Marvelous Melastomataceae–Part I

Blakea litoralis

Orchid bees visiting Blakea litoralis, Melastome flowers.

Our southwestern mid-elevation region of Costa Rica is renowned among botanists for its diverse species of plants in the Black Mouth Family. (No, nothing to do with the plague.) “Mela” is a Greek word meaning “black”, and “stoma” meaning “mouth”, because one who eats the nutritious little blue, black and red berries of Melastomataceae plants will soon have dark-dyed teeth and tongue.

Of the approximately 5000 species of Melastomataceae worldwide, about 3500 are found in Central and South America in the form of shrubs, treelets, herbs, vines or, in some cases, tall trees.

Most Melastome flowers attract female bees that grasp onto stamen and buzz around the multiple anthers, dislodging and collecting their pollen. Presto: when there is close contact, and pollen falls on the stigma, what is known as “buzz pollination” occurs. Beetles, flies and other visitors are also seen on these attractive flowers, but I found no mention of them as pollinators. Some species offer nectar as a reward to hummingbirds, wasps, bats and even rodent pollinators.

I owe my interest in this seventh largest tropical plant family to Frank Almeda, Ph.D., now retired from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, CA. In his career dedicated to Melastomataceae Dr. Almeda discovered new species in remote corners of the new world, teaching and collaborating with myriads of other researchers and students in diverse countries. Fortunately, that dedication continues in retirement. His and other botanists’ collections may be accessed digitally in the botany department website of CAS.

Why should we care so much about this plant family? A partial answer will appear in my next post, Part II on the marvelous Melastomataceae. The photo gallery below shows a small sampling of flowers currently growing at our Finca Cantaros, plus one seen at higher elevation in nearby Panama.

Click on any of the thumbnail photos in the Gallery to open the full-sized image within a slide show format. You can control the slide show by clicking on the left (<) and right (>) buttons on either side of the photo. To exit the slide show and return to this post, click on the X in the upper left corner of the slide show screen.

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A useful reference book: I’ve learned much from Susanne S. Renner in her chapter on Melastomataceae in Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. For an online resource, check out the bi-lingual site Melastomataceae de Centroamerica.

And many thanks to Federico Oviedo-Brenes and Dave Janas at OTS’ Las Cruces Biological Station for their generous help with plant IDs.

 

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