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Photo# 16730 Accession# R0
Costus laevis holotype at Barcelona, Spain herbarium, ligule and petiole detail
Photo# 16731 Accession# R0
Costus laevis holotype at Barcelona, Spain herbarium, bract detail (hidden by leaves)
Photo# 17981 Accession# R0
Costus laevis description by Ruiz in Flora Peruviana et Chilensis
Photo# 17982 Accession# R0
Matching description to photos of Cuchero plant
Photo# 17983 Accession# R0
Holotype matching to C. aff. spiralis plants
Photo# 17984 Accession# R0
Google map of area explored by Ruiz
Photo# 17985 Accession# R0
Untitled Illustration by Jose Gabriel Rivera
CLICK HERE for a detailed botanical description and identification key for this species (opens in new window).
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PLANT FAMILY: Costaceae
BOTANICAL NAME: Costus laevis
FORMAL SCIENTIFIC NAME: Costus laevis Ruiz & Pav.
This is an accepted neo-tropical Costus species first named from a Peruvian plant by Ruiz and Pav├│n in 1798. The type of the species came from Peru, east of the Andes in department Huanuco in a place that Ruiz called Chacahuassi. The specimen is stored in the Herberi Ruiz & Pav├│n in Barcelona, Spain and can be viewed on line at JSTOR at http://plants.jstor.org/stable/10.5555/al.ap.specimen.bc872966 . On the label of the herbarium sheet of the type in Barcelona is the following notation by Loesener:
Costus laevis Ruiz & Pav., Fl. peruv.: 1: 3 (1798) BC-Ruiz & Pav.-482:
a) "Costus laevis 1787 Peru, Chacahuasi" (m. Pavon) [Chacahuasi (Per├║)]
b) Etiqueta de revisio: "Lam diagnosis in Ruiz et Pav. Flor. Peruv. I (1798) p. 3 plane non congruens. Videtus affinis Costo tomoso Roside." (m. Loesener) [3/4/1936]
There are many other species names that Paul Maas put into synonymy with Costus laevis in his 1972 monograph in the Flora Neotropica series.
When Maas prepared his monograph, he made these changes without benefit of seeing the plant in its type locality, and in fact he noted that he had only seen a photograph of the type specimen in the herbarium in Spain. So in November 2016 I traveled to central Peru in the area around Tingo Maria, Dept. Huanuco to visit the type locality of this and the other two species: Costus scaber and Dimerocostus argenteus, which were collected and described over 200 years ago by Hip├│lito Ruiz. I had studied Ruiz' journal and determined the locations of the places Ruiz mentioned, including Cuchero, Chinchao, and Chacahuassi - all within a 20 km distance of each other and to the south of Tingo Maria along the Rio Huallaga and Rio Chinchao. At the poblado Cuchero, where Ruiz had stayed for several months I found a plant that best fits the currently described species Costus guanaiensis var. tarmicus, and has sometimes been attributed to an undescribed species Costus aff. claviger. That plant form I found at Cuchero and other places in the region matches very closely to the written description by Ruiz of the plant he named as Costus laevis and I now believe he wrote his description based on that plant which has appendaged bracts and is nothing at all like the plants we now know as Costus laevis. I suspect that the Cuchero plant is the same plant form as was collected, named and described originally as Costus tarmicus, from La Merced in Junin Dept. of Peru.
The entire situation is further complicated by the fact that the holotype of his Costus laevis appears to be yet a completely different plant, also found to be common in this region, that most closely fits to the currently described Costus spiralis. This second plant appears to me to be the same as Ruiz' type specimen, based on my interpretation of the photograph of the specimen, but I have not examined the actual specimen. This plant has non-appendaged bracts as we might expect from Costus laevis, but the flowers are tubular and positioned on the inflorescence the same as is commonly found in Costus spiralis. Another distinct character of this form is that the upper leaves form a wavy rosette under the inflorescence.
These two plant forms were both found to be quite common in the area from Cuchero to Chacahuassi and all along the Rio Huallaga in the region of Tingo Maria, and to me there is little doubt that he would have seen them both during his extensive time in the region. I suspect that Ruiz got these mixed up, and wrote his description from the one plant, while the herbarium specimen is an entirely different plant. If you read his journal, you would not be too surprised by this, because his first set of specimens was lost in a shipwreck, and then after re-collecting, describing and illustrating those lost specimens, a fire at Hacienda Macoro destroyed nearly everything yet again, including specimens, notebooks of descriptions and illustrations.
Nothing in the region Ruiz explored south of Tingo Maria looks remotely like the commonly accepted form of Costus laevis as it is currently known. I found no plants in the area with the basic characters of the current Costus laevis -- none with non-appendaged bracts and open labellum flowers.
And as if the situation is not confusing enough already, there is an untitled illustration which looks like the currently described Costus laevis from the "Drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru (1777-1816)". However, it was drawn by the artist Jose Gabriel Rivera who did not join the expedition until 1796, after Ruiz had returned to Spain and Juan Tafalla had taken charge of the continuation of the explorations in what is now southern Ecuador. Unfortunately this illustration is not titled or dated, so the locality of the plant depicted in the illustration cannot be determined. Tafalla did briefly explore another river valley in Huanuco, the area around Chicoplaya on the Rio Monzon, which is about 40 km west of Tingo Maria, so it is possible this illustration came from there, but Ruiz did not include it with his 1798 description of the species Costus laevis. In fact, no illustration was included for this species as was done for nearly all the others Ruiz described in his Flora Peruviana et Chilensis. This untitled illustration adds even more to the mystery.
In short, we have a huge mess with this name, possibly affecting the nomenclature of Costus guanaiensis var. tarmicus, Costus spiralis, and all the names from Central America and Bolivia that have been placed in synonymy with Costus laevis: Costus maximus, Costus weberbaueri, Costus pulcherrimus, and Costus skuchii. I have written a journal article about this problem which is published in the December 2016 quarterly Bulletin of the Heliconia Society International. Further research is needed to sort all this out. I am planning to explore the area around La Merced in Dept. Junin to see the form of the Costus tarmicus and Costus weberbaueri that were collected there to see if they are the same plants as found in the area Ruiz explored. Another clue might be found if I can return to Tingo Maria and explore the Rio Monzon valley around Chicoplaya. I also have a trip scheduled to Bolivia to search for the Costus pulcherrimus O. Kuntze which has been placed in synonymy with Costus laevis.
The photos on this page pertain to the two plants I saw in the area Ruiz explored, matched to his description and holotype of Costus laevis. Additional photos of the two plant forms have been placed on this website under the currently described species names they best fit.
The "Cuchero" plant form with the triangular bract appendages that matches Ruiz' description of Costus laevis is at PID7605.
The other plant form with non-appendaged bracts that matches Ruiz' holotype specimen of Costus laevis is at PID7606.
The following information pertains to Costus laevis as it is currently known, not taking into consideration the problems noted above.
Costus laevis as currently described and delineated by Paul Maas is another of the widespread species that is very diverse in form. Maas in his description says that its mature height ranges from 1/2 meter to as tall as 6 meters! Ligules are 5-15 mm long and petioles 5-30 mm long. It is a type with non-appendaged bracts and open labellum flowers, and normally with long leaf petioles. Central American plants often can be recognized by the silvery midstripe on the upper side of dark green leaves in young plants, but most South American forms do not have this midstripe. The bract colors and flower colors are quite variable. The bracts range from green to red to dark purple, often with a darker color at the base and green towards the margins. The flower colors range from mostly red to yellow (on the corolla lobes) with red stripes and yellow throats on the labellums.
Costus laevis (including the many different forms placed in synonymy by Paul Maas) is found throughout Central America from Guatemala to Panama and in western South America from Colombia to Bolivia. In his 1972 monograph, all the listed collections were from Central America and South America WEST of the Andes, except for one in Peru. Plants that have since then been det'd as C. laevis by Paul Maas include the following (from GBIF records): 2 from Colombia, 25 from Costa Rica, 2 from Ecuador and 1 from Peru. Other determiners have identified specimens of C. laevis as follows: 19 from Colombia, 105 from Costa Rica, 14 from Ecuador, 6 from Mexico, 1 from Panama and 1 from Peru. Based on my own observation this is not at all representative of the distribution as the species is quite common in Panama. Suffice it to say, it is a very widely distributed species as currently described, but it is very diverse in form and needs much further study. I expect that some of these will eventually be described as separate species or they will revert back to their original names.
CENTRAL AMERICAN FORMS
One form grows to about 2-3 meters in height, usually has longer, somewhat lobed ligules and long petioles, and is found on the Pacific side or Costa Rica and Panama. I have also seen this form also in lowland areas on the Pacific side of Colombia and Ecuador. I call this the "skutchii" form, based on Costus skutchii Morton which was described from a collection in the Pacific province of Puntarenas in Costa Rica. Photos and description of this grouping are at
SOUTH AMERICAN FORMS
One of these east-of-the-Andes forms is the pendent 'El Gato' form that is described on this website at
Another is the "Podocarpus" form I first saw in 2007, photos and description are at
The third is a pubescent form seen in the Zamora-Chinchipe region, described on my website at
In the mountains northwest of Quito, Ecuador near the community of Tulipe I discovered yet another form that fits best into this Costus aff. laevis grouping. Photos and description are at
In the Cordillero Central of Colombia, at the Reserva Natural Nirvana is another form that is said to be native to that area. Photos and description are at
And finally, there is a large, lowland plant collected in 1974 by Tim Plowman in the Choc├│ of Colombia that I have registered with the cultivar name 'Lemon Chiffon'. Photos and description are at
The following are field observations made in Peru in the Tingo Maria region of Huanuco that I recorded at iNaturalist.org. These are believed to be the plant forms seen by Ruiz that he collected and described as Costus laevis. Click on the links below to see numerous detailed photos of plant and flower parts and locality details of these observations. Note that the species names are based on currently accepted names that the plants are closest to - they are not listed as observations of Costus laevis. (Links open in new tab.)
Observations of the plant matching written description by Ruiz
Observations of the plant matching holotype specimen collected by Ruiz
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