Orchids in Perú

Orchids in Perú

This guide has emphasised the diverse environment of Perú, and the consequent enormous richness of its ecology. The orchid population of Perú is extraordinary, and the Perú-Ecuador highlands are the centres of radiation for many genera. Perú probably has over 3000 species, up from an estimate of 1600 only ten years ago. Plainly, therefore, there is much still to find, although this already represents over 10% of all the orchid species known.

The authoritative text on Perú's orchids is Icones Perúvianum, published as loose leaf pages which can be inserted into a binder. The authors are Bennett and Christenson. You can buy these sheets from David Bennett by e-mail, or by writing to him at Francisco Tudela Varela 229, Miraflores, Lima 18 Perú.

Epidendron aff. radicans

There are also a number of web publications that are dedicated to the orchids of Perú. For example, please click here for an ever-changing set of pictures of Perúvian orchids. Here is the link to the Peruvian orchid society, in English. Please note that there is an additional photoessay on orchids here.

Where should I look for orchids?

Contrary to popular belief, orchids are not found in predominantly hot places. Rather, the epiphytes - the types which grow on trees and rocks, which includes many of the more spectacular species - tend to concentrate where the rainfall is high, humidity constant during the growing season and the forest sufficiently broken for light to penetrate. Diversity tends to peak at around 1500m almost everywhere in the tropical and sub-tropical world. Typically, the environment which best answers to these requirement is usually rocky and mountainous, and this is exactly the case in Perú.

The main focus for orchids in Perú is the ceja de selva, the jungle-facing face of the Andes. This may receive up to 5 metres of rain per annum. This area is dissected into valleys, some wetter and some drier than others, and the climate itself changes as one moves from the North to the South. As a result, the plants vary sharply with both altitude and the valley in question.

High in any one valley, trees generally begin in a mist forest, and here thrive many cool-dwelling species. Masdevallia species are seen growing as high as 3300 metres, which means that the encounter regular snow. One sees them on rocks and tree branches, tucked into the lichen and offering scarlet to carmine harebell-like flowers. Masdevalia amabilis, known to the Incas as wakanku can often be seen flowering on high expose rock faces. Machu Picchu has around 200 species growing on the hillsides around it, including another Inca favourite, Masdevallia vetchiana, the wankanki. One can, perhaps, imagine would-be botanists of the period getting muddled!

Cattleya rex

Somewhat lower, larger plants begin to appear and one may be lucky enough to encounter an Oncidium offering sprays of up to a thousand delicate yellow and brown blossoms. Bromeliads and ferns compete for space. Sobralias and other terrestrials begin to appear, poking their showy flowers through the undergrowth. Below, Phragmipedium caudatum.

Lower still, where it becomes significantly hotter, species such as the Laelias, Cattleyas and Brassias appear. Unhappily, these have been subject to heavy collection and are now quite rare near to any form of access. Cattleya rex, centred on the Mayo valley, is now extremely hard to finding the wild. By contrast, the Tingo María - Huanuco area is notable for its huge population of Epidendrums.

The deep selva carries a great mass of orchid plants, but these tend to be the same species, endlessly repeated along the upper branches of the forest trees. They are extremely hard to see unless a tree has fallen. The edges to rivers are a good place to start, aided with a powerful pair of binoculars. The Madre de Dios resorts have made an effort to offer lowland accessible orchids to interested travellers, and one hotel boasts at least 70 species in it immediate surroundings.

Other areas, such as the dry highland of Piura support a distinct orchid flora, where the plants expect a sharp dry period and will not flower without it. Cattleya maxima, a plant with large, violet flowers is one of the stars of this region.

Gongora species (right)
Lycaste species (below)

The self-styled City of Orchids is Moyobamba, in the North of the country. This is indeed a fine place to branch out in search of orchids, as well as being close to the Piura highlands. There are at least three orchid nurseries in Moyobamba, and a lot of knowledgeable guides can be found. It also has a river port, from which trips into the forest can be organised. Take care with the road that goes South, however, as it is impassable in the rains beyond Juanjui, and also subject to security difficulties.

An orchid trip that will fascinate the mildly adventurous drops from Tarma in the Andes to the Chanchamayo valley. The mist forests at the head of the valley have Epidendrums, Lycastes and a mass of other species in huge abundance. The author counted fifty species visible from a rock by the side of the road where he was sitting, waiting for a landslip to be cleared.

Zygopetalum crinitum

Lower Chanchamayo is also full of orchids. One can walk from San Ramon, to Pampa Hermosa and Monobamba. Psychopsis sanderae and the Huntleya vargasii are amongst the species which can be seen.

What equipment should I take?

The Convention in the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that even if you were to break Perúvian law and collect orchids, you would be unable to take them out of the country. Consequently, you equipment should be limited to a good pair of binoculars, a loupe, the Bennett taxonomy and your enthusiasm. It is a good idea to brush up on your specialised Spanish vocabulary: ¿como se llama un 'pseudobulb'?

A camera with fast film and a telephoto lens is a good idea, as well as a little digital camera for close-ups. Or splash out on a digital SLR, which will do both tasks for you.

Technical annex

The table which follows is taken from Bennett and Christenson, and represents a list of the genera that grow in Perú, with the number of species in each genus listed beside it. The list is ordered by species number, with Epidendrum and Maxillaria heading the list with 64 species each.

Epidendrum 64 Maxillaria 64 Masdevallia 33 Oncidium 33 Pleurothallis 27
Kefersteinia 16 Catasetum 14 Ondontoglossum 14 Encyclia 13 Lycaste 11
Brassia 10 Elleanthus 9 Scaphyglottis 9 Gongora 8 Stenia 8
Ornithocephalus 6 Rodreguezia 6 Sigmatostalix 6 Stelis 6 Xylobium 6
Dichaea 5 Neokoehleria 5 Phragmipedium 5 Sobralia 5 Trichosalpinix 5
Cattleya 4 Cynoches 4 Lepanthes 4 Lockhartia 4 Mormolyca 4
Polystachia 4 Scelochilus 4 Stanhopea 4 Telipogon 4 Trigonodium 4
Campylocentrum 3 Chrondrorhyncha 3 Cochlioda 3 Comparettia 3 Coryanthes 3
Liparis 3 Macroclinium 3 Otoglossum 3 Pachyphyllum 3 Ponthieva 3
Restrepia 3 Rudolfiella 3 Solenidiopsis 3 Stellilabium 3 Ada 2
Batemania 2 Bulbophyllum 2 Chaubariella 2 Cischweinfia 2 Cranichis 2
Cryptarrhenia 2 Cyclopogon 2 Dressleria 2 Dryadella 2 Galendra 2
Galleotea 2 Gomphichis 2 Houlletia 2 Lycomormium 2 Malaxis 2
Notylia 2 Peristeria 2 Plectrophora 2 Polycycnis 2 Prescottia 2
Psychopsis 2 Sarcoglottis 2 Scaphosepalum 2 Schlimia 2 Trichocentrum 2
Trichopelia 2 Zygopetalum 2 Aa 1 Acacalis 1 Acineta 1
Ackermania 1 Altensteinia 1 Amblystoma 1 Anguloa 1 Aspasia 1
Aspidogyne 1 Baskervillia 1 Beloglottis 1 Bletia 1 Chaubardia 1
Chloraea 1 Cleistes 1 Cochleanthes 1 Cryptocentrum 1 Cryptidiorchis 1
Cyrtopodium 1 Diadenium 1 Dimeranda 1 Eloyella 1 Epistephium 1
Eriopsis 1 Erythrodes 1 Eulophia 1 Fernandezia 1 Govenia 1
Habenaria 1 Hexisea 1 Homatopetalum 1 Huntley 1 Isochilus 1
Lepanthopsis 1 Leudemannia 1 Macradenia 1 Mesadenella 1 Mesospinidium 1
Miltoniopsis 1 Mormodes 1 Neodryas 1 Nidema 1 Octomeria 1
Oliveriana 1 Orleansia 1 Paphinia 1 Pelexia 1 Platystele 1
Porroglossum 1 Psygmorchis 1 Ptewrichis 1 Sacoila 1 Schromburgkia 1
Sievekingia 1 Solenidium 1 Sphyrastylis 1 Stenoptera 1 Stigmatorthos 1
Teuscheria 1 Trichoceros 1 Trizeuxis 1 Warrea 1 Zygostates 1