The Costa Rican rainforest is home to a large number of plants. The density of plant species in this region is much higher than that of our temperate, deciduous region. When walking in the woods here in western New York one may notice five to six different tree species in an acre radius. However, when walking in the rainforests of Costa Rica, one may notice up to four times that number. The diversity of plants in the tropical rainforest is incredible. Plants in Costa Rica literally grow everywhere. Plants are found anywhere from the forest floor to the crowns of the largest emergent trees. There are also many different classes of rainforest in Costa Rica. Elevation, effects of Homo sapiens and the type of environment all have an effect on the species of plants living there.

The Costa Rican rainforest can be broken up into different layers according to height. Listed below are some commonly found plant types for each layer:

Layers of Rainforest

  • Forest Floor- Ferns, shrubs, herbaceous stemmed plants, seedling or sapling trees. view of leafy trees from below
  • Understory- Palms, Monstera, Heliconia, Jute, Mimosa                                      
  • Canopy- Hawk Tree, Cecropia Tree, Arum Vines, Strangler Figs                       
  • Emergent- Kapok Tree, Orchids, Epiphytic Cacti, Bromiliads, Almond Tree


The following are the two divisions of rainforest and the plants which are typically found there. They are defined by human impact on their composition:

  • Primary Rainforest - Primary rainforests are considered “old growth” forests and consist of large ancient trees with an open forest floor and understory. They ack thick vegetation.
  • Kapok Trees - These are emergent trees which means that they are among the tallest trees in the rainforest. They typically grow well over sixty-five meters tall (two hundred feet). Their trunk and upper branches are typically covered with large thorns. They are giant treea common nesting tree of the endangered Harpy Eagle.
  • Mountain Almond Trees- These trees are also very large, emergent trees. They can grow around sixty meters (two hundred feet) and have been harvested to dwindling numbers for lumber. They can be identified by a nut which they drop and their robust size. They serve as a food source and nesting tree for the endangered Great Green Macaw.
  • Palms- These trees are typically found in the understory of primary rainforest. They have large, long leaves which are in a bundle at the top of the tree. These trees usually grow fourteen meters (thirty to forty feet tall).
  • Arum Vines- These vines begin life on the ground and then grow upwards. Eventually, after growing to the tops of the trees, Arum anchors its roots into the bark of the tree in which it is growing.

Secondary Rainforest- Very thick vegetation. Contains trees of varying ages. Lacks very large, ancient trees.

  • Hawk Tree- Also known as Pentaclethra, the hawk tree has compound leaves. They are usually one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet tall. They have large seed pods which look like the wings of a hawk from a distance.
  • Monstera- This is a large leaved, canopy dwelling plant. Its leaves have large, deep lobes. It is a creeping vine which has leaves with holes in them to appear as anleafy fern unappetizing leaf.
  • Plantain- Closely related to the banana tree, plantain trees have long, smooth leaves. They produce banana like fruits which are known as plantains. They are typically found in thick clusters.

bright fuscia flowering plant

The following are the different classes of rainforest and some common plants found within them:

Gap Forests- Open areas with a lot of sunlight.

  • Red Ginger- Plants with a showy, bracted flower. However, the true flower is the white one at the tip of the bracted flower.
  • Seliginella- This fern is typically only found in gap forests. It requires high sunlight and grows in very thick clusters.
  • Philodendron- Has fern-like leaves which sprout from a common stem. There are close to nine hundred species found in the tropics.
  • There are also many different species of sapling trees which get their start here. 

Lowland Forests- Low elevation. Wetter in characteristic.

  • Hot Lips- Small plants found on the forest floor. Have white flowers with red tips which look like lips.
  • Begonias- Smaller plants with an herbaceous stem. Showy leaves; stems have small bristles which come out of them.
  • Strangler Figs- Seeds are dropped in the epiphytic layer where they sprout. smaller tree branches wrapping around larger tree trunkEventually, their roots will reach the forest floor. Can get large and actually suffocate the tree on which they're living.
  • Lianas- Vines which are found draping from the canopy. Can grow in large clusters.

Cloud Forests- High elevations; also known as montane forests.

  • tree-like fernsTree Ferns- Ferns which look like trees. Date back to the age of the dinosaurs and are only found in the cloud forest. Have spikes up the trunk for protection.
  • Cecropia Tree- Have a very open canopy with palmately compound leaves. Common to see sloths hanging in their canopy.
  • Orchids- Epiphytic flowering plants. Flowers often mimic mating structures of insects. Rely heavily on insects for pollination.

Mangrove Forests- Found in clusters near coral reefs and propped above the water.

  • Red Mangroves- The most common mangrove in Costa Rican waters. Use prop rootsred mangrove to anchor into the shallow ocean floor. Serve as a safe nursery for many aquatic species.
  • Turtle Grass- Thick-leaved bunches of grass which can coat the ocean floor. This is a food supply for sea turtle species and also acts as a safe nursery for many aquatic species.

Gallery/Riverine Forests- Can be in flood plains or along rivers and streams.

  • Occasional Kapok trees, hawk trees, Cecropia trees
  • giant tree with roots coming out of the groundRubber Trees- Are typically one hundred fifty feet tall. They have been heavily harvested due to the latex extract which is found in their sap. This sap is used in the making of rubber.
  • Moriche Palm- Typically grow around one hundred feet tall. It produces shiny-scaled fruits. It is an important food source and nesting tree to birds like the Red-bellied Macaw, Sulphury Flycatcher and the Moriche Oriole.
  • Raffia Palm- A species of palm tree with a very thick, rigid trunk; preamatophores and have long, pendulous, orange-tinged fronds. Typically thirty to forty feet tall.palm tree view from below Commonly seen along river banks.

Dry Forests- Also known as Savannas. Much dryer than other forests.

  • Acacia- Originated in Africa and Australia. Has sharp thorns and Acacia treesmall, rounded, compound leaves. They produce small seed pods and are in the legume family. They are also known as thorn wood.
  • Hawk Tree and Cecropia Tree are also found here.
  • There are also countless species of grasses and sedges found in this class of rainforest.


Works Cited 

Kricher, John. A Neotropical Companion. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press. 1997.

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