Scaly Tree Ferns Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison Scaly Tree Ferns look like something out of Jurassic Park—in fact, they are ancient plants and originated in the late Jurassic. They are true ferns (Class Pteridopsida) that are rather tree-like in appearance, with trunk-like stems. The world’s tallest tree ferns are in this family, and can grow up to 20 m tall. The fronds are some of the largest in the plant kingdom, reaching 3-4 m in some species. The pinnate leaves are covered in scales and hairs; “sori” or spore clusters are located on the undersides of the leaves. They are mostly terrestrial (although some are epiphytic). Tree ferns growing in the forest understory have adapted fronds allowing chlorophyll to photosynthesize more efficiently in lower light conditions. In the family Cyatheaceae, there are 13 genera; the genus Cyathea is the largest and contains approximately 500 species, although the exact number of species is unknown. Scaly tree ferns are found in wet lowlands to mid-elevations in tropical regions around the world, and there are more than 40 species of Cyathea in Panama. From the Greek: “Cyathea” comes from the Greek word “kyatheion”, meaning “little cup”, referring to the cup-shaped sori on the fronds.
Scaly Tree Ferns Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison Scaly Tree Ferns look like something out of Jurassic Park—in fact, they are ancient plants and originated in the late Jurassic. They are true
Rush-like Flatsedge Cyperus luzulae Common in wetter areas around Panama, the Rush-like Flatsedge is a clump-forming, grass-like perennial member of the sedge family, Cyperaceae. It typically grows 20-50 cm tall, with the tallest plants reaching up to 1 meter in height. The main stem of the plant grows from short rhizomes (rootstalks). Leaves are linear, 3-7 mm wide. The bracts surrounding the inflorescence are leaflike as well, growing to 30 cm in length. Numerous spikelets grow in dense clusters approximately 1 cm in diameter, bearing up to 10 or more whitish flowers. Fruits are smooth, oblong capsules 1 mm in length and light brown in color. Cyperus luzulae flowers and fruits throughout the year. The Rush-like Flatsedge has a number of useful purposes by humans. The crushed rhizome is used as an aphrodisiac. The strong, flexible stems can be used as twine. Parts of the plant (likely the rhizome) is mixed with Genipa americana (Jagua – family Rubiaceae) and is rubbed on hair to encourage and maintain healthy hair growth! This distinct plant prefers wet habitats, and can be found commonly in marshes and swamps, wet fields and stream edges. It is found in the lowlands and foothills up to 1400 m. elevation, in tropical moist forest and premontane moist forest. Cyperus luzulae has a wide distribution throughout the tropical regions of Central and South America. The genus Cyperus contains approximately 700 species of sedges distributed worldwide. The species name “luzulae” comes from “Luzula,” a genus of rushes (family Juncaceae) which this species resembles.
Rush-like Flatsedge Cyperus luzulae Common in wetter areas around Panama, the Rush-like Flatsedge is a clump-forming, grass-like perennial member of the sedge family, Cyperaceae. It typically grows 20-50 cm tall, with the tallest
Sensitive Plant Mimosa pudica The Sensitive Plant is a creeping herb in the Fabaceae family. It has long, prickly stems that can grow to 1.5 meters in length, and has compound, bipinnate leaves with 10-26 leaflets. The round, pale pink flowers arise from the leaf axils. The fruits are clusters of 2-8 pods, 1-2 cm long, containing pale brown seeds with hard seed coats. The Sensitive Plant is one of the more “entertaining” and memorable plants in a tropical forest—it demonstrates “rapid plant movement”, in which the leaves fold inward and stems droop when touched or disturbed by warming, blowing or shaking. This behavior is known as seismonasty. It is believed to aid in predator protection from harmful herbivores. They reopen shortly after the disturbance has passed. It grows in shady areas, forests, edges and roadsides, and is pollinated by wind and insects. The Sensitive Plant is native to Central and South America, and is now distributed throughout the tropics worldwide; it is considered invasive in some areas it has been introduced. It is common in the forests around the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge. Did you know? The latin name “pudica” means “shy,” “bashful” or “shrinking.”
Sensitive Plant Mimosa pudica The Sensitive Plant is a creeping herb in the Fabaceae family. It has long, prickly stems that can grow to 1.5 meters in length, and has compound, bipinnate leaves
Tropical Milkweed Asclepias curassavica Photo by Jenn Sinasac Commonly known as Tropical Milkweed, Scarlet Milkweed and Blood Flower, this plant is a member of the family Apocynaceae, the dogbane family. The genus Asclepias (the milkweeds) are named after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, for the many medicinal uses of the milkweed plants. As their common name suggests, they have milky sap, of many species contains toxins and can cause injury. Tropical Milkweed is an evergreen perennial shrub. It grows to 1 meter tall and has pale gray stems. The leaves are oblong and end in a sharp point at the tip, and are arranged oppositely. The inflorescence has 10-12 flowers with red corollas and yellow or orange petals, and flowers all year round. Fruits are 5-10 cm long, and contain small, flat, oval seeds with silky hairs for wind dispersal, similar to other milkweeds. Tropical Milkweed is a source of food for many species of butterflies, and like other milkweeds, particularly for both larvae and adult Monarch and Queen butterflies (subfamily Danainae), and is a favorite flower for planting in butterfly gardens. Tropical Milkweed is native to the Neotropics, and has been introduced to other tropical regions worldwide. It can be found throughout the forests of Panama.
Tropical Milkweed Asclepias curassavica Photo by Jenn Sinasac Commonly known as Tropical Milkweed, Scarlet Milkweed and Blood Flower, this plant is a member of the family Apocynaceae, the dogbane family. The genus Asclepias
Vanilla Orchid Vanilla spp. Well-known and very popular for its sweet aroma and flavoring, the Vanilla Orchid is the source of our commercial vanilla extract and perfumes used very commonly in our daily lives. The genus Vanilla consists of 110 species of orchids found throughout tropical regions globally. Two species, V. planifolia and V. pompona, are used commercially, the former on an industrial scale for food and cosmetics. Both species are native to Mexico and Central America. Vanilla is a vine-like plant that grows vertically along tree trunks and has aerial roots for attachment as it climbs. Long, thin stems grown up to 35 meters in length, and large, oblong, thick leaves with a leathery texture extend alternately from the stem. Flowers grow from the leaf axils, and are large and attractive, usually white and cream colors with green and yellow tints. Flowers are short-lived; matured flowers bloom in the morning and close in the afternoon, giving a sweet scent and opening only once per flower. We are familiar with the term “vanilla bean”; however, it is not a true bean, rather the fruit of the plant—a pod 10-20 cm long that ripens gradually over 5-9 months. It turns black when ripe and has a strong aroma; it contains thousands of tiny seeds, and both the seeds and pods are used to create vanilla flavoring. The word “vanilla” translates as “little pod” in Spanish. Vanilla plantations require trees for the vines to climb, thus providing open forest habitat for wildlife as well. Pollination: Flowers are self-fertile but require pollination, achieved by the aid of stingless bees and hummingbirds. Commercially, vanilla is hand-pollinated. Read an interesting article about the discovery of hand pollination here. Vanilla pompona, photos by Diego Bogarin
Vanilla Orchid Vanilla spp. Well-known and very popular for its sweet aroma and flavoring, the Vanilla Orchid is the source of our commercial vanilla extract and perfumes used very commonly in our daily
Star-of-Bethlehem Hippobroma longiflora Photo by Jenn Sinasac On the outside, this attractive perennial, with its long, snow-white, tubular flower and 5 petals arranged in the shape of a star against dark green leaves, is rather eye-catching. The thick, hairy leaves form a rosette, and are pinnately lobed. The fruit is a hairy green capsule containing tiny light-brown seeds. It stays close to the ground, reaching a height of 60 cm tall. However, on the inside, this pretty plant gives more bite than its pretty external appearance would suggest. One of its common names, “Madam Fate,” offers a warning. It is well-known for its concentrations of two powerful alkaloids, lobeline and nicotine, and if taken in high dosage, various effects including vomiting, trembling, irregular breathing, convulsions and paralysis can occur. Its milky white sap is a strong irritant, and can be absorbed through the skin, causing a burning sensation, and even just a drop or two of sap in the eye can cause blindness. On the other hand, in some cultures this plant is used for medicinal purposes, as it is applied to wounds to cauterize and promote healing, and has also been used to treat asthma, bronchitis, epilepsy and hydrophobia. This plant is native to the West Indies but has been widely introduced and is now common throughout the tropics and Oceania. It prefers moist, shady lowlands with moderate rainfall, and can be found around the Canopy Tower, Lodge and Camp. The name says it all: Hippobroma means “horse madness.”
Star-of-Bethlehem Hippobroma longiflora Photo by Jenn Sinasac On the outside, this attractive perennial, with its long, snow-white, tubular flower and 5 petals arranged in the shape of a star against dark green leaves,
Matapalo Ficus spp. Rubber Fig (Ficus elastica), an Asian species in the garden at the BioMuseo in Panama City The ultimate competitor in the tropical rainforest! Stranger Fig is a common name for a number of species of Ficus trees (family Moraceae) that exhibit a unique adaptation for growth and survival, using a support or host tree to establish itself and eventually outcompete for resources. Some banyans (also Ficus spp.) and vines employ this “strangling” behavior. “Matapalo” means “tree killer” in Spanish, and is a well-known type of tree across its distribution throughout the tropical regions of the world. Here’s how it happens: a bird, bat or monkey deposits a seed in the canopy of a large tree. The seed has a sticky coating, allowing it to attach well to a crook or crevice on a branch. From here, the germinated seed begins to grow roots and extends them down rapidly to the forest floor. These hemiepiphytic beginnings allow the strangler fig to establish itself quickly in the ground and take up nutrients rapidly for fast growth. At the same time, the seed begins to send branches up into the canopy of the support tree, producing leaves and beginning to produce its own food by the process of photosynthesis. The older host tree offers the aggressive fig a surface to support itself, and as it grows, the strangler wraps and thickens its roots around the trunk of the tree. As it gets bigger and bigger, the strangler roots can actually cut off the circulation of the xylem and phloem in the bark of the support tree. Up at canopy level, the emerging dense crown of leaves shades the support tree from the sun, cutting off its ability to effectively photosynthesize. Furthermore, the root system of the strangler outcompetes the support
Matapalo Ficus spp. Rubber Fig (Ficus elastica), an Asian species in the garden at the BioMuseo in Panama City The ultimate competitor in the tropical rainforest! Stranger Fig is a common name for
Spanish Flag Orchid Epidendrum radicans Photo by Jenn Sinasac A “weedy” orchid, common along the roadsides and fields of middle elevations in Central America, the Spanish Flag Orchid is rather eye-catching and distinct. This terrestrial orchid is recognized by its bold inflorescences of fiery reds, oranges and yellows, situated atop a long, cane-like stem up to a meter in length. Leaves are oval, fleshy and are placed regularly along the stem. The stem is covered in imbricated sheaths, as well as the base of the inflorescence. Inflorescences can contain 20-30 flowers, and can be up to 50 cm long. Flowers have a three-lobed lip, which are fringed, and fringes may be lighter in color, fading to yellow. The column and the lip are fused together. Seeds are very small. Several key characteristics distinguish this species from other similar Epidendrum species and other flowering plants in the ecological complex to which it belongs. It produces adventitious roots (secondary roots) that grow off the stems and are used to absorb nutrients and support the plant on different surfaces, including other plants! Its flowers bend backwards and face upwards (resupinate), unlike other Epidendrum species. Its stems do not swell to form pseudobulbs, and it does not produce nectar in the flowers. E. radicans is placed in a complex with several other orange-flowered species that are ecologically similar but otherwise unrelated, including Asclepias curassavicia (Tropical Milkweed) and Lantana camara. These species all share the same habitat and pollinators, and are a great example of convergent evolution. A hypothesis exists that E. radicans mimics the two aforementioned species for pollination, since E. radicans does not produce nectar and the other two do; however, this hypothesis is not supported (Bierzychudek 1981). This orchid is pollinated by butterflies. The Spanish Flag Orchid ranges from southern Mexico throughout Central
Spanish Flag Orchid Epidendrum radicans Photo by Jenn Sinasac A “weedy” orchid, common along the roadsides and fields of middle elevations in Central America, the Spanish Flag Orchid is rather eye-catching and distinct.
Shingle Plant Monstera dubia Photo by Jenn Sinasac The Shingle Plant is an herbaceous creeping vine in the Arum family, Araceae. It gets its name from the “shingling” behavior exhibited by its young leaves, in which it lies flat against the surface of a tree. As it grows, it changes its leaf shape and growth habit. It starts to develop large, perforated leaves and no longer shingles. Mature leaves are dark green, broad and very large, up to 130 cm long and 75 cm wide, hence the name Monstera! Leaves often have natural holes in the blades. It uses aerial roots to climb trees and roots that grow into the soil to support the vine, and Monstera dubia can grow up to 20 m in height—it truly is a jungle monster! Its flowers grow on a special inflorescence called a spadix, characteristic of this family, which can grow up to 45 cm in length. Its fruit is a cluster of white berries. Keep an eye out for this ‘monstrous’ plant and its unique young shingles on your walks through the forests around the Canopy Family lodges. Photo by Jenn Sinasac
Shingle Plant Monstera dubia Photo by Jenn Sinasac The Shingle Plant is an herbaceous creeping vine in the Arum family, Araceae. It gets its name from the “shingling” behavior exhibited by its young
Sobralia citrea Photo by Jenn Sinasac Sobralia citrea is the most common large, white-yellow orchid found along the Caribbean slope from Costa Rica through central Panama. This distinctive orchid was just recently described by American botanist Robert Louis Dressler in 2005, and is most commonly known from Panama. The genus Sobralia is very diverse and contains approximately 125 species. Their delicate flowers usually last only a few hours, as a result of a self-digesting enzyme. Flowers in this genus are small to large, and buds open synchronously within a species, likely due to an environmental cue. They have stiff, pleated leaves and reed-like stems that terminate in the inflorescence. Most Sobralia are epiphytic, but some are terrestrial, and they are pollinated by bees. Sobralia citrea is found in foothills (800-1000 m elevation), and is blooming now in El Valle near the Canopy Lodge and Cerro Azul, one of our birding destinations. For another up-close photo of the flower (and other Panamanian orchids), check out our orchid checklist. Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison
Sobralia citrea Photo by Jenn Sinasac Sobralia citrea is the most common large, white-yellow orchid found along the Caribbean slope from Costa Rica through central Panama. This distinctive orchid was just recently described