Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Fabulous Fabs Coloring Our Summer

By Donna Porter

February and March are not exactly my favorite times of the year here in Costa Rica.  Yes, these are our peak months for tourism but, as a plant person, my thinking leans more towards garden activity.  It is a time when we are not suppose to be planting, but I say, if there is a reliable water source and reliable labor available… then let the planting proceed.  This summer began with milder than usual temps and continued, cooling showers in December and on into January, but who knows what February and March will bring. With these conditions, it is has been especially difficult to halt the planting.

Summer in the tropics does have its advantages and “silver lining” in the plant world and one of those is that this is the time of the year when the flowering trees – do their thing.  With the onset of higher /dryer weather, many tree species will shed their leaves and begin their reproductive cycle of flowering and seed production.  It is almost a dormant state for many plants, where little vegetative growth is occurring compared to the rainy/”green” season.

Interestingly enough, a majority of the tree species that are bursting with color at this time, belong to the family Fabaceae.  Over the last two decades, though, some of these “Fabs” have been taxonomically re-classified into sub-families, but I will not boggle your mind with that.

Of course, there are the oddballs – the black sheep of the family – that defy the rules.  Delonix regia, Flamboyant/Malinche is one that shows-off its vibrant-orange display of flowers into other, non-summer, months, as does Calliandra haematocephala, Powderpuff Tree/Pompon.  This small flowering tree grows only to maximum heights of 12 feet (4 M) and, too, seems to bloom whenever it darn well pleases.  The showy part of their wispy, deep pink to red, powder-puff like flowers is actually the male reproductive anthers, and not flower petals.  They are similar to the well-known Mimosa, Albizzia julibrissin that thrives in the southern U.S.

But, there is quite an array of the non-defiant, summer-bloomers in the Fabaceae family that one can easily recognize throughout the Manuel Antonio/Quepos area.   Cassia fistula, Golden Showers/Canafistula peaks at this time with a delicate exhibit of hanging, grape-like, yellow flower clusters.  C. fistula reaches maximum heights of about 30 ft (15 M), and therefore can make a lovely, backdrop yard ornament, especially with its zigzag shaped trunk.  Closely related is Cassia grandis, Pink Showers/Carao, which is unmistakable to identify.  At first glimpse, it appears like a big, fluffy orange/pink cloud or mirage in the landscape, and you may have to shake your head and take another look to make sure that your eyes are not deceiving you.  Not too many flowering trees that I know of have this type of mirage-like visual effect.

Other members of the Fabaceae family are those trees in the genus Erythrina, which includes about 120 different species.  Erythrina (no matter which species) is commonly called Coral Tree in English, but here in Costa Rica the locals call it Poro.   I became intrigued (no, amused is more like it) with the unforgettable flower of Erythrina poeppigiana during my first summer here in Costa Rica.  This flower must be examined closely- and with an imaginative eye- to appreciate. To my eyes (and perhaps over-active imagination) each individual flower appears like a miniature, smurf-like cartoon character, sporting a long orange cape (the petal) and topped with a blue cap.   I recently stopped again, to re-examine, and again, it made me chuckle at its whimsical appearance. Have a look for yourself. There are quite a few of E. poeppigiana about one mile out on the road between Pali and the Costanera. Flowers can be found on the ground along- side the road for close examination.

Erythrina variegata is another noteworthy member of this genus. This is a much smaller (4 meters in height) species, with less amusing, orange/red flowers.  Its lively, green and yellow heart-shaped leaves make this an excellent species for a small garden and can be found, with some luck, at local nurseries or can be propagated by cuttings or sticks. It may possibly revert to all green with age, but is worth at least a short stay in your garden. Closely related species of this tree are commonly used as living fence posts and their vibrant red, loosely- clustered, upright tubular flowers can be easily noticed along many of our roadsides.  This species typically has few leaves and overall is not as striking as the E. variegata, or as amusing as the flowers of E. poeppigiana.

As for most trees, whether they have conspicuous showy flower displays or not, flower, fruit and seed production can vary from year to year, depending on weather conditions of that year.  With heavy rains, flowers (and therefore seeds) tend to be scarcer.  So, one year you may have a flowering tree that is just exquisite and enveloped in flowers, and the next year you may not have quite the same spectacular show.  So, don’t assume the flowering performance is necessarily related to tree health.

I can close my eyes and easily imagine the future botanical garden in the summer bursting alive with color with show-stopping beauties from a wide assortment of popular plant families.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 7 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149