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The Guanacaste tree, Enterolobium cyclocarpum, is the national tree of Costa Rica

Stunning Guanacaste trees

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Published on Friday, July 21, 2023

By Victoria Torley

The country is getting closer to celebrating another Guanacaste Day anniversary. 

On July 25, 1824, the Federal Republic of Central America, of which Costa Rica was a part, passed a law that effectively annexed Guanacaste as a province of Costa Rica. 

Citizens celebrate Guanacaste Day annually on July 25 with parades, music, food, and more. But today we will praise some of the most stunning Guanacaste trees.

We have some fascinating trees in Guanacaste, some imported, some native. Some are fast-growing and spread easily, others take time to grow and the right conditions. The later, often prized for their wood are often on the brink of extinction.

One such tree is the Guaiacum sanctum, locally called the Guayacán. It is commonly known as Hollywood, lignum vitae or Holywood lignum-vitae. It is a survivor. How? Usually, it survives by hiding in unlikely places. This small tree is slow-growing, reaching about 7 m (23 ft) in height with a trunk diameter of 50 cm (20 in). The tree is essentially evergreen throughout most of its native range.

One survivor has been given its own name, Magón, and is secluded on a farm somewhere in northern Guanacaste. Don’t ask where. This magnificent tree is known to be over a thousand years old but, unlike Guanacaste trees of similar age, its trunk is only 80 centimeters (about three feet) in diameter. Therein is the issue. Surviving guayacán grows very slowly and produces an incredibly dense wood. 

Young trees are often destroyed before they are identified when fields are being made plow-ready and few people have the awareness or the time to nurture one of these trees to maturity.

It is, after all, a many decades process. Habitat fragmentation has helped marginalize the guayacán. Again, seedlings are destroyed when fields expand.

And that dense wood? Highly prized for shipbuilding in centuries past because it is a member of the creosote family. The hard dense wood is impervious to water, slow to rot and self-lubricating. Resins made from the tree were sought after for sealing other wood against seawater. The wood is considered to be some of the hardest ever known and a nail can’t be driven into it. In the past, it was used for boat propellers, mallets, and gears.

The tree has also been named palo santo for its medicinal qualities. The resins are used to treat arthritis, gout, and rheumatism.

It seems a real shame that this lovely tree which, given time, will produce blue flowers with five petals and attractive orange seed pods, should be endangered, but its wood and resins have driven it onto the endangered list worldwide.

What can we do? Look for a guayacán seedling. Plant with care in full sun or partial shade in well-drained soils. Water well when the tree is becoming established and the tree will have some drought tolerance. Guayacáns tolerate both wind and salt spray. Once established the guayacán will grow to 4-9 meters tall with a similar spread and makes a wonderful shade or accent tree.

Another majestic Guanacaste tree. I happen to I like pink (Metric Man is not so inclined), so I love the roble sabana, the Tabebuia rosea, also called the pink trumpet or savanna oak. 

They are in bloom all over right now. Mine, sadly, is at a lower elevation and doesn’t bloom every year but it is a lot taller than the puny trees, standing at about 100 feet tall – about 30 meters. The truth? We can’t enjoy the blossoms when they are open, the tree is just too tall. Ah, well.

Tabebuia rosea, also called pink poui, and rosy trumpet tree is a neotropical tree that grows up to 30 m (98 ft) and can reach a diameter at breast height of up to 100 cm (3 ft). The Spanish name roble de sabana, meaning "savannah oak", is widely used in Costa Rica, probably because it often remains in heavily deforested areas and because of the resemblance of its wood to that of oak trees.

Metric Man also sneers at the pink-flowered madero, the Gliricidia sepium. This is a great shade tree, often used to shade cocoa plants. Because the roots provide nitrogen they also help feed the cocoa plants. The flowers are edible and parrots love them.

Its common names include quick stick, mata ratón; cacao de nance, cachanance and madero negro in Costa Rica.

Gliricidia sepium is a medium-sized tree that grows 10–12 m (33–39 ft) high. The bark is smooth, and its color can range from a whitish gray to deep red-brown.

The flowers are located on the end of branches that have no leaves. These flowers have a bright pink to lilac color that is tinged with white. A pale yellow spot is usually at the flower's base. 

Moving on to something ‘not pink,’ we find the Cortez Amarillo, Tabebuia ochracea, with its bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. The color is intense – but only for two or three days – then the ground is covered with fallen yellow blossoms. Fortunately, the tree blooms two or three times a year.

It is very similar, closely related to, and often confused with the Golden Trumpet Tree, Tabebuia chrysotricha. It is a seasonal flowering tree, blossoming only during September. During this time, all leaves fall and only flowers remain in the crown. 

Competing with the Cortez Amarillo is the saíno, the Caesalpinia eriostachys with its yellow orchid-like flowers and a great attractor of hummingbirds. Once the flowers have fallen, the tree puts on another show as the new leaves unfurl in a reddish flush. A two-for-one tree.

Of course, the thing that makes these trees stand out is that they flower in profusion on bare branches. These trees are, for the most part, deciduous, dropping their leaves before bursting into bloom which makes them all the more eye-catching. 

Fruiting trees, like the nance (nancite), the Byrsonima crassifolia bloom while fully leafed out. A pity really, because the small flowers, which grow in clusters, vary from vivid yellow to a deep red-orange and they are lovely. The tree also produces a fruit that feeds birds and monkeys and provides flavoring for beverages, including one called “vino de nance,” a potent mix of gauro and ripe fruit.

And last but not least, the Guanacaste tree, Enterolobium cyclocarpum, is the national tree of Costa Rica and is prized for its beautiful wood. You can often see the tree grown in a field where its seeds provide food for cattle. The flowers, however, are a pale green and insignificant, out-shown by the beauty of the tree itself.

The tree also commonly known as caro caro, devil's ear tree, monkey-ear tree, or elephant-ear tree, is a species of flowering tree.

The Guanacaste is a medium-sized to large tree, growing to 25–35 m (82–115 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 3.5 m (11 ft) in diameter. Unusual in a tree of these proportions, buttresses are completely lacking. The bark is light gray, with prominent dark reddish-brown, vertical fissures. In young trees, these fissures are closer together. and their confluence lends a characteristic reddish hue to the bark of Guanacaste saplings. Older specimens often present broken, chipped, or scarred bark. 

The crown is broad and widely spreading. The height at which branches first occur along the trunk – as well as the overall tree shape – varies considerably among individuals and are habitat-dependent characteristics. 

Frequently, Guanacaste trees grow as single specimens in a sunny pasture. Under these conditions, massive, extended, horizontal limbs emerge low on the boles, forming giant, hemispherical, widely spreading crowns. In the forest (where competition for light is intense), trees tend to become taller, and branching occurs at a higher level. 

Tree forms then become somewhat narrower, though crowns are still rounded, and hemispherical shapes are maintained by those that have reached the canopy. 

What a majestic tree!

Find more amazing stories about gardening in Costa Rica on the AM Costa Rica Garden website. Questions on this article, Ms. Victoria Torley, gardener columnist, can be reached by emailing victoriatorley1@gmail.com

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