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Harry Jans

ECUADOR AND PERU are not the first countries you think of to explore for high alpines, but both countries contain a wealth of plants to be seen at high altitudes, often adjacent to stunning historical sites.

Ecuador is one of the most botanically diverse areas of the world, with some 25,000 plant species, including those found in the tropical rain forest regions. Ecuador is situated in the western top corner of the South American continent and is named after the Equator, the imaginary line around the Earth. Quito, the capital city, is located at an altitude of 9350 feet (2,850 m) on a horizontal strip of land running north to south between beautiful volcanoes.

Páramos are characteristic highland moors in the northern Andes. These ecosystems have formed in highland plateaus and saddles between the mountains above the tree line, around 10,170 – 11,150 feet (3,100 – 3,400 m). The climate here is moist. Warm air blowing east from the Pacific cools here and the moisture precipitates on the mountains. For most of the year, these highland meadows are shrouded in fog. Most páramos are located in Colombia, but many are also found in Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as northern Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Living in the páramos is not easy. There are few nutrients in the soil, and the soil and air are cold. The moist climate saturates the soil like a soaked sponge.

Under these harsh conditions, a very special ecosystem has developed. Species diversity here is much higher than in the temperate moorlands of the world but much lower than in the nearby tropical rainforests. Some 1,500 species of plants grow in the páramos of Ecuador and approximately 60% of them are endemic.

Several high volcanoes flank Ecuador’s central valley and the 18th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt gave the valley the name Avenue of the Volcanoes. The road between Quito and Riobamba runs along the valley, and offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and passes through many traditional towns worth visiting. One of these places you must visit is Otavalo, which is famous for its colorful market.

The impressive volcanoes passed along the route include Cotopaxi, a perfect snow-capped cone at 19,347 feet (5,897 m), and Chimborazo at 20,547 ft (6,263 m) Ecuador’s highest mountain. Chimborazo is not the highest mountain by elevation above sea level, but its location along the equatorial bulge makes the summit the farthest point on the Earth's surface from the Earth's center.

Both volcanoes are rich in very special alpine plants and easily accessible by roads leading to high elevations.  When I explored the slopes of Cotopaxi the weather changed rapidly from sun to hail storms and we didn’t spend much time there. Some of the plants I did come across were tiny Werneria pumila with large yellow flowers, Pentacalia chimborazensis, Hypochaeris sessiliflora and Azorella pulvinata. I had more luck on Chimborazo. Not far from the road I found the very small rosettes of Eudema nubigena, compact cushions of Baccharis caespitosa, Nototriche jamesonii with blue flowers, Valeriana aretioides, the compact Geranium ecuadoriense, Gentianella cerastioides var. chimborazensis and the very small Viola bangii. The most special plant I found there was Viola parvifolia, one of the most northerly occurring rosulate violas. 

Southwest of Quito is the Guagua Pichincha Volcano with an altitude of 15,662 feet (4,774 m). A road ascends to about 14,900 feet (4,550 m). Just before driving up the pass at 10,745 feet (3,275 m) was a shrub, up to 8 feet (2.5 m) tall with red-cream waxy flowers which keyed out to Cavendishia bracteata. 

At the end of the pass road around rocks and in scree conditions were wonderful spiny shrubs of Chuquiraga jussieui with orange flower heads. In the same area, we found Huperzia crassa, Nototriche phyllanthos, Werneria pumila, and Baccharis caespitosa. At lower elevations around 13,600 feet (4,150 m) were Halenia weddelliana from the gentian family and Bomarea glaucescens, a climber with very waxy, thick flowers. Just a bit lower down at 12,760 feet  (3,890 m) was Mutisia microcephala, with striking orange-red flowers.

In northern Ecuador, very close to the Colombian border, is the little town of El Ángel, within the middle of the Parque Libertad with many wonderful and old topiary hedges. Not far from here is the El Ángel Ecological Reserve, a national park with peculiar frailejones forests (Espeletia pycnophylla). There are very large stands of Espeletia pycnophylla in the Reserve, which have developed specific methods to protect themselves from the frost. One method is growing in rosettes, so the wind cannot chill the center of the plant. Many plants have developed very soft fluffy leaves and flowers. The old leaves do not fall off so they protect the stems. 

This region is mostly páramo and the temperature ranges between 54°F to 32°F (12°C to 0°C). Throughout the year in Páramo El Ángel the temperature falls below freezing at night, although it is only 50 miles (80 km) from the equator. In summer months (June – September) days can be warm, up to 64°F (18°C), but in the winter, even in the daytime, the temperature hovers around freezing. Strong, cold winds are very common. Other plants growing among the tall espletias are Diplostephium ericoides, the tiny Pinguicula calyptrata, Disterigma empetrifolium, and Myosotis discolor.

Another area I visited was the Cayambe Coca National Park, which is located in the provinces of Imbabura, Pichincha, Napo, and Sucumbios. The reserve contains important volcanoes like Cayambe, Saraurco, Puntas, and Reventador. The rivers in the region spring mainly from the glaciers of Cayambe, Antisana, and Sarahurco. There are approximately eighty small lakes in the zone and it is a good area to botanize. Altitudes range between 2,300 and 18,700 feet (700 – 5,700 m). The biodiversity in the area is among the highest in protected areas of Ecuador. At between 13,450 and 14,100 feet (4,100 – 4,300 m) in this location I found the third species of nototriche known to grow in Ecuador, Nototriche ecuadoriensis; again, blue. Other special plants here were five different Gentianaceae. Gentianella corymbosa (3 in/ 8 cm, white with blue stripes), Gentianella foliosa ( 8 in/20 cm, lavender) Gentianella rapunculoides (8 in/20 cm, multi-flowered), Gentianella nummularifolia (2.3 in/6 cm, blue) and the more well known Gentiana sedifolia.

Other plants in this area are the cushion forming Azorella aretioides, cushions of Xenophyllum humile with stemless white flowers, Loricaria thuyoides with its lovely scales, Valeriana plantaginea, Hypochaeris sonchoides and Nertera granadensis with it beautiful orange berries.

Moving on to Peru now, as many visitors choose the Andes Mountains in Peru as their first choice, and for good reason. Besides being stunningly beautiful, the Andes Mountains in Peru provide a myriad of attractions, from historical ruins to charming mountain towns and, of course, their spectacular mountain flora. In the smaller villages the people still dress in traditional clothing and are among the most colorful people you will find anywhere in the world. 

Cusco is a city with a rich history. It was the capital of the great Incan Empire for 200 years, but recent excavations indicate the city was inhabited as many as 3000 years ago. Cusco has many wonderful sites to visit and the ambiance of Cusco is charming and peaceful.

Machu Picchu is a world-famous 15th-century Inca site located 7,970 feet (2,430 m) above sea level located in Urubamba Province. It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley, 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Cusco, through which the Urubamba River flows. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often mistakenly referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas," it is perhaps the most familiar icon of Incan civilization.

The Incas built the estate around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction and even here you can find some special plants like Puya densiflora and two orchids, Sobralia virginalis, a white tall orchid, and Sobralia dichotoma, red-pink, which can grow up to 6.5 feet (2 m).

Although I have explored several areas in Peru on four occasions, I will concentrate here on plants found at the Cordillera Blanca in the north of Peru. The range contains a tremendous concentration of 19,685 foot (6,000 m) peaks and a wealth of mountain flowers. One of the most special plants here is Puya raimondii, known as Queen of the Andes; it is ancient, very rare and the largest bromeliad in the world. In some preserved areas of Peru and Bolivia you can see its gigantic inflorescence reaching up to more than 33 feet (10 m) in height and 8 feet (2.5 m) in diameter. Puya raimondii has the largest inflorescence in the world with around ten thousand flowers and six million seeds on each plant.

To grow such a magnificent inflorescence it saves its strength all its life, which is quite long. On average, the puyas start blooming after 50 years. However, some species start blooming after 150 years. Puya raimondii are pollinated by bats and large insects. Plants are monocarpic and the parent plant dies after it flowers and fruits for the first time. This species is endangered in the wild with only a few small populations per square kilometer. Very nice populations are found on the road to Carretera Pastoruri, which you can read about at the end of this article.

If you want to explore the Cordillera Blanca the easy way, without doing several day treks, then you should base yourself in the cities of Caraz or Huaraz. From here you can drive up several passes by car and enjoy the wonders of the high Andean flora.

From Caraz I took the Chicarhuapunta pass to the west, which is actually in the Cordillera Negro and therefore much drier. On the top of the pass you will find, in addition to a few Puya raimondii, several cacti like Austrocylindropuntia floccosa, which can be more than 6.5 feet (2 m) across and Oroya borchersii, with very nice golden spines. Other plants in this area are Olsynium junceum, Villadia reniformis, tiny Viola micranthella, Calceolaria scapiflora, Oxalis cf. pachyrrhiza, with small yellow flowers, Ageratina azangaroensis and Paranephelius uniflorus, with large yellow dandelion-like flowers. But the stars in this location were the thousands of the deep yellow Gentianella brunneotincta.

In the opposite direction, to the east of Caraz, are the Llanganuco Lakes (12,000 ft, 3,660 m) and further up the most spectacular Abra Portachello (Abra means "pass"), which goes up to 15,750 feet (4,800 m). This whole area is in the Huascarán National Park, named after the highest mountain in Peru at 22,204 feet (6,768 m).

Just before the lakes on the roadside, we saw Oreocallis grandiflora, a genus in the Proteaceae. Near the lakes are old Polylepis sericea trees with very nice orange-colored bark. Climbing up toward the Abra Portachello I found Werneria nubigena, a very widespread plant in the Andes, large stands of the blue Lupinus eriocladus, Pernettya prostrata, with black berries, Caiophora grandiflora, with nasty stinging nettles, Puya augusta, Calceolaria weberbaueriana and Calceolaria cajabambae. 

In the same area at 12,890 feet (3,930 m) were two nice orchids, Comphichis valida with cream spikes and Cyrtochilum aureum with large pink-yellow flowers.  At the top of the pass, I found wonderful large cushions of Nototriche obtusa and Nototriche pinnata. Other plants in the same area were Hypochaeris meyeniana, Xenophyllum dactylophyllum and very nice plants of Lupinus weberbaueri. This very distinctive lupin can grow up to 3.3 feet (1 m) tall and is only found above 14,435 feet (4,400 m).

Laguna Parón is another special place and the lake view with the snowcapped peaks looming behind is stunning. When driving up, there are several exciting plants, like white-flowered Begonia octopetala (at 11,615 feet, 3,540 m). Some 1,312 feet (400 m) higher there was a giant orchid, Epidendrum megagastrium. At the end of the road near the lake is a parking lot from which you can take several paths. Plants found in this area around the lake include dwarf Gentianella cerrateae, Gaultheria brachybotrys, the very tiny Sisyrinchium cf. brevipes, the orchid Pterichis triloba, pink Castilleja fissifolia. In wetter places, I spotted one of the most exciting finds, Gentianella chamuchui, with pink flowers.  

We then traveled further south and the next passes were best explored when based in Huaraz city. Punta Olímpica was a good area for high alpines, but unfortunately it was very misty and rainy, so not much time was spent there. Near the top of the pass, which was all asphalt paved road, we found some new plants not seen before near a tunnel. There were two very different gentianellas. Gentianella weberbaueri, with red-pink flowers up to 12 inches (30 cm) on a nice rosette was the star plant; but Gentianella cf. paludicola, pale-pink with darker stripes, was also stunning. Other plants in the same area were Perezia pinnatifida, woolly cushions of Cerastium soratense, quite large-flowered Senecio serratifolius and the very dwarf Werneria weberbaueriana.

The last pass we visited was southeast of Huaraz and about an hour-and-a-half drive, all on good roads, at first asphalt-paved, then a good dirt track road heading toward the Pastoruri Glacier all the way up to 15,912 feet (4,850 m). Just after entering the National Park, we came across one of the best sites visited, with many Puya raimondii.  As mentioned before, this is an amazing plant and I felt very small in comparison, despite my height of almost six and a half feet (2 m). Below the Puya raimondii grew other plants like the yellow Acaulimalva weberbaueri, the pink Gentianella uberula, and the small yellow Bartsia patens.

Between 14,760 and 15,420 feet (4,500 – 4,700 m), we found a very large variety of plants growing in the turf or rock crevices, including the grey rosettes of Paranephelius cf. wurdackii, with large bright yellow stemless flowers, Werneria pygmaea, Senecio expansus, with grey leaves and small, yellow, stemless flowers, very attractive Calceolaria scapiflora and Misbroukea strigosissima. Pycnophyllum molle var. huascaranum was growing in rock crevices and made very large, tight cushions. Plantago rigida grew in moister places and made also very large cushions. 

In New Zealand, one of the special plants is Raoulia eximia. In Peru, there is a plant called Mniodes pulvinata which looks very similar, with small very hairy rosettes and compact cushions. I cannot finish without mentioning three of the Nototriche we saw at the Pastoruri Pass. We saw many plants of Nototriche obtusa, some even growing in the middle of a large Austrocylindropuntia floccosa, as well as Nototriche pinnata, with very large flowers and the minute Nototriche pusilla. 

When I first went to Ecuador and Peru I never expected to see so much variation in the high mountain flora. I hope to return in the near future to explore new areas and also hope this article will inspire more plant enthusiasts to travel to these two countries.


If you want to absorb more information about these two countries and see more images, Harry will give two lectures at the NARGS annual meeting in Ithaca, or visit his extensive website