In the Footsteps of the Old Orchid Hunters – Chris Squire

A lecture by Dick Warren at Sheffield a number of years ago proved the catalyst for this trip – organised by Dick to ‘his’ Rio Atlantic Rainforest Trust project (RAFT). The trip was originally scheduled for January 2011, but was delayed until October by heavy flooding following freak rainstorms in the area that washed away roads and killed several hundred locals. Arriving by Air France in Rio the 5 members of the tour party were transported for 2 hours on a decent road, transferring to an old minibus for the remaining 2 hours along a potholed road to their destination of Sitio Bacchus on the estate which is the HQ for the tour as well as the project itself. The project was established by Dick and the late David Miller and his wife who purchased the original plots of Forest. Additional land has since been purchased and the estate is now quite large at around 3,000 hectares. It sits around the 1,500M level, and the objective is to restore the forest/jungle to its original form. Large parts of the original forest were cleared by locals to grow sugar, coffee and cocoa as well as some palm oil etc. Once cleared the soils start to wash away in the heavy rains and eventually the plots are abandoned. Sitio Bacchus was built by David to live in whilst the replanting of trees took place. It is quite isolated with no TV reception etc., and David reared a few pheasants and ran a trout farm for some income. The nearest town is Friburgo, about 1 hours walk away, and seriously downhill. Income from 2 books on the area has been ploughed back into the venture. The local region of the Organ Mountains has 229 recorded species of orchids, hence its location for plant hunting back in Victorian times. The local climate is cool and dry in winter and warm & wet in summer, with variations depending on local altitudes. Generally the days are warm/hot with misty evenings. Annual rainfall is 2.5 metres, which supports a huge range of flora with begonias, fuchsias, philodendrons, mosses and ferns. Bromeliads are common on the trees, and it is estimated that they can hold several tons of water within the canopy at around 700gallons. Travel is hazardous, requiring machetes as well as waterproof clothes and stout boots. A further benefit is to include a dog as they tend to keep the snakes away. A hat and lots of water are also essential. As you might expect this makes travelling difficult, so you have to want to do it. The initial path from HQ goes up straight into the forest, and it is a long and windy road where you can walk easily and see trees, orchids, and birds as well as hear the sounds of monkeys. Many parrots tend to roost at Sitio Bacchus, so a noise free sleep is almost impossible. As you get a bit higher you are able to see huge panoramas of forest. A nearby ridge has a path cut across it, and this is through the elfin forest – an area of re-growth. If you were to wander from the path then a fall of up to 100 feet is possible. Travel is branch to branch and tree to tree. This can make photography difficult. Often, and thankfully there are some old growth trees within the elfin forest and this helps the twig epiphytes to re-colonise more rapidly. These older trees often collapse under the weight of the bromeliads which help the regeneration from the floor upwards. The detritus from the leaves of old trees help create the ideal orchid habitats.Whilst out on the trips, there are jobs to do. It isn’t simply a holiday. plants need to be pollinated if you see a flowering species that is in short numbers. Seed pods need collecting, and previous tree plantings as well as orchid fixing need checking on. Collecting orchid data and identifying newer tree growth for hosts are also vital work. Sometimes plants from fallen trees need rescuing either for recovery in a nursery, or for immediate fastening to a tree. Many of the species look pale as they are often in direct sunlight, but they get the water, humidity and environment that we simply can’t achieve within a greenhouse. Some of the plants in flower at the time Chris was there were then shown and discussed. Pabstia jugosa is a low growing plant with white and purple flowers. Bifrenaria atropurpurea grows around the base of the trees or on the ground. It is a short plant that has deep purple clusters of flowers. Oncidium marshallianum is a colourful yellow that grows mid tree. Prostechea vespa grows as specimens with tall showy spikes of mottles white and brown flowers. Scuticaria hadwenii is a terete leaved species that grows on the trunks, and has mainly brown flowers with a white tip. Pl. sclerophylla grows on the ridge between 11-1500M, and is heavily scented. Promenea xanthina grows mid tree in damp and dappled places next to large bromeliads. Milt. cuneata is quite common, being vigorous and found as specimens. It grows near water between 1000-1500M, and has brown flowers with a large white lip. Soph. coccinea seems abundant when in flower with its bright red flowers. It grows in full sun where it looks modest with leathery looking leaves. Zygo. intermedium is abundant at the base of trees, as is its close relative crinitum. Malaxis excavata is a terrestrial plant. A non-native that has established itself if the small tuberous Ponerorchis graminifolia from China. Apart from the obvious danger of falls and snakes, there are plenty of other beasties to keep an eye open for, there are spiders as big as your hand, and furry as well for added scare value!, lizards are abundant, giant caterpillars and stick insects are everywhere. Snails we all know of as being a problem, but there are giant ones here 3-4 ” wide. Ants and termites are best avoided as they can have a nasty bite. If you can avoid them then the giant hornets might get you. Pumpkin toads can be seen, and part of the study trip was to count them on behalf of the University of Campos. It isn’t all doom and gloom though as the colourful hummingbirds are a source of great entertainment. After 3 weeks the trip concluded, and with modern aids such as GPS it was relatively easy to get around if you are fairly fit. It is easy to see how the old plant hunters achieved fame and notoriety whilst gathering these exotics, and often paid the price as well. All in all a fascinating trip which Chris would recommend to anyone. Further information on RAFT is available online at