Orchids of the High Cordillera del Condor



 The Cordillera del Condor is one of the most intriguing places in Ecuador, a chain of mountains well isolated from the main body of the Andes, formed by a surprising intermixture of limestone, sandstone, and igneous rocks. The isolation and unique geology suggest that it should have many unique plant species, and perhaps also many disjunct species from distant sandstone and limestone formations. The area cries out for exploration, but these remote mountains form the disputed frontier with Peru, and until the last few years border conflicts kept the area off limits. Even now, land mines remain a real danger on some peaks, and neither side can remember exactly where they planted the mines. Exploration is also made difficult by the native Shuar people, who do not take kindly to outside visitors. The area remains one of the least known and most interesting places in the country.

     Now that Peru and Ecuador have signed a peace treaty, the region is at last open for exploration. David Neill, director of Ecuador's Herbario Nacional (QCNE), has led the Missouri Botanical Garden Cordillera del Condor Project, designed to discover the plant secrets hidden there. I have had the good fortune to be invited on two of the most interesting expeditions of this project, and I report my findings here. The internet is a particularly appropriate outlet for this report, because the process of identifying the orchids I brought back is an ongoing one. Most of the species collected on the last trip were not flowering at the time, so they must be grown in my greenhouse until they flower and can be identified or described. This may take years. I will be able to update this site continuously as each additional species is identified. The collection records are here presented in a fully-downloadable Excel chart (see below).



The Expedition Sites

The areas we have visited on these expeditions are too remote to reach by land. We fly in high-lift light planes to small grass airstrips cut out of the jungle by the local Shuar. On my first trip we flew to Tinkimintz, with a population of about 20 families. On my second trip we flew to Warintz, a larger Shuar village with maybe 100 families. These starting points are marked with green stars on the map below. Both sites are in the Coangas valley. We wanted to explore the high peaks on each side of that valley -- from Tinkimints we could reach the high flat-topped mountains to the east, and from Warintz we could climb the even higher mountain range to the west.

Overview map of the Cordillera del Condor, with our landing sites indicated by green stars. Green lines and dots represent our route. The gridlines are 10 km apart.



Tinkimintz Expedition


LJ 3133, Maxillaria jostii Dodson, a new species. Click here to see my botanical drawing of this species.

    We landed at the tiny settlement of Tinkimintz, at 840m, and the residents were quite open to our request to investigate their mountains. Raul, the young leader of the village, made us hire all the adult male villagers as porters, so that he would not be accused of showing favoritism. Lucky for us the village was small, and as it turned out we needed everyone who came.

    The forest close to Tinkimintz was not rich in epiphytes. I believe this west-facing slope experiences a rain shadow effect. Almost no orchids were in flower here. Genera present here included Pleurothallis and Stelis, Oncidium, Maxillaria, and members of the subtribe Stanhopeinae. A large flowering pink Paphinia was too high to reach.

    Beginning at the ridge crests above about 1500m the epiphyte diversity and number of individuals began to increase, but the majority of plants found were sterile. The widespread Lepanthopsis acuminata was present here, along with a few Stelis species and a sterile Scelochilus. There was also a sterile terrestrial in the subtribe Goodyerinae, with blackish leaves speckled salmon. I brought it into cultivation but it did not survive.

       From about 1700m to about 1850m the epiphyte diversity was reasonably high. More species of orchids were in flower than at lower elevations. One of the most common Lepanthes on the ridge was L. series, an otherwise extremely rare species previously known only from two specimens found between Yangana and Vallodolid and one plant I had found on the Gualaceo-Limon road. (I have also just recently found some specimens in the Pastaza watershed of east-central Ecuador.)

     After two days of climbing, our ridge hit the base of a large white sand mesa. The very mossy forest here was probably kept moist by condensation from winds cooled by their rise over the mountain which is capped by this mesa. This forest along the base of the mesa contained two beautiful new species of orchids, a Maxillaria (LJ 3133) and a Lepanthes (LJ 3154). The Maxillaria has now been described by Dr. Calaway Dodson as M. jostii, and I have published the Lepanthes as L. neillii (see New Pleurothallid Orchids from the Cordillera del Condor of Ecuador). Many other pleurothallid orchids were present here, including five or six species of Stelis, Ophidion pleurothallopsis, an unremarkable Platystele, many Lepanthes, and some Brachionidium species. Besides the new Lepanthes species just mentioned, there were L. surrogata (apparently endemic to the Condor and previously known only from two collections at 1500m east of Guisme), L. cf tectorum, L. orchestris, L. monitor, L. papyrophylla, and L. bifalcis. The Brachionidium species were very small. LJ 3061 is very like B. ballatrix, known only from the type specimen from Nambija. LJ 3028 is closest to widespread B. folsomii but with some differences in petal ciliation and other details.These are both with Dr. Luer, awaiting positive identification.

      Several plants of Schlimmia condorana were also found here. This species, previously known from only two specimens, is restricted to the province of Zamora, though not strictly to the Cordillera del Condor. There were also many sterile plants resembling widespread Oncidium globuliferum, and sterile plants of a species of Otoglossum.


       The sides of the sandstone mesa were nearly vertical, but with the help of our Shuar guides we were able to reach the top by climbing a narrow gully. What a strange flora we found up there!!! The "forest", if it could be called that, was only slightly taller than us, and some of the terrestrial Sobralia ciliata orchids grew much taller than the trees. The soil was just white sand with almost no organic material, and I suppose there were not enough nutrients to grow big trees. The ground was covered with orchids and bromeliads, and one of our group, Jose Manzanares, discovered several new bromeliads there. At first, the orchids were not very diverse, in spite of the high number of individuals. There were Stelis, Pleurothallis, Maxillaria, Elleanthus, Epidendrum, and Scaphyglottis. Lepanthes series continued to be common here. There were also some sterile Trichosalpinx and Lepanthopsis. Three members of the Oncidium alliance were also common here: the scandent Oncidium resembling O.globuliferum, a Cyrtochilum, and an Otoglossum. None had flowers, but the Otoglossum had buds which, when dissected, resembled O. coronarium.

     As we reached the highest parts of the mesa, at 2000m, the forest quite suddenly became mossy and diverse, with many species of pleurothallid orchids. Among them I found Scaphosepalum globosum, at that time thought to be a Condor endemic. We have since found it in the Sacha Llanganates of east-central Ecuador. Along with S. globosum I found a second species of Scaphosepalum with characters closest to S. tiaratum, which is known only from the type collection several thousand kilometers north of the Condor. There was also Porroglossum hystrix, a recently described species endemic to the Condor and neighboring mountains. Several Brachionidium were also found here, but as often happens with Brachionidium, they were not in flower. One of them has flowered in cultivation and turns out to be B. capillare. Also alive in my greenhouse are two Masdevallia species as yet unidentified; one vegetatively resembles M. condorana. Lepanthes here included widespread L. tachirensis, omnipresent L. mucronata, rare L. papyrophylla, and a few other nonflowering species. There were also many species of Stelis here, some Pleurothallis, Platystele, Brachionidium, Scaphyglottis, Epidendrum, Maxillaria, Elleanthus, Baskervilla, and Dichaea. Click here to see the collection data for this trip.

    There was still another much higher sandstone mesa beyond this one, but the topography was difficult and we were out of time. There are surely many interesting things waiting there for some intrepid explorer.


Warintz Expedition


LJ 4686, Brachionidium condorense L. J. Jost. See New Pleurothallid Orchids from the Cordillera del Condor of Ecuador.

     We really wanted to get to the highest peaks of the Cordillera del Condor. Our highest elevation on the Tinkimintz trip was 2000m, but there were peaks as high as 2700m to 2900m west of Warintz. These highest peaks in the region were our target on the December 2002 expedition to Warintz.

       After several days of hard nonstop hiking, we reached our target, a peak whose elevation was 2700m. The orchids were surprisingly similar to those of Tinkimintz in spite of the fairly large elevation difference between the two sites. The most unusual findings were numerous species of Brachionidium in flower, including B. galeatum, previously known only from the type specimen, and two new species related to B. galeatum, which I have described as B. condorense and B. deflexum (see New Pleurothallid Orchids from the Cordillera del Condor of Ecuador). At least two more Brachionidium species were found without flowers, and one is alive in my greenhouse. These are very hard to grow, but I may be able to get it to flower before it dies.

       Among the other interesting orchids were Lepanthes series, which we had also found above Tinkimintz, L. ortegae, previously known only from the Cutucu area, and L. condorensis. Unfortunately the vast majority of the orchids found on this trip were not flowering. I brought back over a hundred plants to grow and eventually identify. This website will be updated regularly as more information is extracted from these specimens. Click here to see the collection data from this trip in an Excel chart.   Press "Refresh" (Internet Explorer) if some of the data is superimposed on other data.

Lepanthes ortegae Lepanthes series-  Photo courtesy John Clark Lepanthes condorensis


Instructions for downloading the Excel data: When you click on one of these links,

Tinkimints Excel Chart

Warints Excel Chart

an Excel chart will open in its own browser window. (Sometimes the browser makes small errors, with two rows written on top of each other occassionally in the chart. These can be fixed by pressing Refresh in Internet Explorer.)

    You can copy this chart (including full funcionality and including partially-hidden cells) onto your computer by selecting the whole chart (including the column headers) and clicking Copy. Then open a blank Excel chart on your computer and select the whole blank chart by clicking the upper left corner. Then click Paste. You will get a warning message saying the charts are not the same size. Click "OK". My chart is then on your machine and can be manipulated like any other Excel chart. (This has been tested in Internet Explorer 5 with Excel XP).

If you want to see a photo of a specimen, click the species name. If a photo is available, it will appear in its own browser window. Species with available photos will appear in a colored font and will be underlined in most browsers.

New species descriptions: See my New Pleurothallid Orchids from the Cordillera del Condor of Ecuador, Selbyana 25:11-16 (2004).


Orchids of the High Cordillera del Condor