I looking for plants.  The next morning we had breakfast at the Restaurante Carolina, where we met her and one of Reinaldo’s friends, the well known local guide, Mike Boston, who I always think of as “Crocodile Mike“.

We were soon on our way, the three of us, Eva, Reinaldo and I. (Here is a short video clip). 


We headed north to the Reserva Forestal Golfo Dulce where we found Costus lasius, Costus ricus , Costus scaber and Costus stenophyllus. and a few other more common ones, Costus laevis and Costus pulverulentus.

That night we had dinner and stayed in a small hostal overlooking the Golfo Dulce near the village of Rincon.

View above Drake

Exploring the Osa Peninsula

Wednesday, July 6th, 2005

The next morning we headed across the peninsula through Rancho Quemado, taking side hikes in various places along the way.  Here I heard my first (of many times over the coming years) sounds of howler monkeys.  I had been trying to catch the sounds and a glimpse of them on camera, with no luck.  Eva told a little tale of one of her early experiences.  Eva’s Monkey Story


That day we saw the following species of Costus:  C. lima, C. guanaiensis, C. ricus, C. scaber, and probably a few others I am forgetting.

By evening we had made our way to the Pacific coast and stayed the night at a very spartan little place with no electricity alongside the Drake airstrip.  The owner cooked us some dinner of rice and local fish over a wood fire and we sat there talking about the day’s adventures. 

Drake-01r Drake-06r
Then the niece of the owner wanted us to visit her home a couple of km down the road.  So we walked in the moonlight and came to a small settlement where they had just gotten electricity a few months prior.  The government had given everyone a brand new refrigerator and everyone was huddled around a small television set watching a tele-novela called “La Madrasta“.  Now here is the weird part….   Before I left on the trip, I had been watching that same series on Univision, using closed captions to try to learn Spanish.  The episode they were watching had been shown in the US several weeks prior, so I knew exactly what was going to happen next.  I could not resist pretending that I was psychic or something and able to predict the next scene.  Problem is, those shows are so predictable anyone can pretty much do that without having seen it.


Exploring the Osa Peninsula

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

The next day’s plan was to go on a longer hike deep into the rain forest to Cerro Brujo (Witch Mountain).  Reinaldo was uncertain of the trails himself despite 15 years of exploring the peninsula, so we stopped at Rancho Quemado and picked up a friend of his named Carlos who knew the way.  Along the way we saw my first poisonous snake of the trip, an “eyelash pit viper”, sunning himself on a fallen tree.

EyelashViper - Carlos Trail

Eventually we came to a place that Reinaldo was looking for, where he had discovered a new tree species, of the genus Pleiodendron, family Canellaceae, that had previously been known only from Africa and South America.  A Costa Rican newspaper article in La Nación of March 2005 reported that only two of these trees had been found, one farther north of Quepos, and the other one that we were looking at that day.  Such is the nature of the Osa Peninsula which has a fantastic diversity of species and endemics.  Reinaldo proceeded with slingshot and twine to try to capture some fruits from the upper branches to send to Barry Hammel at INBio in Santo Domingo.

TREE - Pleiodendron sp. TREE - Pleiodendron sp.

As for Costus, mostly I saw the more common ones like C. pulverulentus and C. laevis, but there was also a thin stemmed, tightly spiraling form of Costus scaber that I have seen a few other times on the peninsula, and it seems to me to be a different variety of that very common species.

That night we stayed in a thatched roof hut with mattresses on the floor.  After that long strenuous hike I probably could have slept right on the hard ground.  The next morning we woke to the sound and sight of bats flying around over our heads.


Exploring the Osa Peninsula

Friday, July 8th, 2005


The next day we worked our way back south to Puerto Jimenez with some side trips along the way to look for Costus. We went to a place in the lowlands along the Rio Barrigones where I found lots of Costus lima all along the river.  Someone had been busy with a machete.

Costus_lima-RioBarrigones-05r RioBarrigones01r
In closer to town we saw a dwarf form of Costus pulverulentus, very different from the compact ones I have seen in Panama and Colombia.  Once back home, Catherine and Reinaldo sorted through the plants that he had collected and Reinaldo showed his son Nilo a stick insect they had found.

IMG_0744r Reinaldo-Nilor
Ten years later, and you will see a much older Nilo on Reinaldo’s Facebook pages, still learning about plants and nature from his father.


Cabo Matapalo

Saturday, July 9th, 2005

I stayed the night with Reinaldo and family, then Saturday morning we all drove down to the southern tip of the peninsula at Cabo Matapalo.  The owner of the El Remanso Lodge had told Reinaldo about an unusual Costus plant found there, so we went to take a look.  We trained a new Costus spotter on the way down and Reinaldo got some help with the driving.


At Cabo Matapalo we found that strange Costus, and for a long time I could not figure out what it was as it was growing only on the rocky bluffs leading right up to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  I returned to the area in 2011 and I am now convinced that it is either a natural hybrid or simply an unusual form of Costus comosus that has solid green bract appendages instead of the more normal red.   I have since then given it the cultivar name Costus ‘Cliff Dweller’.

 Others seen in the area included Costus laevis, Costus pulverulentus, Costus lima, and Costus guanaiensis.

Family Day on the Osa

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

On Sunday we took a short trip to the Playa Zapote near Puerto Jimenez and I enjoyed a day with Reinaldo’s family before my return flight to San Jose.

SansaFlight01r SansaFlight03r

Epilogue – Why I Keep Going Back

Monday, July 11th, 2005

When I got back to San Jose, I stayed at a Marriott hotel in the western suburbs of Escazú with all its modern shopping centers and ate dinner at an Outback Steakhouse.  I remember feeling very depressed, like my trip had already ended and I was already back in the USA .  I had had so many wonderful experiences and I was totally hooked on the tropical rainforests.   There was no doubt in my mind that I would be returning many more times, God willing.  Even as I write this, with my next trip to southern Ecuador just a week away (today is Friday, Feb. 6, 2015), I yearn to be back in the forests with all its sights and sounds and smells and with the wonderful people of Latin America, the campesinos I have come to know and love.

After returning, I wrote an article for the Heliconia Society International quarterly Bulletin, published in Volume 14, No. 4, and entitled Costus of the Golfo Dulce Region.  In my first short trip I had seen 12 species  of Costus, and I had made new friends I would remain in close contact with for years to come.