Orchid hunting in Ecuador: The country has 5,000 species and more are discovered every year
By Arthur Chadwick
For many years, developing countries have promoted ecotourism as a way for indigenous people to make a living without cutting down the forests. Ecuador is particularly rich in biodiversity and has set aside 23 percent of its land in national parks, reserves, refuges, and recreation. In addition, the government pays private land owners to keep their acreage wild. Over 5,000 species of orchids have been identified throughout Ecuador with more being discovered each year.
Orchid hobbyists will travel great distances to see their favorite plants. Ecuador has become a popular destination for Americans with a currency system in U.S. dollars and direct flights from Miami. In recent years, the World Orchid Conference has held its annual meeting in Ecuador, bringing horticultural attention to this South American country.
Ecuador’s leading expert on orchids, Pepe Portilla of Cuenca (www.ecuagenera.com), describes the four main areas to visit: the Northern Coastal Lowlands, Southern Coastal Lowlands, Andes Mountain Range and Amazon Basin.
The Northern Coastal Lowlands has one of the wettest places on earth, the El Choco district. The lush tropical rainforests are the perfect environment for such unusual genera as Stanhopea with its short-lived creepy pendant blooms and Dracula which Westerners refer to as the “Monkey Face Orchid.” In addition, a multitude of Epidendrum species live there including Epi ilense with its cluster of dainty white blooms.
The Southern Coastal Lowlands are much drier and favor orchids that can hold water in their pseudobulbs during periods of drought such as Cattleyas, Encyclias, and Schomburgkias. While South America is home to nearly all the Cattleya species, only two reside in Ecuador — C iricolor and C maxima. The latter blooms in November and December and the locals refer to it as the “Flor de Navidad”. Enthusiasts marvel at the enormous heads of purple flowers and accompanying foliage which can reach five feet across.
The Andes Mountain Range is the longest in the world and runs vertically through the middle of Ecuador with some elevations over 20,000 feet. Warm air travels inland where it cools and condenses on the epiphytes. Orchid pollination is done mostly by flies and hummingbirds at this altitude. There are two rainy seasons — one from February to April and another during October and November. Among the unusual orchids found in this area are the large-flowered bright yellow Cyrtochilums whose flower spikes can hang down 10 feet from cliffs. There are also many species of Masdevallia, Maxillaria, Odontoglossom, and Oncidium.
The Amazon Basin has heavy rainfall for most of the year and hundreds of species can be found in bloom at any time. Among them is Oncidium sphacelatum, which is one of the building blocks of today’s yellow hybrids. Mature plants are capable of producing dozens of branched inflorescences with over one thousand small blossoms. Of particular interest are the ‘fields’ of orangey-red lady slippers, Phragmipedium besseae, with their one to six sequential blooms. A single plant of P besseae draws a crowd at our domestic orchid shows.
Enthusiasts will be disappointed to learn that the famed Galapagos Islands — which are just off the coast and are bustling with prehistoric tortoises, penguins, and sea lions — have only a handful of orchids. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to set aside time to check out this Natural World Heritage site, which is on par with The Great Barrier Reef and The Grand Canyon.
When not orchid hunting, I found the local farms of Ecuador to be fascinating. The crops run the gamut of tropical fruit — banana, guava, mango, papaya, and pineapple with the most unusual being cacao, from which cocoa is derived. My omniscient and thankfully bilingual tour guide, Eduardo Meneses (www.guayaquilaguidedvisit.com ) demonstrated how to make pure chocolate by grinding cacao seeds that had been dried in the sun. I will never look at Hershey bars the same way.
Ecotourists could spend weeks scouting the countryside of this delightful South American country for rare orchids. The plants are all there in protected areas and the locals are more than willing to assist with the search. Before embarking on this life changing journey, it’s best to relearn high school Spanish, brush up on tropical birds, and look forward to not checking email for a while.
Arthur Chadwick is president of Chadwick & Son Orchids Inc.