Rara Avis Part 2.
After a late lunch we were eager for our first hike through the lush (and very damp) rainforest that enveloped us. Our first venture was a relatively short hike which terminated at a great vantage point looking out on the nearby waterfall. Along the way our guide began to introduce us to the plants and animals that we would soon become familiar with: palms, ferns, and buttress-rooted canopy giants; epiphytic aroids, orchids, and bromeliads; butterflies, spiders, and the ubiquitous leaf-cutter ants.
With no electricity in the rooms we could not sequester ourselves in air-conditioned comfort behind closed windows and doors. Yet instead of languishing in sultry oppression, the altitude of about 700 meters provided comfortable temperatures. With a symphony of rainforest sounds unblocked by our large screen windows it seemed a shame to squander the magical ambiance by sleeping, but sleep we did, and well. Since electricity was provided by generator for only a couple of hours each evening at the communal building a half minute's walk from our rooms, we quickly adjusted to a schedule of waking at dawn and turning in as soon as it was dark. While the accommodations were rustic we were by no means "roughing it". We had hot water (provided by propane cylinders which were carted up with all the other supplies by tractor). The food: simple, fresh, and bountiful, was served family-style around long tables. We only had to endure two "hardships"--the previous group had consumed all but two beers and we had to be diligent about getting our digital camera and laptop batteries recharged during the small window when electricity was available.
Our schedule remained pretty straightforward for the next few days as we spent the better part of each morning and afternoon hiking the trails and taking pictures. Trails were continuously maintained by sawing the trunks of fallen trees into what they called "cookies" and placing them like stepping stones along the trails. Frequent rains plus rich volcanic soil equals mud u lots of slippery, sucking mud. Many times the cookie trail became submerged under puddles of muddy water. Other times the older cookies crumbled having been recycled back into the forest's ecosystem by the relentless work of fungi and wood-boring insects. The reason for the rubber boots was pretty obvious. Since we had come during the "dry season" we inquired if this amount of precipitation was normal. We were informed that the concept of a dry season only applies at lower elevations. In the rainforest there is little seasonal change in either temperature or precipitation. Occasionally the misty clouds might part and it could get sunny and steamy for a couple of days but mostly conditions remained overcast and wet.
I have been to several rainforests and seen many epiphytes during my travels but the rainforest around Rara Avis was unparalleled and simply magical. Even while struggling to keep the rain away from my camera gear and dealing with fogging lenses I still managed to take over 1200 images in the four days we were there. Digital photography has allowed amateur photographers to shoot subject-rich locations like this without the photo-processing budget of a National Geographic assignment.
There were seemingly endless varieties of aroids, ferns, fungi, and bizarrely-beautiful rainforest flowers. Many of these showy flowers and fruits belonged to the Rubiaceae (coffee) family. Besides being the source of the beloved breakfast drink and many commonly-cultivated garden plants such as gardenias, pentas and ixoras, it turns out that this family is huge, containing over 10,000 species in about 600 genera. While each and every interesting plant seemed to be vying for its share of time in front of my lens, it should come as no surprise that the bromeliad species garnered some special attention. The majority of the bromeliads that we spotted were in the Pitcairnioideae and Tillandsioideae subfamilies. The only representatives of the Bromelioideae subfamily that we found were Aechmea pubescens and Ronnbergia hathewayi both conveniently in bloom at the time.
The pitcairnioids were limited to the type genus Pitcairnia. We found Pitcairnia atrorubens past bloom and with seed and P. arcuata in flower. There was another pitcairnia with a distinctly different leaf shape from the other two species but it was in flower. According to the biodiversity species list at the lodge, P. valerii seems to have been recorded here so this may be the name of this other species. P.arcuata was interesting in that the species starts out as a terrestrial but climbs vine-like into the lower canopy with the inflorescence often displaying overhead.
The tillandsioids were the most numerous in species and most diverse in genera. One of the first species I spotted (on the tractor ride up) was Racinaea contorta. With its pseudo-bulb shape and twisted and spotted foliage it is a very distinctive and attractive species. Rainforest racinaeas have about the same life expectancy as vampires when exposed to the hot and sunny days in south Florida so I've never tried growing (killing) them. It was nice to see them thriving in the habitat where they belong.
The genus Tillandsia was represented by a small clump of T. bulbosa found on a tree in the clearing around the lodge and several T. anceps spotted along the trails. There were several guzmanias including a vibrant red form of Guzmania zahnii and also the attractive G. donnell-smithii which was at the peak of its bloom while we were there. Vriesea monstrum was spotted on several trails with bloomed-out inflorescences that stretched well over half a meter in length. Werauhias were probably the best represented genus with the very distinctive Werauhia gladioliflora and W. kupperiana being fairly common. W.triflora and W.vittata were also recorded along with a number of other unidentified werauhias.
The biggest (literally) surprise came while hiking on a trail that climbed up to the border of Braulio Carrillo National Park to which the Rara Avis reserve abuts. The trail was propitiously named Bromelia and we did see quite a variety of its namesake along the way. When we came up to a large clump of plants with corrugated leaves roughly two meters tall I was stumped. They looked like some giant pitcairnia species but closer inspection proved that there were no spines on the edges of the leaves even near the base where they sequestered small pools of water. There were no flowers evident but I did find an old and well-decomposed inflorescence. The three-sided seed capsule with tufted seeds indicated that this was indeed a bromeliad. Our guide mentioned that a previous group of scientists had reported at least one unidentified bromeliad in this area and she thought that this terrestrial giant might be one of them.
On the last day at Rara Avis we were hiking on the Morpho trail, which connects to the Bromelia trail, when I spotted more of the mystery bromeliad u this time with flowers. I was able to get close to one of the flowering plants and pull its 2.5 meter inflorescence down to eye level to get a good look at it (and some photos for identifi- cation). The cream-colored petals added little interest to the overall green coloration of the flower spike. This species is unlikely to take the cut-flower market by storm anytime soon. The tall, ribbed foliage, however, might make this an interesting landscaping plant in environments where it would grow well.
When I returned to Florida I quickly sent some images of this mystery plant to Harry Luther at the Mulford B. Foster Bromeliad Identification Center at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. Harry has been an invaluable resource in attaching names to mystery plants. While Harry prefers to have a blooming sample in hand to make his diagnosis, he has been able to determine the species if the plant is distinctive and the relevant characteristics are shown in the image. It did not take Harry long to solve this mystery as it was a species he had described--Guzmania hollinense.
In 1988 Harry collected his species in Napo, Ecuador. He found it growing abundantly near streams and flooded areas as a terrestrial or low epiphyte. While the clusters that I saw in Costa Rica were always green, Harry reported that some of the Ecuadorian plants had "strikingly bronzy red foliage". This did not appear to be due to sun exposure but seemed to be a distinct color form of the species. The species was formally described several years later in the BSI Journal V42(4):168-169. Harry knew this species well but was surprised that I found it in Costa Rica. It was originally thought to be endemic to Ecuador. A single specimen was later collected in Dept. Amazonas, Peru, but all others have come from Ecuador. Finding it in Costa Rica, some 1400 km (900 miles) to the northwest, was quite a range extension for this species. I am currently trying to arrange to have a herbarium specimen collected for this rainforest giant to formally document its new range.
Costa Rica is a wonderful travel destination. It should be on everybody's short list of places to see. From active volcanoes to tiny poison-dart frogs there is something guaranteed to delight any nature-loving traveler. A visit to the rainforest should be part of the itinerary of all bromeliad enthusiasts who visit Costa Rica. For those who don't mind being bounced and jiggled for a few hours to reach this remote Eden I would heartily recommend spending a few days exploring rainforest reserve at Rara Avis. Who knows what other unexpected discoveries may be found there? More information can be found at their website: www.rara-avis.com.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Bromeliad Society|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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