Night in the tropics brings out a host of interesting animals that are rarely, if ever, seen during the day. Hoping to see some of this nocturnal wildlife, I took a headlamp with me on our recent trip to Costa Rica and went out late at night to wander around an area of old secondary forest on the grounds of our resort. With other family members, I also participated in two organized night walks, one at the resort, and a second offered by Manuel’s tours on a wooded lot near Quepos.
To celebrate my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, the entire family (my parents, my sister, our spouses and children) all went to Costa Rica for a few days between Christmas and New Year. It was my first trip to that beautiful country, and I was totally blown away by…well, everything: the friendly people, the great food, the beautiful scenery, the tropical flora, and the amazing wildlife.
We stayed at Arenas del Mar, a small resort in the lowland rain forest between Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific coast town of Quepos. Several people told me that the dry season came early this year, so I didn’t see many orchids in bloom (sad face). However, the wildlife exceeded all my expectations. I expected sloths and frogs, but not crocodiles…
After flying into San José, we rode down to Manuel Antonio (about 170 kilometers) in a van provided by Arenas del Mar. Just before we reached the Pacific coast, our driver stopped beside a bridge over the Tárcoles River so that we could stretch our legs and ogle the monsters on the banks of the river below. Somehow they seemed much more menacing than American alligators, and I was glad that we were viewing them from the bridge.
Arriving at the resort after dark, we got our first real look at the area the next morning, when we took a guided tour of Villa Vanilla, a spice plantation located a few kilometers inland from Quepos. At Villa Vanilla, they grow vanilla (of course), cacao, true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), black pepper, allspice, and turmeric. The tour was fascinating and delicious–we tasted the spices in their raw forms and incorporated into various treats–and the location of the plantation in the foothills is unutterably beautiful.
The Vanilla orchid is a heavy epiphytic vine which requires support. Although some of the plants were growing on rough posts, many were trained onto shrubby trees whose flowers added to the beauty of the plantation.
The paths were also lined with Heliconia plants, ornamental gingers, and wooden frames supporting native epiphytes.
While wandering the grounds of Villa Vanilla, we saw our first toucan…
…and a troop of squirrel monkeys
We also saw squirrel monkeys on the grounds of the resort and at Manuel Antonio National Park, which we visited the next day. If you plan to visit Manuel Antonio, you will probably see recommendations to hire a guide. I concur. If we had wandered around by ourselves, we certainly would have seen monkeys and perhaps a few sloths, but we would have missed many of the smaller animals. Our guide (from Manuel’s Tours) was enthusiastic and knowledgeable–he was happy to discuss taxonomy of sloths or cannibalistic behavior of basilisks–and he carried a large spotting scope with excellent depth of field which served equally well to enlarge a howler monkey fifty feet up a tree or a tiny bat tucked into a Heliconia just off the path.
After a day or two, we got better at spotting animals, and it became clear that many of the species in the national park also lived on the grounds of our resort. Here’s a small sampling of what I saw and photographed:
Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting wildlife sighting occurred while we were eating lunch at the beach on our third day. A clutch of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerged from the sand and began to make their way down to the sea. It was something I never expected to see outside of books and television programs.
After four days in paradise, we piled back into the van for the drive back to San José, but Costa Rica had one more treat in store. When we stopped again near the Tárcoles River, I finally got a photograph of a wild scarlet macaw.
Happy holidays to all of this blog’s readers and, more specifically, Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate tomorrow.
Blooming in my greenhouse, just in time to decorate a table in somewhat nontraditional fashion, are two bulbs of Veltheimia capensis, the sand lily. Veltheimia is a genus in the Hyacinthaceae (hyacinth family) consisting of two species native to South Africa. V. capensis grows in arid habitat from the southern and southwestern Cape northwards to Namibia. The second species, V. bracteata (forest lily) grows in the eastern cape.
V. capensis has a large bulb that often grows partially exposed. In my greenhouse, the plants do well in terracotta pots with the neck and about 1/4 of the bulb above the surface of a well-drained mix of sand, stalite, and a little commercial potting soil. The grey-green glaucous leaves frequently have undulate or crisped margins, adding to their beauty, but in common with some other winter-growing South African bulbs, the foliage has a tendency to wilt in hot sun. V. capensis doesn’t want to grow in shade, though, so the trick is to give it as much light as possible while keeping the foliage cool. During the summer, after the foliage dies back, I keep the bulbs bone dry.
While V. capensis has glaucous foliage, presumably for protection in direct sunlight, V. bracteata has shiny green foliage. The leaves of both species often have undulate or crisped margins. Compared to its sister species, V. bracteata seems to be more tolerant of shade and moisture during the summer.
The flowers of both species are variable, and hybrids have also been produced in cultivation, adding to the range of colors. The extensive yellow color at the tips of the flowers on my smaller V. capensis makes me wonder if it is of hybrid origin.
Half the fun of trading or giving away plant cuttings and divisions is seeing what other people can do with the same plants that I grow. For the past ten years, I have been growing Clusia orthoneura, a strange epiphytic shrub from South America. My plant resides in a 14″ terracotta bulb pan and is a semi-bonsai. Every year, I put it outside for the summer, where its branches sprout aerial roots that reach the ground and dig in by the end of the summer. Each autumn, I cut back those roots and much of the new foliage, so it will fit back into my greenhouse. As a result, it remains almost the same size from year to year.
About five years ago, I rooted a small cutting and gave it to John Stanton, owner of the Orchid Trail nursery in Morrisville, NC. John put the cutting in an 8″ diameter pot, and sat it on one of his greenhouse benches. In the large commercial greenhouse, it wasn’t moved every year, and roots that grew down through the bench weren’t disturbed. Also, John is an exceptionally good grower.
Earlier this week I stopped by the Orchid Trail in search of a particular slipper orchid species, and John showed me his Clusia.
The plant rises about six feet above the greenhouse bench and is equally wide.
Under the greenhouse bench, the roots resemble those of a mangrove or a strangler fig.
The pot is still visible, but most of the plant’s bulk completely bypasses it. At this point, the pot could be cut away without bothering the plant at all.
It’s almost unrecognizable as the same species as the stunted little thing in my greenhouse.