One week ago, the Panamanian forest was punctuated by bright yellow canopies interspersed high above the rest of the forest. You can see one of these dramatic trees behind a train of the Panama Canal Railway, but the view is even better from the forest floor.
This species, the guayacán (Tabebuia guayacan), drops its flowers in one large pulse. Standing underneath it, one experiences a steady rain of flowers that covers the forest floor in a radius of twenty or thirty meters downwind. The flowers have a softly sweet smell and a large trumpet shape characteristic of their family, Bignoniaceae. The flower density becomes high enough to paint all the leaf litter in bright yellow.
The pulse of flowering probably helps with reproduction – large floral shows attract lots of pollinators, and the synchrony of flowering between trees means that genetic material can be shared between far-away unrelated individuals, potentially increasing the fitness of any offspring growing from the resulting fruits. But the flowers are not just popular with pollinators – they also attract monkeys. Here you can see a mother and baby howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) sitting in a branch. We observed the monkeys playing in the flowers and throwing them down on us, but didn’t see them eating the flowers or looking for nectar. I’m not sure what the appeal for them is!
But if the monkeys were just playing, it wouldn’t surprise me. I too spent some time enjoying the bloom and sitting beneath one guayacán tree. Now the bloom is over and we will have to wait some months for the show to be repeated. Magical moments like these make long days of fieldwork worth it!