In January orchid enthusiasts Peter Tobias, Kathi McCord, Steve Beckendorf, Mary Gerritsen, and Spiro Kasomenakis came to visit our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador, near the town of Chical on the Colombian border. Peter, Steve, and Mary are founders and board members of the Orchid Conservation Alliance, which has been raising money for EcoMinga’s conservation work since its inception in 2006. Lately they have been major supporters of our Dracula Reserve, and they were eager to see it for themselves. They were especially interested in the orchid tribe that make up the bulk of the orchid diversity here, Pleurothallidinae, a group of mostly-miniature orchids that includes genera like Masdevallia (Mary had even written a book about that genus with Ron Parsons, and another book about miniature orchids in general), Lepanthes, Stelis, Pleurothallis, and of course Dracula. Perfect guests for a reserve established specifically to conserve those orchids!
The long drive from Quito to the reserve is depressing. On the central inter-Andean plateau we pass through a barren, eroded landscape almost entirely lacking in large trees. Then we turn west to descend the Mira valley, which once had tall dry forest near the river and cloud forest on the upper slopes. Now there are only large expanses of treeless slopes swept repeatedly by deliberately-set fires. But by mid-afternoon we begin our climb on side roads into the high mountains. In the transition zone between destruction and paradise we reach the beautiful hacienda La Primavera where we will stay. We have three days to explore our four reserve units, the nearest about a half-hour’s drive from the hacienda.
The rain falls constantly, since the morning of the first day. The cool temperatures and 100% humidity are deadly for electronics and optics, and nearly everyone’s cameras (some of them professional quality Nikons and Canons) begin to fail electronically, while even the ones that don’t fail have fogged lenses. Nevertheless everyone is in good spirits because this is exactly the right climate for the miniature orchids we seek.
The most diverse genus is Lepanthes. I’ve posted about Lepanthes from this area before; they have tiny but intricate flowers that attract male fungus gnats which mate with the flower, thinking it is a female fly. The flower makes female fly pheromones to lure the males in. There are over 300 species of Lepanthes in Ecuador, and our Dracula Reserve parcels seem to have an endless variety of them. Many are recently discovered species, apparently found only here in the vicinity of our reserve, though some of these surely reach into nearby Colombia. We try to photograph as many as we can, but the rain makes this an exercise in frustration. Try balancing an umbrella on your shoulder while steadying a tiny flower with one hand and a heavy camera in the other, to take a nearly-microscopic photo whose depth of field at these magnifications can be as little as a couple of millimeters. If we are able to see the flower through our wet glasses and fogging lenses, we watch it go in and out of focus uncontrollably as we try to hold still, and if the flower is in focus at the moment we press the shutter, it’s pure luck.
Already from the first moment we find our focal genus, Dracula. The sinister convoluted Dracula andreettae is the most spectacular thing we find the first day. Dracula gigas in the same area is also stunning. Dracula plants without flowers are more common than those with them; ironically, our local reserve caretaker Hector Yela explains that this is because there was a weeks-long unseasonably dry spell just preceding our soggy visit.
Dracula and most other orchids here are epiphytes, growing in the trees. But many of the most interesting and overlooked orchids are terrestrial species related to temperate-zone North American orchids. I pay special attention to these, and our guest Spiro also has an exceptionally good eye for them. On this trip we find two apparently-different species of the terrestrial orchid Psilochilus, a genus related to the elusive Triphora trianthophora of North America. Triphora is partly saprophytic, a vulture-like plant living on decaying material (in symbiosis with fungi) rather than making its own food with its leaves. Psilochilus has more nearly normal leaves and probably does not need decaying material. But like Triphora, Psilochilus has flowers that only last a day or two, so it takes good timing to find one in flower. Most orchid scientists never notice them. My fieldwork has shown that there are far more species of Psilochilus in Ecuador than the very few officially-described species. Maybe one or both of these forms are new, or at least new for Ecuador. Several new species were recently described from nearby Colombia.
Another terrestrial, a species of Cleistes, catches our attention each day as we pass the clearing where it grows. On the first day the buds looked ready to pop open, so each time we pass, we eagerly get out of our vehicle and check them. Day after day they just sit there, the petals and sepals slightly ajar like the flowers are about to unfold, but they never do. At first I thought it might be self-pollinating, and the plants had many seed capsules, which is often a sign of self-pollination.But when I dissected one, I found it had functional nectar glands at the base of its lip (a modified petal). I tasted it to be sure. Very sweet!
On the last full day, the rain is worse than usual. We visit a site we would like to purchase, home of some of the rarest Dracula species. But when we arrive we find some of the forest has been cut down. The fallen trees show us the otherwise-hidden diversity of the canopy orchids in this forest.
Luckily the rare Dracula we had come to see, the recently-described Dracula trigonopetala, was a few dozen meters from the clearing, still in good shape. Now some especially waterlogged participants turn back towards the road, but a few of us continue on. After a long cold wet hike, we reach an area with Lepanthes everywhere, of many different species.
Those of us whose cameras are still semi-functional manage a few shots in the rain, and then we turn back. But as we head back, thinking of warm food and dry clothes, our caretaker Hector looks back towards us and spots an enormous Dracula above our heads. It’s a magnificent Dracula terborchii, a species that was discovered in captivity in Europe, exported from somewhere in Ecuador, mislabelled as a different species of Dracula. For a long time no one knew where in Ecuador it actually lives, but recently Ecuadorian orchid specialists like Alex Hirtz, Luis Baquero (who also co-described D. trigonopetala, along with Gary Meyer) and Francisco Tobar had begun to find a few plants of it in this region. I’d never seen it before in the wild. Its sepals were patterned like a Persian carpet, and against the dark forest it glowed in spite of the gloom. This was the most magnificent find of the trip. We vow to try to purchase this property as soon as possible to keep it from being cleared further. This will not be easy–we’d tried buying it before, but there were conflicting land titles that complicated things. Still, we’ve resolved worse problems. We all agreed this is clearly worth protecting.
As the rains defeat the last of the cameras, we head for home. Mudslides begin to fall into the mountain road, but we get through them. Hot showers and good food and company await us in the hacienda, a nice end to a beautiful trip.
Many thanks to the Orchid Conservation Alliance, whose donations to the Dracula Reserve were matched by the Rainforest Trust, a key partner in this initiative. Thanks also to Vera Lee Rao, Steven K. Beckendorf and Cynthia L. Hill, and Mark Wilson for their major donations to this project. Heinz Schneider and the University of Basel Botanical Garden, which was the initial sponsor of the Dracula Reserve and is still our energetic partner in the project, also deserves special thanks, along with Susann Zeigler and Max Annen, Beat and Urs Fischer and the many other donors named in the U. of Basel Botanical Garden web page.
A special thanks to the Asociacion de Orquideologia de Quito, Ecuador, who raised money for conservation in Ecuador over several years and donated it all to us for this project.