Costa Rica's "Austrian Rainforest"

By Karl Glatz and Birgit Stadler, Hofj‰gerstrasse 7/12, 1140 Wien, Austria
Chamaerops No. 50 - published online 31-01-2005

From left to right:
A tree fern in the genus Cyathea.
Cryosphila guagara with bunches of ripe yellow seeds hanging below the crown.
The impressive stilt roots of Socratea exorrizha.
Seedlings grown in Vienna from the Costa Rican seeds.
Photos by Karl Glatz and Birgit Stadler

The "Austrian rainforest" is located in the south of Costa Rica and is a kind of development project with the objective of sustaining primary rainforests. We decided to undertake a journey to the Austrian rainforest in the autumn of 2002, and we booked the trip for over New Year's. After a long and tiring journey from Vienna we reached San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, where we spent a short night before heading to Golfito near the Panamanian border in a small single-engine plane. It was then we got carried away by the beauty of the rainforest.

The forests were still covered in mist, with the Rio Esquinas meandering through the scenery towards the Golfo Dulce. The airport we were approaching was small; in fact, very small. When we suddenly saw a huge rocky wall in front of us during our landing we were uncertain whether our adventure holiday would have to end right there and then. Thanks to our skilful pilot we landed safely and after a short while the driver of the rainforest lodge we had booked picked us up in a cross-country vehicle, which had surely seen better times.

Contrary to the moderate climate prevailing in San Jose which is at an altitude of 1000 meters, Golfito welcomed us with its hot and humid rainforest climate typical of Costa Rica's south. The half-hour journey to the rainforest lodge was of impressive beauty. From the vehicle we could see numerous palm species and different kinds of tree fern. All the plants we cultivate in our flat in Vienna, we could see growing by the roadside. Upon our arrival at the lodge, we were proudly shown the planted garden. Besides a variety of exotic fruits which we could literally eat straight from the tree, I also saw numerous palm species from all over the world such as Cyrtostachys renda, Brahea dulcis (at least according to the label), Roystonea regia, Licuala grandis, Aiphanes aculeata, Euterpe, Areca and different Pinangas. The paths were covered in palm seeds, which germinated everywhere and were a nuisance for gardeners.

I was even more curious to discover native palm trees, which we would hopefully discover along one of the numerous, well laid out jungle paths. The Austrian rainforest is predominantly composed of untouched primary forest. Admittedly naming the huge variety of palm species is simply asking too much. I could recognize various Chamaedoreas, but due to a lack of good literature I could not specify them any further. Luckily that evening I found a book in the lodge that gave me more details about the most important palm species in the region. Thanks to the book I could make out a great many species on my following jungle trip. Among them I detected Cryosophila guagara and even Socratea exorrhiza, which are found numerously in the area. Despite the large amount of snakes–we caught sight of three fine specimens (up to 2 m in length) of the very malicious, fatal Bothrops asper–I made the decision to leave our relatively safe path to look for seeds.

By means of throwing a stick I could get hold of some ripe seeds of a Cryosophila guagara. I could further collect a variety of other seeds I was not able to define any more specifically. One seed I picked up, however, was that of a rare species which natives call "tapir palm" since tapirs apparently very much enjoy eating the palm's leaves. The palm tree shows similarities to Pinanga coronata. Unfortunately I could not detect a single Socratea exhorriza with ripe seeds. The stilt roots of these impressive palm trees are actually big enough to walk underneath. Natives call this one the "walking palm" since it apparently bends towards the light with its stilt roots.

We stayed in this paradise for nine days soaking up the jungle atmosphere with its tropical climate and perpetual "background noise": bats on the walls of our wooden lodge, lizards on the door handles and at times even in my shirt collar, and during dinner a tame parrot attacked our plates. From the dining table we could watch numerous small humming-birds flying around. A domesticated Cayman with a length of 1,5 m, answering to the name "Lorenzo", moves freely between the rainforest and the lodge.

Subsequent to our stay at the lodge we visited some of the great many National Parks in Costa Rica, where I also had the opportunity to collect seeds. These included the Carara National Park, which is composed of so-called dry rainforests with numerous Astrocaryum standleyanum, Socratea exorrhiza, and again Attalea and types of Chamedorea; the Manuel Antonio National Park where, apart from the species already mentioned, are also Bactris und Raphia; and a high altitude forest reserve "Monte Verde" in the north of the country. There it rained so heavily all day with temperatures around 15 degrees Celsius that we had no other option but miss out on the tours due to unsuitable equipment.

Back home, we planted our collected seeds immediately and after no more than two weeks I could already detect the first seedlings. Today, exactly one year after sowing, the germinated plants have already grown nicely. I am particularly proud of the Astrocaryum standleyanum, with a germination rate exceeding 50 %. That plant is growing impressively fast, shows resistance to our dry air indoors, and after a year already carries four leaves with a total height of 30 cm. The Cryosophila guagara also grows beautifully with our conditions here in our flat in Vienna. A selection of our self-raised plants can also be seen in the photo. Among them Astrocaryum standleyanum (in slim, tall pot), Cryosophila guagara (in hydroponics), and other species not further known.

Perhaps one day one of our journeys will take us back to this beautiful and wild country. Until then, I would definitely advise anyone who wants to explore the rainforest on foot not to forget their rubber boots.


  02-02-23 - 12:37GMT
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