A Million Candles: A tribute to one man’s endeavor to document the flora of the Osa
By: Mike Boston
Mike is an honor’s biology graduate of the University of Portsmouth and is the owner / operator of Osa Aventura, the premier guiding outfitter for Corcovado National Park, and has led groups into the Park for the past eighteen years. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
When I’m guiding, I often wax lyrical about plants. And when I do so it brings a smile to my face, for I’m reminded of a very dear friend. I met him at Sirena the second time I hiked there, back in January, 1997. He was standing on the veranda and before him were strewn twigs with leaves, fruit, seeds and flowers. My indomitable curiosity had to know what he was doing. So I asked him!
When he looked up at me his face beamed a million candles as he began telling me about his research and his intention to document the rich plant diversity of the Osa. I thought to myself “My God, this guy has immense passion for what he is doing! “He must have a lot interesting things to tell me!” – I had to know what!
Each time I hiked to Sirena over the ensuing two years we would get together in his office, once everyone else had retired, and he would enthusiastically fill in the yawning gaps in my botanical knowledge – over an agua de sapo or two!
His name is Reinaldo Aguilar Fernández – a botanist par excellence!
Hitherto, plants had never inspired me, and I avoided their study at university, but seeing them through Reinaldo’s illuminating eyes plants now fascinate me – he makes understanding botany a revelation!
Alas, duty took Reinaldo away from the Osa to La Selva, for a couple of years, and I saw him on the Osa only sporadically during that time. So, I was especially pleased when, in 2004, I answered my door and saw those million candles again. It was Reinaldo, beaming with joy, announcing that he had returned to his beloved Osa. Between tours, he and I, and his young son Nilo “Bandilo”, would go off on sorties around the Peninsula collecting and photographing plants. Those were Halcion Days of discovery for me, illuminated in the warm glow of those candles!
Compared to the Caribbean versant, Reinaldo told me, the forests of the Osa are more diverse. From one locale to another the Caribbean forests have much of the same species content, but on the Osa, the species content of its forests vary greatly from one place to another, reflecting the Peninsula’s insular island nature and its many microclimates.
He told me that the Osa is a melting pot of botanical diversity, the northern limit for South American plant species, the southern limit for northern species and an area of high endemism. He told me that most of the times he visits a new locality on the Osa he finds a new species record for the Peninsula and on occasions new species, even genera new to science. He told me about a tree, Pleodendron costaricensis, which he co-described, discovered on the Osa and the adjacent mainland whose closest relative, and only congener, Pleodendron macrocanthum, is endemic to northeast Puerto Rico – “how the hell did that come about?” And he told me of his discovery of Pentagona gambagam (named after the lodge, GambaGam, where it is found) and P. osapinnata, two plant species new to science and, thus far, known only from the Golfo Dulce region of Central America. P. osapinnata is the first and only known member of the large plant family, Rubiacea, to have pinnate leaves – the Rubiaceae has had to be redefined as a consequence! And he confided in me recently that he has discovered new species of both Guapinol and Cecropia. Is it any wonder then that Reinaldo has so much enthusiasm and passion for what he does when he makes such momentous discoveries?
Since 1991, Reinaldo has embarked on an endeavour to catalogue the plants on the Osa. During that time he has collaborated with Barry Hammel and others of Missouri Botanical Gardens, Scott Mori et al of New York Botanical Gardens and Adrian Forsyth et al of Osa Conservation.
Barry Hammel states “Reinaldo is an excellent field botanist and a superb naturalist; no plant, no critter in the forest escapes his discerning eye. I have known him as a friend and colleague since first meeting him, almost thirty years ago.” And praised his “almost manic drive to take photos and post all of them on his Flickr site to make his expertise and knowledge of the flora available to anyone, anywhere.”
Scott Mori has described Reinaldo as “the world’s foremost expert on the flora of the Osa and among the best field botanists in Central America.” He continues: “In order to make information he has gathered about the ferns and flowering plants available, the data from the herbarium sheets and his images are entered into his website called the ‘Vascular Plants of the Osa Peninsula,; which can be accessed at http://sweetgum.nybg.org/osa/index.php. This website was established in 2008 and now has data from 1922 specimens and 14,125 images available for study by those interested in tropical plants.””
Adrian Forsyth said of Reinaldo: “In all of the American tropics there are just a few botanists who have Reinaldo’s combination of attributes. He is a terrific, patient, kind and enthusiastic teacher. No one can go for a walk with Reinaldo, either a professional botanist or a child, without learning more botany. He takes amazing photographs. His library of photos extends beyond botany into many aspects of natural history. It is an ever growing resource that he publishes generously and relentlessly on the Internet for anyone to use. This library is unique in Costa Rica, indeed in Central America. His discoveries of new species—even genera—of plants in Osa just keep happening. Every botanist coming to this part of the world depends on checking in with Reinaldo. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that Reinaldo did not get his deep expertise with a formal training at Kew or Missouri Botanical Gardens or the Smithsonian or any other institution —he taught himself in the forests of Osa and beyond and always sponged up knowledge from whoever had some to offer. It’s his boundless enthusiasm and determination that is a joy to witness. I can’t imagine Osa without Reinaldo to keep awakening us and revealing to us the botanical treasures it holds.”
All of us who know Reinaldo adore and admire him. “We doff our hats to you Rei!”