There are many reasons to visit the Wilson Botanical Garden in Costa Rica, two of which have nothing to do with the garden itself. The Wilson Botanical Garden is located at 1200 m (3,935 ft) above sea level along a spur of the Fila Cruces pacific coastal range, 5 km from the Panamanian border.
To travel there from our rental property in the coastal town of Dominical, we headed to the mountains and the wide valley of the El General River and the towns of San Isidro and Buenos Aires. Then we followed the wonderfully scenic road from Paso Real to San Vito, driving along a high ridge with sweeping valley views on both sides of the road. For our return trip, we travelled south to Cuidad Neily on a 33 km steep road with heart-stopping twists and turns and spectacular views over the Coto Colorado plain toward the Golfo Dulce. These drives alone were worth the trip.
The bustling hilltop town of San Vito is a pleasant place to stop for lunch. It is located 6 km north of Wilson Botanical Garden and is known for its pizza, ice cream and pastries. Two hundred Italian families founded the town in the early 1950s when they cut down forests and started coffee, fruit and cattle farms. The rolling hills and picturesque villages around the town will remind visitors of the Italian homeland from where those families emigrated.
When Robert and Catherine Wilson, two horticulturists from Florida, moved to the area in 1962, they established a botanical garden filled with ornamental plants on cleared land that had been used to grow coffee and to pasture cattle. In 1973, the Organization for Tropical Studies purchased the property and since that time has overseen the site as both a botanical garden and center for biological research. In 1987, the name was changed to the Wilson Botanical Garden as part of Las Cruces Biological Station. Both Wilsons are buried on the grounds.
The garden is impressive to view but even more impressive when seen through the eyes of a knowledgeable guide. It is impossible for most visitors to appreciate the size and diversity of the collection of exotic species of plants including aroids, bromeliads, ferns, gingers, heliconias, marantas and the second largest collection of palms in the world. Nor is it possible to begin to understand the complexity of the ecosystem that supports it all without some education from researchers or staff. As you wander about the grounds reading the signs, taking notice of the tags and little bags attached to plants or when you overhear conversations in the dining room amongst scientists and students, you become very aware that Wilson Garden is more than a pretty place.
It comes as a shock to be told that Las Cruces is located in one of the most deforested parts of Costa Rica but it is confirmed when you view the area from the top of the Canopy Tower.
This sliver of land–one of the largest remaining sections of forest in a region of agricultural fields–is home to an exotic plant collection, primary and secondary forest, native plants, more than 400 species of birds, 800 species of butterflies and some 100 species of mammals of which 60 are bats. This surely is a biological station worth cherishing and protecting.
An overnight stay at Wilson Garden allows you time for a guided tour and an opportunity to explore the grounds, enjoy some birding and wildlife viewing and be grateful for the Wilsons and others like them who possessed the vision and commitment to create this inspiring place.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2014