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Postcard #5 from Costa Rica: Jardín de Orquídeas de Monteverde

It happened February 17, the single day—the only day this year it will occur.

Fortuitous timing of a singular marvel.

You’re especially lucky today,” said Andres, as he began the tour. “This orchid started blooming just this morning but its flower might only last for as little as four hours.”

While Magellan and I are not, as we’ve written before, orchidophiles, you would be right in remembering this isn’t our first post about what’s been called the sexiest flower species on the planet. (Another on the queen of flowers at other “palaces” in Costa Rica, will bloom here at Latitude65.)

What is it about orchids? Almost a century ago one of Central America’s orchidophiles, George T. Moore, wrote:

There is one plant, which stands so far above all the rest for unique beauty and grandeur that it is universally regarded as the aristocrat of the floral kingdom, namely, the orchid. The Central American orchids, above all others in North or South America, are regarded as furnishing the climax [occupying the highest point] and should be called the ‘aristocrat of the aristocrats.’

The country’s national flower is an orchid, the Guaria Morada, fuchsia in colour, one of the more than 1,500 identified species in Costa Rica of which one-fifth are endemic, found nowhere else on the planet.

Most of Costa Rica’s orchids grow in cloud forests like Monteverde, which, because of its climate, elevation, vegetation and air currents, counts “more native species of orchids than Europe, US and Canada all together” Andres tells us—including the world’s smallest, the Platystele jungermanniodes, just a few millimeters wide. (Which is why you see people using magnifying glasses on Magellan’s video.)

It took his father, Papo Salazar, five years to collate the five-hundred species in their garden in the heart of the small town of Santa Elena, most of them native to the region and most of them miniatures (like eighty percent of the world’s orchids). At any given time of the year, about 120 of their orchids are in bloom.

Andres explained that ninety percent of the country’s orchids are epiphytes, growing on the surface of a plant, usually tree bark, and getting moisture and nutrients from the air. His family only has to water their orchids about threes a year.

I would have guessed that tropical countries can boast of having the most orchids. Not so. As Andres explained, Alaska has more native orchids than Hawaii—most of what you see in Hawaii is artificially produced hybrids.

Hybrid orchids don’t occur in the wild. Cleverly, orchids in nature have ways to maintain species diversity. Closely related species flower at different times, attract different pollinators and have sufficiently different flower structures so that even if the same bee visits their flowers, the pollen from each orchid sticks to different parts of the bee’s body so it doesn’t come into contact with the receptive part of its cousin’s flower.

Strong air currents, like we experienced hiking up to Monteverde’s Great Divide, are another reason why orchids flourish here. A successfully pollinated orchid flower can release a million seeds to be carried far and wide by the area’s fierce winds; the twisted evergreens we saw at the top of the trail reminded us of the wind-bent trees on the Wild Pacific Trail on Vancouver Island.

Beyond their beauty, there’s another reason I love orchids.

You know the security question often suggested by banks: what is your favourite flavour? For me, the answer is vanilla: luscious, aromatic, creamy vanilla—the edible fruit of an orchid.

Although ninety percent of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and Indonesia, artisan growers in Costa Rica cultivate a hybrid of Mexico’s Vanilla planifolia and, like Powell’s Sobralia—its flowers open for just one day a year.

You can imagine my joy in seeing not just vanilla beans for sale at the Salazar family’s orchid garden, but vanilla powder, a product I’d never seen before. “Use it like you would vanilla extract,” Andres said, “mix it into wet ingredients first and maybe use a little less than extract.”  I put a tin of vanilla powder on the counter, then another for Lynn. A few minutes later I was back in the tiny shop for one more—after all, it was likely the one and only day this year, maybe in my lifetime, that I’d have the opportunity to buy vanilla powder.

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Baker, Christopher P.  MOON Costa Rica. Berkeley: Avalon Travel, 2015. Our favourite guide to this wonderful country.

The Salazar family’s Jardín de Orquídeas de Monteverde in the town of Santa Elena is about five kilometres from the Monteverede Cloud Forest Biological Preserve. Until a few months ago, the road into this area, one of the top tourist attractions in the country, was bone-numbingly rough, ridden, pockmarked, with potholes. Now, it’s mostly paved. There is a lot to see and do—Magellan and I spent three days in the region.

The Orchid Café next door to Jardín de Orquídeas de Monteverde is a great place for lunch. Great coffee (as was Magellan’s mocha frappé), refreshing ginger lemonade and save room for their tasty desserts.

Moore, Geore T. “Latin America and the queen of flowers,” Bulletin of the Pan American Union 12: 1-9, August 1931.

4 replies
  1. Barry MacLeod
    Barry MacLeod says:

    The flower is enjoyable to view, best of the best I will defer to “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

    Now the Vanilla powder is of keen interest, sounds like something my morning porridge might be infused with, not sure the sugar contact is adaptable to my diabetis but may be worthy of a test run.
    Vanilla is a favourite flavour of mine, so it is intriguing to know it comes from the orchid. I wander if there are different flavours of the vanilla, much like Scotch, from different types of Orchids.

    Sounds like a test run is order.

    Love the pictures.

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Ms Google found (The American Orchid Society.org) that there are more than fifty species of vanilla orchids! On oatmeal sounds like a grand idea, a good sugar substitute. Also found that “Mexican vanilla has a mellower, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance that provides a depth that the other vanilla beans can’t match,” the Tahitian ones contain less vanillin and so are better suited to perfumes, Ugandan ones have an “aroma is earthy with hints of milk chocolate, while the flavor is bold because of the high levels of vanillin,” and Madagascar (the top producer) “are the thinnest of the four types and also have the most flavor. Madagascar vanilla beans work extremely well with apples, eggs, fish, ice cream, melon, milk, peaches, pears and strawberries.”

      Reply
  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    Yes, the vanilla powder..I too have discovered this, but it was from Mexico..I put a little in coffee grounds before brewing, or a bit on top of pancakes..Lots of uses, but I don’t want to use it all up so I use it sparingly..Love the photos of the orchids, nice on a gloomy kind of day…

    Reply

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