MONTEVERDE – Small and soft-spoken, Gabriel Barboza leans over a fallen tree to point out a hint of greenery protruding from damp bark. Barboza, known in the small mountain community of Monteverde as “the orchid guru,” is an expert on this tiny epiphyte found only in Costa Rica.
“I appreciate and love orchids. More than anything else, I notice how they develop and how they’re growing, and I tell them they’re growing well. They are very intelligent,” Barboza said.
Situated high up in the Cordillera de Tilarán mountains, Monteverde has unique weather patterns that are constantly affected by its altitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Called a cloud forest because of the low hanging moisture, it gives visitors the feel of being inside a cloud. Conditions here are ideal for orchid growth.
But in recent years threats to orchids in Costa Rica have arisen, including deforestation, poaching and climate change. Barboza and other locals are fighting to protect the unique, highly evolved flowers by encouraging education and establishing gardens where all can come to learn about orchids and the conditions in Monteverde that have given rise to their growth.
To many, orchids are large and showy terrestrial flowers. According to agricultural scientists at the University of Florida, orchid sales in the United States are the “fastest-growing segment of the nation’s $13 billion floriculture and nursery crops industry,” generating over $23 million annually in Florida alone.
Most available for purchase in the United States are man-made hybrids. But in the wilds of Monteverde, where Barboza has been searching for and collecting orchids since he was 12 years old, they are rather small epiphytes, a type of plant that grows on another tree without being parasitic.
“Because it is so mountainous, different air currents come, and the seeds can really get mixed around. And so for that reason, there are more endemic species here than in other places,” he said.
Monteverde boasts the world’s smallest orchid, the Platystele jungermanniodes, measured at just a few millimeters wide. About 520 other species are found only here because of the unique climate, and are only known thoroughly by a few.
SMART FOR THEIR SIZE
When Barboza was young, the miniature flowers intrigued him, calling him to learn more.
“I knew about a lot of different orchids, but I didn’t know what their names were,” he said. “I started getting obsessed with identifying orchids, and I would also look up in the trees with binoculars and find all kinds of birds and orchids.”
With the interesting exception of vanilla beans and a few other species, orchids don’t produce nectar or any other edible substance. Instead, orchids are highly evolved, and entice insects into pollinating them.
“They’re very mystical; orchids are like tricksters, and they have several features that help them fool an insect,” said Ricardo Salazar. He works as a tour guide at the Monteverde Orchid Garden owned by his father. “They have lots of smells, they have different colors, different patterns, different shapes, and they have traps too.”
Many orchids have developed very specific methods for luring insects into pollination, suggesting that certain species of orchids and their pollinating insect companion have co-evolved. According to Salazar, the spider orchid’s petals reveal the pattern of a spider web when a black light is shone on it. A certain type of wasp that feasts on spiders sees the web detailing and flies to the orchid, focusing only on its potential prey. Before the wasp knows it’s been fooled, it has pollinated the orchid.
“The orchid needs the wasp to survive; without that wasp, the orchid won’t grow,” Salazar said.
THREATENED AND DISAPPEARING
Just as the orchid needs the wasp, the rainforest needs the orchid to maintain its diverse and somewhat delicate ecosystem. More than 90,000 acres of rainforest in Monteverde are protected, so locally, orchids aren’t losing the land they need to grow, but globally, deforestation is a problem affecting thousands of species.
“Orchids are all on track to becoming extinct with deforestation,” Barboza said.
The Ley de Conservación de la Vida Silvestre, or the Wildlife Conservation Law in Costa Rica, prohibits the removal of plants such as orchids from the forests, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it.
“One time, we caught an American here with 360 plants that he was taking, and four frogs,” Barboza said. “He was arrested and can no longer return to Costa Rica.”
Orchids are relatively easy to smuggle because they are such small, hardy plants. They can be wrapped in damp, dirty clothing and last for days before being sold on the orchid black market.
“There are a lot of orchid species endemic to certain areas and certain countries, and people who are very in love with these orchids will pay lots of money to have them in their own garden,” Salazar said.
Poaching is a problem especially when it comes to Costa Rica’s national flower, the guaría morada orchid. According to Salazar, Ticos love to have it in their garden, but don’t understand the blooming cycle. This particular orchid only flowers once a year, but instead of keeping the orchid all year, some assume that it is dead when it finishes blooming so they throw it away and remove more from the forest.
Marcos Méndez Sibaya, a certified naturalist guide in Monteverde, has seen the issue of poaching evolve since childhood.
“There’s been huge controversy with people taking orchids, because the national flower of Costa Rica is an orchid,” he said. “Back when I was a kid, it was seen as okay to take from the forest and keep as a house plant, but (since) then the orchids have become scarce, and now it’s illegal to take orchids out of the woods.”
Even more of a problem, ripping an orchid away from its natural habitat can deprive it of necessary elements that it needs to survive, such as the special fungi required for it to germinate and grow.
“If you’re taking plants from the forest that are fully mature and fully grown, you’re taking a lot of life away from the forest,” Salazar said.
Though establishing laws and protected areas can diminish the impact that deforestation and poaching have on orchids, not much can be done immediately to save these flowers from the threats of climate change.
There have been several noticeable changes in Monteverde that Barboza and others attribute to climate change, such as the rainy season starting later and the dry season being a lot drier. Barboza has also observed an increase in cold winds that push the clouds away, causing a drop in the amount of moisture the normally wet, humid and rainy area receives.
“We are trying to get a grant to study the effects of climate change because there are some species of orchids that used to be really common but can’t be found anymore,” Barboza said. “Some insects only come out of the ground when it starts to rain, and some of the orchids only flower when it rains, and it’s not raining as much as in the past.”
Working with the Centro Científico Tropical (Tropical Science Center) at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Barboza is one of the area’s most prominent authorities on orchids. Along with his hopes to glean more information on how climate change is affecting Monteverde, Barboza also focuses on the conservation of orchids and educating anyone he can about the flowers. He is carefully cultivating an orchid garden at the reserve.
In the process of dedicating his life’s work to learning all there is to know about orchids, the humble, world-renowned expert has discovered two new species.
“I want to bring more education to the field,” he said, and when gently prodded, he added, “I have contributed (to the conservation of orchids) by being an environmental educator, and also by rescuing these orchids and replanting them, and teaching people how to grow them properly.”
Opening in a few months, the garden will offer sanctuary to orchids and education about the cloud forest’s many unique flora and fauna. Maybe Barboza’s garden will even inspire another 12-year-old to take up the quest of orchid conservation.