Ephemeral Blooms in December
An arresting visual sign that summer is approaching in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica is the sudden massive flowering of Tabebuia chrysantha, a robust but slow growing hardwood tree in the Bignoniaceae family.
In our county of Coto Brus, this tree–commonly known as Corteza–drops all its leaves over a few weeks’ time in late November. Then suddenly in mid-December, just when the months of winter rains begin slacking off, the Corteza trees burst into stunning yellow bloom, all within a period of about a week, depending on their elevation.
From roads on hillsides of our topographically diverse region, one can look out over the valleys and remaining forest patches or larger protected areas and see from a distance—only in December, of course–the few Corteza trees that remain. Fortunately, a few individual property owners who value the tree have left some handsome specimens remaining near main roads and standing in pastures for all to see. Passing a tree that the day before was bare, but now is a “big bang” of golden sunlit flowers, is a joyous sight. The glorious flowers signal summer vacation for children and trips to the beach for their parents.
On each leafless tree, the individual flowers open all on the same day, and persist on the tree for only two to four days before they fall and litter the ground with a golden carpet. The flowers carry no nectar, but they still attract a variety of pollen-hunting visitors in numbers: bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, birds, and probably bats, which tend to visit other Bignoniaceae vines and trees. Research has shown that bees are the heavy lifters—the main pollinators–of the three species of Tababuia in Costa Rica.
Tabebuia crysantha is found in wet forests ranging from Mexico to Peru and Venezuela.
The wood of the Corteza tree is among the heaviest and hardest in the Neotropics. It is prized for its durability for everything from fence posts and tool handles to furniture and floors. Until it became rare, truck owners used it as their first choice for body work. Hence, due to their usefulness, large old trees were cut decades ago, and not enough new trees have been successfully planted. Seeds have a relatively low germination rate, making the trees expensive and difficult to propagate, and they are too slow growing for cash-strapped people wanting fast results from their forestry plans. I learned that the wood is so rare it is not available for sale at any local lumberyards in Coto Brus.
My own efforts to grow Corteza trees at Finca Cántaros have met with limited success for reasons not clear, but this year our few surviving specimens, now thirty to forty feet high, had their best blooms yet. Planted in what was former pasture, along with about one hundred other tree species in 1994-95, they are just twenty-two years old.
Their best years of bringing smiles to local faces are ahead of them.
Magical Trees, Costa Rica by Juan Jose, Sergio and Giancarlo Pucci, pp. 82-87. Fundacion Arboles Magicos, (Magical Trees Foundation) Costa Rica, 2010.
Costa Rica Natural History, Edited by Dan Janzen. “Tabebuia ochracea spp. neochrysantha (Guayacan, Cortez, Cores, Corteza Amarilla)” by A.H. Gentry, pp. 335-336. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.
Timber Trees of Costa Rica, Ecology and Silviculture, by Quirico Himenez M., Freddy Rojas R., Victor Rojas Ch. and Lucia Rodriguez S. (A bi-lingual book), pp. 286-291. INBio, Editorial Technologica de Costa Rica, 2002.
Trees of Panama and Costa Rica, by Richard Condit, Rolando Perez and Nefertaris Daguerre, pp. 92-93. Princeton University Press, 2011.