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Peruvian Orchids in Danger

Sobralia dichotoma, species found in Machu Picchu






Masdevallia veitchiana, in quechua known as Wakanki, species commonly sold illegally.







Mormodes rolfeanum, noted for its strong fragrance.








Psychopsis versteegianum, known as the butterfly orchid.







Cattleya rex, endemic in San Martín, also called the swallow.  One of the most collected by traffickers.








The uncommon Scaphosepalum antenniferum, resembles the mouth of a fish.




"In 1961 a scientific trip was made between Carpish and Tingo Maria. More than 250 species of orchid were collected along remote trails, but small, undeveloped bulbs were left untouched. The trip was repeated in 1975, when it was discovered that 75% of the species had disappeared.  In 1995, less than 30 species of orchid were up-rooted by private collectors. Our children and theirs will unfortunately have to rely on photos to see the beauty of the Peruvian orchid, due to uncontrolable pilfering."   - David E. Bennett Jr.,  Rutgers University, Bs. Agr. cum laud

wpe3A.jpg (30411 bytes)Interest in orchids dates back to ancient times.  It was the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who gave this species the name "orchis" (testicle), referring to the base part of the plant (tuberoid) which has the form of a pair of testicles.  For this reason aphrodisiac qualities were attributed to the plant.

Orchids were highly appreciated by Pre-Inca cultures as well as by the Inca civilization itself, as is described in ancient records. 

According to botanists, the orchid family is the most evolved of all plant groups.   Orchids roots are covered by a special white-colored tissue of spongy texture called the velamen, which enables the absorption of water and nutrients. Leaves are usually of a leather-like texture. Another characteristic is the pseudo-bulb, but it may be absent in other genus.

Flower Morphology

Orchids contain three sepals and three petals.  One petal is different from the other two and is called the labellum or lip. The stamen and the styles are fused, forming a structure usually elongated called the column, where at the extreme end both male and female parts are found (the anther and the stigma respectively).

Another peculiarity of orchids is that they do not produce pollen per se but rather pollinia which are small and compact groups in even numbers: 2, 4, 8 of pollen (usually oval and hard as grains of rice).  These are often accompanied by appendages (stipe and viscidium). The combination of all of these is known as the pollinarium. In some cases, one of the appendages is missing. 

The viscidium is a specialized structure, at the tip of the pollinarium, and is covered with a sticky substance intended to adhere to the body of  the pollinator insect.

The stigmatic cavity of the orchid is formed under the anther.This cavity is covered with a very adhesive substance to successfully retain the pollinium.

Shapes, Sizes and Colors

The most fascinating aspect of the orchid is its flower, characterized by amazing shapes, sizes and colors. From their appearance we find similarities with people, animals, birds and insects. Regarding size, there are flowers ranging from two millimeters such as the Trizeuxis falcata, up to the 70 centimeters Phragmipedium caudatum, the largest flower in the species.

Pollination is usually performed by bees, flies, butterflies and certain birds. Some insects search for nectar, some for solid food while others seek oils and perfumes.

In certain species of the Maxillaria genus, a powder-like substance is formed on the surface of the lip labellum similar to pollen (pseudo-pollen) which is used by bees as food. The male Euglossini bee seeks out the orchid flower to bask in its scent, with which they
attract females. These substances are known as pheromones (sexual perfumes). Apparently, for mutual benefit from these visits, orchids have developed their sexual structures to function with pollinator agents. These are pollinating mechanisms rather than tricks.

Thanks to this mechanism, nearly 15 spots have been reported to catch the pollinarium, through the viscidium. Once the pollinium has adhered to the stigma by means of the pollinator, the formation of seeds begins. From this moment, perfume production starts decreasing and sepals and petals starts to wither slowly. They do not fall off, but instead, remain until all the seeds disappear. Therefore, in some cases remnants of flowers have enabled the identification of the species.

The significant change is the development of the ovary that progressively increases in size until becoming a large capsule.

The process of seed formation may take four to eight months. The seeds are very small (four million have been found in a single mature capsule which is usually elongated and thick in the middle). Once the seed formation period has ended, the ovary opens in three sutures, releasing seeds which then disperse in the air. The seeds, not having sufficient nutrient reserves, need to complete the process of symbiosis with microscopic fungi (such as the Tullasnella and Thanatephorus, among others) which provide them with proteins and reserve substances. Therefore, if the seeds fall in places where fungi exists, they can develop into new plants. A great diversity of aromas is produced, one of the most famous being from the Vanilla genus, from which vanilla is extracted for use in cooking.

There are other exquisite and exotic aromas such as Gongora and Cycnoches as well as unpleasant aromas such as urine or rotten fish which eminate from the Pleurothallis aphthosa.

Perfume production is not constant since some species bear aromas during the morning, others in the afternoon and others at night, with the purpose of attracting their respective pollinators.

The colors are also very impressive: from white to dark purple although not black. In Peru, the existence of the black orchid has never been confirmed.

Some species are also endemic: Masdevallia davisii in Cusco, Cattleya rex in San Martín, Huntleya vargasii in Junín, etc. Some species are widely distributed and can be found in four or five departments.

"Orchid habits," refers to growth patterns in nature, the most common being epiphytes (species that grow on trees or bushes), litophytes (growth on rocky surfaces, with or without lichens and mosses), ground (species that grow at ground level) and saprophyte (species that grow at ground level with abundant organic matter in a state of decomposition).

The altitude level for growth ranges from 100 to 4,800 meters above sea level explaining the fact that there are orchids for warm and cold climates.

Regarding humidity, there are species for very dry climates (xerophytes) and those for medium and very humid ones.


According to studies carried out by David Bennett Jr. B.Sc. and Eric Christenson, Ph.D., Peru is home to 3,000 orchid species, found from Tumbes to Puno. The greatest diversity of species is found in the High Amazon Jungle located between 500 and 3,600 m.a.s.l. The fewest variety of orchids is found in the Lower Amazon Jungle (at approximate 300 m.a.s.l.) and the areas of the Highlands (Sierra Mountains) between 2,600 and 3,600 m.a.s.l. This estimate is quite realistic in spite of the limited studies performed, the lack of financial resources and support from the government and the violation of the scarce legal provisions applicable to environmental protection. Nevertheless, what is quite captivating in spite of this is the fact that more and more species are being discovered, thanks to the work of certain individuals who, with with little or no financial backing, explore and collect orchids in high risk locations. Due to these isolated efforts, Peru could surpass in number, the native species found in Colombia and Ecuador which are known as the South American countries with the most orchids. In these two countries numerous studies have been made and adequate legal provisions exist for the protection of natural resources. Other factors supporting the protection of orchids is the excellent work carried out by their respective environmental departments, "the counterpart of which in Peru would be the National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) which could not resolve the Luccetti case, and the National Environmental Board (CONAM) whose efficiency has not yet been demonstrated."3 INRENA does not perform its work efficiently because it does not have specialized personnel, nor technological or other valuable resources appropriate for adequate control of orchids exportation.

The Lima Orchid

In Lima species like the Chloraea undulata, Aa mathewsii and Porphyrostachys pilifera (the Little Peruvian) have been catalogued. The hills surrounding the City of Lima are examples of the lower growth level of the Chloraea undulata. This orchid of Lima was found on the hills of Pampa de Amancaes, in the District of Rímac and the Cerro El Augustino in the year 1954 according to a report by Ramón Ferreyra of the San Marcos National University. It was also found at Lomas de Lachay, according to a report from Augusto Weberbauer.

At present, the Chloraea undulata no longer grows in the places mentioned above, due to the tremendous urban sprawl and abundance of goat pastures. This species still survives, however, but is not easy to find.

In Tumbes and Piura

In the Dry Forest of Tumbes and Piura, a particularly arid region, one finds the most well known orchid often used for bouquets at graduation parties: Cattleya maxima. This large, violet colored flower with a faint aroma shares its habitat with the Oncidium onustum, Trichocentrum tigrinum, Lockartia schunkei, Cynoches lehmannii and others. These species are considered xerophytes since they grow in very arid areas, exposed to strong solar rays.

Podocarpus Forests in Cajamarca

The High Amazon Jungle in Cajamarca is known for the Podocarpus Forest, the region with the highest number of orchids. Many are quite exotic varieties such as the Masdevallia setacea, Masdevallia glandulosa and Lycaste denningiana.

Land of the Masdevallias

The forests in the Department of  Amazonas have a greater diversity of orchids than Cajamarca, especially in the Masdevallia genus, which are very attractive not only for their morphology, but also for the color of their sepals. These end tips called "caudas" (tails) may be short, medium or long with small petals. Masdevallia decumana, Masdevallia amabilis, Masdevallia mezae and Masdevallia replicata are some of the most representative species.

Land of Orchids

The watershed of the Mayo River (department of San Martín) is known as the Land of Orchids, a name that could also apply to the jungle of Junín. There are a great number of genera such as the Anguloa, Brassia, Catasetum, Cattleya, Bollea, Coryanthes, Lycaste, Masdevallia and many more.

The most representative is the Cattleya rex, locally known as the "golondrina" (swallow). Another popular orchid species of this zone is the Slipper orchid which has four species: Phragmipedium wallisii (queen slipper), Phragmipedium boisserianum (king slipper), Phragmipedium pearcei (boy slipper) and the most famous, Phragmipedium besseae (red slipper).

Loreto - Ucayali Circuit

In these regions of the Lower Amazon Jungle, there is not much diversity. The great attraction is the species of the genus Coryanthes, Gongora, Maxillaria, Mormodes, Cycnoches and Catasetum.

Huánuco and the Sleeping Beauty

A very important discovery of orchid species took place in the forest of Tingo María. Recently new species have been identified, one named the Lycaste jarae, in honor of Enrique Jara, a cultivator from that town. Other species like the Ackermania, Catasetum, Góngora, Elleanthus and Epidendrum can be found.

Huascarán National Park and Surrounding Areas

The department of Ancash has high Andean species that have been studied in Huascarán National Park and other regions. One of the most representative species is the Masdevallia amabilis, which grows on rocky mountain slopes and is known by its Quechua name "waqanku." Its flower is a bright fuchsia, although some varieties are a very pure white. Other genera exist as well: Aa, Altensteinia, Epidendrum, Stelis and Trichoceros. All are typical of those growing in cold climates.

The Valley of Orchids

The beautiful Valley of Chanchamayo (department of Junín) could well be called the Valley of Orchids. Due to its high level of depredation, this region requires immediate protected area status, like the one proposed -but not put into practice- for the giant cedar forest in Pampa Hermosa, located between San Ramón and La Merced, an area which is also home to important archeological remains. This valley is host to the Masdevallia ayabacana, the largest and strongest of the genus, reaching 30 centimeters in length and 2 in width. Also present is the Psychopsis sanderae, known as the famous Royal butterfly, a rare endemic species which can measure up to 18 centimeters with a delicate scent, and also the Huntleya vargasii (the bright Star of David). The majority of genera are found in this great valley. Some believe that Brahma, the Supreme Being that created life and nature, meditated here. It is mind-boggling to imagine what exists on the mountain ranges of San Matías and El Sira. Scientific expeditions to these areas are warrented as a new species has been reported: the Stigmatorthos peruviana Chase and Bennett.

Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary

The estimates for diversity within the Sanctuary reach 200 of the described species. New species are discovered from time to time like the Ponthieva sp. nov. (Bennett and Christenson), discovered in May l998, which obliges us to carry out more and more studies in this region. One of the most fascinating crossroads of the Ollantaytambo-Machu Picchu Inca Trail is the section from Phuyupatamarca-Intipunku, which is a region of cloud forests from 3,600 to 2,500 m.a.s.l. The explorer will encounter virgin forests with abundant epiphytes and bushes, but one must sharpen his or her vision to distinguish between orchids to the right and left of the trail. The most frequent genera are: Aa, Epidendrum, Lycaste, Masdevallia, Maxillaria, Oncidium, Odontoglosum, Phragmipedium and the Sobralia, the most spectacular being the Masdevallia veitchiana (waqanki, in Quichua). But all this diversity has been greatly diminished and in the worst of cases has disappeared as a consequence of the ten or more fires which took place in the surroundings of the archeological site of Machu Picchu, most damaging being the August 30, 1997 blaze which destroyed more than 1,000 hectares of primarily virgin forest.

Manu and the Tambopata Reserve

Orchid studies from Manu and the Tambopata Reserve do not show significant diversity but do include some interesting species of the genera Catasetum, Chauvardia, Mormodes, Oncidium and Psychopsis. Many people believe that national reserves and parks which include many orchids species and therefore all are protected. The reality is quite different; the diversity reported in these regions is scarce and furthermore, the "protected status" in many cases is overshadowed by deplorable and inneficient maintainance conditions.

Arequipa and Colca

On the route towards the Colca Valley, there is only one species of the genus Myrosmodes, which is characteristic of very cold altitudes (near 4,200 m.a.s.l.) and grows along the ground, protected by pastures. This genus has adapted perfectly to its environment, developing short, very thick leaves and succulent roots reaching deep into the ground. It is also found in high elevations in the Moquegua and Tacna departments.

From the Altiplano to the Jungle

It's hard to imagine that orchids grow in the department of Puno because of the brutal climate, yet it provides a home for a great number of species. In 1995 our expedition was able to catalogue many genera here as well as discovering wider habitat ranges. These forest regions have been impacted by migrating farmers from the Altiplano and other regions, causing the deforestation of thousands of hectares of primary forest. This has occurred to such an extent that there are many areas which look like high barren plateaus with remains of derelict forests.

Conservation: a Dead Word in Peru

The deforestation rate is 300,000 hectares per year. Orchids (as is all flora and fauna) are highly effected by this threat as their seeds cannot find sufficient trees to grow on.

The situation is aggravated by the pilfering of wild orchids, supplying nurseries in Piura, Amazonas, San Martín, Huánuco, Loreto, Junín and Lima.

It is important to mention that orchids coming from depredation usually have certain colonies of lichens, mosses, insect bites and pricks adhered to their roots, pseudo-bulbs and leaves. Pursuant to the legal provisions currently in force, the exportation of orchids is permitted, provided they have been reproduced in nurseries or laboratories (in vitro). The lack of control in this case has resulted in the nonexistence of propagation in nurseries that export. In the illicit traffic of Peruvian orchids a well known practice is to wash and prepare the plants to give the appearance that they have been cultivated and reproduced in nurseries. They are then presented to INRENA by the exporter for inspection. How do they manage to pass the inspection? INRENA should be held accountable.

The other way of illegally exporting orchids abroad, is the "cultural exchange" method. The applicable legal provisions indicate that the plants exiting the country for research purposes must be the same ones that return. The law also states that the plants must be in the flowering stage. Once these plants leave the country they never are returned, but replaced with different ones, usually hybrids.

Regarding this matter, we wish to congratulate the excellent work carried out by the National Service of Agricultural Health (SENASA) which recently discovered a shipment from the United States and stopped for the first time in Peru the illegal transport of orchids. Another problem is the sub-valuation of orchids. Exporters present the Peruvian authorities with a species exportation list valuing them at US$1-US$3 each. The same exporter, now in another country, has revalued his merchandise ten to thirty times higher than presented in Peru. This is a clear case of tax evasion, and a great loss of capital that could be used to finance conservation projects.

Faced with this great conservation problem, the only solution would seem to be that of biotechnology with in vitro cultivation of orchid seeds. This way thousands of plants could be produced and an orchid germoplasm bank could be established.

Conserving this resource is everyone's responsibility. We should be very concerned by the lack of a sole entity directly responsible for the preservation of Peru's orchids. Many share this commitment, such as the Ministry of Agriculture (INRENA), CONAM, INDECOPI, PROMPERU and the Ministry of Industry and Tourism, unfortunately this responsibility is only in theory and not taken seriously, which makes it extremely difficult to adequatly manage the conservation of Peruvian orchids.

If there is no change in policy, our children might never have chance to to see orchids flourishing in their natural environment?

  1. David E. Bennett Jr., B.Sc., is a research associate with the San Marcos National University (Lima, Peru)
  2. Eric A. Christenson, Ph.D., is a research associate with the Botanical Garden of New York, (United States of America).
  3. Caretas, October l, l998, No. 1536, page l7.

Text and Photos by Benjamin Collantes
Volume III/Issue 13, Page 06
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