After spending the last two weeks in below-zero temperatures in Minnesota, it was a welcome relief to arrive in Costa Rica and find beautiful, clear 80°F weather. We spent most of our first day acclimating to the new climate and traveling to Turrialba to CATIE, but made a stop for several hours at the INBio nature center to learn about some of the unique ecosystems and animals Costa Rica has to offer.
Time at CATIE
We stayed the night at CATIE, and then went on a guided tour of the botanical garden first thing in the morning. It was an excellent experience, and our guide was extremely knowledgeable about the plants in the garden. We began the tour with an overview of the garden’s general purpose of preserving many of the important plant species in Costa Rica, and continued with an introduction to the many types of fruit that grow in the garden. For example, the “miracle fruit” (Synsepalum dulcificum) contains a substance that blocks the sour taste receptors on the tongue when the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, and subsequently causes sour foods to taste sweet. When we set out on the tour, our guide pointed out many types of plants and explained numerous facts about them. The large stands of bamboo were particularly interesting, as he explained that they not only are one of the fastest-growing plants in the world but that they also flower some 80 to 100 years after being planted and subsequently die. We were fortunate enough to see one that was flowering, and although the flower was similar to that on a typical grass we would be familiar with from Minnesota it was an extremely fun experience to be able to see such a rare part of the plant’s life cycle. Among the other species we saw were a Guanacaste tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) which was huge and is Costa Rica’s national tree, a strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) which was used to produce rat poison, and a Heliconia plant which has large hanging flowers that are most easily accessible to hummingbirds. At the end of the tour, we were able to test the effect of miracle fruit, and found that extremely sour tangerines suddenly were transformed into sweet, delicious treats.
After a delicious lunch, we attended a lecture on biological corridors, which are extremely important for the conservation of megafauna that require large territories and space that may encroach upon human habitat. A biological corridor is a stretch of natural environment extending through human development (such as agricultural fields) which allows animals to move through those areas in relative safety from contact with humans. Especially significant is the Mesoamerican Corridors Project, which endeavors to create large, continuous biological corridors throughout Central America, such that many of the animal species can move and migrate uninhibited by human progress.
Our final event of the afternoon was to visit the CATIE cacao breeding program location. While there, we learned about their projects to improve cacao stock in ways such as increasing yield and quality of product, but most importantly finding genetic varieties of cacao that are resistant to disease, and then breeding these traits into larger cacao populations to be distributed throughout the cacao-growing world. This strategy is especially important in current times because of the fungal pathogens that cause black pot disease and moniliasis in cacao trees, which are serious enough that they can wipe out entire plantations and ruin farmers’ livelihoods. CATIE has been relatively successful in this field, and has developed six types of cacao clones which have combined a certain level of resistance to moniliasis with other valuable traits such as high yield and excellent product quality. Recently, CATIE has begun distributing these clones throughout Central America in order to allow farmers to continue growing cacao in areas hard-hit by moniliasis, and expects the new plants to be extremely helpful for the cacao industry.
What would a trip to a cacao research facility be without the chance to taste some of their product? Although they were not able to provide us with chocolate, we were given the opportunity to taste a different part of the cacao than any of us have had a chance to before. The inner fleshy part of the fruit surrounding the beans is edible and somewhat sweet, and we all tasted it on a couple of different varieties of cacao that the program had grown. Interestingly, different varieties of cacao had significantly different tastes, which helped us to understand why certain types of cacao clones are valuable to farmers despite vulnerability to disease and low yield, as the product they give is of such high quality as to be worth the loss in volume.
Overall, we have had an amazing and varied beginning to our wonderful adventure in Costa Rica!
Report by Christopher Goodnow.