DRIVING UP THE winding, unpaved gravel road to the Huascarán National Park entrance, in front of our eyes was a deeply curved U-shaped rock wall that looked like a big window opening straight up 3000 ft (1,000 m). Once we arrived, we saw beautiful milky-turquoise colored glacier lakes in front of us with snow-capped mountains as a distant backdrop. The rock walls were covered with hundreds of thousands of bromeliads like a natural grand green wall. We were 12,500 ft (3,800 m) high in the Andes.
Northern Peru is often passed over by botanists and people interested in horticulture in favor of Chile and Argentina. I think this is because many areas are very remote and at high altitude, and it is not an easy destination for botanists to do fieldwork and research. There are also many legal restrictions on working in the area and each time it is more difficult to get permission or authorization. The area has been reserved for strong backpackers and climbers from across the world, while most tourists visit southern Peru, mainly the Machu Picchu area. My first visit in this region was in 2000 on a climbing-focused trip, but I was fascinated by the exotic beauty of the plants and flowers I saw and struck by the spectacular mountain scenery.
I had been to northern Peru four times before in the dry season and finally decided to try to visit in other seasons to enjoy the rich, diverse varieties of plants. There is only one book I’ve been able to find on the area in English; most others are in Spanish and with a limited range of species, as many plants have not been published yet. I was hesitant to write an article without identifying all these plants, but I really want to share these beautiful plants and stories of northern Peru with other plant enthusiasts.
My January 2015 trip started in Lima at the National Agrarian University of La Molina. There I met with the botanist Juan José Alegría, and graduate student Melody Zarria. Juan José showed me some specimens from Huascarán National Park in his collection. Melody accompanied me on this trip as interpreter and guide. Melody and I explored for nine days visiting six locations in the Áncash area in January, in the middle of the rainy season. We stayed at Huaraz (10,000 ft, 3,052 m) as our base town and made day trips by taxi to different valleys for botanizing. The mountain town of Huaraz is located 250 miles (404 km) north of Lima. To get to Huaraz, it takes about eight hours by bus driving over the 13,120 ft (4,000 m) pass. The areas we visited were in the region known as the Cordillera Blanca, the White Mountain Range in the Áncash region.
The Cordillera Blanca section of the Andes forms part of the continental divide that runs from north to south. The water from the western valleys flows to the Pacific Ocean, and water from the eastern valleys runs through the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean. The area is best known for Huascarán National Park and Huascarán Sur which, at 21,831 ft (6,654 m), is the highest point of Peru. Huascarán National Park occupies the major part of the Cordillera Blanca, which is the world’s highest tropical range because its latitude is only 8-10 degrees south of the equator. We made day trips to the valleys of Parón, Llanganuco, Ulta, Ishinca, Llaca, and to the Pastoruri Glacier area. In my second botanical trip in July 2015, I invited my friends George and Sam to join the trip. We botanized in the Cordillera Negra region, northwest of Huaraz and trekked and camped for four days along the popular Santa Cruz trekking route, which featured spectacular mountain views and very rich alpine flora. George will talk about this trip in part two of our article, coming soon.
The climate of Cordillera Blanca has two seasons. From mid-November to April is the rainy season, when the days are cooler with rain and nights are warmer than the dry season. Warm moist air from the Amazon basin blows westward causing afternoon rain and snow. In my January visit, mornings were mostly clear with rain starting in the late morning or afternoon, often with a storm in the evening. The plants are covered with snow at about 15,100-15,700 ft (4,600-4,800 m) and above. May to October brings the dry season when the days are warm and sunny and nights are clear but cold. The temperatures often drop below freezing, especially at high altitude. The plants we are going to feature are in the Andean zone from 11,483-16,400 ft (3,500-5,000 m). Amazingly, this range includes subtropical cloud rainforest in addition to sub-alpine to alpine zones.
In our January trip, we saw many of the plants that flower in the rainy season, most notably an abundance of orchids. There are many orchids in the high-altitude cloud forest area in Llanganuco Valley. In the dry season, most orchids are not flowering. One just looked like brown tangled wires in the dry season, but was an Epidendrum. One of my favorite orchids is the showy scarlet Masdevallia amabilis that grows on rock cliffs or on boulders along the streams and in open fields. I saw this orchid along the Santa Cruz Trail between Llamac Corral and Taullipampa (12,300-13,800 ft, 3750-4200 m) along the river edges and in Llanganuco near the lakes at about 11,800-12,800 feet (3,600-3,900 m). This orchid is seen all year, even in dry season. It has a unique triangular red flower hanging down like a three-pointed star.
I had hiked the same places on past visits but I noticed fewer plant populations, especially on the Santa Cruz trekking trail along the creek. Along the trail, most of the Masdevallia were gone and I saw plants only on the other side of the creek where it is not easy to access. I am sure people are collecting this showy orchid and it is very sad to see the plants disappearing from their native habitat. My great guide, Melody, has the astute eyes of a plantswoman and pointed out the “smiley face” in the center of the one orchid flower. It made me smile when I found it.
In the rainy season, the area around The Llanganuco lakes is an orchid lover’s paradise. There are many species of tiny orchids. We saw Stelis aff. oblongifolia with a dark chocolate colored flower and Stelis aff. flexuosa with creamy-yellow petals with reddish-brown centers. Another Stelis species was colored an interesting translucent lemon yellow with the bottom two petals fused together. These flowers are small, about ¼ of an inch (5 mm) long, with over a dozen flowers held on racemose inflorescences (arranged like clusters of grapes) on 4-5 inch (10-13 cm) tall flower spikes. I had to get close to take photos of these tiny flowers. There were massive populations in the understory and lightly shaded fields, and they were beautiful flowering in large groups. I was so happy to see orchid flowers instead of the leaves and dead looking plants I saw on my dry season trips.
Another small orchid, Pleurothallis sp., was blooming by the hundreds on a wet cliff. The small flowers were hanging down and swinging in the breeze, making a clear photo a challenge to capture. A large, showy yellow orchid, Cyrtochilum (syn. Odontoglossum) aureum, grew to about two feet (60 cm) tall and flowered on a rock cliff next to a Puya.
There were some terrestrial orchids as well. One I am very fond of is Aa matthewsii. The Latin name is a tongue twister and not easy to say, but such an easy one to memorize. We have seen this flowering in January and sometimes a few are even blooming in July, though most are already at the ripened seed stage or a dried out brown in the dry season. It is about 8-12 inches (15-25 cm) high with tiny white flowers packed around a single spike. When I see it through a macro lens, it looks like many Halloween ghosts facing out from the stem. It grows in moraines and rocky soils in open fields at about 12,500-15,00 ft (3,800-4,600 m). We even saw it in an open spot in a woodland area. In the dry season, it was a rosette of leaves blending in, as it flowers mostly in the rainy season. We saw it in Llanganuco, Ishinca Valley and Pastoruri Glacier area.
Altensteinia longispicata grows 2-3 feet (1 m) tall in the understory in shady spots. It has dense hairs on the upper white petals and yellow tips in the center of each bloom. We saw it in the upper part of Ishinca Valley.
Have you eaten an orchid? When we were in a village we saw teenaged girls eating something green. We asked them to show it to us, and they were chewing the green pseudobulbs of orchids. They were about 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) long and juicy looking, but we could not identify them without a flower. I tried chewing some, but it didn’t have much flavor.
The Peruvian Andes hold a great diversity of plant communities, in a multitude of microclimates across different altitudes. In the lake area of Huascarán National Park, there is a mix of trees and shrubs with some open field dominated by grasses. Near the lake, we saw many bromeliads like Tillandsia rubella, T. fendleri, T. walteri, Puya spp., and Pitcairnia pungens. In this area, the forest is made up of Polylepis spp., Vallea stipularis, Baccharis spp. and Gynoxys spp. with bromeliads growing on the Polylepis and other trees. In the sunlight, the bracts of the bromeliads light up bright red. It looks so unusual, with more than a dozen colorful bromeliads on one tree like giant red flowers. Berberis lutea makes up the understory along with some smaller plant species such as Peperomia microphylla, P. hartwegiana, and Villadia reniformis. Gynoxys sp. is the most common tree in the area and has yellow daisy flowers. Vallea stipularis grows from Venezuela to Bolivia and has hanging cherry-like flowers with dark pink petals with little fringes on the edges. This is one of few reddish colored flowering trees in the area.
In the open fields, we saw a bright pink tubular flower, Agalinis lanceolata. It is about 2 inches (3-4 cm) long and hairy outside with darker pink dots inside the throat. The foliage is short, thick needles. Clinopodium speciosum has red tubular flowers for hummingbirds and small leaves with a strong minty smell. Diplostephium azureum has 3-5 ft (1 – 1.5 m) tall woody stems and light blue, aster-like flowers. Other daisies we saw were Bidens andicola and Dorobaea laciniata, which grew mostly in sunny locations.
After botanizing the lake areas, we drove up the hairpin curves of a dirt road. We saw the green-flowered Halenia umbellata and the parasitic plants Bartsia diffusa with yellow flowers and Bartsia tomentosa with pink flowers. One of the genera that is shared with North and South America is Castilleja, and the species we saw has very intense orange-red bracts and is 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) high. Gaultheria glomerata has many pink bell-shaped flowers with a pretty bright pink calyx. In open, flat areas, we saw the groundcover-like Lachemilla orbiculata. It has tiny, about 1 inch (2-3 cm), foliage and grows in a dense mat. It was often cloudy, so there was not much view most of the day. When we went up about 14,740 ft (4,500 m) we reached the snow line where there were no plants to see.
One of the highlights of this region is Polylepis, the highest-growing tree in the world. At high altitudes, it is very slow growing, and some are several hundred years old. The bark is orange colored, flaky and very attractive, especially when backlit by low sunlight. Historically, local people cut down the trees and used them as firewood. Now the trees are protected, and villagers do not harvest them. Some are shrub shaped, and some are more tree-like. They flower in the rainy season with tiny 0.1-0.15 inch (3-4 mm) flowers hanging down like tassels.
There are reportedly five species of Polylepis in Huascarán National Park. The most common one is Polylepis sericea which will grow to over 20 ft (6 m). P. weberbaueri has very dense whitish hairs on the foliage and grows into a short, mounded shrub. Another very attractive one we saw, Polylepis sp., had orange and cinnamon colored hairs around the stems and on the backs of the foliage. These trees occur at about 14,700 ft (4,500 m) or sometimes higher. As the elevation gets higher, trees become more shrubby but still reach 7-10 ft (2-3 m) tall.
When we were exploring and hunting for special plants, there were several plants we really had to be careful not to touch because of their spines or sharp thorns. Nasa ranunculifolia subsp. cymbopetala is about 12-15 inches (30-40 cm) tall and has 2-inch (5 cm) long orange flowers with black stinging hairs. It is sometimes seen around 12,800 ft (3,900 m) but also grows in dry areas at about 15,400 ft (4,700 m). Caiophora, a vining member of the Loasaceae, was growing at lower elevations. We saw it in a village and the flowers were 1-1.5 inches (4-5 cm) long and bell-shaped. These plants are like a nettle and very painful if you touch any part of them. Of course, there are some Andean true nettles too, like Urtica echinata or Urtica flabellata. One we saw was at about 15,400 ft (4,700 m) in elevation in the Pastoruri Glacier area; it is a small mounded alpine form and was half covered with snow. It looked so soft at first glance, but the stinging hairs are very painful.
Especially when I was crouching down taking photographs, I had to be very careful no nettles were behind of me, as they are extremely painful, even through my trekking pants. We also had to be careful of Aciachne acicularis and A. pulvinata. These two species live together and are difficult to tell apart. When we were walking at high altitude in thin air, we often wanted to stop and to sit down on a nice soft surface. These plants look like a soft, welcoming cushion, but they are not! If you happen to step on one, the many sharp needles stick to your boot’s sole.
Ishinca Valley is another area with a very rich flora. The road goes up through open fields of grasses typical of Andean meadows. In this area of low scrub and open fields, we saw many attractive plants. Orthrosanthus occissapungus is a skinny plant growing to about 2-3 ft (1 m) tall with six-petaled white flowers. Right from the trailhead we saw the white, bell-shaped, about 2-inch (5 cm) diameter flower of a Clematis and at the side of the trail there were hundreds of Arcytophyllum aff. setosum. Hypericum laricifolium was showing off yellow flowers with typical drought-tolerant, thick, needle-like foliage. Brachyotum naudinii has a thick reddish calyx and deep inky purple flowers hanging down with closed petals (see back cover).
At the upper part of this wonderful trail are large Polylepis forests. We saw small plants of Baccharis alpina, Lobelia tenera with one or two small flowers on each slender stem, Astragalus uniflorus growing flat, and Hypseocharis bilobata with white flowers and bright red anthers looking like the head of a match. There were so many treasures to see that we didn’t move very fast!
After we botanized in five different valleys and had acclimatized to the elevation, we visited the Pastoruri Glacier, about 43 miles (70 km) south of Huaraz. The glacier covers about 3.1 square miles (8 square km) but is receding fast. I have been five times in the past; it is clear to see that the glacier line is receding farther back each time. The glacier is a very popular tourist destination and is very busy with local and international visitors during the dry season. Near the entrance, at around 13,780 ft (4200m), is a large population of Puya raimondii. There is an archaeological site nearby with huge overhanging rocks with ancient drawings. Just above this cave, I found white-flowered Saxifraga magellanica. This is one of very few species of saxifrage in South America, growing from Peru through Patagonia. It grows in wet cracks, and is about 1-3 inches (2-7cm) tall. Calceolaria sp. was growing next to the rock cracks, but in a drier area. The foliage was pea-like, dense, and thickly covered with soft hairs. The small flowers were yellow.
The open grass fields in the area are known as Puna in the Quechua language. This is typical of the zone above the tree line in Peruvian Andes. Jarava ichu is a common grass and grows mixed with Calamagrostis, Festuca, and Poa species. The Jarava grass leaf tips are very sharp, and you cannot walk without long pants in the Puna meadow. In dry areas, Chuquiraga grows with short, thick triangular leaves with sharp thorns and with upright orange flowers. The flower is a 1-inch (2-3 cm) long paintbrush. The plants are 2-4 feet (60-120 cm) tall. After the flowering, the orange paintbrush turns into a whitish fluffy seedhead.
In the wet season, water runs down the slopes and many plants are flowering. I was so excited seeing many tiny flowers along the roadside in the Pastoruri Glacier area. Ranunculus cymbalaria is about one inch (2.5 cm) tall with shining yellow petals in the running creek. The area is soft, like a bog and it was difficult to take pictures because I could not focus and steady my camera by lying down. Lysipomia sphagnophila subsp. acuta is twice the size of a coin and grew nestled flat against wet rocks. We saw a common Andean gentian, Gentiana sedifolia, showing single, small flowers that close up quickly when it gets cloudy. Lysipomia laciniata is a cute little plant, only about the size of a quarter. In the drier area in the grassland at about 14,760 ft (4500 m) the single yellow flowers of Alstroemeria pygmaea bloom. The stemless, yellow flowers with red dots on petals always cheer me up. Driving up to almost 16,400 ft (5,000 m) near the glacier, we saw several different species or varieties of Castilleja, including a tiny, less than one-inch (2.5 cm) tall Castilleja flowering in wet areas.
One of my favorite plants, Senecio canescens, was flowering in July at around 15,750 ft (4800 m). This plant has very thick soft white-haired leaves and grows only at very high altitude. When I was climbing far to the south in the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range, I saw it at almost 16,400 ft (5,000 m). There are not many other plants growing at such high elevation, but this giant-headed, hanging flower was proudly blooming. Sadly, because this is a medicinal plant known as Wila-Wila, local people collect and sell it, so the populations are much reduced, especially in areas of easy access. In 2000, I saw many S. canescens with massive leaves growing near white-haired cactuses along the roadside. In 2005, the cactuses were still there, but the Senecio were all gone.
Once you get up into the alpine areas, another of my favorite flowers is Nototriche. It has light blue five-petaled flowers just above soil level. There are about 60 species in Peru, 12 species in Áncash, and it is very difficult to identify them. We saw three species, but not have confidently identified any yet. One had hairless foliage and occurred in moist sites, another with thick hairy foliage was growing much higher, and the other had an alpine form, growing very high in the Punta Union Pass (15,600 ft, 4750 m), on the Santa Cruz Trail, and at the high camp on Chopicarqui. When I was coming down from the Pastoruri Glacier, this was the first flower I saw below the glacier line. It opens when the sun is out and closes in the evening or cloudy weather. The tiny, rounded, sky blue petals are very beautiful.
Another Andean endemic plant genus is Paranephelius. It looks like a dwarf dandelion and blooms just at the surface of the soil. This is a true alpine plant form. In Parón we saw over a couple of dozen Paranephelius uniflorus flowering together, and it was very pretty. In the Pastoruri Glacier area we saw Paranephelius ovatus and other Paranephelius species. Similar, but more dandelion-like, is Hypochaeris taraxacoides, with white flowers, and Hypochaeris eriolaena, with yellow flowers. If you lie down and look at Hypochaeris eriolaena from the side, you can see that it has brown hairs at the base of the flower like a little fur scarf.
I have been a greenhouse grower, and am always looking for plants I might be able to grow. Solanum hispidum is shrub-like, growing to 4-5 ft (120-160cm) tall with almost 1-inch (5cm) diameter blue flowers followed by yellow fruits. We also saw a white-flowered form. The large, 8-12 inch (20-30 cm) long foliage has fuzzy cinnamon colored hairs and is very attractive. This plant grows at around 11,480-13,120 ft (3,500-4,000m) on dry rocky slopes. I collected seeds and tried to grow it into a standard shaped topiary crop at work. In the greenhouse, the cinnamon color was not as strong as what I saw in situ because of lack of ultraviolet light. It ended up being a whitefly magnet, and I could not finish the crop.
In Llaca Valley around 12,470 ft (3,800 m), Nicotiana thyrsiflora was growing to about 8 ft (2.4 m) tall with hundreds of lime green flowers on the stem. These flowers are quite spectacular and might be good to add height to a garden design.
There are many species of Gentianella in Peru. They are difficult to identify. We saw a light sky blue-flowered one that is about 8-10 inches (20-25 cm) tall and a soft pink-flowered one the was 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) tall. One of the showiest is Gentianella weberbaueri, a Peruvian endemic, which has scarlet red flowers and grows about 1.5-2 feet (40-60 cm) tall. This plant is candelabra shaped in bloom and has trumpet-like, hanging tubular flowers. The foliage is thick and smooth like a succulent. This would be a pretty display plant if we could get seeds and overcome the challenges of growing it. We saw some of it in Llaca Valley, Punta Union Pass, and Portachuelo Llanganuco Pass at an elevation of 15,640 ft (4,767m). Mostly it grows in open grass fields, but on at Punta Union, it was growing on the side of steep rocky cliffs.
Siphocampylus tupaeformis grows about 4-5 feet (120-150 cm) tall and has orange-red tubular 1.5-2 inch (4-5 cm) long flowers in a single raceme. It grows in grassland at about 11,480-12,470 ft (3,500-3,800m). I saw one plant that was grazed by animals resulting in many side shoots and many flowers. If this plant were pinched a couple of times, it might make nice shrubby potted plants for display. I wish we could go on a plant and seed collecting trip soon and introduce these to horticulture.
If you would like to visit northern Peru, I recommend you start with the Llanganuco area of Huascaran National Park and Pastoruri Glacier. Both are easy to access by hired car but are at a high altitude. Be sure to take your time and acclimatize first before going up and botanizing. If you like to hike, visit Ishinca Valley for day trips and the Santa Cruz Trail for trekking. Both are good places to see an excellent variety of plants and flowers. I’m sure you’ll enjoy a trip to northern Peru!
I send my great appreciation to Juan José Alegría, and Melody Zarria who helped us both during our trips and afterward.