Edible! Marvelous Melastomataceae -Part II
Some people think that anything a bird can eat, a human being can consume as well. Untrue! I have seen birds pecking on red hot chile peppers that most of us wouldn’t dare munch in their raw state. Toxic chemicals lurk in many fruits birds eat without harm, like red elderberry, deadly nightshade, and even white poison ivy fruits. In Costa Rica, red akee fruit (Blighia sapida in the Sapindacaeae family) are consumed by birds in the Caribbean lowlands and areas of Guanacaste Province, but its seeds with the poison hypoglycin A can kill a human being in a very unpleasant manner. (See Tropical Plants of Costa Rica by Willow Zuchowski). Fortunately, the largely tropical Melastomataceae fruits can be eaten with aplomb by birds AND people.
I once made a pie with sweet and juicy blueberry-like melastome fruits (Miconia schlimii, growing locally–see photo, Part I), and anecdotal commentary by countless Costa Rican bird guides has convinced many birders that we could survive on melastome berries alone, should we get lost and hungry in a tropical forest!
We should value and protect habitat for the Melastomataceae family, as some bird groups have coevolved with it. According to F. Gary Stiles, co-author of Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, melastome fruits make up a significant component of most tropical bird groups’ diets. His research has shown this is especially true for lowland manakins (“gulpers”), and tanagers (“mashers”) living at mid-elevation areas, where the greatest diversity of melastome species are found.
It’s nice to put a name–coevolution– on this visible phenomenon of abundant tanagers and melastomes in our mid-elevation county of Coto Brus. When the fruits are eaten the tiny seeds pass through the tanagers and other birds’ guts, become viable, and then are dispersed broadly. On our property alone, just 7 hectares, we have hundreds of melastome trees, bushes, and vines (now trying to determine how many species); we also have three manakin and fourteen tanager species.
Since the New World melastome diversity extends from Central America through South America, migrating birds resting en route from and to North America have reliable food sources most months of the year. That increases avian diversity everywhere. And that’s why melastomes are simply marvelous life-giving resources and some tropical birders’ favorite plant group.
Further reading: F. Gary Stiles and Loreta Rosselli published an article in 1993 entitled Consumption of fruits of the Melastomataceae by birds: how diffuse is coevolution? In the paper Stiles and Rosselli cite eight other articles about Melastomataceae and bird relationships. By now there must be many more.