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Flowering Trees a Stunning Spectacle

by Richard Garrigues

Once the Christmas rush has faded away and all that remains are bills to pay, there's time to relax and take in our surroundings. Even the most merry of New Year's revelers should be sober enough to notice the colorful flowering trees that adorn Costa Rica's Central Valley.

Anyone fresh off a plane will certainly be struck by the beauty and intensity of the blossoms, especially those of the poró trees (Erythrina poeppigiana). Their brilliant orange flowers begin to brighten the landscape in January and the show often lasts through to about the middle of March.

Despite the beauty of it all, these trees typically are not planted as ornamentals, instead, where you see a group of tall poró trees you can be sure that there had once been a coffee plantation on that same spot. Where you still find coffee planted beneath shade trees (a cultivation technique which is not practiced with the newer varieties of coffee plants), it's very likely that poró will be among the species used—although in these circumstances they are kept pruned back to 6' tall trunks with just a few branches and hardly resemble the stately flowering trees that they become when left to grow freely.

What heightens the displays of this and many other local tree species is the fact that they usually are leafless when their crowns burst into bloom. It seems that two factors may be responsible for this phenomenon. The lack of rain at this time of year results in deciduous behavior by many trees, even those without showy blossoms, since this is a very practical way of reducing moisture loss (plants inevitably give off water through pores in their leaves). Being leafless when in flower also means that it should be easier for visually oriented pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to find these nectar sources which under natural conditions (i.e., not planted by humans for shade or ornamentation) might be widely scattered.

Erythrina poeppigiana, also sometimes known as poró extranjero (meaning "foreign poró"), was introduced here from its native South America specifically as a shade tree for coffee. Nevertheless, there are six naturally occurring species of Erythrina in Costa Rica. E. glauca has peach-colored flowers that bloom at the same time as E. poeppigiana, while in the higher portions of the Central Valley where dairy pastures replace coffee plantations, E. berteroana is a small tree commonly used as a living fence post. Its crimson red, machete-shaped flowers often attract hummingbirds eager for some energy-rich nectar.

Usually, about the time that the porós have passed their flowering peak, the Tabebuia trees take their turn at delighting tourists and locals, alike. Of the two species found in the Central Valley, Tabebuia rosea is the more common. Known throughout the country as roble de sabana, which translates as "savanna oak," this common name is quite misleading since the trees are not at all related to the oaks. However, because the wood reminded early settlers of oak wood, the name stuck.

When the leafless T. rosea bloom, they put on a lovely display of pastel pink blossoms, though some individuals may be almost white and others a deep lavender. Remember Gregor Mendel from your high school biology lessons on genetics?

The closely related Tabebuia chrysantha bursts out in a spectacular show of bright yellow flowers for brief periods during the dry season. These big bang flowerings are triggered by the occasional afternoon showers that inevitably fall once or twice in the otherwise rainless months of February and March. (Although the species also blooms early in the year on the Caribbean side of the country where there is no appreciable dry season.) Despite the obvious characteristic of large clusters of tubular yellow flowers, the local common name for this species is simply corteza, which means "bark" (don't ask me).

Another common species with yellow flowers is the cotton tree (Cochlospermum vitifolium), or poró-poró as Costa Ricans call it. These small trees are more abundant in Guanacaste and northern Puntarenas provinces than in the Central Valley. The flowers, measuring about 4 inches across and resembling giant buttercups, bloom in January and February and are pollinated by large bees that come to gather pollen. Later in the dry season, the ripe seed pods split open to expose the small seeds that are embedded in a cottony fluff (hence the English common name) which is dispersed on the breeze.

Two trees with small pink flowers that might attract your attention are Gliricidia sepium and Cassia grandis, both members of the legume family. The former is frequently found as a living fence post and is known locally as madero negro or "black wood." A very useful tree for firewood, posts and even for a variety of medicinal purposes, its use as an ornamental is not its main attribute. Cassia grandis, on the other hand, grows to be a large tree and is quite beautiful when in flower. There is a stand of these trees shading coffee plantations on either side of the highway about midway between the airport and San José (just before you come to the Río Virilla bridge).

That's a start for getting to know the different flowering trees that liven up the dry season here in the Central Valley. There are lots of others, too, so enjoy!

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