Costa Rica is home to a vast array of plants and trees, every species highly adapted to the ecosystems within which they reside. Vivid displays of color surround youin the forests, where the lush green trees and foliage are accented by brightly colored flowers.

The most common class of flowering plants are the heliconia, a large flower of red, orange or yellow. Orchids are common as well, as are many types of ferns. From the lichens and moss below your feet to the ceiba trees that stand more than 20 stories tall, the flora of Costa Rica's rainforests envelop its visitors and overwhelm them with color and vibrance.



Epiphytes, otherwise known as "air plants", are categorized by their rooting behavior - they root themselves onto other plants. Surprisingly, they are not parasitic, or they do not actively harm their host. Water is collected from the run-off of other plants and trees, or is absorbed from the moisture in the air. To fullfill their nutrient requirement, epiphytes photosynthesize their own food and thrive off of decaying plant matter. Throughout all of Costa Rica's forests, epiphytes can be seen clinging to their hosts, covering trees and other ground cover. Orchids, mosses, ferns, lichens, and bromeliads are just a few of the families of epiphytes.

Mosses and Lichens

Among the most diminutive epiphytes are the lichens and mosses that grab onto tree bark and other foliage. These epiphytes are generally found in regions that experience moderate to high precipitation throughout the year. By blanketing the host, these epiphytes can inadvertently inhibit the sun's UV rays from triggering the host's photosynthetic machinery, essentially starving the host. As a result, targets of epiphite colonization have developed methods of getting rid of these nuisances. Some trees shed their bark, thus casting off all unwelcome guests. Many plants have specialized leaves that will route standing water off of the leaf, ultimately denying mosses the moist substrate they require to colonize. These are referred to as "drip tip" leaves.


The most exquisite epiphytes are also revered by many as the most beautiful flowers in existence. The orchid features elaborate petal arrangements of stunning vibrancy. While they are present on every continent except Antarctica, the most spectacular species exist in the tropics. They range in size from a half of an inch to twenty-five feet.



Ferns are an ultra-diverse class of flowerless epiphyte. Of the approximately 825 varieties of ferns that reside in the forests of Costa Rica, one of the most remarkable is the appropriately-named resurrection fern. During periods of low precipitation this fern withers, turns brown, and shuts down its photosynthetic processes. When a base-level of moisture returns to the soil, the plant is resurrected and maintains its normal functioning. Another interesting fern to look out for is the tree fern, an upright variety with formidable-looking thorny bristles.


If the flora of the world were commended for their adaptability, bromeliads would surely win the award for creativity. These epiphytes have evolved tightly wrapped leaves that act as small reservoirs, collecting water, leaf detritus, and insects. From the resulting stew, bromeliads ingest the nutrients necessary for life.




Costa Rica is home to countless species of flowering plants and trees. Following the old biological maxim, "form follow function", these vivid and elaborate petal formations have developed over time for survival and to increase progeny. One notable species to look out for is the angel's trumpet tree. This flowering tree produces pendulous white flowers that have "learned" to exploit a bat's nocturnal activity. The flower lies dormant during the day and opens only at night, revealing its pollen-releasing stamen, perfectly fit for a bat's snout. Another remarkable species is the dracontium flower which produces a stench similar to that of feces in order to attract flies as pollinators.


The trees that make up the forests of Costa Rica are rich in diversity. Many species may coexist in one forest. A space of two acres can contain over 90 species of trees.

Coconut Trees

Coconut trees reside along the fringes of the land, nestling closely to the vehicle by which they distribute their coconuts and increase their progeny - the ocean. The coconuts are dropped frequently with hopes that the ocean waves will pick them up.They can be out to sea for months before arriving to a remote destination hundreds of miles away. This distant colonization of the coconut tree - a nutritious and water donating resource - has made human habitation possible of otherwise uninhabitable islands.


Ceiba or Kapok

The ceiba is one of the fastest growing trees in existence, gaining as much as 13 feet a year to a maximum height of just under 200 feet tall! Because of its swift growth, the ceiba is an effective pioneer species and a great introduction for the reforestation of cleared land. Though the wood is not durable enough for construction, it is often used for canoes and coffins; which probably lends some meaning behind why the indigenous people of Costa Rica consider the ceiba to be sacred.





Milk or Cow Tree

The milk tree has provided indigenous people with numerous uses. It is identifiable by its vibrant orange-red roots and is very common in the rainforest of Corcovado National Park. The tree produces a sweet edible fruit, and a drinkable thick, white latex flows through its trunk. Its wood is used for construction, and, after some manipuation, its bark has proven to make a pretty warm blanket.

Strangler Figs

The strangler fig starts as an epiphyte. However, at some point, it makes the transformation from functioning as a commensalist (clinging on without doing harm to its host) to selfishly behaving like a parasite. The plant attaches itself to the host and sends its roots out to surround the tree, apparently "strangulating" the upper canopy. The host eventually dies, but less by strangulation than by being stuck in the shade of its antagonist.

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Costa Rica 101

Costa Rica Flora

Costa Rica is home to a vast array of plants and trees, every species highly adapted to the ecosystems within which they reside.

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