Local botanical expert, Willow Zuchowski, recently ran a tree identification course at four top tree locations in Monteverde. Willow is best known for her books, Tropical Plants of Costa Rica and An Introduction to Cloud Forest Trees Monteverde Costa Rica, which we used for the course. Willow also runs ProNativas, a native plant garden service, in partnership with Monteverde Conservation League.
A group of enthusiastic locals, including guides and academics, spent four Saturday mornings in the forest learning to identify the most common tree families in the Monteverde zone. The second week we went to Bajo del Tigre.
The first thing was finding out the identifying characteristics of the different families. The easiest to get were leaf arrangement (eg opposite or alternate), vein pattern (venation, eg pinnate, palmate, netted), whether leaves are compound or simple and whether leaves have toothed or lobed edges. But then we came on to the trickier, more technical characteristics. Stipules are only occasionally obvious enough for the amateur, I really doubt I could find an extra-floral nectary by myself and t- or star-shaped hairs and oil glands (yellow, translucent dots) are only visible with back to front binoculars (and maybe imagination) and latex production requires injuring the plant, a bit of a no-no in a reserve.
Even if you can recognise these traits, it quickly gets a lot more complicated. Only about 10 of the local families can be definitively identified this way. For most of the families a trait may be frequent, or typical, I felt very unconfident to go beyond these more straightforward families. Which is, of course, why we have experts!
But for me, it was an interesting and enjoyable way to see the forest with other interested people. And since, I have an extra awareness of the complexity of what I see as I walk through the forest.