Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Monteverde

Female green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula) photo by Lesley

Dear Readers, on a day when the weather in London is so cold that I’ve put plastic buckets over the frogspawn in my pond in case the water freezes, it’s a real pleasure to think back to the last part of my holiday in Costa Rica. The final stop was the cloud forest around Monteverde in the central part of the country. These areas are not called ‘cloud forest’ for nothing: it was surprisingly cool, and we were relieved when we got to our hotel to see that we had duvets on the beds instead of the usual sheets. There was also a fine example of towel art.

We started off with a canopy forest walk in Selvatura. In truth, I’d been a bit worried about this: as I’ve gotten older my head for heights has disappeared. I’m fine walking up and down the mountain tracks in Austria, but present me with one of those bridges with a see-through metal grid to walk across, and you might find me wobbling a bit.

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hanging bridge from Selvatura (Photo One)

What would happen if I froze halfway across, and was unable to move on? Would I have to be rescued by a handsome Costa Rican? Would he have to winch me up into his helicopter? Anyway, moving swiftly on, when we arrived and actually saw the bridges, it seemed that I was not the only one with a problem. At least half of us spent the next few hours walking briskly across the bridges, eyes front, hanging on to the rails on both sides. Our guide, Walter, was Very Disappointed with us.

‘The idea is to see the different levels of the canopy’, he said. ‘You could stop and look and see what you could see’.

Yes, that would be lovely, but stopping and looking was an impossibility, because then I would notice that I was 240 feet above the ground.

We had clearly let him down, but at least no helicopters were involved.

Every so often there was a scream as someone shot by on a zipwire hanging from the very top of the canopy. And good luck to them, I say. I was just glad when bridge number eight was completed and we were back on solid ground. It had gotten a little easier as we’d gone along, and I was glad that I’d done it, but still. I was looking forward to the next day when we would go for a nice, normal walk through the forest.

Begonia involucrata( ( think) – Angel Wing begonia

One thing I didn’t expect to see in a cloud forest in Costa Rica was a wild begonia, but they were everywhere. While it doesn’t surprise me to see the bromeliads and the ferns, I suppose I’d never given a thought to where our humbler houseplants come from, but here they were.

And here is another plant that I didn’t expect to find:

Bizzie lizzie (Impatiens walleriana)

This plant is an East African native, but the plant as we know it ‘escaped’ in Costa Rica many years ago. One of these wildlings caught the eye of Claude Hope, an American horticulturalist living in Costa Rica. It was he who turned the plant in to the popular bedding plant that it was until very recently, when downy mildew caused its downfall. This one was living very happily in a shady spot, much as it did in gardens on both sides of the Atlantic.

Our walk was brought to a halt by the presence of a very confident coati mundi, snuffling along the roadside and ignoring us all. He had a damaged front paw, but was otherwise in lovely condition. He spent so much time with his head down that getting a shot of his face was impossible (for me, anyhow).

Costa Rica has raccoons, oppossums and coati mundi, and seems to manage without shooting any of them. Take note, governments everywhere. You don’t have to massacre your wildlife.

There are a fine array of red-flowered plants, just waiting for a hummingbird to pop along to pollinate them. The red shrimp plant has its stamens positioned so that they tap the hummingbird on the back of the neck and deposit some pollen while s/he is feeding, like the Queen dubbing a Knight with her sword.

Red shrimp plant (Aphelandra sp)

More Aphelandra…

We spent some time looking into the fist-shaped holes in the banks of the forest. These are made by tarantulas, and by the look of it the place must be a positive tarantula party-zone after dark. One of the guides found a hole with a resident, and shone his torch in so we could get a glance of a shy spider’s bum. I decided not to take a picture to preserve the creature’s privacy. They are largely self-effacing creatures, with no desire for publicity.

I remember visiting the Bug Museum in Victoria, Canada when I was on my honeymoon, and getting the chance to hold a tarantula. The poor thing actually cringed when I gently stroked its abdomen, and it taught me two things. One – never again to handle a creature that didn’t want to be handled unless it was in danger and needed to be moved. Two – I had married the right person – my husband is not comfortable around insects, and yet took me to a place full of hissing cockroaches and giant millipedes so that I could enjoy myself.

Photo Two from https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756

Costa Rican Zebra Tarantula (Photo Two)

We walked to a look out point, where we could look out over the trees without feeling vertiginous. The wind nearly blew us over when we came out of the cover of the forest, but there was a patch of blue sky ‘just large enough to make a sailor’s breeches’ in the distance, and the weather cleared within a few hours.

The cloud forest trees are hung with moss and lichens, which are making the most of the damp, humid atmosphere. Each tree is its own ecosystem, with its branches hung with epiphytes and bromeliads, and its trunk smothered in vines.

We met a rather attractive giant millipede climbing up one of the trunks. It had a rather trilobitic look to it, I thought ( and I do believe that ‘trilobitic’ is a new word)

However, compared to the giant millipedes of West Africa, this creature is decidedly medium-sized.

Giant millipede from Cameroon. I rest my case.

Incidentally, millipedes are herbivorous and do not bite. Centipedes are carnivorous, and some of the larger tropical ones have the most painful bites in the animal kingdom, so it’s as well not to get them muddled up.

When we arrived back at the bottom of the trail, we had a rest at the cafe, which has put up some hummingbird feeders. Seven different species come to drink the nectar, along with some very large wasps and an occasional bat. It was such a privilege to sit and watch these jewel-like birds zapping in and out. They are mightily feisty for such small creatures, and you wouldn’t want to make one cross I suspect – some of them are armed with beaks longer than their bodies, and although these have evolved largely to enable them to feed from specific flowers, the birds are not averse to skewering an opponent.

Female green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula)

Male violet sabrebill (Campylopterus hemileucurus)

And so, it was time to return to our hotel, and almost time to go home. But I had one last treat in store. On a walk around the hotel grounds with my camera, I spotted this fine bird, who posed on top of a streetlight for a good ten minutes. S/he is a blue-crowned motmot, and apparently spends lots of time sitting around and scanning the area for the lizards and frogs and large insects that s/he eats. What you can’t see in the photo is the rather splendid tail, which is bald apart from two round areas of feathers at the end. These are swung in a pendulum-like motion, giving the bird the alternative name of ‘clock bird’.

Blue-crowned motmot (Motmotus motmota)

And so, it was time to head back to the UK. Costa Rica is a great introduction to the treasures of Central and South America, with its well-functioning tourist infrastructure, friendly people and wealth of natural treasures. It feels like a place that should be supported in its endeavours to be ecologically and socially responsible, a small country with a big heart. We have much to learn from Costa Rica about the right way to build a community. I hope that, one day, I’ll be back to explore the Pacific coast, home of the jaguar and the macaw. In the meantime, adios Costa Rica, and gracias.

Photo Credits

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Charles Tilford at https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756












Wednesday Weed – Ageratum

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Ageratum conyzoides

Dear Readers, as I looked out of the window of the coach as we travelled through Costa Rica, I noticed that some of the fields had a gentle lilac haze, as if fairy smoke were wafting upwards.

‘Blimey’, I thought to myself, ‘those plants look for all the world like the Ageratum that’s in municipal flower beds all over London’.

And indeed it is. Later in the holiday I went for a walk on my own, fell down a hole, got bitten by an ant and then discovered a tiny plot of this plant, growing where a tree had fallen over and the sun could penetrate. It is not a fussy plant, apart from requiring a little sunlight, and in Vietnam it is known as ‘pig shit’ because it often grows around pig sties. It’s also known as Billy Goat Weed. This is a plant that leads many lives: as a native beauty in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America, as a domesticated space-filler in the UK, and as an invasive weed in Africa, Asia, and North America.

I love that a plant that usually hangs out with alyssum and blue lobelia in front of a statue of some Great Colonial Gentleman is actually native to Costa Rica, where it’s known as Santa Lucia, and is believed to bring great good fortune. As the Tico Times explains, if someone gives you a bouquet of the plant at New Year, and you put some of it in your wallet, you will never be short of cash. The name Ageratum means ‘non-ageing’, which refers to the long-life and prolific flowering of the plant.

There are lots of species of Ageratum, and lots of cultivars too – the popular one around these parts is ‘Blue Mink’. It is an inoffensive and hard-working annual, and I love the softness of the colour, especially when compared with the brasher bedding plants that are available. Ageratum is a member of our old friends the Asteraceae, or daisies, and so the flower is actually a conglomeration of lots of smaller ‘florets’ – disk florets in the velvety centre of the plant, and ray florets forming the ‘flower’.

Fluffy Ageratum flowers (public domain)


Fluffy as it looks, though, Ageratum is not without its problems. It can cause liver lesions and tumours, and there was a mass poisoning incident in Ethiopia in 2005. 118 people were affected, with a 38% fatality rate. It was eventually found to be due to some Ageratum growing in the village well – the plant was used to dry the cooking implements that the women washed there, and it was also used to cover the pans to protect the contents from flies. Interestingly, despite its toxicity the plant is used medicinally to treat dysentery, malaria and many other tropical diseases across both its native and its introduced range, but it is more commonly turned into an insecticide. It can also be used to treat worms, but I suspect that in this case the cure is much worse than the disease. All this makes me think that people who get to know the plant are able to prepare it in ways that reduce its toxicity.I note that there are some sites which seem to think that the flowers are edible, but I will stick to violets, thank you very much.

Photo One by https://www.flickr.com/photos/krolcarol/

Ageratum in bud (Photo One)

While I was looking for images for this piece, I found the vintage seed packet below (go to the link under the photo credit if you collect such things). It made me sigh a little with nostalgia, for I remember when seed packets had paintings of the plants that were expected to burst forth from the seeds, rather than photographs. As I am considering my seeds for this year, it also reminded me that the saying ‘every seed a plant’ is a little optimistic, at least when it’s me that’s doing the planting. Either nothing comes up, or everything does, and then I have the job of thinning out which goes against the grain, because don’t they all deserve to live? I sometimes think that I don’t have the iron spine required of a gardener, what with my toleration of slugs and my lack of ruthlessness.

Photo Two from https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/573349750/seed-package-lone-star-seed-co-ageratum?ref=related-5

Vintage Seed Packet (Photo Two)

And for this week’s poem, how about this one by William F Dougherty, an American poet and someone that I hadn’t come across before. This one takes a couple of readings, but I love the image of the broken vase, and it reminds me very much of my visits to the cemetery.

A Promise to Keep by William F Dougherty

I promised her the garden’s glory:
marigold’s monarchal blooms,
ageratum’s lavender fuzz, the
grainy beards of coxcombs’ plumes;
sturdy zinnias, salvia’s flames,
snapdragons, and tiger lilies: raw
cuttings from home to grace a stone
in final, promissory awe.

Crystal-needled frost struck and drained
the promised flowers brown; left them
in rows of shriveled heads to nod
on gallows of each blackened stem.
I bought chrysanthemums and filled
her navy vase with bronze and gold
clusters to decorate the grave—
my quaking hand let slip its hold.

The vase discharged against a stone
and shattered, as if the cobalt night
had cracked again: the fragments gemmed
my gold bouquet with bluish light.
The flowers lost—love left unsaid—
planted in my repentant sleep
the seeds to start a garden of words
where love and promises will keep.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Carol Krol at https://www.flickr.com/photos/krolcarol/

Photo Two from https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/573349750/seed-package-lone-star-seed-co-ageratum?ref=related-5

William F Dougherty’s poem, and others by him, can be found here





Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Arenal

Dear Readers, after the watery world of Tortuguero we headed inland to the volcanoes of the Arenal area. Mount Arenal itself was originally a huge draw for tourists – they could sit on their hotel verandahs in the evening and watch the lava trickling down. Sadly, as a live volcano ages, the crater deepens, and so no one has been able to see lava for a while. As a result, the many many hotels have had to be creative, and the one that we stayed at made a big feature of its thermal pools.

It also made a point of featuring the volcano everywhere, as in my Volcano dessert. It was only a ball of ice cream with a conical biscuit cover and some strawberry sauce, but it looked very impressive nonetheless.

We arrived after dark, but the following morning the clouds had cleared, and we saw this:

Mount Arenal now has nine separate craters (each new eruption changes the morphology of the area), and you can see how the volcano is emitting steam. Tourists are (very sensibly) not allowed to go walking up to the summit in case they get scalded to death/knocked on the head by exploding rocks/mown down in a stream of lava. Nonetheless, several tourists were killed when an unlicensed guide decided that it would be fun (and probably lucrative) to take them up for a look a few years ago. Stupidity and greed are unfortunately universal (as are generosity, responsibility and kindness, though they don’t get such extensive press).

John and I decided to go for an early morning walk around the extensive grounds of the hotel instead of risking immolation, and spotted some crested guans in one of the ornamental trees. It is always a privilege to see such wild creatures so close up. They seemed mildly curious, but kept a decent distance.

A crested guan (Penelope purpurascens)

On the way back down the hill, I stopped to look at, and film, some leaf-cutter ants. They are a delight as they go about their business, harvesting great chunks of twig and leaf and taking them back into their nests. As I was filming, I sensed that I was being watched. I looked up to see an attractive young couple dressed for the spa.

‘What are they?’ asked the chap.

‘Leaf-cutter ants’, I said. ‘Do you want to know about them?’

My temptation is always to launch into a full lecture, but age has taught me that a) people are sometimes not interested and b) they often know more than I do, so I tend to be more careful than I was.

However, on this occasion, they both gave a kind of interrogatory shrug, which I interpreted as meaning ‘tell me in brief, but I am on my honeymoon you know’.

So I told them quickly about what the ants were doing, and how they grew fungus on the plant material.

‘So,’ I said with a flourish, ‘really they’re farmers!’

And then, the young man spoke up, and I was somewhat taken aback.

‘Can I ask how you know all this stuff?’ he asked.

Well. How do I know all this stuff?

‘I’m passionately interested in it, and so it just kind of sticks’, I said, with rather less eloquence than I’d have hoped. But it seemed to do the trick.

‘Good answer!’ said the chap, and then the two of them sashayed off to loaf around in the springs and no doubt drink martinis.

I do wonder about his question, though. Was he accusing me of ‘fake news?’ Did he not know how people found about stuff? Or was he just surprised that I knew about ants?

I really should have a ‘Bugwoman’ business card to hand out, to legitimize my interest in things buggy.

Lounging about in a thermal pool was not for us, however. We were off on a river trip. The nearby Rio Frio is an extremely biodiverse river, and we were going to get the chance to explore it. The boat was as usual kitted out with what seemed like garden chairs, but it had a roof (a fine feature when it can bucket down with rain with little warming) so we were delighted. Its captain, Herman, took us for a brief spin in the shallow part of the river, which was full of wood storks and a couple of roseate spoonbills. While the wood storks have fleshy, vulture-like heads and are in shades of black and dun and dirty white, the spoonsbills are cerise, a most exceptional colour. They were smaller than I expected, but at one point they started to skim the water with side to side sweeps of their bills. Mangrove swallows skimmed alongside the boat, their feathers iridescent purple and green.

Wood storks (Mycteria americana)

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

We had heard howler monkeys before on the trip, but this time we had a chance to see a little group feeding. Every Costa Rican male has got the howler monkey’s call down pat, and Herman and Walter both tried to engage the heavy-set male howler in conversation. However, he was a taciturn individual and, after a few grunts, turned his attention back to food. When one of them jumped to another tree, the others thought about it for a few minutes, and then followed. Seeing these creatures free in the trees makes me regret the impoverished lives that captive monkeys live – there is no human-provided substitute that can make up for the loss of the variety and sheer scope of their wild lives.

Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata)

Male mantled howler

Herman was a gentle and considerate captain, and we moved slowly and carefully from one bank to another. We came upon a group of white-faced capuchins in a date palm, and were able to approach to within ten metres. One of the monkeys looked up and bared his teeth at us in a threat display, so we came no closer. The monkey continued to dissect the tastiest morsels from the dates, and a few others became visible. They are so attentive and concentrated as they feed, their hands are so delicate and precise that they reminded me of jewellers, selecting the right stones for their pieces and then preparing them in an appropriate way. It was our only time with this species on the trip, but they are very charismatic – they are called ‘the apes of Central/South America’ and they have a intelligence which shines through in their nut-brown eyes. When you meet the eyes of one of these creatures you are definitely encountering a ‘person’, a being with thoughts, needs and a personality, not just some generic ‘monkey’. I suspect this is true of all sentient creatures, if we only took the time to look.

White-throated capuchin monkey (Cebus capuchinus) (Courtesy of Ian Brett)

Capuchin Monkey1 Feb 18

A busy capuchin (thanks to Lesley)

Capuchin Monkey Feb 18

Photo courtesy of Lesley

In the UK, you wait for a long time to see a kingfisher, but here they were everywhere, along with the elegant anhingas (a type of cormorant that swims with just its neck exposed) and a bird called a sun grebe, which is not closely related to ‘ordinary’ grebes, and which only rarely dives (unlike your standard grebe, which waits till you’ve focused your camera before disappearing for ten minutes).

Male Amazon kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona)

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Sun Grebe (Heliornis fulica)

And there on the bank was a very relaxed crocodile. With so many fish and birds and frogs and the occasional clumsy monkey to munch upon, no wonder s/he was grinning

But what I loved most of all was a fine view of a sloth. We’d seen a sloth before, of course, but as we rocked about on the boat and got our binoculars focused, it became clear that she was not on her own.

Can you see those tiny sloth ‘hands’ ? What a warm and cosy home for a new baby, wrapped up in his or her mother’s fur. What a heart-warming sight.

All too soon it was time to head back to the bus. A trip that took us two hours as we meandered up river took us just fifteen minutes as we cruised back. But what a ride! We were lucky to see so much, and to have such knowledgeable and sensitive guides. As we ate our rice and beans afterwards, we all agreed that it was one of the highlights of the trip.

Wednesday Weed – Hydrangea

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) in Costa Rica

Dear Readers, in spite of a plethora of native exotic blooms, the lovely folk in Costa Rica have gone bonkers for hydrangeas. They spill out of the little gardens of San Jose (often peeking through the bars that surround urban houses to keep out thieves), burst forth from the manicured grounds of haciendas, and decorate the paths of hotels (as in the photo above from Monteverde). I find it a little confusing: why would you plant hydrangeas when you have heliconias and passionflowers and hibiscus? But of course, the hydrangeas are no further away from home in Costa Rica than they are in London, because this species (Hydrangea macrophylla, or Florist’s Hydrangea) actually comes from Japan.

The flowers of hydrangeas are actually formed of four decorative ornamental petals surrounding five smaller petals ( a ‘tetramer’ surrounding a ‘pentamer’ for those of you with a lust for new words). The outer petals can be white, pink or blue, and the inner flower contains the fertile part of the plant, with five bluish-green sepals.

Photo One by By Holger Casselmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15901685

The ‘two-flowered’ head of a hydrangea (Photo One)

It’s well known that the colour of a hydrangea varies according to the soil pH, but I had it round the wrong way. Counter-intuitively, an acid soil may produce a flower on the blue spectrum, an alkaline soil one that is pinker (though see below). I have been pontificating about exactly the opposite for years. That’ll teach me.

The reason for the colour change is that hydrangeas are ‘hyperaccumulators’ – they can take up particular minerals and elements (in this case aluminium) to a degree that would be toxic to other plants. This gives them a clear advantage in particular soils. In alkaline soils the aluminium ions are ‘tied up’ and are hence not available, but in acid soils they are free to be taken into the tissues of the plant. The ions in the metal affect the pigments in the petals, thus causing the colour change – the more aluminium taken up, the bluer the flower.

Note that you can’t change the colour of a hydrangea just by re-potting it – it’s the aluminium ions that cause the change, not the pH per se. Also, some varieties have been bred to retain their pink or white colour regardless of the metal content of the soil. It’s probably best to buy a blue variety and hope for the best if that’s your preference.

Petals of a hydrangea showing the blueing effect of aluminium sulphate solution (Public Domain)

Incidentally, an alternative name for hydrangeas is ‘change rose’. The name ‘hydrangea’ comes from the Greek and means ‘water vessel’ after the cup-shaped seed capsule.

In Asia, pink hydrangeas are much preferred, with a meaning generally translated as ‘you are the beat of my heart!’.

A pretty pink hydrangea (Photo Two)

Now, I should probably make a confession at this point. I have never been overly fond of this kind of hydrangea – they seem to take up a lot of garden space for a plant that is not very useful for pollinators or other creatures and, although florists seem to love those big blousy overblown flowerheads, even when dead, they always seem, well, just a bit much. I have a climbing hydrangea with a much lacier flowerhead, and a Hydrangea paniculata which the bees love for its abundant pollen, but these chaps just leave me cold.

It seems that I am not the only person who is not overly fond of hydrangeas, either: in the language of flowers a hydrangea can indicate ‘boastfulness, cold beauty, heartlessness, and ‘you are cold’. There was an English tradition that the daughter of a  house with hydrangeas growing in the front garden would never marry, and that the plants are generally unlucky. Try telling that to the good folk of East Finchley, you can barely walk ten yards without falling over a hydrangea.

As with many ornamental plants. Hydrangea has a variety of medicinal uses: the root and rhizome are said to be useful in the treatment of urinary complaints. However, it’s worth noting that the plant is poisonous, especially the leaves and buds.

Photo Three by By Holdmacska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three

As I have been preparing this piece I have come across several articles remarking that you can make a tea called Amacha from the leaves of the hydrangea  – you are supposed to rub the leaves until they become sweet. It is very popular for the Buddha’s birthday celebrations. Note, however, that the tea is made from the leaves of a different species of hydrangea, Hydrangea serrata. I would be loathe to risk poisoning everyone from the leaves of our common garden hydrangea.

Photo Four by By Chhe (talk) - Own work (Original text: I (Chhe (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18213485

Hydrangea serrata, source of the sweet tea for the Buddha’s birthday (Photo Four)

In my internet travels today I have found several paintings of hydrangeas, but none of them quite sum up my feelings about them as well as this painting by Victoria Dubourg, a French flower painter who died in 1926. The heads of the flowers bow under their own weight, and remind me of nothing so much as the big white broiler chickens that I rescued when I worked on a city farm years ago. Those poor creatures had deformed legs from being bred to put on weight so quickly that their frames couldn’t support them, and for me the very largest of the hydrangea cultivars have the same quality of ‘too-muchness’. But still, they have a kind of languid, tubercular beauty that even I can see.

‘White Hydrangeas’ by Victoria Dubourg (1840 – 1926) (Public Domain)

And, finally, here is a poem by Mark Doty, one of my favourite American poets. I love him for many reasons, one of which is his astonishing book ‘Dog Years‘ which is about his dogs, and about losing the man that he loves to AIDS, and how these things come together. And another reason is that he manages to be both funny and profound simultaneously, a clever trick to pull off. This poem was originally published on the Poem A Day website, which I recommend for a daily poetry ‘fix’.


Mark Doty, 1953

Late August morning I go out to cut
spent and faded hydrangeas—washed
greens, russets, troubled little auras

of sky as if these were the very silks
of Versailles, mottled by rain and ruin
then half-restored, after all this time…

When I come back with my handful
I realize I’ve accidentally locked the door,
and can’t get back into the house.

The dining room window’s easiest;
crawl through beauty bush and spirea,
push aside some errant maples, take down

the wood-framed screen, hoist myself up.
But how, exactly, to clamber across the sill
and the radiator down to the tile?

I try bending one leg in, but I don’t fold
readily; I push myself up so that my waist
rests against the sill, and lean forward,

place my hands on the floor and begin to slide
down into the room, which makes me think
this was what it was like to be born:

awkward, too big for the passageway…
Negotiate, submit?
When I give myself
to gravity there I am, inside, no harm,

the dazzling splotchy flowerheads
scattered around me on the floor.
Will leaving the world be the same

—uncertainty as to how to proceed,
some discomfort, and suddenly you’re
—where? I am so involved with this idea

I forget to unlock the door,
so when I go to fetch the mail, I’m locked out
again. Am I at home in this house,

would I prefer to be out here,
where I could be almost anyone?
This time it’s simpler: the window-frame,

the radiator, my descent. Born twice
in one day!
In their silvered jug,
these bruise-blessed flowers:

how hard I had to work to bring them
into this room. When I say spent,
I don’t mean they have no further coin.

If there are lives to come, I think
they might be a littler easier than this one.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Holger Casselmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15901685

Photo Two by By Mani Nair – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7575457

Photo Three by By Holdmacska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Chhe (talk) – Own work (Original text: I (Chhe (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18213485






Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica (Tortuguero)

Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)

Dear Readers, Costa Rica is a place that I have longed to visit for many years now. It isn’t just the extraordinary diversity of plants, birds and invertebrates that throng its rainforests, but the country itself. In an area of the world racked with poverty and corruption, it manages to provide free healthcare and free education to its population, in part through the abolition of the army. Hunting is forbidden. There is 100% renewable energy. I wondered how such a country would feel to the casual tourist, and what it would be like to spend a brief ten days exploring its varied landscapes.

We started in Tortuguera, right up by the Nicaraguan border. Our guide, Walter, was very much in favour of immigration: Nicaraguans do most of the coffee harvesting (and are paid a minimum wage), and other places in Central America and the Caribbean provide doctors, lawyers and teachers.

”We are a small country’, Walter said, ‘And we need people to come and work. It benefits everybody’.

And what a refreshing outlook that was.

Tortuguera has a river full of crocodiles on one side, and the Atlantic on the other. We travelled to our lodge by boat, and the female guide who made the safety speech demonstrated the Costa Rican sense of humour.

‘In Costa Rica’, she enunciated carefully, ‘lifevests are MANDATORY and this is because if you fall in the river, there are crocodiles, and they will eat you but you will FLOAT and so we can ship your HEAD back to your relatives for identification’.

American crocodile looks on hopefully….

Our lodge consisted of separate ‘bungalows’, and the grounds were full of heliconias and other tropical plants. Within 5 minutes I was getting acquainted with the local wildlife.

Green iguana

I had begged the other people on the tour to let me know if they found any interesting creatures in their rooms, and even volunteered to be on call for such purposes.

‘Room 54!’ I said. ‘Don’t forget!’

But in fact the place was remarkably insect free, maybe because at night there were bats of all sizes flittering and fluttering about.

My favourite birds here, though, were the Montezuma’s Oropendolas (Psarocolius montezuma). These are the world’s largest weaver birds, and they were in the process of constructing a huge communal nest. This involved a lot of squawking and arguing, and occasionally one bird would hang upside down, open his or her wings and let loose a sing-song cry.

Montezuma’s Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma)


Of course, a lot of the wildlife action here in Tortuguero is on the river, and we took a boat trip to see what was going on. The rainforest here is quite a narrow band along the bank in some places, and occasionally our excursion took us along the edge of someone’s garden, where Costa Rican music blared out from a transistor radio and a party of puppies pounced on one another. Tortuguero was originally exploited for logging, and the ‘canal’ that we visited was used to haul out the rosewood, teak, lacewood and tigerwood from the forest.

‘All the most beautiful trees were taken’, said Walter.

There is evidence for this in the village of Tortuguero, a short walk from where we were staying. Nowadays it had plenty of coffee bars and small restaurants for the tourists, but it also has a school, a clinic and a little supermarket. Everywhere there are the rusty machines that were used to process the logs, being gradually reclaimed by the forest.



Our guide Walter pointing out a bird


Logging is now banned in Costa Rica, except for where it’s sustainable, but there are large areas of secondary forest, where the trees are gradually coming back. Fortunately this seems to be enough for the sloths.

IMG_3338 (2)

Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth (Choloepus Hoffmanni)

I always wondered why sloths come down to the ground to defecate, when they do everything else from the treetops. There are two theories. One is that a pile of poo under your favourite tree will attract more predators, so it makes sense to come down from your tree and walk a little way before doing your business. The second theory is that there are chemical messages in the poo about the breeding condition and dominance of the sloth that are so valuable that it’s worth risking getting eaten by a jaguar. Things in nature are never simple, and so it could well be both, or neither.

The river bank was rich in birds and reptiles. I loved the plumed basilisks (Basiliscus plumifrons), who have the common name of ‘Jesus Christ Lizards’ because if disturbed they will run on their back legs on the surface of the water.


Plumed basilisk (Basilicus plumifrons


There was a Bare-throated tiger heron sitting on her nest, and relying on her extraordinary camouflage to keep her and her eggs safe.


Bare-throated tiger heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)

A yellow-crowned night heron sat very obligingly on a fallen tree while we all took our photos. I wonder if the birds are so much less worried about humans because they aren’t hunted? I’ve certainly noticed a difference in the behaviour of the birds in London and in Dorset, where the woodpigeons scatter as soon as I raise my camera.


We watched metres from a great egret as it spotted and caught a fish. I had never noticed before that the eyes of these birds look down their beaks and are slightly hooded, maybe agains the glare. The combination of stillness and sudden coiled speed is exciting to witness.


And then we headed back to shore. As we left the boat, there was an enormous kerfuffle, and a cloud of dust, and it became clear that an enormous iguana was enacting his territorial rights. In full breeding colours, with orange spines and a huge dewlap, he was a creature to be reckoned with.


And you can see him in action (briefly) here:

So, after a few days in Tortuguero it was time for us to move on, to our next location close to Mount Arenal in the centre of Costa Rica. I had already fallen in love with the country. What would we see next?






Wednesday Weed on Location- Heliconia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Heliconia (Heliconia rostrata)

Dear Readers, during my recent visit to Costa Rica I was flabbergasted by the sheer vivacity and variety of the flora and fauna. There are some plants that are so otherworldly that it’s hard to believe that they’ve not been created by a diligent botanist, and so it is with the Heliconias. Their waxy flowers, in shades of nail-varnish red, custard yellow, amber and lime green are so different from the more demure blooms of home that I can only imagine the culture shock of the first European colonists. Heliconia rostrata, the plant in the photo above, is also known as the Lobster Claw, for obvious reasons, but some other species have the flower inverted, so that they look rather like the Strelitzias of South Africa (indeed, one name for them is ‘false bird-of-paradise plant’.

There are 194 species of Heliconias, in their own family, the Heliconiaceae. Their closest relatives are probably bananas. The name Heliconia means ‘from Mount Helikon’, which was the home of the nine muses. I can’t think of a plant that is more likely to stimulate the creative juices.

Heliconia longiflora ( I think)

The bright red and orange flowers of the plant give a clue to the main pollinators of the group – hummingbirds.  The  coloured part of the ‘flower’ is actually a waxy bract, with the true flower being a more inconspicuous white bloom, clearly seen protruding in the photo below. Some of the flowers are easily accessible to a range of hummingbirds, while others have evolved in parallel with particular species. I was captivated by the zing and zip of these tiny birds as they make their nectar-powered way through rainforest groves and gardens. I didn’t feel as if I was in tropical Central America until I’d seen one.

Photo One (Hummingbird on Heliconia) by Pat 1479 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/pat1479/8194636717

Green-crowned Brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) on Heliconia (Photo One)

Heliconias have huge leaves, and some of the rainforest inhabitants take full advantage of this. Bats shelter under the leaves of the plant, turning them into ‘tents’ by biting through the main vein so that the leaf folds over. These Honduran White Bats (Ectophylla alba) look rather like tiny leaf-nosed sheep.

Photo Two (Honduran White Bat) by Wanja Krah at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wanjakrah/4022215035

Honduran White Bat sheltering under Heliconia leaf (Photo Two)

Costa Rica is rich in bats, with 119 different species identified. On a walk at dusk, the air was full of bats of all sizes, from tiny moth-like flitterers to pigeon-sized flutterers, all pursuing the moths and mosquitoes and midges that are their prey . We saw some other remarkable bats during a boat trip in the centre of Costa Rica. From a distance, I thought that I was looking at some kind of bamboo. Close up, I saw that I was looking at a row of five bats, their markings breaking up their outline, and then turning into a kind of face. I was absolutely enchanted. Bats are the second largest group of mammals (after rodents) and are yet so underappreciated.

Where the flowers point up (as in the Heliconia longiflora above), water will be retained in the bracts and many insects, including the mosquito larvae that will turn into the food for the bats, live in these tiny ponds. Leaf beetles, including the very fine tortoise beetle shown below, roll up the leaves and eat them, or munch on the stems and flowers.

Photo Three (Tortoise Beetle) - by By Ilona Loser - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9614715

Mottled tortoise beetle (Deloyala guttata) (Photo Three)

We have seen how the leaves are shelters for bats, but when it rains in Costa Rica, it really rains. In the wet season, the rainforest (so-named for a very good reason) can receive 300 millimetres of heavy precipitation in a single month. So, how do small creatures such as insects survive? Many, like the paper wasp shown below, build their nests by attaching themselves to the undersides of big, sturdy leaves such as those of the Heliconia.

 Photo Four by - Gail Hampshire https://www.flickr.com/photos/gails_pictures/8336892603/

Costa Rican Paper Wasp (Polistes erythrocephalus) (Photo Four)

Heliconias were used in a variety of ways by the local native peoples. In Panama, Heliconia rostrata is used to treat skin cancers, and those big leaves have been used for everything from roofing to creating a fine temporary umbrella. Interestingly, whilst the vast majority of heliconias live in Central and South America, there is a small group of species which live in the Solomon and other South Pacific islands. Here, the leaves are used as wrappings for food, and for straining coconut milk. The root of the lovely Heliconia caribaeae (below) is boiled and used to make a lotion for treating varicose veins.

Photo Four (Heliconia caribaea) by Conrad Munro [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Heliconia caribaea (Photo Four)

One famous painter of the heliconia was the artist Georgia O’Keefe. She was sent on an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii by Dole, the fruit company, in order to paint two canvas of pineapple plants for their advertising campaign. Alas, O’Keefe was a curmudgeon after my own heart. She wanted to live on a pineapple plantation, but Dole squashed the idea and instead sent her a sliced pineapple. Uninspired, she complained that it was ‘manhandled’. She embarked on a trip across the Hawaiian islands, and was much enthused by the thermal spouts and pools, but although much of the flora intrigued her, her canvases displayed nary a tropical fruit. Here, though, is her rendering of a heliconia – they are not native to Hawaii, but the plants obviously love it there. Eventually, on her return, O’Keefe deigned to create a painting of a pineapple plant that Dole, in near-despair, had shipped from Hawaii to her home in New Mexico in less than 36 hours.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Crab Claw, 1939. Honolulu Museum of Art (Public Domain)

And here is the final painting. Incidentally, pineapples are not native to Costa Rica either, but there are plantations everywhere, and the fruit is absolutely delicious.

Photo Five (Pineapple advert) from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-georgia-okeeffe-hawaii-paint-pineapples-dole

Georgia O’Keefe’s Pineapple Painting for Dole (Photo Five)

And so, I look for a poem to round off this week’s piece. And what do I find but a poem by Neil Deupree, a visitor to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. I didn’t get to this part of Costa Rica this time, but what he writes sums up my experience too.


Sitting on the front porch at Piro

The surf is distant thunder  – be sure to pack the poncho.

The cicadas are way more than white noise in the background.

The tortuguitos finally made it to the ocean.

Papaya and piña spark the taste buds for breakfast.

The anole ambles across our front yard in fits and starts.

The howlers start their “hello” at half past four in the morning.

The clouds are wisps of cotton against the cobalt sky.

The hummingbird (which one of the thirty?)

makes the rounds of the verbena by our front porch.

We are called to see the aracari –

which, of course, are gone by the time we get there –

keeping us humble.

“I am soooo humble,” says Frank, our filmographer.

Damselflies wearing blue and yellow mittens flit through the forest.

A hawk with red wings and a banded tail traces circles in the sky –

followed by a turkey vulture coasting in a straight line – for once.

Heliconia spear their orange among the oars of green leaves.

I hear a bird in the distance that Nito could identify in an instant.

The breeze wicks away the heat –

this part of our home in Osa is truly a breezeway.

Neil Deupree

January 26, 2014

And so, for more on Costa Rica’s plants and animals, keep an eye open for Saturday’s blog…

Photo Credits

Photo One (Hummingbird on Heliconia) by Pat 1479 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/pat1479/8194636717

Photo Two (Honduran White Bat) by Wanja Krah at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wanjakrah/4022215035

Photo Three (Tortoise Beetle) – by By Ilona Loser – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9614715

Photo Four (Heliconia caribaea) by Conrad Munro [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (Pineapple advert) from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-georgia-okeeffe-hawaii-paint-pineapples-dole






Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….


A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,  and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input  – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..