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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
January 26, 2014
And so, for more on Costa Rica’s plants and animals, keep an eye open for Saturday’s blog…
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