Although it’s hard work and easy to be confused, it’s often rewarding to be able to identify specific trees within a forest. The following are some of the more prominent and important tree species you are likely to see in Costa Rica.
Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra) — Also known as the kapok tree, the ceiba tree is typically emergent (its large umbrella-shaped crown emerges above the forest canopy), reaching as high as 60m (197 ft.); it is among the tallest trees of Costa Rica’s tropical forest. The ceiba tree has a thick columnar trunk, often with large buttresses. Sometimes called the silk cotton tree in English, the ceiba’s seed pod produces a light, airy fiber that is resilient, buoyant, and insulating. Throughout history this fiber has been used for bedding, and as stuffing for pillows, clothing, and even life jackets. Ceiba trees may flower as infrequently as once every 5 years, especially in wetter forests. Prime Viewing: Tropical forests throughout Costa Rica.
Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) — The Guanacaste gives its name to Costa Rica’s northwesternmost province, and is the country’s national tree. With a broad and pronounced crown, the guanacaste can reach heights of over 39m (130 ft.), and its trunk can measure more than 1.8m (6 ft.) in diameter. Guanacaste is prized as a shade tree, and is often planted on pasture lands to provide relief to cattle from the hot tropical sun. Prime Viewing: Low elevation forests and plains throughout Costa Rica. Most commonly viewed in the open plains and savannas of Guanacaste.
Strangler fig (Ficus aurea) — This parasitic tree gets its name from the fact that it envelops and eventually strangles its host tree. The matapalo (“tree killer”) begins as an epiphyte, whose seeds are deposited high in a tree’s canopy by bats, birds, or monkeys. The young strangler then sends long roots down to the earth. The sap is used to relieve burns. Prime Viewing: Primary and secondary forests countrywide.
Cecropia (Cecropia obtusifolia) — Several cecropia (trumpet tree) species are found in Costa Rica. Most are characterized by large, handlike clusters of broad leaves, and a hollow, bamboo-like trunk. They are “gap specialists,” fast-growing opportunists that can fill in a gap caused by a tree fall or landslide. Their trunks are usually home to Aztec ants. Prime Viewing: Primary and secondary forests, rivers, and roadsides, countrywide.
Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) — The bark of the gumbo limbo is its most distinguishing feature: A paper-thin red outer layer, when peeled off the tree, reveals a bright green bark. In Costa Rica, the tree is called indio desnudo (naked Indian). In other countries, it is the “tourist tree.” Both names refer to its reddish, flaking outer bark. The bark is used as a remedy for gum disease; gumbo limbo–bark tea allegedly alleviates hypertension. Prime Viewing: Primary and secondary forests, countrywide.
Flowers & Other Plants
Costa Rica has an amazing wealth of tropical flora, including some 1,200 orchid species, and over 2,000 bromeliad species.
Guaria morada (Cattleya skinneri) — The guaria morada orchid is the national flower of Costa Rica. Sporting a purple and white flower, this plant is also called the “Easter orchid,” as it tends to flower between March and April each year. Prime Viewing: Countrywide from sea level to 1,220m (4,000 ft.). Although usually epiphytic, it also grows on the ground.
Heliconia (Heliconia collinsiana) — More than 40 of the world’s species of tropical heliconia are found in Costa Rica. The flowers of this species are darkish pink in color, and the underside of the plant’s large leaves are coated in white wax. Prime Viewing: Low to middle elevations countrywide, particularly in moist environments.
Hotlips (Psychotria poeppigiana) — Related to coffee, hotlips is a forest flower that boasts thick red “lips” that resemble the Rolling Stones logo. The small white flowers (found inside the red “lips”) attract a variety of butterflies and hummingbirds. Prime Viewing: In the undergrowth of dense forests countrywide.
Ornamental red ginger (Alpinia purpurata) — The red ginger plant has an impressive elongated red bract, often mistaken for the flower. Small white flowers actually emerge out of this bract. Originally a native of Indonesia, it is now quite common in Costa Rica, and is used as both an ornamental plant and cut flower. Prime Viewing: Countrywide, particularly in moist environments and gardens.
Poor man’s umbrella (Gunnera insignis) — The poor man’s umbrella, a broad-leaved rainforest ground plant, is a member of the rhubarb family. The massive leaves are often used, as the colloquial name suggests, for protection during rainstorms. Prime Viewing: Low- to middle-elevation moist forests countrywide. Commonly seen in Poás National Park and Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.