It’s been a very, very wet and grey winter in the UK and we felt the need for some warmth and light, so in the first half of February we stole a couple of weeks in Costa Rica, in Central America. It is a country I have always wanted to visit, not just for its spectacular landscapes and wildlife, but because it has managed to buck the political trend that prevails in most of that part of the world: it abolished its army in 1949, is a stable democracy and, unlike several of its Central American neighbours, has avoided the devastation of civil war.
The Costa Rican landscape varies from the tropical lowland rainforest of the Caribbean coast to the misty cloudforest of the volcanic highlands and, in between, the dry forests of the foothills and the central valley. In past centuries, large areas of native forest were destroyed by logging and dairy farming, but in recent years the Costa Rican government has been trying hard to reverse some of this damage, designating many areas as national park or as protected private wildlife refuges.
Each of the different landscapes of Costa Rica has its own characteristic flora, though often, as in most countries, interspersed with introductions from elsewhere. I was intrigued to discover, on a rather frustrating trip to the active Mount Poas volcano, about an hour’s drive from the capital, San Jose, plants that would be quite at home in the similarly cool and misty climate of the west of Scotland: azaleas, ferns and – I’ll swear this plant is following me like Captain Hook’s crocodile – Gunnera! (The volcano trip was frustrating, by the way, because the sulphurous crater of the volcano, though detectable by its smell, remained determinedly obscured by cloud.)
On the way back to San Jose from not seeing the crater of Mount Poas we detoured to the nearby La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a privately owned enterprise that combines, on a 28 hectare site, a zoo, restaurant, function venue, hotel, garden, and walking trails that take in 5 spectacular waterfalls.
The gardens are professionally laid out and showcase some of the country’s most beautiful plant species, as well as quite a few ring-ins from other tropical regions of the world. I liked the way massed plantings of lower-growing species such as the prayer plant (Calathea zebrina), bromeliads, ferns and grassy Liriope provided a foreground for strong verticals from ornamental red bananas (Musa coccinea), the dramatic torch ginger or Emperor’s cane from Indonesia (Phaeomeria magnifica), Australian tree ferns and the tall plumes of a wonderful sedge-like plant that I didn’t manage to identify.
(It struck me that, in putting these compositions together, the designer could probably be confident that his or her garden “picture” would behave itself and stay nicely arranged throughout the year. I sometimes think that in the higher latitudes we have to deal with an extra dimension in gardening: the complete disappearance of herbaceous perennials over the winter, as well as the loss of leaves from deciduous trees and shrubs, wreaks havoc with attempts to design layered plantings and pleasing contrasts of form and colour. Your carefully thought-out scheme might actually only exist for a few months of the year!)
Among the Costa Rican natives in the La Paz garden were the heliconias, found in a region stretching from Florida through Mexico and Central America to parts of South America. Most grow in the rainforest and cloudforest areas, at altitudes between 500 and 2000 metres. Sadly, many of the species that require the shade and shelter of primary rainforest have been lost as a result of the destruction of their habitat and most of the varieties grown as ornamental plants in Costa Rica and elsewhere are those that are able to survive in secondary forest.
In Central America, the heliconias are pollinated by hummingbirds, whose darting, iridescent bodies zoom past you at La Paz on the way to their nectar feeding stations. Another favourite nectar source for the hummingbirds is the “Rabo de Gato” or blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), with a delicate form and lavender-blue flowers that add some softer notes to the planting.
I’m not a great orchid fan myself but, for those who are, an area of trees decked with hanging baskets displays just a few of the 1500 species native to Costa Rica.
The only garden feature of La Paz that I thought was somewhat less than successful were the concrete rills that run down through the garden to join the river. When you eventually leave the formal part of the garden to follow the hiking trail past La Paz’s famous waterfalls, thundering through dense forest festooned with vines and epiphytes, you have to conclude that nature does this so much better!