Dave Looks for Plants

Journal of a plant explorer

Archive for the ‘#20-1-Ecuador: Feb. 2015’ Category

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.

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!

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.

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.