Gardening

Gardens and Nature of Costa Rica – Day 8

The wind was very strong during the night, causing the roof tiles above our rooms to lift up and bang down, creating quite a noise and some travellers complained they had trouble sleeping. As usual, though, I fell asleep in an instant and barely noticed the noise. (I can sleep anywhere!)

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Our room block at Hotel Heliconia, Monteverde.

 In the morning it was still very windy and the clouds raced across the sky as in a marathon… but in fact there were very few clouds. Indeed, Monteverde, famous for its cloud forest, was going through a rare almost cloudless day: the sun shone brightly all day long. Not that it was hot: at an altitude of 1,800 m (5,900 ft), it is almost always a bit cool in Monteverde, especially early and late in the day and at night when a coat is required. That’s why the hotels of the region rarely have swimming pools: it is rarely warm enough for swimming. Ours had a hot tub… but it was empty. Again, I don’t think most people would think to use it: it was simply too cool to think of putting on a bathing suit.

 

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Agouti

After a good breakfast, we went to the Curi-Cancha Wildlife Refuge, located just outside the village, just below the Monteverde Cheese Factory. Our two naturalist guides, Melvin and Danilo, were waiting for us. We walked uphill to the refuge itself (there is a road, but it is not accessible to coaches) and immediately saw three agoutis, mammals that resemble large brown guinea pigs!

 

One half of the group went with Melvin, the other with Danilo. I already knew Melvin, having had 2 other tours with him as a guide. He took us into the forest, showing us plants and animals and also sharing his knowledge on the lifestyle of the locals (he was born on a farm in the region).

 

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This strangler fig (Ficus sp. ) has killed its host.

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We saw some beautiful strangler figs (Ficus sp.), Some were still strangling their victims, others had finished the job. I find their way of life fascinating. These figs germinate on the branch of a tree and begin their life as an epiphyte. But their roots run down along the bark of the host tree, eventually to the ground, then intertwine with the fig’s other roots to cover a good part of the trunk of the host and this prevents the trunk from expanding (required for tree growth), so the tree starts being choked. At the same time, the fig leaves above, in the canopy, shade the leaves of the host and steal its energy while the terrestrial roots of the strangler fig, very dense, overlap those of the host and take most of its water and minerals. Eventually the host tree dies, but the aerial roots of the fig tree are now thick and strong and become the trunk of newly independent fig tree. If you put your head in a hole at the foot of a strangler fig tree and look up, you will see that all the centre, where the host tree once stood, is empty: you can see right to the top and often a circle of blue sky. Cruel perhaps, but fascinating.

The most emblematic bird of Monteverde is the resplendent quetzal, a large emerald green bird with a red belly. The male has a crest on its head and a long, long tail composed of two green feathers. The female is similar, but without the crest and two feathers. This is the bird that attracts visitors, including ornithologists from around the world, to Monteverde. And our group is no different: would we or would we not see the quetzal? Well, we did: in spades!

 

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Quetzal, photo taken by iPhone via a telescope.
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Quetzal, photo taken with my camera.

The quetzal eats only avocado fruits (not the huge fruits we know, but small fruited varieties, from different trees in the Avocado family, Lauraceae). Melvin led us to an area where these trees are common. And we quickly saw a first quetzal, then a second, then 2 others: 2 males and 2 females total. Melvin set his telescope on a tripod and used it to take pictures for our group through its lens. Wow! I have attached two photos: the first was taken with my iPhone through the telescope Melvin (yes, just a plain iPhone!) and the second with my own camera, a Canon EOS 7D with a 18-270 lens. I have to admit, Melvin’s system gave the best results!

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Hummingbird at feeder

After Melvin showed us several other interesting plants (like Mucuna urens, a climber with stinging hairs on its seedpods), we went on to the refuge’s humminbird garden where they have set up several feeders. Then we headed out of the refuge to the cheese Monteverde where we all had a delicious ice cream cone.

 

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The making of coffee, Costarican style.

Next, we went to a place called Rancho Heliconia where there is a “sugar shack” style restaurant on the grounds of a coffee plantation. The manager was really friendly and gave us a taste of her own coffee produced the Costa Rican way, by pouring coffee into a small cloth bag and pouring boiling water over it. I really ought to add “delicious” here, but I can’t: I don’t drink coffee!

 

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Folk dance troop.

Afterwards a dance troupe of young village school came to show us some traditional Costa Rican dance. That was good fun, especially when they asked some of the group to participate!

Then we ate a good dinner served family style, with dishes of food placed on the table, then passed around as each person served themself. Rice, stewed beef, mutton (who eats mutton in North America anymore?), fried plantain, marinated vegetables, and several more plates. Delicious… and the atmosphere was so homey!

 

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Hanging bridge.

Our last activity of the day was hiking on the Treetop Walkway at a private reserve called Selvatura. I’ve been here before and usually it rains or we are in the mist throughout the visit (it is after all a cloud forest), but this time it was sunny: much nicer! The idea is that visitors discover the trees in the canopy of the forest, from above or from the side, rather than trying to make them out from below. In other words, it’s a totally different perspective. For example, as we followed the trail (you’re not always on a bridge), we at one point found the ground littered with white flowers, yet there was no sign of a white-flowered tree… from below. From above, we could see it in full boom and I realized it was a Conostegia.

 

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A treetop view of the forest canopy.

In the canopy, we saw are trees of all shades of green and all imaginable textures, sometimes with flowers, but more often with fruit. It is a 3 km (1.9 mile) trail with 8 suspension bridges at heights from 12 m (36 ft) to 60 m (180 ft). Yet even so high above the ground, I didn’t find the walk in any way scary (and I’m afraid of heights!), because the treetops form a continuous carpet just below the bridge.

 

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Black guan

Andrea and I gave comments on plants and wildlife as we walked along. There were lots of plants to point out: begonias, anthuriums, drymonias, tradescantias, ferns, etc. The only remarkable bird we saw though was a black guan, rather like a large black chicken. It lives in the treetops and eats avocado fruits. Most other birds were small and difficult to photograph, although I do have a few shots that I’ll try to identify when I get back home.

That day, we arrived at the hotel tired but happy after a beautiful day in the cloud forest. In the evening, we went out to an Italian restaurant for a meal, then back to the hotel and off to bed!

More tomorrow!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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