Monday, December 23, 2013

Visiting Panama--Botanical Impressions

Ixora
Ixora
I recently took a week’s trip through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific Coast to Costa Rica. 

It was lovely. Traveling in a ship means I unpacked only once. It also meant I could retreat to air conditioning. 


This was an expedition/cruise on the National Geographic Sea Lion. Betchart Expeditions and Academic Arrangements Abroad working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Sigma Xi organized my part, but others on the ship had signed up with National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad. Lindblad organized the actual itinerary and provided the staff. This kind of complexity is common on tours for many reasons, including keeping group size small while filling a 70-passenger ship.

really big tree, Panama
lovely big tree, Panama

I had never been to Panama. It is tropical, about 10o N of the Equator. We were never very far above sea level. That made it the quintessential tropics: warm and humid! The temperature range, day and night, all year, is between 68 ad 93oF. The rainfall in Panama City is 75” annually, but many areas are much wetter. With warm temperatures and plentiful rain, the plants were lush. 


We sailed through the Canal, stopping briefly to see Barro Colorado Island, a famous rainforest research station of the Smithsonian Institution. (It was on my list of places I've always wanted to visit! Research done at BCI has for decades been fundamental to our understanding of tropical ecosystems.) 


ship in the Miraflores Lock, Panama
Ship in the Miraflores Lock, Panama 
Then on into the Pacific. 


 Beyond the Canal in the Pacific Ocean, we sailed through the Gulf of Panama. There were totally picturesque little islands and lovely sandy beaches both on the Pearl Islands and Coiba Island National Park, an important, mostly marine reserve.







little islands, Gulf of Panama
little islands, Gulf of Panama











sandy beach, Gulf of Panama
sandy beach, Gulf of Panama



















Everywhere there were delights for botanist. 

Rainforest tree with buttress roots, Panama
Rainforest tree with buttress roots, Panama


Huge trees!

Buttress roots stabilize the tree to the right and are common in the wet tropics and uncommon elsewhere. The tree might be 100' tall, but its roots are relatively shallow because there is lots of rain and so no need to burrow deeply into the ground searching for water. Deep roots aren't needed for finding nutrients either. Constant heavy rain rinses everything thoroughly. Anything that could have been dissolved and carried away has been. When a leaf falls, invertebrates, fungi and bacteria immediately begin to break it down. So the nutrients are quickly released. The tree needs its roots on the surface to get the nutrients as soon as they are available--before they are taken up by something else or washed away. All this means that big trees are not well-anchored into the earth, and buttresses help.

philodendron in the rainforest, Panama
philodendron in the rainforest, Panama




Left-- A familiar plant in an unfamiliar location.









coconut palm, Panama
coconut palm, Panama

I loved seeing towering coconut trees,  cute yellow flowers growing along the beaches, flowers in unexpected places, distant trees putting on a canopy of white flowers, hot-pink flowers on the fence and much more.

West Indian creeper, Sphagneticola trilobata, botón de oro
West Indian creeper, 
Sphagneticola trilobata
botón de oro







white tree  in flower  above the beach, Panama
white tree
in flower
above the beach









Tiny plant flowering on a rotting log
Tiny plant flowering on a rotting log







butterfly-pea, Centrosema
butterfly-pea, Centrosema sp.




















Panama has an abundance of native and introduced tropical plants and animals and numerous nature reserves. Lately they have been promoting ecotourism. Previously, Panama's leadership was more interested in foreign investment than tourism. But investment is doing well (the Panamanian economy is very strong right now), so they are showing off their natural beauty. Being between North and South America and between two oceans, there is wonderful diversity. Fascinating stuff: the tectonic plate with South America coming north until an isthmus formed between South and North America making a corridor for plants, animals and people. There are great stories we know--pumas went south, armadillos north--and other stories that are just being worked out.

It was a grand trip.




Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler
http:awanderingbotanist.com







3 comments:

  1. I loved your explanation of how the trees roots act as buttresses. Makes sense. I have seen something slightly similar in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.

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  2. I wonder if you can help me then?

    http://sarahdwip.blogspot.com/2016/02/plant-in-panama.html

    I found that in Gamboa, Panama. Do you know what it is? People can write on it.

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  3. The leaf pattern is characteristic of the plant family Melastomataceae, "melastomes". However, it is a very big family with 5,000 species. _Micronia argentea_, Spanish name Maria, fits your photo, is relatively common and is found in Panama. "argentea" means white, and Zuchowski in Tropical Plants of Costa Rica says undersides are "whitish or tan-colored" BUT there are 97 species of _Micronia_ in Costa Rica and probably an equal number, not all the same, in Panama. Furthermore, it could be a relative of _Micronia_ not actually a _Micronia_. To really identify it we'd need flowers and fruit. Is there university or botanic garden in Gamboa? They might know. Look at the blog A Neotropical Savanna which is from Panama: "The Two-Faced Micronia" March 22, 2007. I can't seem to add a link. (The comments to The Two-Faced Micronia say its a different, invasive _Miconia_ species, I don't agree. )

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