San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Plant Guide Serves Botanists, Tourists

Many tourists flock to Costa Rica for a glimpse of monkeys, dolphins, turtles and other animals, but others come for the plants – and now, with the publication of “A Guide to Tropical Plants in Costa Rica,” those visitors, from botanists in the field to potential travelers doing couchside research for an upcoming trip, have a new (and beautiful) resource.

The country has more than 9,000 vascular plants – that is, plants with systems of roots, stems and leaves by which they transport water and chemicals. (The other group of plants, bryophytes, including plants such as mosses, must absorb water directly from the ground.) The book focuses primarily on this group, especially flowering plants (angiosperms), and is selective – in the introduction, author Willow Zuchowski, a botanist who has lived in the north-central mountain town of Monteverde for more than 20 years, says her goal was to include a variety of plants (more than 430 in total) while keeping the book small enough to take into the field.

However, the book is not only a field workhorse, but also a glossy, photo-filled tour of botanical Costa Rica. The plant species are illustrated by pen-and-ink drawings and more than 540 photographs by Turid Forsyth, a photographer from Germany who specializes in plants. Some of the pictures are full-page shots that reveal Costa Rica’s scenery as well as the plants themselves. For each species, Zuchowski provides information on physical description, distribution, uses, history and other facts.

While a tourist or botanist can find species quickly in the book’s various sections, illustrated subsections make the book an interesting read for armchair botanists or even total novices.

Examples include “The Largest Flower in Costa Rica” (it’s the “foul-smelling” native vine Aristolochia grandiflora), “What Gives Edam Cheese its Color?” (the coating of annatto seeds) and “The Sex Life of Figs and Fig Wasps” (come on, you’ve always wanted to know).

The book seeks to serve plant lovers with a wide range of experience in its organization as well. To make the book more accessible to tourists, Zuchowski writes, she grouped plants based on “the different ways one would encounter plants when traveling around the country.” Chapters include Painted Treetops, Fruits and Crops, and Conspicuous Grasses. However, readers with botanical knowledge can look plants up by family name in one of the book’s indices.

An introduction with insights into botany in general and Costa Rican plants in particular, a glossary for the uninitiated, and a thorough bibliography for those eager to learn more round out the book.

“A Guide to Tropical Plants of Costa Rica,” published by Zona Tropical, has a suggested  retail price of ¢18,000 ($36) and is availableat Lehmann, Internacional, Francesa (in San José) and Universal bookstores, as well as other bookstores and gift stores throughout the country.


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