Life for thousands of species of plants begins at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) botanical gardens in the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba. The majestic great kapok tree shares space with the strychnine plant, producer of a fatal poison, and hundreds of other species. CATIE’s goal is to help preserve all of them.
The CATIE botanical gardens, a short drive from downtown Turrialba, holds 4,400 genetic samples of 280 different plants as part of the Finca Cabiria experimental farm.
The 45 hectares of land, though not all open to the public, give visitors a look at beautiful flora and CATIE’s important mission.
“The function of this garden is to conserve and maintain genetics,” said the gardens’ manager, Alejandro Solano. “There are some special species here.”
The gardens are an expansive laboratory designed to allow scientists to perform genetic plant research. In addition, the gardens protect plant species from around the world by maintaining reserves of their genetic DNA and seeds.
Guests see coffee plantations, a path through a terrace of mango trees and rows of exotic plants from all over the world on a tour of the gardens. These plants re-create the jungle atmosphere of Costa Rica’s less inhabited areas. Solano said that while the botanical gardens focus on plants only from the Latin American region, species from across the globe are on reserve here.
The biggest ones include a local species called ceiba. These trees tower over the rest of the plants in the gardens. One massive tree bears a little bit of unnatural beauty: a vivid mural is found on the tree trunk in shades of blues, purples and greens.
The cannonball tree stands out as one of the most fascinating species. Like the name describes, the tree produces fruit that look like fuzzy, brown cannonballs. They contain hundreds of seeds inside, and are heavier, more spherical and larger than coconuts.
The garden has included more species from Asia in the past couple of years. The tropical mangosteen tree represents those efforts. The huge tree can be found in the West Indies, including Java and Sumatra. Several greenhouses in one section help grow various vegetables and fruit-bearing plants, including star fruit and the intriguing miracle fruit.
“Cultivation is as important as the scientific research,” Solano said. “In this sector we have both native and international plants, from macadamia to guava to cacao.”
The foliage also attracts other creatures. Colorful butterflies feed on the nectar of the flowering plants. Pitch-black grasshoppers marked with neon-orange lines leap across tree leaves.
In the gardens’ gift shop, between the tchotchkes and T-shirts, visitors can find handmade chocolate bars made with cacao from the reserve and produced by an association of women in rural parts of Costa Rica, Solano said.
The gardens are open Monday to Sunday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tour prices depend on the number of people in the group. The gardens are best seen with guides who work on the premises and offer great stories about the plants and fruits found along trails.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Turrialba is about 75 km east of San Jose. From San Jose, drive east to Cartago on the Florencio del Castillo highway. When you arrive in Cartago, follow the road signs for Turrialba, continue east on highway 10. The gardens are located 2 km south from the center of Turrialba.
Foreigners pay $6 per person and nationals pay 1,000 colones without a guide.
Direct buses from San Jose to Turrialba run every hour on the hour until 8 p.m. weekdays or 7 p.m. weekends. The ride takes about two hours, and costs $2 each way.Make reservations at: Tel. +506 2556-2700 with Marco Ramirez or Alejandro Solano E-mail: [email protected]. Website: www.catie.ac.cr/jardinbotanico