Dave Looks for Plants

Journal of a plant explorer

Archive for February, 2015

Reserva Cerro Semama

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

The next morning we went back into town to René’s friend’s house to feed the pigs and chickens, and to get the necessary permit to enter the reserve.  We then took the road past Pita to Puerto Negro where there is a guard station at the end of the paved road.  The guards made some phone calls to verify the permit, then took our ID’s to hold until we returned.  Once they were satisfied that we were allowed to enter, we started walking on down the gravel road, which was on the low, flat plain below the mountain, with a large corn field all along the road.  I assumed that René knew where we were going and that eventually we would come to a trail leading back into the forest to our left.  After we had walked a couple of km down the road, one of the guards came up to us on a motorbike and started talking with René.  As it turned out, this road just led further into the Hacienda Clementina and there is no trail from there leading up to the forest.


So after some confusing dialog, with my poor Spanish and indicating that I wanted to enter the forest up to our left, the guard granted permission for us to cut through the corn field and work our way into the forest.  He took my photo with his cell phone, presumably for identification purposes in case we did not return.

 So we started walking through the corn field toward the trees in the distance and soon came to a river that was running too fast and too deep to cross.  We worked our way up stream until we came across a fallen tree that went far enough across to get to a shallow place and decided to try it.



We made it across with no problems but I could tell that René was a bit nervous about bushwhacking our way deep into the forest on the other side. The guards would not allow him to bring his machete along so I marked the key points with my GPS and used my pocket knife to mark our “trail” for the way back. We just kept working our way uphill to try to get into better forest and eventually started seeing some Costus. The first one sighted was a Dimerocostus, but was not in flower. Then I saw a Costus with the characteristic hairiness and reddish margins on the ligules of Costus lima. A little farther and sure enough, there was a mature inflorescence of that species.


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We spent another hour or so working our way through this forest, which was little more than 200 meters in altitude, but the only other Costus found was a non-flowering plant that I believe to be the sought-after species Costus geothyrsus.  It is the only Costus I found in the region with the plicate leaves as shown below.


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René was concerned that he had told the guards we would only be gone a few hours, and he clearly wanted to head back, so we slowly worked our way back looking for our own footprints and broken branches to get back to the same river crossing.  We were back to the guard station by 2 PM and had lunch, then drove down another road in an area known as “El Valle” between Caluma and Las Esmeraldas.  Along this road there were only a few very small fragments of forest remaining, and the only other Costus we saw was more of the same white flowering form of Costus guanaiensis var. tarmicus we had seen at his fathers banana farm.

It was really quite a disappointment that we were unable to see more of the reserve at Cerro Semama but the political situation with the seizure of the Hacienda Clementina and the closing of the reserve had made it too difficult.  Dr. Stahl had sent me a map of the reserve showing its trails and entry points, one of which was a place between Pita and Puerto Negra called “La Colonia”.  René had never heard of that place and neither had several other people he stopped in the area and asked, so apparently that name on the maps is not really known at all by the locals.  It is likely that if there was a guard station as shown on the maps at those trail entrances, it is no longer being staffed and researchers are no longer allowed to enter.  I can only hope that the area remains under protection from deforestation so that this species, Costus geothyrsus will not come to the same fate of extinction as so many others have.

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On to Caluma

Friday, February 27th, 2015

This bus trip was like so many others I have taken – CONFUSING! – thanks mostly to my poor Spanish comprehension.  The bus company (Cooperativa Loja Internacional) called it a “directo” from Zamora to Guayaquil so I was confused when we arrived at the disembarking area in Loja and I was told to get off the bus. My luggage was still stored in the compartment under the bus.

“¿Mi equipaje?”    “¡No se preocupe!  Vamos en veinte cinco minutos

To my relief, a half hour later the same bus with the same driver and the same attendant pulled up to the Loja boarding area and took us on to Guayaquil.    It was 4 AM when we arrived in Guayaquil and the huge Terminal Tereste there was nearly empty, but I finally found the Transporte Caluma ticket window and there was a bus leaving for Caluma in 5 minutes.  After some more confusion (this place is huge) I finally found the right gate, got on the bus with my luggage and we were on our way a couple of minutes later.

My reason for going to Caluma was to look for the critically endangered species Costus geothyrsus.    Last year I had completed  an IUCN Red List assessment based mainly on data I received from the Swedish botanist, Dr. Bertil Stahl.  This species is only known to exist in the protected area around Cerro Semama and the only photo I had ever seen was one provided by Dr. Stahl.  The reserve at Cerro Semama is currently closed to research, but I planned to try to get permission to enter there, and to look in any remaining forest fragments in the area.



Upon arrival in Caluma I found a decent looking restuarant, had breakfast, and then took a taxi to the Hosteria Madera Fina, which is about 2 km outside the town on the old road to Guaranda.  Dr.  Stahl  had recommended this place to stay and also recommended René Vargas who works there as a guide in the region.  René was working at the front desk when I arrived and he was expecting me.  A quick change of clothes and boots, luggage in room, and then a conference with René who seemed eager to go.  And why not?  I only had 3 days there and despite the all night bus ride I wanted to make the most of my time there.

So I explained to René why I was there, showed him photos of the plants I was looking for and asked if we needed to rent a cuatro por cuatro.  No, he said we can use his vehicle.  This turned out to be a 1970’s Datsun pickup with a tent on the back and brakes that needed to be pumped a couple of times to stop.  We went into town for him to change clothes, get his boots, and feed the pigs and chickens at a nearby “friends” house.   Eventually, off we went looking for a little patch of remnant forest where I might find the plants I was looking for. 



After a few dead ends and multiple explanations of what a forest looks like, he finally took me to his father’s banana farm where a few nice forest patches are maintained to provide purer water supply.  The first Costus I saw there I recognized at once as Costus laevis even before I found it in flower.  Here it was typical of the forms found in Central America and west of the Andes in South America – but completely unlike the Costus laevis forms I had seen a few days earlier in Zamora Chinchipe. DETAILED THUMBNAIL SHEET HERE


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 There were three or four separate forest remnants like this, all in the midst of a large banana farm at about 400 meters elevation, between Caluma and the village of Las Esmeraldas.  I was beginning to understand how hard it was going to be to find forest in this region so I thoroughly checked out all of them here.  The only other Costus I found here was a white flowering form of Costus guanaiensis var. tarmicus, which turned out to be the most common Costus in the region.  DETAILED THUMBNAIL SHEET HERE


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From there René tried to take me to several other nearby forest fragments he knew of, but it had been raining all morning and either the streams we had to cross were too high or his little Datsun was unable to handle the road. 

Here are some photos taken from along the road near René’s fathers farm.  Below is the wide flat plain looking towards the Hacienda Clementina at 100 meters or less.


And this is looking up to the northwest at the lower parts of the Cerro Semama which rises to about 800 meters.


René’s wife had invited me to have lunch with them so we went back to town and had fried duck with the usual rice, beans and great Ecuadorian soup.  After lunch René said he knew of another place nearby so we loaded up the Datsun with his wife and mother-in-law in the front seat with him, and me in the back “tent”with his two kids and his niece.  The “other place” was the same place we had gone to feed the pigs in the morning.  By then I had pretty much given up on the idea of finding more forest and more Costus, so I just enjoyed the rest of the day with René and his family.




And I teased René about his “hermano” and “hermanas“…
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As it turned out, there was no decent forest nearby and I did not see any more Costus that day, but I really did have an enjoyable time there.    René told me he would be able to get a “tourist permit” to get us into the Reserva Semama the next day, so I was satisfied to just call it a day.  I was exhausted after the all night bus trip and really wanted to get back to the Hosteria to get some sleep. 


The Old Loja Road and goodbye Zamora

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

My last day in Zamora Chinchipe we drove along the old Loja road that runs along the mountain slopes on the opposite side of the river from the new road.  There is a huge hydroelectric project under construction in this area, so there was lots of heavy equipment moving up and down the road.

Along this road we saw many more plants of the pubescent form of Costus laevis that I had first seen at the abandoned finca in Podocarpus National Park.  Some of them had especially beautiful flowers.



 The road eventually climbs to 1600 meters where it joins the new Loja road.  The river at this point narrows in a canyon and becomes very deep and fast moving.



We returned to Marco’s house to reflect on the thirteen days of searching Zamora Chinchipe for Costus.  We had learned a lot.  We found Costus zamoranus in its various forms throughout the province and learned that it only grows in shady forest understory.  The only other species found in the Mayo Chinchipe area is the terminal flowering Costus aff. claviger.

We learned that the species Costus laevis found in the areas east of the Andes (as with the type from Peru) is quite diverse and is completely different from the Costus laevis found in Central America and west of the Andes.  In Zamora Chinchipe there is the “Podocarpus” form with its huge inflorescences and glabrous parts.  At higher altitudes is a pubescent form.  In the lower Rio Zamora and Rio Yacuambi watersheds is the pendent ‘El Gato’ form.  And finally there is a plant with deep purple undersides to the leaves that is likelyto be yet another form.

We learned that Costus amazonicus is quite widespread in Zamora Chinchipe and apparently it hybridizes easily with other species.

We learned that the Costus aff. guanaiensis in the Nangaritza form has a very limited distribution, as we found it ONLY in the Nangaritza watershed.

And most of all we had solidified our friendship and committed to continue working together in the future.



That evenening I took the night bus to Guayaquil and then on to Caluma in Bolívar Province for the final part of my trip, searching for the critically endangered Costus geothyrsus.


Tundayme and El Oso Road

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

The next day we went back to the Cordillera del Condor, to the northeast of El Pangui in an area called Tundayme.  The road goes far back into the cordillera where a Chinese company has been mining for gold and copper under an Ecuadorian government permit.  This warning sign was found several places along the road indicating that the Shuar people are not all that happy having this mining activity in their native lands.



Translation:  Cascomi collective ownership. The person or company entering or doing damage to this property will be criminally prosecuted or subjected to the indigenous justice.

The Shuar have come a long way from their “shrunken head” past.  This community has a Facebook page at (Cascomi Comunidad Cordillera Del Cóndor Mirador) that includes many photos of their peaceful protests against the miners and the government, but the veiled threat is there none the less.


 So at any rate, we made sure we stayed along the road and did not venture too far into the forests there.  We did see many beautiful Costus plants, including Costus amazonicus…..


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and Costus zamoranus,  in both a basal and terminal flowering form – all between 1000 and 1200 meters.

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Details of these plants are on this THUMBNAIL SHEET.  The differences between the two species were sometimes difficult to discern, but the clear C. amazonicus plants have broad, hairy, somewhat plicate leaves and the bract margins are distinctively fibrous.  The C. aff. zamoranus have narrower leaves, either glabrous or nearly so, and the bract margins are entire.  I suspect there is a good deal of natural hybridization going on between the two.

From Tundayme, we drove back to El Pangui for lunch then drove to the west along the El Oso Road.  I had been there before in 2009 with Carla, Angel and Bruce, but we did not stop to walk back into the few forested fragments that remain in the area.   This trip we did stop and sure enough, back under the heavy shade of forest we found more of the Costus zamoranus at 1300 meters. 


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Cord. del Condor – Rio Numbaime & El Zarza

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

We drove north of Zamora to the town of Los Encuentros, then across the Rio Zamora and into the Cord. del Condor area to the east.  Marco had told me he found his original ‘Marco’s Pride’ plant along the Rio Numbaime and I wanted to see it in habitat and see what else might be there.  Most of this area is at low elevation 800-900 meters but the tepui of the cordillero could be seen in the distance.  A trail follows the Rio Numbaime up to a waterfall.


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We did not see ‘Marco’s Pride’ there, but along this trail we saw several plants of Costus amazonicus and another plant that looked like it could be Costus zamoranus.  The former was terminal flowering and had the characteristic fibrous margins to the bracts.  The latter was a basal flowering plant that had the same kind of “detrius” covering as the plants we had seen in Nangaritza.

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Costus aff. zamoranus
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From there we took a different road to higher elevations and found more Costus amazonicus and the pubescent form of Costus laevis, similar to what we had found in the Podocarpus area.  One plant found at 1300 meters appeared to be a natural hybrid of the two – a plant we were calling Costus ‘Reina Rosada’.



Reserva Maycu and Shaime Village

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

This day we drove back past Las Orquídeas the north to go to the Reserva Maycu and the Shuar village of Shaime. The last time I was in this area was in 2009, and the only way to get a car across the river to the east side was by ferry.  That year we were staying at the Yankuam Lodge, took a boat across from there and walked on up the road a couple of kilometers.


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Now there is a new bridge at the same location.  It is adorned with a beautiful statue at the top recognizing the Shuar heritage of the region.  A multi-lingual sign at the site tells the Shuar legend of the bearded men with big eyes who came seeking the golden chair of Arutam.


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There is also a protected area a few km to the east of the bridge called Reserva Maycu where there is still good primary forest right along the road.  Here we found many more plants of the same form of Costus aff. zamoranus we had seen near Las Orquídeas.   Here the plants were growing in sticky grey shale clay, and all the inflorescences were covered with detrius that was apparently cultivated there by the omnipresent ants.  The flowers were similar to those from the type location at Valladolid, but the bracts have a distinctive red margin and a dark red nectar callus.  More photos of the details of this form can be found on my THUMBNAIL SHEET.


 We followed the road as it winds back to the river to the north and then went back across by boat to the Shaime village.  Someone there had reported a blue flowered Costus, but we could not find her to ask about it and we ultimately concluded that it must have been one of the Costus amazonicus plants with a deeper purplish color.  We walked through some small remnant forest areas but most of the area around the village has been deforested and made into pasture land.



Back across the river we saw several non-flowering plants that are most likely the yellow flowering form of Dimerocostus strobilaceus subsp. strobilaceus, the same as what is cultivated and growing in front of the Yankuam Lodge (photo below).



 From there we headed back to Zamora but there was one piece of unfinished business.  Along the entrance road among all the thousands of plants of the white flowered Costus aff. guanaiensis, Marco Jr. had spotted a pure pink flowered plant along the road as we sped by.  On our way back out of the area we were looking for that plant and had decided in advance it should be named Costus ‘Pink Floyd’.  Marco Sr. had told how in his younger days he was a  fan of the rock group but after he got married all his albums disappeared and were replaced by more traditional Ecuadorian music and religious music.

Sure enough, just as we were about to reach the road construction and leave the Nangaritza watershed, there it was.   If successfully propagated, this will be registered  with the cultivar name ‘Pink Floyd’.   There was some Costus amazonicus growing just across the road and I am thinking this is probably a hybrid with that species.  More photos on the THUMBNAIL PAGE.



As mentioned earlier, this area is booming and they are improving the old gravel road by widening it and replacing with a modern concrete roadway.  We were delayed by an hour and a half as the road was closed for the construction until 5 PM that afternoon.


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Rio Nangaritza

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Early Sunday morning I checked out of Hotel Samuria and we went to the Rio Nangaritza region for two days.  My first trip to Ecuador in 2007 I had met Marco Sr. and we had taken the bus to the village of Guayzimi then walked to some forest areas nearby.   Then in 2009 I returned to the area with my friends Carla Black, her husband Angel Rodriquez and Bruce Dunstan.  That trip we met up with Marco and his son and stayed at the Yankuam Lodge, up river from Guayzimi.  So this was my third trip to the region.



The Rio Nangaritza flows between the eastern foothills of the Andes and the famed Cordillero del Cóndor – whose ridge line forms the long disputed border with Peru.  The region has a tumultuous history, with the wars between competing indigenous groups (the Shuar are the dominant group) as well as the battles between Ecuador and Peru that did not end until the 1998 peace treaty that established the current border.   There is a wonderfully detailed description of the area including its history, geology and botanical expeditions on the Missouri Botanical Garden website at http://www.mobot.org/mobot/research/ecuador/cordillera/welcome.shtml.

 After driving over the first ridge from Zumbi and along the road in the Rio Nangaritza watershed, I saw a familiar sight.  This white flowered Costus is found all along the road and has colonized disturbed areas in the region.


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The plant has variable amounts of pink coloration on the labellums, some being nearly pure white.  Some plants are found mature and in flower less than 2 meters tall and others approach 3 1/2 to 4 meters tall.  It fits best as a form of Costus guanaiensis, but is unlike any I have seen elsewhere, and despite being extremely common in this area all the way up river as far as the new bridge near the Yankuam Lodge, I have never seen it outside this one area.  It is not found in the other parts of the greater Rio Zamora valley. 

The town of Guayzimi has changed dramatically since I was last there in 2009.  They have built a beautiful new fútbol stadium (even with artificial turf!) and the town seems to be bustling compared to the sleepy little place I saw my first two trips.  We had breakfast there, then took a road and trail up into the mountains to the west to about 1600 meters.   We saw several plants of Costus amazonicus and the pubescent form of Costus laevis at the higher elevations. 

Where the road ended and the trail began, there was a dragline stretching far across the valley and through the clouds to the mountains on the other side, apparently used to haul timber from the other side high above the trees to this point where the road could be used to haul the finished lumber.   Sad evidence that this pristine region will not remain so for many more years.


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Then later in the day we went to a small forest fragment near Las Orquídeas where we found a plant in deep shade that is similar to the Costus zamoranus seen earlier near Valladolid.



 That night we stayed in the Hotel Ayamtaic, which was clean, comfortable and reasonable, with private bathrooms and wireless internet – an unexpected surprise for the small town of Guayzimi.

Quebrada Cuzuntza

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

On Saturday Marco Jr. had some university paperwork to do so Marco Sr. and I set out for Quebrada Cuzuntza, which is on the east side of the Rio Zamora, in the Parroquial de Cumbaratza.  We hiked up the Quebrada to an altitude of 1430 meters.  Along the way we saw several of the same Costus with the purple undersides to the leaves as we had seen along Quebrada Tunantza Alto, but none of them were in flower.


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We stood well out of the way while some fresh-cut lumber was being dragged down the quebrada.  Every year, more and more trees are cut down for their lumber, and there is loss of habitat for the rare plants of Zamora Chinchipe.  Marco was teaching me Spanish, and we were singing the following little song as we walked along the quebrada:

Cuando los agricultores talan los árboles, las orquídeas pierden sus casas y hay menos orquídeas para disfrutar.


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We continued on to an open area near the top where we had a nice view of the mountains and valley below and saw another fine example of the pubescent form of Costus laevis with the mostly yellow flowers.


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We returned to Marco’s house in time for lunch and walked around in his garden during the afternoon.  He has a fantastic collection of orchids and other plants, and also raises several species of sting-less bees.


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Marco also uses the Costus plants in his garden (sometimes adding other herbs) to make a “Costus Tea”.    The thick basal stems of any large Costus can be used, but he usually uses the Dimerocostus strobilaceus that is growing in his garden.  The stems are cut into lengths of about 6 inches, then quartered longitudinally, and boiled for about ten minutes, then allowed to steep overnight.  The taste is surprisingly mild and semi-sweet like other herbal teas, and is well known in Latin America as a medicinal drink to prevent or cure kidney stones.



Rio Yacuambi

Friday, February 20th, 2015

One of the main tributaries to the Rio Zamora watershed is the Rio Yacuambi which descends from the Andes in the northwest and flows in a southeasterly direction where it joins the Rio Zamora.    On Friday we went to explore that region, first turning north along the road to the community of Carmela and then walking a short way down a trail toward the community of Baranquilla.   Along this road we saw several beautiful full flowering plants of Costus amazonicus.  This species flowers either basally or terminally, but is easily distinguished from similar species by the bracts which have fibrous margins – not with clean, smooth edges as in other similar species.  The flower colors vary somewhat, and to me the most beautiful ones were the ones with darker pink corolla lobes.


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We then proceeded on up the main road along the Rio Yacuambi.  All along the way we saw many plants of the white flowering Costus ‘El Gato’ that I had first seen at Gualaquiza in 2007. 




And near the village of 28 de Mayo (listed on the map as “24 de Mayo”) we saw one with a pink colored labellum similar to my seedling ‘El Gato’ plant that I call ‘Pink Panther’.




We continued up into the mountains of the Cord. de Corconcilla and walked along a trail to about 1200 meters but did not see anything else of interest.

Rio Numbami

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The next day we started out going to a nearby forested area just outside Zamora to the northwest.  There we found more of the Podocarpus form of Costus laevis at about 1100 meters, but there was not a lot of forest in the area, so we next headed for the higher altitude reserve area of Numbami Alto.



In this area we found many more plants of the pubescent form of Costus laevis that we had seen at the deserted farm at Podocarpus.  This form seems to only be found at the higher altitudes (between 1200 and 1600 meters) whereas the Podocarpus form is found below 1200 meters.  The forms of the flowers and the hairiness of the leaves varies somewhat, but the plants are recognizable and distinguishable by the size of the inflorescence and the various flower parts – especially by the much smaller calyx and bracteole. 

The Podocarpus form…..



And the pubescent form …..



Here was a pubescent form found with pale yellow flowers.



In his garden, Marco has a plant of the species Costus erythrophyllus which he collected locally many years ago, but he could not remember for sure exactly where.  Here is a photo I took of this plant during my 2007 visit in Marco’s garden – and one with flowers taken recently by Marco Jr.


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He thought it might have been at the nearby Quebrada Tunantza Alto, so we headed there next.  We did find a plant growing there that has purple backed leaves, but it is not the same plant as in Marco’s garden, and I don’t think it is C. erythrophyllus.  It was not in flower so I cannot say for sure but I think it more likely to be another form of C. laevis – possibly the pendent ‘El Gato’ form like the ones I saw in 2013 in Peru.

Here is the one seen at Quebrada Tunantza



Podocarpus National Park

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

On Wednesday we went to the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, which has a north entrance along the Rio Bombusco a short distance from Zamora.  Along the entry road we spotted a huge (literally huge) surprise.  It was the same Costus form I had seen in the park in 2007 minus flowers and here it was in full bloom.   I had collected seeds in 2007, but that plant had not yet flowered for me, so I was not sure what species it was.  The general “look” of the plant made me think Costus laevis, and here it was confirmed.  But not like any other Costus laevis form I had ever seen.  Not even close to the plants found in Central America or the western side of the Andes in South America.

Typical Costus laevis flowers from Central America


Form found at Podocarpus National Park

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First of all, this was the biggest inflorescence I had ever seen in a Costus.  The plant itself was also fairly large and the leaves as well.  But what really caught my attention was the fact that the upper leaves were gathered around the infloresence, partially sheathing it just like the pendent flowering Costus ‘El Gato’ I had seen from nearby Gualaquiza and other places on the eastern side of the Andes. 

Later on, examining the herbarium voucher specimen of the type for the species from Peru, I can see now that the leaves are covering the inflorescence in the same way.  This all leads me to conclude that the true species Costus laevis is of the form found on the eastern side of the Andes, and the plants in Central America and west of the Andes in South America should revert back to their original species names or possibly be renamed as a separate species.  They are simply too distinctly different to be lumped into the same bucket unless there is convincing DNA evidence to the contrary.

For those who may be interested in such things, a thumbnail sheet with all the details of the flower parts can be found on my website HERE .

After we reached the park and walked along the trails we saw several more of these plants, many of them in flower, so there could be no doubt about it.


Marco said he remembered seeing yet another plant, different from this glabrous one, having very hairy leaves.  So we kept hiking uphill and off the trail to an abandoned finca where he remembered seeing it.  After bushwhacking our way through thick brush we finally found it.  And yes, this I would is yet  another form of that diverse species we humans call Costus laevis.  To see the full details of the plant and flowers go to my THUMBNAIL SHEET for this plant.  Aside from the hairy leaves this form has much smaller inflorescence, and a very short calyx and other parts making it clearly distinct from the Podocarpus form.


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We walked back along the long trail that follows the east side of the river but did not see any other Costus species, except for the ubiquitous Costus scaber, that is common throughout the region. 


We did however see one very pretty pink bracted Heliconia before heading back to Zamora.


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Rio Numbala

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Marco has lived in Zamora Chinchipe all his life and has been trekking through the forests and jungles there for over 25 years with a serious interest in the plants of the region.  Much like me, he is not formally trained as a botanist but he probably knows more about the plants of the region and their habitats and locations than just about anyone else alive.  He is now retired from a career as a public school administrator.  His son told me his job was to “make sure the teachers were working”.

Marco, Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps with his interest in plants.  They co-authored the first volume of Las Orquídeas de Zamora Chinchipe – a beautiful volume of photos of orchids from the region with their descriptions.  The book has an old photo of Marco as a young boy going with his father to look for plants.  He studied in the UK a few years ago as an exchange student and is now starting his 4th year at the university in Loja where he is studying environmental engineering.

Our plan for the day was to cross the river from Palanda to the east and travel over a ridge to check out the Rio Numbala – one of the main tributaries leading into the Mayo River complex.  I should warn you ahead of time that these names are going to be confusing, with three different “numb” rivers.  Rio Numbala today, then Rio Numbami, then later Rio Numbaime – at least I am hoping I now have all the names straight.

We parked the truck at the river and then followed a trail to a small creek where we found this.



A beautiful full flowering plant of Costus zamoranus.  If you are interested in seeing more photos of the C. zamoranus we found here, check  out my THUMBNAIL SHEET.  By then we had a good understanding of this species in its variable flower and bract colors and the deeply shaded habitat, usually growing in soil based in coarse sand.  It was only found in the northern part of the region which is more humid than the area to the south around Zumba and the Peruvian border.

The only other species of Costaceae we found there was the same Costus aff. claviger.  As in most of the region, there were only a few patches of forest remaining, and the Costus zamoranus I was seeking was only found in those relatively undisturbed areas.  I will be updating my Red List assessment of this species, and it may be upgraded (or downgraded, I should say) from “vulnerable” status to a more endangered status.

Would you use this bridge?

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After leaving the Rio Numbala, we drove back north to Loja and then over the mountains and back to Marco’s home town of Zamora, the capital of the province.  One of his relatives owns the modern Hotel Samuria there, the nicest place in town with AC and flat screen TV – a bargain at $30 per night.

The town of Zamora and most of the province seems to really be bustling since I was last there in 2009.  It is my favorite place in Ecuador.  Don’t believe the guide books that say it is uncomfortably hot there.  I have been there three trips now and although it is warmer than the high Andes tourist areas, it is not bad at all as it is situated between the mountains.  I have always found the people there to be very friendly, although my first trip in 2007 they seemed a little shy about foreigners.  It seems to be coming more and more a tourist destination with the Podocarpus National Park being the main attraction.

The most famous landmark there is the giant clock on the hillside overlooking the bus terminal.  It is an actual functioning clock and is lit up at night.  Photos below taken the next morning from a hotel window.




 For the next several days our adventures would take us to a variety of habitats from the mountains around Zamora to the Rio Nangaritza and Cordillera del Condor.  Here is a map showing several of these places we went.





The longest day

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The next morning we began the long and difficult drive to Zumba.  As mentioned before, there is a good concrete road now between Vilcabamba and a bit south of Palanda, with only short stretches of muddy areas where the new road has not yet been completed.  For some reason, in Ecuador they seem to jump around and complete little sections here and there instead of starting at one end and working forward from there.  South of Palanda and most of the way to Zumba, the road is but a muddy trail made worse by the construction which closes the road completely for hours at a time.  We got about 5 km south of Palanda before we came to a 1 1/2 hour closing just before a narrow temporary bridge across a quebrada.  Marco and son took advantage of the delay, finding an interesting orchid on a dead tree trunk hanging over the quebrada.  I was sure one of them would be wet before they finally retrieved it.



Soon we were on our way again.  In some places the road was not too bad but in other places the mud was so deep and slippery, that Marco’s 4-wheel-drive Chevy Luv diesel truck would start sliding sideways and fishtailing close to the precipitous edge of the road.  Fortunately Marco is an excellent driver and we made it through.


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We also got delayed by a mudslide along part of the road that had enveloped a large bus which needed to be towed out.


Eventually we made it to Zumba and it was time for lunch, so Marco Jr. went to scout out a good restaurant, then came back soaking wet. This was the next to the last day of “Carnivál” and the custom in this part of Ecuador is to throw water on passers by. So Marco had been “carnivaled”. We saw a lot more of that the next day, during the entire drive back to Loja. There were people along the road just waiting with a bucket or more of water to throw into any open car window that passed by.  I got soaked when I was not quick enough to roll up the window.  More about this custom can be found HERE and other places.   Just do a Google search on carnival, ecuador.

After lunch we drove the long narrow road up into the mountains to the west to San Andrés on the Rio Isimanche.  The only Costus we saw was the same Costus aff. claviger forms we had seen the day  before.    We did see a few interesting Heliconias and Marco and son spotted an orchid high in a tree along the river.  It was something special they needed to photograph so I watched this great father and son team at work.  They use a blue background for their closeups.


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By the time we got back to Zumba (photo below) it was getting dark but Marco was willing to drive it so we decided after dinner to make the long, difficult drive back to Palanda the same night. The car was getting low on diesel but when we went to the only gas station in town, it was not open, or at least not selling. Marco explained to me that the prices in Ecuador (about $2 per gallon or less) are so much lower than Peru that they enforce controls to ensure that it is not bootlegged across the nearby border. So we continued on with Marco not seeming at all concerned about the low tank.



It was about 9:30 PM when we finally pulled in to Palanda and stayed the night at the same hotel as the night before. Although we did not find any additional Costus that long day, I was well satisfied because we had explored a large part of the Mayo Chinchipe and had learned that there are only the two species there – both of them rather uncommon – and none of the more common ones like Costus scaber that I am accustomed to seeing nearly everywhere.

Costus zamoranus found

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Before I even started this trip I had researched as much as possible the original collection of Costus zamoranus on October 14, 1943 by Julian Steyermark – three years before I was born.  The collection note said it was found along the Rio Valladolid at Tambo Valladolid, giving an altitude of 2000 meters. According to Mirriam-Webster.com, a tambo is “an Inca inn or way station on the highroads of ancient Peru“. 

Even today there is not much more than that at Valladolid. 


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The collection itself was noted as being “sterile”, meaning without flowers, and no doubt in the October dry season it would have had no flowers.

It was not until twenty years later that Steyermark formally described this species by publishing it in Phytologia. 9: 339.


So I had used Google Earth to check this location and from the satellite images I could see that most of the area was deforested but there was a small patch of forest across the river from the village.



The next morning we crossed the river and worked our way into the forest patch – and this is what we found!



For those who may be interested in seeing more photos including all the details of the flower parts, I have prepared a thumbnail sheet on my main website.  Here is a photo of the type location – the small forest patch across the river.



So the next question… is this the last of this species or can we find more?  We headed back through town and crossed the river again taking the narrow road toward the community of Tapala.  The road goes through the mountains east of Valladolid and although most of the area is deforested, there were still a few small forest fragments along the road.  Here is a view of the area.



A few km down the road and we did find more Costus zamoranus.  We also found a few plants that were flowering terminally instead of at the base, but otherwise nearly identical to the basal flowering plant found at the type local in Valladolid.  This is a travel blog, so I won’t bore some readers here with all the details of these plants, but for those who are interested, you can find the links to thumbnail sheets of images and descriptions on my main website at http://www.gingersrus.com/DataSheet.php?PID=4602 . Also along this road toward Tapala we found several plants belonging to the Costus aff. claviger group as described by Paul Maas in his 1977 update to his monograph.  These plants are distinguished from the C. zamoranus by having terminal flowers and appendaged bracts as explained further on my website at http://www.gingersrus.com/DataSheet.php?PID=4047 .

Here is Marco Jr. photographing a Costus aff. claviger next to a Costus zamoranus plant.



We returned to Valladolid for lunch then headed on south to the town of Palanda.  Here is a map of the Mayo Chinchipe region.  It does not show all the small roads, and some that appear to be paved highways on this map are really just one-lane rocky or muddy trails.  Ecuador does have a pretty good road system by Latin American standards and they are in the process of paving the main road all the way south to the Peruvian border.



 Near Palanda we took one of these small roads to the west and saw hundreds of Costus aff. claviger plants, but no more Costus zamoranus.  By then it was clear to us that this species can only be found in deep shade of the forest understory.  With all the deforestation in the region, it seemed clear that it was deserving of at least the “vulnerable” status as I had assessed that species on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.


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There were also some interesting Heliconia species found along that road, but the only Costus we found was C. aff. claviger in variable colors of the flowers and shapes of the bracts.

Some of the Costus aff. claviger plants we saw had the same narrow triangular bracts as the form I had seen in 2007 in Marco’s garden, and have registered with the cultivar name Costus ‘Marco’s Pride’.



We stayed that night in a nice little hotel located on the main square of Palanda. Here is a view of the town from the road we took.



It was a satisfying day.  My primary objective of the trip (to find Costus zamoranus) had already been achieved!

Valladolid – Search for Costus zamoranus

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

My flight from Atlanta arrived in Quito late Friday night, Feb. 13th and I spent the night in the new Quito International Airport.  They seem to be very proud of this airport which opened in 2011, and it is more modern than the old one I had been through in 2007 and in 2009.  However, there was no place to sleep or even rest except for a few hard metal benches, while I waited for my 6 AM flight down to Loja. 

The airport in Loja is not really in Loja.  It is about 45 minutes from there in the town of Catamayo.  My friends Marco Jiménez and his son Marco Jiménez Leon were there to greet me and off we went to start our 13 days of exploring the forests of the province of Zamora Chinchipe looking for plants in the family Costaceae.

My first priority on this trip was to find the relatively unknown species Costus zamoranus, so we headed south for the Mayo Chinchipe region to the type location for that species near the village of Valladolid.  The route south from Loja takes you through a cool arid region where most of the tourists stop at the bustling town of Vilcabamba, the home of latter day hippies and ex-pats.


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The area does have its own natural beauty, such as the sandstone structures known as the “cathedrals” but we passed on through (or around) this tourist trap and climbed over the mountains until we descended into the valley that stretches on across the southern Ecuadorian border with Peru.  This area is known as the Mayo Chinchipe region and there have been archeological finds here indicating the area was settled as long as 5000 years ago.  There are indications that these early inhabitants were some of the first to use cacao.

From A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE  :….. the Mayo Chinchipe culture which extended all the way from the tropical rainforest at the headwaters of Rio Chinchipe near the current city of Valladolid ….. Cacáo appears to have been used in several ways, including a liquid, since its residues in some vessels designed with very narrow necks suggest it was poured from them.


The first thing I noticed as we descended into Valladolid was the utter lack of forested areas .  Most of this region has been cleared, and except for a few forest fragments here and there, I could see there would not be many places for a vulnerable plant like Costus zamoranus to grow.



We went on into the village and found a restaurant for lunch, then we went around the corner to the “new” hotel Marco had heard about. After a half hour or so trying to find the proprietor we settled on the “old hotel” Marco knew about. This no-name hostel had reasonably clean rooms with a shared toilet and cold water shower downstairs so it was acceptable at $5 per person per night.

Once settled in to our lodgings  we headed up a trail that followed the river looking for Costus.  We walked in the rain far up the trail which was completely deforested and then bushwhacked our way into some heavy jungle-like brush along the river, but did not see a single Costus.

 Marco and son are specialists in orchids and have written the first of several volumes of the Orchids of Zamora Chinchipe.  They told me there are over 1600 species of orchids in the province.  They found an interesting one on this trail and stopped to take photos for a future volume.


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Here is a YouTube video from the government of Zamora Chinchipe province with Marco and son at a ceremony naming an orchid as the symbol of the province.