Dispatches fromthe Finca The stories our trees tell us


Andrea Johnson

 Is a forestry and conservation professional based out of San José.


Mango, mamón chino, malinche, mahogany, manú negro, melina. I could have picked most any letter in the alphabet but let’s go with “M.” These are a few of the tree species I’ve either already got growing in my finca, or will be planting during the 2017 planting season. Each one has a story to tell, deeply linked with human culture and history. Learning these hows and whys of each species’ journey over time and space, enriches and deepens my appreciation for each little seedling we are putting in the ground.

Indeed, the theme of this Sol de Osa edition got me thinking about how our ´natural´ landscapes are also, always, cultural landscapes. The trace of human hand and history is everywhere on my finca. In obvious ways, of course: the absence of trees, the African-origin pasture grass, the internal road that descends steeply to the river. (So steeply in parts, in fact, that I’m told the locals called it El Sentonazo – after a good rain, you’re likely to fall on your arse at least once or twice on the way down.)

It’s also easy to see the spots where previous owners built their homes. In two lovely flat sites near water sources, I find a coco palm, avocados, citrus trees. I’m at least the fifth owner of this parcel; before the ranching, it was cultivated for cacao until the early 2000s, when the deadly monilia fungus took over. Indeed, I see vestigial cacao plants still growing in shady margins where the land was too steep to turn into pasture. Someday perhaps I will try again.

My favorite vestige of former owners is the enormous mango that spreads its shade in the corner of the upper pasture. It’s so large that you can see it clearly in a satellite image. As basically the only tree within a 500-meter radius, it was the favored hangout spot for cattle, horses, people, birds, you name it. Who doesn’t love a good mango?

Mangoes are ubiquitous in Osa and the tropics in general. You don’t often think about their origins. But Mangifera indica – a member of the Anacardiaceae family, which also gives us poison ivy and cashews – has its evolutionary origins in India. The coveted fruit was transported to the New World centuries ago. Today it’s considered “naturalized” to the Americas, and you find it growing not only in backyards and pastures but also in apparently ‘wild’ forest areas, a sign of their previous human habitation and land use. The mango also happens to be the most eaten fruit on the planet!

The mamón chino is another gift from Asia, where it’s called rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum). Rambut means hair in Bahasa Indonesian, appropriately enough for its appearance. Fifteen years ago I worked studying orangutans in Indonesian Borneo, and one of their – and my! – favorite foods in the forest were wild rambutans. Imagine my delight upon moving to Costa Rica and realizing that this species had been brought over and cultivated with such delicious success. I have four mamones in the finca and plan to put in more, even without hope of attracting orangutans.

The malinche tree (Delonix regia) is a gorgeous ornamental, the brilliant red flare of which you’ve seen in gardens and roadsides across Costa Rica and beyond. (In English it’s called the flamboyant, royal poinciana or flame tree.) I’ve planted two of these beauties below a future build site so that someday I can gaze down upon their color. This species hailed from Madagascar once upon a time, but has become deeply integrated into cultural lore around the world. In Kerala, India, its local name reflects a Christian sect’s belief that Jesus’s blood fell from the cross to a flame tree growing beneath. In our region, ‘malinche’ refers to Mexico’s famous indigenous traitor, a native woman who helped the Spaniards conquer and destroy the Aztecs, dressed always in a cloak of brilliant red.
How about mahogany (in Spanish, caoba)? Swietenia macrophylla is a Latin America native—one of the world’s most coveted timbers—and is renowned for its rich red glow and ease for craftsmen. For centuries, the palaces and wealthiest drawing rooms of Europe and the US were adorned by mahogany furniture and paneling that shipped from Central America’s jungles. The country of Belize was essentially founded by British mahogany loggers.

Mahogany’s value has generated massive illegal logging throughout its entire native range, and it’s now protected by the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Certainly in Costa Rica there’s few trees of any commercial size left. It is notoriously hard to cultivate in plantations, due to a shoot-boring pest, Hypsipyla grandella, that magically finds its way to just about every young mahogany seedling, destroying the apex and causing the tree if not to die then to grow poorly formed and inadequate for timber. I’m not going to plant much, because of exactly this problem, but I can’t resist trying my luck with a few!

Manú negro (Minquartia guianensis) is another native timber with a rich story. In the Amazon, where it’s called huacapú among other names, tribes extract a fish-stunning poison from its bark and make poultices or infusions to treat infections, herpes and rheumatism. Here in Costa Rica, manú negro was over-loved practically to local extinction for its incredibly water- and insect-resistant wood. It was cut for fence posts and home construction, for railway ties, and then for poles to support vanilla and black pepper plants in a boom-and-bust market cycle during the 80s and 90s. Today manú negro is protected by national law (though still logged illegally).

My assistant, Carlos, grew up near Ciudad Neilly, in a family that had the prescience to plant hundreds of manú negro trees back in the days when everyone else was cutting them down. Today we’re both learning from and taking advantage of his father’s example as we harvest seeds from their land to germinate and replant in Osa, hoping that the next generation may benefit.

Finally, melina. Gmelina arborea is not a native in this region either; it comes from Asia, but its rapid growth and wood properties have made it globally popular as a plantation tree. Conservationists tend to look down on ‘exotics,’ but in Osa melina plays an interesting ecological role, as its seeds are a favored fruit of the scarlet macaws. In fact, some people think the thousands of hectares of melina in the Peninsula contributed to these beautiful birds’ comeback, although solid research has yet to test this hypothesis.

Back in the 1990s, melina was planted across Osa as a part of an ultimately failed investment by the North American company Ston Forestal, which wanted to build an ill-conceived wood chipping mill in the pristine environs of Rincón. The plant would have had untold environmental impacts, and became the target of an international advocacy campaign – at one point the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior even arrived to Puerto Jiménez to protest its construction. Tragically, four Costa Rican activists died under suspicious circumstances during the period of this campaign.

I’m planting just a few melina trees because (a) I’m curious whether they will attract macaws and (b) these trees will produce timber for construction at least a decade before any of the native species I’m planting.

These are only a few of the many tree stories we might tell. The next time you walk through an Osa landscape, be it the deep forest or the agro-ecological buffer zone, take a moment to appreciate the profound ways in which our human desires and beliefs, traditions and decisions are intertwined in the roots of every tree.


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