Orchids in the North of Perú.

Orchids in the North of Perú.

Peru is extremely rich in orchids, both in species and in the density with which these occur. There is considerable variation from North to South, but the greatest differences occur with altitude and rainfall. The West of the country is, of course, low-lying desert. The Andes are generally arid and cold - but with some moist valleys that are full of orchids, plus some even more surprising rich habitats - whilst the descent to the low-lying Eastern jungle is world famous for the density with which orchids, bromeliads and butterflies occur. The low jungle contains orchids, but they are far less diverse than at higher altitudes. This follows a global pattern whereby orchid species and biomass densities tends to peak at around 1500-2000m. It may be that tree growth in the lowland humid tropics is just too fast for many orchids, which are slow growing plants that take years to establish themselves.

A general map of North-Eastern Peru

The map shows the North-West of Peru. It is shaded both for altitude and for rainfall levels. This introduction is going to focus on the top right of the map: around Moyabamba, Chachapoyas and the route that leads to Celendin and Cajamarca. You will see that three general bands are marked on it: the Ceja de Selva, or "eyebrow of the jungle"; the Alta Selva or high jungle - now much affected by agriculture and settlement - and the Baja Selva, or low jungle.

The Peruvian Ceja de Selva steams gently under the early morning Sun

Let us start with the Ceja de Selva. The photograph shows a general view of the landscape at about 1500m above Moyabamba. A part of the area is legally protected, but resources are insufficient to patrol this and settlements are growing, based on logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Virtually every tree and shrub in the area is laden with orchids, and these are of course lost. The more conspicuous species are also gathered for sale to national tourists, who visit the area in small numbers during major national holidays.

A tree in the Peruvian ceja de selva covered with orchids

Emergent trees are crammed with epiphytes, to the extent that branches are frequently lost under the burden. The climate is cool but with an extremely bright sun: Moyabamba is only a few degrees from the Equator. Days usually start with a mist which quickly clears, and blue skies give way to cloud as the hillsides heat up and convection does its work. Rain begins in the early afternoon, and most places will receive something between a shower and a torrent every day.

The image (above) shows a tree laden with epiphytes, many of them orchids. The bulk are Epidendrums, although the large Sobralia-like plant on the right is an Elleanthus, a genus that is extremely widespread but graced, unhappily, with generally dull flowers. These are further concealed in bracts, and the whole thing tends to be drenched in water, which causes the brown-and-beige flowers to become semi-translucent and gel-like. Even an orchid fanatic would not find it hard to contain his or her enthusiasm.

Phragmipedium boissierianum growing on limestone in full sun, Moyabamba Peru

Phragmipediums are relatively common in the area, usually growing on exposed limestone outcrops. At least five species are known in Peru, although the centre of radiation for the genus is probably Colombia or Ecuador. The three common species are Phragmipedium wallisii (zapatilla de la reina or Queen's slipper), Phragmipedium boissierianum (zapatilla del rey or King's slipper), illustrated above and below, and Phragmipedium pearcei. This last is known as the boy's slipper, or zapatilla del niño. I have not encountered P. pearcei in the wild, but Eric Christenson tells me that it is 'virtually restricted to river's edge, where the grass-like leaves form vast "lawns" that are seasonally inundated with flood waters.'

The striking, crimson P. besseae is found in the Alta Selva - best known around Tarapoto - although it is generally rare in Peru. The newly discovered P. kovachii, however, grows in the Ceja de Selva limestone belt. Its habitat is broadly similar to that shown below: tumbled boulders of limestone rock mixed with Andesite, interspersed with well-drained pockets of organic detritus.

A colony of Peruvian Phragmipedium boissierianum

The photograph shown above is of a colony of P. boissierianum, growing in full sunlight on limestone. Each has its pocket of leaf mould, but the site is in no way a wet one, save for the frequent rains. The soil was lightly damp when I felt it at midday. Other orchids are tightly inter-twined with this colony, chiefly Maxillarias.

Mid afternoon rain falls on limestone cliffs, north-east Peru

The higher Ceja de Selva is even more densely covered with wiry little trees than the middle altitudes. Canopy emergents carry large weights of ferns, Bromeliads, Gesneriads and, of course, orchids. Any exposed rock is also likely to be covered with orchids such as Epidendrums, Pleurothallids and Maxillaria species.

Maxillaria aff. arachnites flowering in dense shade, Peru

Inside the canopy, however, one is surprised to find genera such as Ornithocephalus, Rodriguezia, Oncidium and Restrepia growing in utter gloom. So dark is it and so tangled that virtually all attempts at hand-held photography failed: one needs a tripod and lights (usually on an unstable 70° slope.) Genera such as Sobralia, Epidendrum and Catasetum are found in dappled of full sun, often on tree branches but frequently sprawled on rocks. Large-leafed terrestrials or semi-lithophytes, such as Anguola, Lycaste and Acineta are common wherever the sun breaks into the shade.

Maxilleria sp. in dense shade, Peru

The plants of the lower Ceja de Selva blend into those of the Alta Selva, such as the Brassia species shown below. However, human impact - from lumbering, from agricultural land clearance and from animal grazing - all have their affect upon the density with which orchids are found.

A Brassia species growing in dense shade, Peru

This altitude (800-1200m) is particularly attractive to a wide range of wide leaved species, such as the Acineta superba shown in the photograph below. This was a part of a clump four metres across, and found it difficult to get its pendant inflorescence out of the tangle. (It remains a puzzle why so many tropical semi-terrestrial orchids have evolved pendant inflorescences. Does this aid pollination by crawling insects?)

Acineta superba, growing as a terrestrial in the Peruvian high forest

The Alta Selva environment is very different from the dense, tangled and steep walls of the Ceja de Selva. The climate is hotter and rains are less frequent. The trees grow more quickly, and the general habit of the forest is more open. Much of this forest has been 'hollowed out' for sub-canopy coffee production.

A typical watercourse in the Alt Selva in Northern Peru

Two species of Phragmipedium tend to be focused at this altitude. P. boissierianum and P. wallisii, known respectively as the Queen's slipper and the King's. The image which is shown immediately below appeared to me to be P. boissierianum, but Eric Christenson tells me that it is in fact a natural hybrid, P. richteri (boissierianum x pearcei). The image of the Queen's slipper P. wallisii, which is shown further down is, however, a true identification.

Genetic studies now suggest that the slippers (Phragmipedium and Selenipedium in South America, Paphiopedilum in Asia) are common descendents of the Cypripediums, which are of course found right around the Northern hemisphere, in what are generally temperate or cold locations. This radiation of the genera probably occurred as the ice retreated from the half million years of glaciation that preceded the current warm spell that we call the Holocene. Isolated populations of slippers, then trapped in what became the tropics, were forced to adapt themselves rapidly to new conditions. Speciation seems to have developed from the "centres of radiation" in which the first successful adaptations took place. Northern Peru seems to be one such centre for many orchids, birds and insects; as does New Guinea in Asia.

Phragmipedium richteri (boissierianum x pearcei), a natural hybrid found in North-East Peru

All of the slipper family differ from the rest of the Orchidaceae by having two anthers. Given the diagnostic character of the single anther as defining what constitutes and orchid, this anatomical embarrassment makes it questionable whether slippers are orchids at all, or a strange side-line in the evolutionary process which separated the orchids from the lilies! Practically, however, slippers are so embedded in the world of orchid-related commerce and private enthusiasms as to make any separation impractical to any but the most unworldly taxonomist.

Phragmipedium wallisii, known in Peru as the Queen's Slipper

The Oncidium genus is strongly represented in Peru, and a many species present themselves in the course of this trip. Below, a striking species which is close to, but seems not to be, O. jonesii.

Oncidium aff. jonesianum, bobbing in the breeze in Peru

Bollea hirtzii, shown below, is widespread in Peru and Ecuador, based around the indistinct border between the Ceja de Selva and the Alta Selva. It is often found with Ionopsis sp. and with Psycopsis papilio, shown further down the page, in areas of tangled scrub with bright but dappled light, seasonal but regular rainfall and an equable, mild temperature range.

Bollea hirtzii, widespread in Peru

Sobralias are extremely common in this region, in places out-competing grass for land space. They are, however, opportunists that specialise in poor soil, and are found in clusters. Peru has many species of Sobralia, each varying very considerably from location to location. This beautiful plant is probably Sobralia leucoxantha. Like all Sobralias, its has short-lived flowers, but it is hard to imagine a more useful horticultural species if it proved possible to breed longevity into the genus, either by selection or crossing with other genera.

Sobralia leucoxantha, a Peruvian wonder

The Alta Selva elides with the deep jungle. The land changes - often to scrub and open pasture, rather than to "jungle" - and the people change with it. These three ladies are widows engaged in collecting wood for an entrepreneur, who collects their bundles in a truck and sells it in Moyabamba. They earn about US$2 per day doing this. Behind them, rough coffee shrubs mingle with secondary forest. Coffee sells at around US$3 per kilo at the farm gate, were these patches of land to have gates. Conservation takes its realistic place in this economic hierarchy, as does enforcement. The police are often confined to barracks because their vehicles lack spare parts, and their motivation to alienate poor communities by preventing what they see as minor crimes - for example, illicit logging - is distinctly limited when compared to the more immediate problems which they face.

Three Peruvian widows, now earning a living collecting wood.

The more tropical orchids begin to show themselves in these areas - here a Coryanthes alborosea dangles below its upward-pointing basket of roots. In common with genera such as Ansellia in Africa, or Cymbidium and Grammatophyllum in Asia, these orchids capture falling litter with a nest of upward-pointing roots, presumably in order to create a greater water-absorptive volume. Ants frequently nest in these root balls, both in Asia and in South American genera which follow this adaptation. (Asian species tend also to play host to centipedes and snakes; perhaps here too!) The belief is that these invertebrates play two roles for the plant: defending it against predators, and inadvertently providing it with fertiliser when they excrete or die. One assumes that they have also learned not to eat its pollinators, or all would be in vain!

Coryanthes alborosea, an inhabitant of the hot, wet areas of North Eastern Per

A few orchid genera are truly pan-tropical in their distribution: one thinks of Bulbophyllum, Polystachia and, of course, Vanilla. The Aztecs in Mexico were probably the first to discover how to dry, ferment and use the Vanilla seed pods that generate the now-universal fragrance. Here, a Vanilla (perhaps V. grandiflora) scrambles over a shrub in deep shade.

Vanilla aff. grandiflora scrambling over shrubs in northern Peru

Most people who do not know much about orchids will nonetheless recognise a Cattleya when they see one. Unhappily, so too will most plant collectors, and many of the native Cattleyas within a day's travel of Moyabamba have been stripped. The plant which is show below was on sale from a street stall, and does not even appear to be a native of Peru. Others may know better, but it would appear to be Cattleya aff. labiata or mossiae, both of which grow to the North of the country. However, there are also stands of naturalised Arundina (a genus from Asia) growing in many parts of the Alta Selva, implying that they were imported a considerable time ago.

Cattleya aff labiata or mossiae, in cultivation in north Peru

By contrast, the image below is of a Peruvian native, Cattleya rex. This species is known as the golondrina or swallow. It is a neat plant that grows in dappled shade on the high branches of old trees.

Cattleya rex, a Peruvian native

Another plant that extends into the hills, but is at its happiest in the 'high jungle' is Psycopsis papilio. This is found the length of the East face of the Peruvian Andes, and can be found dancing in the breeze in closed, dense forest. Its inflorescence may be two metres long, and the plant itself is inconspicuous, making the flower appear an independent entity in the dappled shade.

Psycopsis papilio, widespread in the higher Peruvian jungle

We must now shift our emphasis away from the West flank of the Andes in order to focus on the highlands. The town of Chachapoyas is around five hours from Moyabamba, as you can see from the map at the head of this page. The town takes its name from the once-mighty Chachapoyas civilisation, which resisted the Incas until a few years before the Spanish invasion. They have left a huge array of ruins scattered in this section of the Andes, including Kuellap, a structure with 12m walls extending two kilometres around what was once an urban area. The tress that have grown up though the ruins are full of Miltonias, pleurothallids and other orchids.

The Plaza de Armas in Chachapoyas, Northern Peru

The region around Chachapoyas varies from the extremely wet to the desiccated in a matter of kilometres. This makes the ecology extremely varied, and the orchid population very rich, if less spectacular than that of Moyabamba and its surroundings.

Many orchid species on a rock wall near Chachapoyas, north Peru

This rock wall was photographed more or less at random: we had stopped for a herd of cattle. However, as is evident at a glance, almost everything that is green in the picture is an orchid. One can spot Anguola, Lycaste, Sobralia and Epidendrums; plus at least five more less conspicuous species. This is, however, an example taken from a varied region in which the road (heading for Cajamarca, by way of Balsas and Celendin) rises to 4000m, drops again to 800m to cross the Río Marañon and so descend into a cactus paradise; and then rises twice more to 4000m before entering the dairy pastures of the regional capital.

Stelis, Maxillarias growing at 3700m in the Peruvian Andes

The pass before the descent to hot little Balsas ascends to somewhat over 4000m. Immediately after crossing it, Stelis and other Pleurothallids, Maxillarias present themselves, growing on sun-facing, utterly dry rocks. Inset is Epidendrum aff. hemisclera, which was widespread in the region, acting as one of the 'invasive' species on freshly exposed rock.

Oncidium aff. excavatum, growing high in the Peruvian Andes

The Andes frequently have odd-coloured soils, the result of the breakdown of Andesite rock that contains minerals such as copper. Streaks of dark purple and olive green mark many hillsides. These soils seldom support much grass, and the dwarf shrubs that struggle for a living are often interspersed with dwarf cactus and orchids: typically twiggy, Epidendrum-like Maxillarias, onion-bulbed Oncidiums and tall, reed-like Pleurothallids. The photograph above is of an Oncidium aff. excavatum, which can be extremely common.

The view forward to the Río Marañon valley from 3700m, Peru.

This has been a brief tour of a huge subject. A specialist could spend months in one location, without doubt finding new things everywhere he or she looked. Despite this potential, and despite the huge interest which orchids command, travel to these areas is not straightforward. A well-managed trip will probably create no more difficulties that the odd flat tyre; but an unprepared venture faces the real likelihood of major difficulties. These are areas which were badly affected by the Sendero guerilla movement, and significantly influenced by the cocaine trade. The rule of law is not absolute. It is, therefore, important to travel with people who have an in-depth knowledge of the region, and who can put the necessary expert at your side.