Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Walk in the Park, or Tropical Botanical Garden

Rubber boots; check. Rain jacket; check. Water bottle; check. Flashlight; it's 10am, but check. It is Tuesday, our first full day in the tropical gardens of Las Cruces Biological Station. 
Navigating down the hill from our shared house includes plenty of mud and slipping. By the time I reach the beginning of the garden path, my legs are satisfactorily matched to their current environment. Camouflage? 
We meet our guide; his name is Rodo. Much of the following information must be attributed to him. Las Cruces is unlike any station we have visited thus far. Founded in the early sixties by two American botanists Robert and Katharine Wilson, it is a unique mix of cultivated ornamental plants and the wild edge of jungle that seems a constant part of Costa Rica's landscape. The diverse topography of the land was chosen because it would allow for a high diversity of rare species from all over the world. The preserve includes pre-montane wet forest and many hectares of primary forest, and more recent projects have included reclaiming land previously cleared for agriculture and housing. (1)
As we walk slowly through the gardens, it is easy to see that Las Cruces does indeed host many diverse and beautiful species, however the palm forest is my favorite. The sun-loving trees remind me of people; all look pretty similar, but some are short and round, some are tall and skinny, some are spiky, and some are green and smooth. Some have a wide berth of open space as if they emit an unpleasant palm smell, while others are clumped together in small, competitive families. I never imagined such a simple, common family could include so many shapes, colors, and varieties! 
As I am looking up at the latched gallery of leaves above me, I am startled by something large and wet dropping onto my forehead. Then my cheek, then my shoulder. Before I could take two steps I am caught in a torrential downpour. Just to give some background, I come from good old California, where the seasons are little hints of color and the rain is like a gentle shower every now and then. The rain here, however, is hardly rare, and hardly can be considered gentle or shower-like. The swollen droplets that come battering through the canopy seem proportional to the sheer amount of organisms that they will support. They drip down from leaves, gathering in flowers and heliconias, meeting in small groups to tunnel rivers into the storm drains. There, like a mob of angry townsfolk they rush along the garden paths, ending, I suppose, in one of the many small rivers. As the rain retreats to a slight drizzle, we continued walking and our guide pointed out one particularly interesting tree, called Chorisia speciosa, which was ballooned with stored rainwater. Large spikes coat the trunk, assumably as protection against the ices of some prehistoric beast. I never expected trees in the tropics to have large water storing capacities, considering the abundance of water that is found, however this species was clearly prepared for a drought. Better safe than sorry, I suppose. 
Our tour finishes in a small greenhouse where more delicate species are harbored. Hanging plants with bright colors and yawning mouths wait to trap unsuspecting flies, and leaves the size of my torso flutter gently in the breeze flowing through the cracked windows. Like the rest of the garden, it has a mysterious, free beauty to it, and something tells me I will enjoy my time exploring Las Cruces. 
Aidan Telfer-Radzat

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