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Home > Begonian > Volume 68 (January/February 2001, pages 9 - 13)

Some Begonias from Costa Rica
by Rekha Morris

I had long wanted to visit the rain forests of Costa Rica so when an opportunity arose in November 1999 to do just this, I did not allow warnings regarding their rainy season still in progress to deter my resolve to visit or dampen my enthusiasm. Since our time was limited I planned trips to a rain forest, Manuel Antonio National Park along the Pacific, a trip to the cloud forests of Monteverde, and two botanical gardens, the Lankester Botanical Garden near San Jose and the Arenal Botanical Garden on the northern shore of Lake Arenal west of Monteverde and within the recently created Arenal National Park.

Our first trip was to Lankester Botanical Garden both because of its nearness to San Jose and also to familiarize myself with some of the flora of the region and to find appropriate guidebooks to the areas I had targeted. To my great regret and surprise there was a paucity of information on the flora of Costa Rica although there was much on the birds and butterflies for which this country is justly famous. Lankester Gardens was established in 1917 by Charles Lankester Wells and after this death taken over by the North American Orchid Society and the Stanley Smith Foundation (England) until 1973 when it was donated to the University of Costa Rica. It is most famous for its collection of some 700 native and non-native orchids most of which were dormant when we visited. Nevertheless, the garden's extensive collection of bromeliads, heliconias, palms and the generally rich and lush collections of tropical genera were fascinating. It was therefore startling for me to discover a set of educational displays along a path in the small rain forest preserved within the gardens showing that the once widespread rain forests of Costa Rica have been destroyed by agricultural and urban development leaving discontinuous vestiges which are currently also under threat.

Map Showing ther tropical rainforest area in 1940 Map Showing the tropical rainforest area in 1987
The tropical rainforest areas of Costa Rica in 1940 & 1987, illustrating the loss. Photo by Rekha Morris.

Although the drive to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast took us through dozens of small towns, I failed to grasp the severity of destruction as the countryside was full of flowering shrubs and vines. Large lilac flowers of Bignonia grandiflora festooned trees and fences, heliconias and coastas grew in the ditches. Brunfelsias with their three shades of violet, purple and pale lilac blooms as well as brilliant red megaskopasma or Brazilian Red Cloak created colorful hedges, and ferns clamored up palm trees totally encircling their trunks with fresh green fronds, all reveling in the bounty of the rainy season. Quite unexpectedly we drove past a rain forest preserve that was not on our itinerary, Carara Biological Preserve, 20 km. south of Orotina. It lies in a transitional climatic zone between the dry pacific northern coast and the extremely humid southern coast. We stopped to take a quick walk through this preserve, once part of the biggest hacienda in Coast Rica belonging to the Cervantes family. This decision proved momentous as it introduced me to my first exciting encounter with begonias in their natural habitat.

Approaching the entrance to the forest I noticed several large boulders covered with what I thought were ferns from a distance. Instead these were small begonias growing on the dark moist surface of the rocks intermingled with ferns. Being an avid rock gardener, I was instantly enthralled and set about taking slides so that I might try and duplicate something similar in my woodland garden in South Carolina. The further we walked the larger the begonias became and they were growing not in little colonies, but flourished in profusion among the paving stones of the path and all along its gently undulating banks. There were small, pale pink flushed white blooms on some of the larger specimens and these were no taller than some 6 or 8" high although individual leaves with serrated edges might be as long as 3 1/2".

As we moved deeper in the forest where the dense leaf canopy prevented much of the sunlight from penetrating down to the forest floor, there were fewer and fewer clusters of these begonias and finally none. As we reached a section close to the river which had been flooded earlier in the rainy season, dozens of trees which had died as a result lay scattered on the still mushy soil. In this clearing where there was more sunlight a large leafed begonia grew on a fallen tree trunk. Closer inspection revealed that it was a rhizomatous species growing on the moss covered trunk. The large palmate leaves had serrated edges varying in depth and prominently defined dark green veins. There were no flowers or seed pods and this was the only one of its kind we saw along the two trails open to the public. However, not too far from this rhizomatous begonia we came across another isolated species which seemed to be growing out of the muddy soil. In fact, it was another epiphytic species growing on the trunk of a tree almost totally submerged in the mushy soil. By some miracle the tree had fallen at such an angle as to hold the begonia rhizome a few inches above the muddy morass all around where no other plant survived. The large palmate foliage with an undulating margin was velvety in texture despite the tiny hairs and several shades darker than the previous one. Since there were no guidebooks to the flora of this biologics preserve, known best for providing some of the best opportunities for watching Costa Rican birds, I am unable to identify any of these three species we encountered there.

rhizomatous species unidentified rhizomatous
An unidentified rhizomatous species in Carara Biological Preserve. Photo by Rekha Morris

An unidentified rhizomatous begonia species in 
Carara Biological Preserve. 

In Manuel Antonio National Park we came across only one species. The entrance to the park is across a section of the Rio Camaronera which after the rains was not as shallow as the guidebooks describe it to be, and all visitors that day were rowed across in small wooden boats. Although much larger than the Carara Biological Preserve, we were able to walk along only one path as many of the paths were flooded from recent rains and impassable. The single begonia species we encountered here was the same elliptical leaved form we encountered in Carara. As in Carara these also grew on moist moss and fem covered rocks as well as along the slopes of the path where sufficient sunlight reached the ground. Some of these were also in bloom, but none had seed pods.

Our next stop was Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, a 1400 meter high plateau in the Cordillera de Tilaran accessible via a rock and boulder strewn road which the recent rains had made even more treacherous as landslides had gouged out large sections along the steep cliff banks. During our drive to Manuel Antonio National Park our four wheel drive Toyota had been damaged by the numerous potholes on the road obliging us to exchange it for another four wheeler before setting out on this segment of our trip. Nevertheless I wondered whether this one would survive the rough, vertiginous 35 km. tract winding steeply uphill and so difficult to negotiate that it took us 4 hours to reach our destination.

Below, still another  unidentified species in the Manuel Antonio National Park. Photos by Rehka Morris.

unidentified speciesThose who survive this notoriously nagged, obstacle ridden course are destined as we were to enjoy spectacular scenes of tropical verdure. Mammoth tree ferns some 30 feet or more towered above the undergrowth, vines, ferns, orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytes clamored up tree trunks as far up as we could see, and our common house plants such as peperomias, anthiuriums, philodendrons, and monsteras were so colossal as to be almost unrecognizable. In this landscape of primeval luxuriance with many shades and layers of greenness, it was difficult to identify begonias mentioned in a pamphlet listing the canopy plants of the cloud forest of Monteverde which I had picked up at the entrance to the preserve. Two begonias, B. estrellensis and B. heydei, were both listed under vascular ephiphytes with no descriptions or line drawings. Another pamphlet on the common flowering plants of this cloud forest listed B. estrellensis as the most common of several epiphytic begonias and also mentioned B. involucrata [spelled as 'involuncrata'] with an "angel wing' leaf and B. cooperi whose leaf is described as being like that of an alder or elm. The accompanying line drawing is generic in nature representing a slightly wavy edged, elliptical leaf. A small booklet Epiphytes of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve by S. W. Ingram, K. Ferrell-Ingram and Nalini Nadkarni lists four begonias. B. estrellensis and B. glabra are listed as climbing herbs and considered to be abundant and common respectively while B heydei and B strigillosa, both listed as erect herbs, are considered common and uncommon respectively. A line drawing of B. heydei is included amongst the illustrations. Being a novice Begonian, I photographed only two species which I was able to recognize as begonias and both grew along the summer sections of the trail. One of these was a begonia which was shrub-like in growth with huge prominently segmented leaves with darker veins. This being the closest to what I understand as an angel wing type I have tentatively identified as B. involucrata on the basis of an illustration of this species from Costa Rica in Tropica although it is not mentioned in this booklet. The second species, with elliptical foliage, serrated edges and sharply articulated veins is so similar to the line drawing of B. heydei that this is what I have assumed I saw at several sunny locations along the trail in Monteverde. This might also be B. cooperi illustrated in A. B. Graf, Tropica: 160, 1978, which has a somewhat similar leaf form.

Despite the complexities of nomenclature, the paucity of information on the begonias of these areas we visited and my own ignorance of this large and varied genus, my first encounter with five species in their natural habit transformed me into a zealous neophyte. I promptly joined the Atlanta Branch of the ABS on our return from what remains in my memory as a tropical garden rather than a country whose environment is fast diminishing with some of its rich flora and fauna under threat of extinction.

 

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