They are deceptive, exotic and strange. There are more of them per square kilometer in Costa Rica than anywhere else on the planet. And this weekend, people from all over the world will be converging on San José to admire what are essentially their genitals.
Everything about the flower is geared toward reproduction. Its name, derived from the Greek orchis, or testicle, is a reflection of certain peculiar similarities some orchids bear to their namesake. But don’t let that put you off.
Two oceans and a mountainous spine create the dripping, misty conditions ideal for Costa Rica’s 1,200-1,400 species of orchids. Examples of one of the gaudiest and loveliest, the guaria morada (Cattleya skinneri), the national flower, are visible on verandas across the Central Valley, along the banks of the Tárcoles River west of the capital and on Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) posters. Spotting the rest, given that most prefer lofty branches in high-altitude cloud forests, generally involves a bit more effort – except during one weekend in March.
In 1972, then-President José “Pepe” Figueres declared that a week in March should be designated Costa Rican Orchid Week, the highlight of which, the annual National Orchid Show, takes place this weekend at the Cariari Country Club in Ciudad Cariari, northwest of San José.
A roomful of orchids is a glorious sight, but study a single orchid up close and you start to understand the fuss. They’re weird and tricksy. There are orchid flowers that resemble slippers, nuns in cowls, beaks and tongues, buckets, jugs and the heads of snakes, bulls and – like the Dracula orchid – dragons.
They are expert at luring pollinators, fooling bees, flies, moths, butterflies and birds into believing they’re something they’re not, coating them in pollen that brushes off on the next phony plant down the bough. One species gives off the odor of a female wasp, and has a flower that looks enough like one, with eyes, antennae and wings, to get male wasps to try to mate with it. Others, the dark red and brown bulbophyllums, smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies looking for a nice spot to lay their eggs.
Despite such clever tactics, many of Costa Rica’s orchids are endangered, affected directly by deforestation and illegal activity by collectors, and indirectly by deforestation on the lower flanks of mountainous regions causing a reduction in the misty cloud cover higher up.
Hopefully, help is on the way. Among the crowds admiring the orchids at the show will be experts from the international scientific community, in San José for the Third International Orchid Conservation Congress.
Previously held in Australia and the U.S. state of Florida, this year’s event is hosted by LankesterBotanical Garden and the University of Costa Rica. Opening with a speech by conservation visionary Dan Jantzen and sponsored by the Orchid Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the event’s central focus will be sharing knowledge and experience of orchid conservation and looking at sustainable ways to manage orchid habitats around the world.
Delegates will be taking a day trip to Tapantí National Park, east of San José, which, at 1,200 meters and up with, some might say, a surplus of rain, is a good choice for orchid spotting. North-central Costa Rica’s MonteverdeOrchidGarden, with more than 400 species, is another good option. But of course if you can’t make the show and want eye-level orchids sepal to stamen along an easy non-slip trail, you can’t do better than visit the aforementioned Lankester Botanical Garden, the legacy of British naturalist Charles Lankester, now a research and cultivation center and corner of paradise near Cartago, east of the capital.
The National Orchid Show is on this weekend, March 16-18, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Cariari Country Club, next to the Meliá Cariari hotel in Ciudad Cariari. For information, call 240-4269.
Places for Budding Orchidologists
Lankester Botanical Garden: 4 km along road from Cartago to Paraíso, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., $5 tourists, ¢1,000 ($1.90) residents, discounts for students, 552-3247, www.jardinbotanicolankester.org.
Monteverde Orchid Garden: Main road to Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, 7 km from Santa Elena, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., $5, 645-5510.
Wilson Botanical Gardens: Las Cruces, 5 km south of San Vito, Southern Zone, 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., $10 tourists, $8 residents, 524-0628.
Jardín de Guarias: Cocaleca, 2 km from center of Palmares, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., ¢1,000 ($1.90) tourists, ¢500 ($1) residents, 452-0091.
Bosque de Paz: Private 1,000-hectare reserve linking PoásVolcanoNational Park with JuanCastroBlancoNational Park, Bajos del Toro, 14 km from Zarcero, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., $35 including lunch, reservations required, 234-6676, www.bosquedepaz.com.
Essential reading: “Field Guide to the Orchids of Costa Rica and Panama,” by Robert Dressler (Comstock Publishing, 1993).