A Peruvian experience by John Gay

This is a new talk by John which he completed just the evening before, so we were as he put it the guinea pigs for it! Peru is a fantastic country with great people, and is a safe country to visit. John has been there twice now in the past few years, mainly for the orchid experience, but has included a little tourism as well – it would be wrong not to see Machu Pichu if you were reasonably close. Peru is a huge country (of only 20m population) the size of the UK, France and Spain put together, and has a coastline of 1400 miles which is semi arid. The northern tip almost touches the equator, while the southern bit ends at Lake Titicaca, and it is bordered by Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile. The Andes pass continuously south through the country with an average peak height of 3000m, and 6000m at the highest. This range forms part of the watershed for the Amazon basin. Whilst the peaks are high, the valleys are steep and there are gorges twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA. As the Andes rise up the land becomes more fertile and forested. 60% of the country is classed as virgin forest, although land clearance is taking place at an increasing rate. The geography makes it difficult to get around easily – there are virtually no railway lines, so aeroplanes are the commonest long distance method, and buses for the more local journeys. As you would expect with a country of this size the climate varies enormously, and encompasses 84 life zones (that’s about 2/3rds of those described throughout the world). There are about 4000 species of orchids, and similar numbers of butterfly species, and around 2000 species of fish. There are 3 separate areas visited covered by the talk – the northern highlands, Cuzco, and Oxapampa. The tour was accompanied by a guide from Peruflora who knew where to go to find specific species.

All journeys in Peru start from Lima on the coast, and a flight was taken to the north. The highlands is where Phrag. kovachii was found, and this was one of the main reasons for the journey. These mountains are mainly limestone, susceptible to landslips. The plant is found between 1600- 1900m, with minimum temperatures around 16C and a maximum of 25C. It rains every day, and therefore travelling is difficult, and walking off the beaten track requires wellingtons. The track to kovachii is perilous, and takes about 3.5 hours from the road. The track is full of mud, and rises and falls steeply in most places as streams are encountered. Along the way, thousands of different orchids can be seen – a lot of which are new species yet to be described. These include Pleuros, Stelis, & Maxillarias. It is a wonder why kovachii took so long to be discovered as it has the largest flower of any orchid, and is a bright purple/red colour. It grows on thin soils on steep slopes in full sun, and flowers around November/December. The initial site had been almost cleared out, with just immature or inaccessible plants left.

They had a choice of another site a further 2 hours away, however, the treacherous walk had left John with painful blisters that rendered even the 3 hour walk back to a virtual impossibility. Thankfully there was a rustic farm not too far away, where the pleasant peasant farmer was able to provide a mule to carry him back to the road. This was to prove another shocking journey with the swaying and undulating terrain proving endless terror as a slip could mean a fall of several hundred feet.

Other orchids in the area included Odm. cruentum, Odm epidendriodes, Phrag. caudatum & wallisii, – growing in full sun, Helcia brevis, Cochlioda vulcanica, various Cyrtochilums, Masdavellias, Adas and other miniatures. A nearby roadside nursery demonstrated how easy plants grow – there are no greenhouses, just benches, and plants in small pots are watered naturally every day, developing a mossy covering. These cost next to nothing, and often bare rooted roadside plants are as much as 30p! The next leg of the journey was to the south, via Cuzco, and then a 4 hour drive to Ollantaytambo which is literally the end of the road, and the start of the Inca Trail. This is uphill from Cuzco which is at 10,000 feet, so the air is thin, and unless you are young and fit (and without blisters) then you take either the bus or tourist train to Machu Pichu, and then there’s still a huge uphill walk. Machu Pichu is an amazing place that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. They walked back downhill to study any orchids, and found Ida fimbriata, lots of Masdavellias and Odontoglossums. Whilst at base in Ollantaytambo, they crossed over the high pass of Abra Malaga at 4316m in the snowfields into the next valley of Santa Maria. Here there are Sobralia growing like reeds next to the road. Bletias were also in profusion.

The final part of the tour was to Oxapampa, which is in the central part of Peru in the Pasco region, and is an area of high forest. It is a 9 hour drive from Lima, and is at 1800m. The drive there, and beyond contain several of the Peruflora nurseries – all at different altitudes to match the needs of different genera etc. All the nurseries are roofless, and rely on natural watering – apart from the main nursery and centre in Lima. The nursery at 800m is mainly Cattleyas, and the area around supports many C. maxima. It also hosts a breeding program for kovachii breeding, with crosses raised with most available parents. There were hundreds of near flowering sized Fritz Schomburg (kovachii x dalessandroi). In the locality there are 30’ spiked Cyrtochilums, Stanhopeas & Phrag. richteri. The Odontoglossum nursery is at 2800m, and was an essential visit for John as it is his specialist subject. Around here deforestation was taking place to grow sweetcorn, but they found Odm. praestens and Telepogon ariasii. A bit higher up the forest thins and becomes more pasture with llamas & alpacas. The nursery at Oxapampa is intermediate and has more Phrag. hybrids, although wellies are required. The best nursery is actually at Lima. It never rains (no wellies), there is just a light mist and good light, so is perfect for Cattleyas.

After a few questions a hearty round of applause was given. JG