Dave Looks for Plants

Journal of a plant explorer

Archive for the ‘#02-Costa Rica: May 2006’ Category

The search begins for Costus barbatus

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

My second trip to Costa Rica had a very specific objective – to find the “real” Costus barbatus.  In the intervening year I had learned that the plant commonly cultivated in the USA under that name had been incorrectly identified many years prior, and was actually the species Costus comosus.  The REAL C. barbatus differs in several ways as explained HERE.  The original “type” specimen came from what is now an urbanized area in eastern San Jose, so I checked all the INBio records of collections recorded for the species and this trip I decided to chase down those locations to look for that species.  Looking back in my file for that trip I can still find my handwritten notes where I decided to go to the Tapantí National Park, the Orosi Valley area near the village of Muñéco and the Pacific coastal range including Cerro Nara – all places where collections of Costus barbatus have been recorded.

I arrived in San José at night and stayed in a small hotel recommended by the guide books, near where the bus departs for the town of Cartago.   I did not want to be burdened with a car rental – driving in a different country where I did not know the language did not seem like a good idea.   So my travel to all these places was to be by bus, and as I learned, this is not always so easy.  I had researched all the bus routes and had roughly figured out my itinerary, and made plans in advance as follows:

  1. Bus from San Jose to Cartago
  2. Bus from Cartago to Paraíso (with drop off at Lankester Gardens)
  3. Bus from Lankester (pick up along road) to Orosi where I would stay 4 days
  4. Bus from Orosi back to San Jose
  5. Bus from San Jose to Santiago de Puriscal (also known as simply Puriscal)
  6. Bus from Puriscal to Rancho Mastatal (stay 4 days)
  7. Bus from Rancho Mastatal to main road between Puriscal and Parríta
  8. Flag down the bus along the road from Puriscal to Quepos
  9. Bus from Quepos to village of Londres
  10. Somehow from there up to Cerro Nara 4 days (turned out to be horseback)
  11. Bus from Londres back to Quepos
  12. Bus from Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park (day visit)
  13. Bus from Manuel Antonio back to Quepos
  14. Bus from Quepos back to San Jose.

Sound complicated?  IT WAS!  There are many hundreds of different bus companies with everything from the big air conditioned international bus routes, express routes, stop-wherever-you-want routes to the old school buses or “chicken buses”, as well as the “collectivos” where somebody with a van and no set schedule just drives around picking people up and dropping them off as needed.  What I was to find out is that the  bus drivers (in most cases) really do not care to help out some dumb gringo who does not know where to get off.  I learned that the best bet is to ask another campesino passenger for help.

CartagoBus TypicalBus
When I was making these plans in 2006 there was a man in Costa Rica named John Wood who had prepared an E-Book on the bus schedules and pick-up locations.  He seemed to keep up to date on the frequent changes in companies who handled the routes between various towns and was very helpful, available by email to answer questions.   His E-book, Costa Rica by Bus: The Insider’s Guide to Budget Travel, is available at Amazon.com.  I am not sure if he is still doing this.

Lankester Gardens

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

So the next morning I loaded up my backpack and walked around asking people where the bus to Cartago picks up.  Eventually I found a line of people along a street and someone who responded “¡Aquí!” when I asked “¿Donde esta el bus para Cartago?“.  My next challenge was where to get off in Cartago.  When I saw we were at the central square, I figured that was a good place, so I got off there.  Next question, where is the bus to Paraíso?  Someone pointed in a direction and said something like “Allá, a la esquina cerca la iglesia.”  Unfortunately for me I had not yet learned the Spanish word for church, so I did not know exactly where to go, but eventually found the right pick-up point and waited for the bus to Paraíso.

When I boarded the bus I explained to the driver as best I could that I would like to be dropped off at Lankester Gardens, which is just a couple of km before Paraíso.  He nodded that he understood.  Away we go and before too long we were coming into a town with signs on some buildings indicating we were in Paraíso – he had forgotten to drop me off.  So I waited on the bus until he was ready to make his return trip to Cartago and this time he remembered to drop me off at Lankester Gardens, which is about a km walk down a driveway off the main road.

Lankester Gardens is very nice, best known for its collections of orchids.  I walked around the grounds and lo and behold I found a species I had never seen before – the beautiful Costus montanus.  That species was not in general cultivation in the USA.   I asked permission from a Mexican botanist who was working there, and cut off an inflorescence, detailed the flowers, then collected some seeds.


Normally, to import any plants or plant parts into the USA you need to have an import permit and you need to get phytosanitary certificates from a government official in the country of origin.  But just a month or so before this trip, the USDA had promolgated a new regulation allowing the import of small lots of seeds without requiring the phytos.  I had obtained the Small Lot Seed Permit so this trip I was able to bring back seeds of any unusual Costus I might find.  The regulation was so new that when I came back in through Atlanta and declared the seeds, the inspectors there knew nothing at all about it.  Fortunately I had made a copy of the Federal Register containing the new regulation, and they permitted my entry with these seeds.  So I am now growing Costus montanus from seeds collected at Lankester Gardens.

After my morning experiences with Costa Rica bus drivers, I was not ready to try to flag down a bus along the highway to get to Orosi, and I knew it was only about 10 km, so I asked at the Lankester desk to call me a taxi.  I stayed in Orosi at a comfortable little hostel, Montaña Linda

Parque Nacional Tapantí

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

The next morning I went to the Tapantí National Park to begin my search in earnest for Costus barbatus.  One of the INBio records indicated a collection along the trail Arboles Caidos, so that is where I headed first.


Along that trail I saw lots of Costus curvibracteatus, but nothing I could identify as C. barbatus.  It is certainly possible that I missed it, but I think it is more likely that someone incorrectly identified the former. The two species are superficially similar in appearance and C. curvibracteautus was not even described and named until 1976, so would not have been readily available in the literature.

Nonetheless, it was exciting for me to find this species because I had never seen it before even in cultivation – much less in the wild.  And there is further confusion that was created by yet another error in identification of the cultivated species that are popular in the gardens of the USA.  The species you will usually see in botanical gardens under the name Costus curvibracteatus is actually a Peruvian species – Costus productus.  It has been my mission to try to get these incorrect identifications corrected wherever possible.

 Other species I saw at Tapantí included C. pulverulentus and another plant that I am unsure of the identification, could be C. guanaiensis or possibly C. allenii or maybe something altogether new.


I did take some video of the trails, the river, and waterfall at Tapantí, in case anyone wants to catch the general “flavor” of the park.


Orosi Valley

Friday, May 5th, 2006

My second day in the Orosi Valley I walked to the village of Rio Macho and then up a small mountain trail to the access road overlooking the valley.  Along that road, I saw Costus montanus, but not much else of any special interest.  The highlight of that day was the scenery, especially the views of the valley below.

OrosiValley-33 OrosiValley-40

Views of the Orosi Valley (At the end of my video clips you will see links to several other commercial videos with more information about the Orosi Valley.  It really is a nice area, not as often visited as some of the other tourist sites in Costa Rica.)

The Orosi Valley is well known for coffee growing, with many coffee fields on the steep slopes overlooking the valley.  When finally I was ready to return to Montaña Linda, I had to either backtrack or find some alternative route back down the mountain.  So when I could see the town of Orosi below, I simply guessed and worked my way down along a private driveway, then a trail that seemed to go in the right direction, through the coffee fields and back to the hostel.


Needless to say, I did make it back eventually.

Rio Purisil

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

The next day I wanted to go to the Parque Purisil which was about 8 km up the valley.  I had seen a little shop in Orosi that had bicycle rentals so I made that my mode of transport that day. 

I cycled up to Parque Purisil but could get no ones attention, so I just continued up the road a ways and then hid the bike back behind some bushes and headed back into the forest.  There I saw lots of Costus curvibracteatus at all stages of maturity and got some very nice photos.


Rancho Mastatal

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

The buses for my travel to the next location, Rancho Mastatal, were pretty easy to figure out until I arrived at Santiago de Puriscal.  From there I was told to go wait in front of a certain grocery store in town and the bus would be there later that afternoon.  So there I was, a gringo with backpack and all in a town that does not see many tourists.  One by one, taxi drivers would come up to me and ask if I was looking for a ride somewhere.  Finally, not knowing how much longer it would take for the bus, I asked one of them for the price to take me there.  I knew it was about 30 km and on a very poor road once leaving the main road.  But the driver must have been hurting for business and quoted me a good price so I took it.  It turned out to be well over an hour and he had trouble finding the place but eventually we got there.

Rancho Mastatal is the name of a small village and also the name of an environmental learning and sustainable living center, started by Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, former Peace Corps volunteers.  It has all the atmosphere of what we used to call a “hippie commune”, but only in the positive aspects of such.  They make their own soap, bake their own bread and build the houses there out of sustainable materials (like cow dung).  More about Rancho Mastatal when I describe trip number 3, Costa Rica, August 2006, when my wife Karen came back there with me and took lots more photos of the really interesting non-Costus stuff.

Here is Timo, standing in front of the main house and a large clump of Costus villosissimus.


Parque Nacional La Cangreja

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Rancho Mastatal is located on the edge of the Cangreja National Park, one of the newest and least well known in the Costa Rican park system.  The province of Puriscal is pretty much deforested and settled, leaving this as one of the last islands of primary forest.  A beautiful creek (Quebrada Grande) runs through the park and there is a peak called Cerro La Cangreja at 1,305 meters in altitude.

La cangreja is Spanish for the crab, and I had heard several different things about the origin of the name for this place.  While looking for a URL to link on this page I found yet another explanation, translated here from the Spanish at http://areasyparques.com/areasprotegidas/parque-nacional-la-cangreja.

The Indian story tells of a large crab that lived on the mountain and prevented the passage of the locals towards the other villages, until one time a warrior fought him and managed to cut a leg unleashing his fury. Finding himself vanquished the crab decided to become stone; therefore, the top of the mountain is a rocky formation.

In the waters of the Quebrada Grande, I saw another possible reason for the name.


Tim (not wanting me to go by myself) arranged for Chepo,  a long-time local resident, to go with me through the park looking for my Costus.  As it turned out, it was a little too early in the season to find very many in flower, but I did see a number of species – enough so that I would want to return in just 3 months to catch them more into the rainy season.  In most of the Pacific coastal areas of Central America, the dry season runs from January to April and the rainy season begins late April or early May, continuing until November or December.  Something confusing to most of us “Norte Americanos” is that the word for summer, verano, is used for the hot, dry period of January to April.  Winter, invierno, occurs during the cooler rainy season — the North American summer.   I have learned that the peak flowering for most species of Costus is about 2-3 months into the rainy season. 

One species that is usually found in flower most any time of year is Costus laevis.


Here is a short film clip showing the area along Quebrada Grande in the park, with Chepo in the lead.

One very interesting plant was found along the road just a half kilometer or so from Rancho Mastatal.  It seems to be a natural hybrid of Costus villosissimus and Costus pulverulentus, both of which are common in the area.  I have since propagated it and registered it under the cultivar name Costus ‘Rancho Sunrise’.


Posado Quepos

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

My next challenge was to get to Cerro Nara.  Cerro Nara is a protected area in the mountains overlooking the town of Quepos, part of the corridor of the Fila Costeña, the coastal mountain range of western Costa Rica.  There are no public facilities there but I had somehow on the internet found an accommodation and made arrangements to stay there.  In fact the owner had agreed to let me stay there if I would only provide him with a report of whatever Costus species I might find.  My contact would be at the Posado Quepos (now known as  Posada Natura) in the village of Londres to make my arrangements to get up the mountain.

There was an early morning bus heading back towards Santiago de Puriscal, taking school children to a school along the way, so I was to take that bus about 10 km to the main highway, then get off and flag down the next bus that passed by heading west toward the coast.  There was no settlement there, no bus stop, so I just started walking, with my heavy “luggage” on my back, thinking there must be some little soda (as little Costa Rican restaurants are called) somewhere nearby along the way.  There was, but it was not nearby.   After a few km and up a steep hill I found what I was looking for and waited there for the next bus heading west.  This took me to Quepos where I found the bus to Londres.

The Posada Natura is a beautiful place!  It is associated with an organization called Eco Era which manages the Aquas Claras Reserve at Cerro Nara.  When I was there, they had a beautiful botanical garden with many exotic gingers and a few Costus.  It was too late in the afternoon when I arrived there so the manager made arrangements for me to go by horseback up to the mountain lodge the next morning.  That evening I was given a huge seafood dinner and stayed in the luxury of the posada that night.

Alpinia purpurata

Etlingera elatior

Cerro Nara

Friday, May 12th, 2006

The next morning I climbed in the saddle and off we went up the mountain.  I am not an experienced horseback rider, and my horse only knew Spanish, so we were in a bit of trouble from the start.  Fortunately the horse had a pretty good idea where we were going and if the horse didn’t, Carlos did.  

When we got near the top, I spotted what I was looking for — the plant that had been (incorrectly) identified as Costus barbatus turned out to be Costus ricus  As it turned out this species which is endemic to Costa Rica and known mostly from the Osa Peninsula was very common there at Cerro Nara.  Costus ricus is the only species of Costus I have found that flowers ONLY in the DRY SEASON.  It starts flowering in January and continues into the early part of the rainy season.  After about August, you will no longer find any new flowers — only the colorful red bracts from the dry season inflorescence.  This worked in my favor for the timing of this trip because I saw hundreds of these plants in full flower at Cerro Nara.


At first Carlos wanted me to stay in a small hut because the generator was not working in the main lodge, but after one look I knew that was not suitable, and took the lodge with or without electricity.  It is a huge place with a beautiful view of the coastal plain and the Pacific Ocean below.  My meals were prepared by the caretaker’s family who lived about a km down the road.

The next three days I spent exploring the trails around Cerro Nara looking for Costus and the afternoons and evenings sitting on the balcony of the lodge watching the sun set over the Pacific and the lights of the settlements below.  Except for my trips down the lane to get my meals at Marielo’s house, I was there by myself and enjoying the solitude.


As for the plants, there was a beautiful specimen of Costus glaucus growing right in front of the lodge….

Costus_glaucus-CerroNara-01 Costus_glaucus-CerroNara-02

and a nice form of Costus scaber growing behind the lodge with longer, showier flowers than I have normally seen.


Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

I went back down to Quepos from Cerro Nara and stayed in a small hostel there.  Then the next day I did a day trip to the very popular Manuel Antonio National Park.  To me, I could as well have gone to a zoo in any big city in the tropics.  The place was packed with tourists, the “trails” were concrete sidewalks, and the monkeys were well trained to entertain the tourists there.  If anyone believes that Manuel Antonio will give you the flavor of a tropical rainforest, forget it!

The site itself must have been beautiful before all the tourist development.  There are beautiful beaches and steep Pacific coastal bluffs.

I did see a few very common Costus species there but really the highlight of my visit was when I got to see a sloth on one of his (or hers?) weekly trips to the forest floor to relieve himself.  (I have got to remember that the videos only work in landscape mode.  The trees do not really grow horizontally here.)


My second adventure concludes

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

The next day I took the express bus back from Quepos to San Jose and thus ended my second adventure in Costa Rica.  I had searched for Costus barbatus and although I had not found it I had checked out several potential locations and I had seen several other Costus that I had not seen before that trip in flower and in the wild.  My plant list for this trip is not quite as long as the first trip to the Osa, but a good list none the less.

Click on the links to go to the plant datasheets on these plants and see more photos and information on the Gingers R Us website.