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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Orchids of Southern Peru 1: Acjanaco Pass, Manu Biosphere Reserve

A few weeks ago, on request, I posted on a few Ecuadorian orchids of the estimated 4000 plus; you can refresh your memory here. It would be unfair not to continue the general theme and acknowledge the incredible richness of the Peruvian orchid treasure chest as well. While most references suggest 'only' 3000 orchid species for Peru, I have read also that it supports more species than Ecuador, so take the figures with a small grain of salt. What I can say is that, in my own experience, orchids are more evident in Peru, but that might just be chance with regard to timing of visits, seasons etc. I have hitherto only been to southern Peru, so my experience is limited, but even so I'm going to make this the first of three postings.

The drive from beautiful World Heritage Listed Cusco at 3400 metres above sea level over the high Andes and down into the wonderful Manu Biosphere Reserve is an experience never to be forgotten. It is not a simple climb - the road descends into deep valleys, and soars up to ridges 4000 metres high. The beginning of the final descent on the eastern side of the Andes begins at the Acjanaco Pass entrance station that always seems somewhat mysterious to me - mysterious because in three visits I've only ever seen it in wreathed in mist.
Cloud forest - or 'elfin' forest - 3600 metres above sea level, Acjanaco Pass.
 
Birds appear - and disappear! - in the swirling clouds, but every now and then an orchid, and then another, looms from the shroud. Many of them are limited to these high elevation, low stature, rich, dripping forests.

Epidendrum is a huge, conspicuous and diverse genus of over 1000 species from sub-tropical North America to Argentina; they seem to be everywhere in the Andean forests, though I only saw these two at Acjanaco. As ever, any help with identification will be most gratefully received, though you've remained silent in the face of such requests in the past!
Epidendrum ardens, Acjanaco Pass.
Epidendrum sp., Acjanaco Pass.
The lower flowers have been fertilised and the swelling ovaries are filled with tiny seeds.
Odontoglossum is another widely encountered genus in the cool higher elevation cloud forests of the northern Andes, though after a breakdown of the genus into several smaller ones it has now a mere hundred or so species. 
Cyrtochilum mystacinum, Acjanaco Pass.
A most striking plant - the mist droplets that constantly deliver water can be seen on the flowers.
Other Cyrtochilums at high altitudes however are characterised by huge sprays of hundreds of flowers.

Cyrtochilum tetraplassium, above and below, Acjanaco Pass.
 

Telipogon has nearly 200 species, but most of them grow in the Andes further north than Peru, particularly in Colombia. This lovely little flower was one of the treats that seem to pop out from behind every tree at Acjanaco.
Telipogon salinasiae, Acjanaco Pass.
Pachyphyllum is a genus of 50 species; the origin of the genus name, 'thick leaf', is pretty obvious.
Pachyphyllum  sp., Acjanaco Pass.
Tiny flowers are another characteristic of this genus.
On the other hand there are only about 10 Neodryas, delightful little orchids. I'm pretty sure of the identification of this one, but as ever am open to suggestions.
Neodryas rhodoneura, Acjanaco Pass.
I hope that one day you get to drive over the Acjanaco Pass into the wonders of Manu. Make sure you go for a magical, misty walk before you start the descent.

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