The Top 5 Plants in Mashpi
Elephant Ear Plants
The Colocasia, commonly known as the “Elephant Ear” plant, is an herbaceous perennial plant with a thin stem and an enormous leaf shaped like a large ear – hence its name. Its sap tends to cause irritation and itchiness when it comes into contact with the skin, deterring insects and animals from eating it. Given the sheer size of its leaves, farmers often use the Colocasia as an umbrella when caught out in tropical storms; thus it is wryly referred to as the “poor man’s umbrella.”
The technical name of this plant family is “Bromelioideae,” a mouthful for even the most avid biologist! While there are several genera and hundreds of subspecies, the Bromelias found in the Mashpi reserve are fascinating for one main reason: they host entire miniature ecosystems in their leaves. Given that they are shaped like inverted umbrellas, the leaves collect a large quantity of water and dead leaves that decompose, providing not only the nutrients that the Bromelia needs, but also refuge and water required by animal species that live in the canopy of the cloud forest. One example are the different species of tree frogs that permanently live in Bromelias given the constant supply of water and small insects that they find in the leaves.
The Cecropia is a pioneer tree, meaning that it grows quickly and aggressively while producing succulent fruit that is actively sought by many of the animals and insects in the Mashpi reserve. This means that not only are they very common throughout the reserve, but they are also among the first trees to occupy areas that have been cleared for pasture, crops, or other human activity. Locally known as the guarumo, some Cecropia species have a fascinating mutualistic and symbiotic relationship with Aztec ants. They provide the ants with a constant source of food and shelter, and the ants vigorously defend the trees from insects and animals seeking to consume its leaves. The ants also protects the Cecropia trees from other encroaching plants that quite literally seek to steal their sunshine.
Copal trees are amongst the tallest in the Mashpi reserve, some of which are more than 30 meters (98 feet) tall. Their name come from the word Copali in the Nahuatl (or Aztec) language, which means “incense” due to its strong aroma. There are around 60 Copal species, but the most common ones around Mashpi are the Dacroides which, when cut, pours its sap out much like tears from human eyes. The resin of these trees has analgesic properties, and has historically been used to treat muscular pain and toothaches. Given the high quality of its wood, it is highly sought after for making furniture, leading the Copal to becoming considered a threatened species.
Also known as “wild plantains,” Heliconia leaves look a lot like the leaves found on banana trees despite the fact that they are not closely related. Heliconia flowers grow in a curved shape, and are therefore only pollinized by rufous-breasted hermit hummingbirds, which also have a curved beak. Heliconias are particularly important host plants for the larvae of some butterfly species, especially the giant Owl Butterflies commonly spotted around Mashpi Lodge.
The Mashpi reserve undoubtedly hosts an astounding variety of plant, animal and bird species, many of which are entirely unique to this incredible hotspot of biodiversity. There is so much to see early in the morning, under the midday sun, and deep into the afternoon, while the dark of night reveals countless other species that simply pass undetected during the day. Maybe the very best advice for visiting Mashpi is simply to keep your eyes open – for the wonders of nature await.