Oct 22. 2014


  • Orientation and observations taken at Monteverde Centro garden
  • Meeting and interview with Willow Zuchowhski
  • Orientation led by Willow at the Monteverde Institute
  • Handing out surveys

On my first day of field research, I already went off schedule from my proposal, not spending the day handing out all the surveys* I planned to give out, but instead met up with Willow Zuchowshi, author of “Tropical Plants of Costa Rica,” a comprehensive field guide to the native and exotic flora in the country, as well as the cofounder of ProNativas, an organization whose mission is to “promote gardens that are more ecological, diverse, economical and that provide habitat for animals.” We met up at Monteverde Centro, a native plant garden initiated by ProNativas and located next to a food market equivalent to Whole Foods and a co-op dedicated to selling local art crafts; that is, a hub of alternative, nature-loving people.

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Though it was early in the morning, there was still intermittent rain so the butterflies weren’t coming out, though there was still a few hummingbirds and bees about for me to observe and collect data. In any case, I found the meeting with Willow incredibly useful as she not only told me more about ProNativas, but also oriented me at the garden in Montverde Centro, helping me to identify all the plants there. Here’s the garden’s comprehensive list (click below):

(In the order from left to right: Hamelia patens, Rivina humilis, Solanum umbellatum, Justicia aurea, Ageratum spp., Cavendishia capitulata, Chamaedorea costaricana, Salvia colonica, Bocconia frutescens, Renealmia cernua, Asclepias curassavica, Ficus pertusa, Dieffenbachia oerstedii, Stachytarpheta frantzii, Monstera species, Malvaviscus arboreus.)

The snapshots are taken from Willow’s ProNativas website, a wonderful and informative resource for identifying native plants in Costa Rica. I also learned from browsing the site that the organization places an emphasis on the cultivation of native plants over exotic ones. They argued that the growth of native plants contributes to increased animal visitations in gardens as the species here in Costa Rica are specifically adapted to these native plants for centuries. Furthermore, native plants would preserve Costa Rica’s cultural identity and their cultivation leads to reduced costs in irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides and nonrenewable energies over the long run.

Furthermore, the organization was about raising “awareness of the importance, reproduction and use of native ornamental plants, and their contribution in the conversation, beauty and identity of Costa Rica.” They do so by doing the following:

  1. Implement gardens.
  2. Promote use of native plants in main tourist areas through workshops, conferences, lectures and visits.
  3. Create educational material for learning more about native ornamental plants (via the web, posters, labels and books).

I found it interesting their use of “ornamental,” which I made a mental note of as it will be a useful when catering to the interests of hotel owners and garden enthusiasts.

Here are other fun facts I found about ProNativas:

  • The majority of Costa Rica gardens contain exotic plants that do not interact with its fauna.
  • Native plants have culinary and medicinal properties, which reduces costs in both food and medicine over the long run.
  • Native plant gardens attract more wildlife and provide more learning experiences for children, tourists and others interested in the nature uniquely defined by Costa Rica.
  • The use of the native plants in gardens is one of the criteria for the certification of ‘Sustainable Tourism.”
  • Hotels generally contain non-natives because they buy their plants from commercial nurseries, which have few native species. The “chicken and egg” cycle continues as the commercial nurseries will keep selling non-native plants, believing that the exotic plants will sell more. More often than not, however, businessowners, both at hotels and commercial nurseries, simply can’t tell which of their plants are native or non-native.
  • ProNativas strives to educate the community, including businessowners, planners and those wanting butterfly gardens, which over the years are becoming popular (perhaps in response to the decline of butterflies in the area in general!).

Most importantly, ProNativas helps those interested in starting their own nurseries of native plants for their projects/gardens (essentially free of cost!).

Willow gave me a map of all the gardens that ProNativas has implemented, including the garden at the Biological Station I study at as well as the garden behind the bakery of my host mom’s sister (refer to Day 2). She showed me pictures of how native plant gardens begin, stating how they would look like weeds at first, but later turn into beautiful gardens filled with flora of vivid color, creating the ideal conditions for inviting butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, frugivorous birds and bats. She also me showed me some of the posters that were created with the help of past students on plants that attract birds, hummingbirds, bats and gave me an inventory of native plants in Monteverde with a list of their respective characteristics (i.e. shady versus sun-loving, the pollinators and dispersers they attract, etc.).

One of the biggest issues about native garden plants according to Willow is not their implementation, but rather their maintenance. The gardens at Escuela Canitas are gone due to lack of maintenance and the gardens at Los Llanos were bulldozed over by the municipality. The gardens at Colegio Santa Elenas were also taken over by the municipality and still maintained, though poorly through the use of machetes, a common, unsustainable practice that not only destroys the flora and makes the garden less attractive, but also reduces the plants’ lifespans. She tells me there’s actually low maintenance needed for native plant gardens—about a day per month for the trimming, weeding and addition of new plants. ProNativas offers this maintenance for low costs, but it seems that politics and bureaucracy often get in the way of reason. As a result, Willow has resigned to the fact that gardens are essentially ephemeral and that an effective way of promoting the use of native plants over the long run instead is educating the local community.

This description of Colegio Santa Elena led me to conclude its potential for redesign, which Willow absolutely encouraged. Here were her notes on gardens there:

  • Add new plants and provide educational material for the identification and characteristics of each plant.
  • The need for a maintenance plan (for example, add/replace plants every 5 years.).
  • Show how the school’s garden is a nice introduction to Santa Elena. It is seen all the time by whoever enters the town.
  • Encourage locals to bring home cuttings from the garden. Native plants are easily grown and abundant!

Willow then talked about another garden ProNativas implemented at Escuela Creativa, where she will orient me next week. The gardens at Escuela Creativa in general are used to educate the biology students and among the many gardens there, the one that particularly stands out is the “International Peace Garden.” In this garden, there are both native and non-invasive exotic plants. Willow then proceeds to tell me that ProNativas is not non-native; that is, if there are exotic plants that have already existed and are non-invasive (essentially not disturbing the native plants around), then they will not cut them down. The International Peace Garden then, is a compromise, which allows the coexistence of natives and non-natives.

Another interesting issue that Willow brings up that gardeners traditionally look for non-native plants to make their gardens unique and different. In fact, planting native ones goes against the grain and their congregations is usually labeled “monte,” weed-like. Once again, this is not true, as the hatchlings will grow up to reveal beautiful flora and so it’s the job of the landscape designer to promote native plants and make them mainstream. This is the first time I came across hearing about Felipe, a renowned landscape designer in Monteverde that I will need to consult with regarding my own designs.

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Afterwards, I participated in an orientation at the Monteverde Institute given by Willow to the staff members. I’ve noticed that though the garden had a greenhouse and plenty of plants, the place is currently under renovation, making it not an ideal place to observe and collect data from.

Here were some notes I took from the orientation, which actually emphasized the benefits of growing native plants:

  • Native plants will start out small and looking like weeds, but will flower within 6 months
  • The institute has a master plan for the renovation of the garden, designed by Felipe
  • Banana plants are incredibly invasive
    • They destroy native plants
    • They take up a lot of water
    • Very hard to control (situation is okay in Monteverde)
  • Staff members value Costan Rica’s cultural identity
    • Some want a butterfly garden in their homes
    • Concerns over which plants will grow out of control
    • Want to maintain plants without destroying flowers
    • Asked if there natives are cheaper and better for gardens; asked where they can find that information, if classes are offered
    • Believe point of garden is to create a tranquil/friendly environment for people
    • Asked which plants are sun-loving/shade-tolerant
    • Absolutely loves flowers, fruits, and plants with medicinal/culinary properties
  • Observed that when staff members point to flowers they like, they were often exotics because that’s what the garden only has to offer! Therefore, landscape designers do make certain plants mainstream. When staff members asked about the benefits and costs of flowers, it seemed to be like a shopping/browsing experience.
  • Only the Monteverde Institute and ProNativas have nurseries with an abundance of native plants
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* I’ve realized that since I am exploring around town anyways, my time is best spent aiming to observe and collect data from native plant gardens as well as to personally interview professionals and locals on their views regarding Santa Elena’s development. Consequently, I will be handing out my surveys as I arrive to my destination. The method seems to be working so far as I have about 40 handed out!

In conclusion, I will spend the next 10 days dedicated to field research as stated in my proposal, but the order in which I will carry my research will vary and frankly spontaneous as the opportunity to collect data from gardens and interview people will always precede the rest of the research I’ll do.

What’s next

  • Collect data from the Monteverde Centro garden
  • Hand out surveys
  • Begin reviewing site plans at the Monteverde Institute