Lessons in Trees

Our first step in a research project that will study over two hundred fifty individual trees from nine different species was learning how to identify tropical trees. Initially, I expected this to be a fairly simple task. After all, I know plenty of trees native to the west coast, and there are even more species whose names I don’t know but which I can easily recognize. So when the graduate student I’m working with handed me a packet of information and photos to study, I felt fairly confident.

That confidence fled as I looked through the packet. On first glance there seemed to be two types of trees: tall with big leaves and tall with small leaves. They were all too-bright-for-my-camera green, and all about the same shape.
“How do you tell these apart?” I gaped, trying to sound like I was suavely asking for a few pointers rather than admitting that I was completely lost. Fortunately, my graduate student claimed she was as unsure as I was, but she said not to worry, as one of the La Selva staff would probably help us on our first day in the field. I stared at the leaves and Latin names for about fifteen more minutes, and put the packet away feeling no wiser.

At eight o’clock on Friday morning, we met Orlando Vargas, La Selva’s botany expert, who had very kindly made time in his busy schedule to introduce us to the forest. Sitting on the porch, he looked completely comfortable in rubber boots, trail pants, and a t-shirt with an image of a snake. When he introduced himself, a friendly smile lit up the strong lines of his face.

He asked us if we knew how to bike.

“Yes, but I’m a little rusty,” I said. I haven’t gone biking in years.

He told us that when he isn’t doing research or working in the office, he likes to go mountain biking; he mentioned competing in national competitions. “But we will go slow.” In fact, Orlando did set an easy pace that even I could keep without much trouble.

He did the same when teaching us about the trees. Orlando can do more than name every plant in the forest–he can describe their habitats, growth patterns, and insect relationships. He points out the trees and shows us distinctive markers such as the shape of the stems, the feel of the leaves, and even the smell of the sap. As we walk, he also gives us tips on where to find the trees. “The forest changes every meter,” Orlando says, and with his guidance separating individual trees from expanses of green, we can see how just how true that is.

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