Adventures of a Novice: Part I

By: Ed Prince

I'm not exactly certain when the notion of going on a bromeliad collecting trip, and my decision to actually take the plunge, occurred. It's one thing to attend a monthly meeting featuring a speaker recently returned from some exotic tropical locale and say, "Someday I want to try my hand at collecting," and actually do it (figure 1). I suspect the picture of Dennis Cathcart (you know, the one in his Tropiflora ad) was central in my making the decision. I mean, I'm not even a minor player in the bromeliad big leagues. Moyna, my patient spouse, is the real enthusiast and grower. I just build the occasional shade house or bench.

It was fortunate that we had become friends with Wally Berg, an experienced collector and grower of unusually fine specimen plants. In a moment of weakness he agreed to allow me to accompany him and Chester Skotak on a collecting trip to Ecuador. Needless to say, I was the designated number three man in matters both minor and major.

Our base of operations was the Hotel Zumag in Quito, a city of modern beauty and old world charm, both of which were absent from the Zumag. The daily rate of U.S. $19 including private bath with lukewarm water made it tolerable.

Map of Ecuador
Map of Ecuador
figure 1

We departed on the morning of Monday, July 11th, 1993 and headed southeast toward Baeza on a road that would take us up and over the mountains. We had rented a 1992 Chevy Trooper with four-wheel drive (don't leave home without one) and on pretty decent roads made our way over the Andes reaching altitudes exceeding 12,000 feet. All along the slopes we saw a great variety of plant life, including several dazzling bromeliads in full flower. Although easily accessible, none was collected as its chance of survival in Florida was nonexistent. The scenery surpassed all expectation and was, in a word, glorious.

Between Baeza and Tena the altitude dropped to below 3,000 feet and we started to see plants that would, given the proper care, survive in South Florida. I constantly shouted (from the back seat) "Stop the car, did you see that!" Chester or Wally would say, with just a hint of exasperation, "Yes, Ed, I saw it. That's not a bromeliad but a red leaf of a this or that." In all fairness to them, they never said anything to curb my enthusiasm but encouraged me to continue spotting as, who knows, I might actually sec a worthwhile plant. By day's end we were in Tena, a town apparently built around a huge statue of an Indian. After rejecting two hotels that left everything to be desired (I finally asserted myself) we discovered the Hotel Mol, which had clean rooms and private baths. The owner/operator kindly cooked us a very good dinner of chicken and potatoes. Regardless of what your guidebook recommends, in Tena go for the Mol.

Tuesday morning found us on the road to Lago Agrio, an oil boom town. The road surface changed from basic unpaved rock and clayish mud to an oily sludge that made for smooth driving but literally got onto and into everything. To make it even more interesting, the rain began and continued for the next sixty hours, or so. All along the roadside we saw the type of tropical vegetation you dream about: orchids in full bloom, heliconias of every size and color, and yes, bromeliads in profusion. Whenever possible (but not too frequently as most bromeliads were nestled on the top branches of trees far too tall to reach) we stopped to gather plants that were for the most part either totally unknown to Wally or Chester (everything was unknown to me) or a different variety from those presently in their collections.

We arrived in Lago Agrio at almost sunset and immediately sought lodging. The town was teeming with oil-industry folk and consequently good accommo-dations were few and far between. We were really fortunate to get a single room containing four beds on the top floor of the Hotel Colon. The fact that hot water pipes didn't even reach the top floor was of little consequence as we were delighted to have a place to sleep. Nothing like a cold shower to take the chill off on a cool rainy night. We had dinner in the hotel dining room: chicken and potatoes. For any purists who are still reading this narrative in the hope of learning what we actually collected, please skip to the last paragraph where plant names and locations are revealed.

Wednesday morning after a breakfast of instant coffee and bread, we aimed for Putomayo and drove to within five miles of the Colombian border. We turned around with no regrets as the available bromeliads were the same as those collected earlier We spent the rest of the day looking for and occasionally finding some different plants, for the most part aechmeas.

For readers who had not had the pleasure, I think it's time to spend a few lines describing the actual act of collecting a bromeliad. Step One, of course, is to spot the plant, which more often than not seems to be just a few yards off the road in a tree and just begging to be a part of your collection. Step Two is the discovery that between you and the tree is a medium-sized valley filled with a typical Everglades swamp. Step Three is (it won't be easy) reaching the base of the tree and realizing your plant is just a bit higher than you first estimated. In Step Four you discover that in the wild, bromeliads are super-glued to the limbs they so delicately cling to. The Final Step is holding your new prize in your own hands and watching all the previous tenants (most of which sting or bite or both) race to see which will claim your various body parts. But don't be discouraged, think of the fun and excitement you're having, and you're only two or three thousand miles from home. It's especially adventurous when you do it in the rain.

Wednesday night was a replay of Tuesday: same hotel, same room, same dinner. Thursday's objective was to reach Coca, another oil boom town. We had no major mishaps on the way unless you count getting a flat tire and finding your jack is broken. With our luck, an American petroleum worker stopped to help and we were soon on our way again. This was AECHMEA country and we saw them everywhere. We think we may have collected one plant that might turn out to be a real find. It is just possible that it might be Aechmea anomala, a beauty that hasn't been seen for many years (figure 2). Harry Luther will render the verdict.

Aechmea anomala

On the outskirts of Coca we caught our first sight of Aechmea romeroi. It was in a lone tree standing in a field of grass and shrubs populated by a few cows. The fact that we could see only heads and horns gave rise to the suspicion that perhaps the ground was not as solid as we would have wished. That condition was verified by Chester as he approached the tree and appeared to grow shorter with every step he took. "I don't think I belong here," (a classic Skotak understatement) signaled surrender. After removing his boots and dumping the muddy water, he saw another handsome specimen a few hundred yards up the road and was able to collect it.

Chester is an excellent driver, it's his judgment that I sometimes fear. Having arrived in Coca and there still being an hour or two of light remaining we decided that the exploration of a "new" road (not on any presently existing map) would be in order. After a few miles it seemed to end at a small but swiftly moving river. As there was no bridge to be seen, I suggested we make a U-turn and call it a day. Chester saw the lack of a bridge as a minor inconvenience and forged on. When the water level approached our feet I envisioned disaster whereas Wally merely remarked that it was deeper than it looked. Somehow our Trooper not only reached the opposite shore but repeated the feat on our return.

figure 3

We made it to Coca and obtained rooms at the Hotel Oca. Fairly clean, but once again, no hot water. We discovered at dinner (chicken and potatoes) that because of all the rain there had been a major landslide and the road to Quito was closed to all traffic (figure 3). In the event you are wondering why there is so much emphasis on hotels, food, road conditions, and the like rather than on the bromeliads we collected, the simple truth is that it is much easier to write about a subject of which you have a little knowledge rather than grope and fumble over a subject that is almost totally foreign. The information relating to the identity of the plants collected is courtesy of Wally, Chester, and in some cases, Harry Luther.

We left Coca at six the next morning; no breakfast; not my idea of a good start. As this was our last day of collecting and as we had already accumulated quite a few nice looking plants, both Chester and Wally were very particular regarding any new acquisitions. About midmorning they spotted some completely different looking plants on a dead tree that was overhanging a fairly deep chasm. Wally literally took a dive (about ten feet headfirst) but fortunately was not permanently damaged. With the help of a young Indian, the plants and Wally were successfully retrieved. Wally said that a few bruised ribs were all in a day's work. It turned out that those were the last plants collected.

We arrived at the site of the landslide four hours after the road had reopened and were in a long line of heavy trucks and buses that traveled single file over a section of road still under muddy water. The rest of the trip was relatively easy. Arrived Quito tired but triumphant.

In five days we had covered about 1200 kilometers on roads designed for Jeep TV commercials, crawled and climbed in and on some very inhospitable territory, collected some (we hoped) new bromeliads, obtained various bites and bruises, and in short, had a blast.

A final thought: Just do it!

The following list is as accurate as possible regarding the plants we captured. As stated earlier, most belong to the genus Aechmea.

In the Tena area
Aechmea romeroi (two forms, one very large)
A. cucullata
A. abbreviata
Tillandsia adpressiflora (found in the vicinity of Loreto).
A natural hybrid of A. chantinii x A. zebrina
A natural hybrid of A. romeroi x A. zebrina

In the Lago Agrio area
Aechmea chantinii
A. woronowii
A. tillandsioides
A. zebrina
Neoregelia eleutheropetala
N. myrmecophila (both neoregelias were found between fifty and eighty km. of Lago Agrio)

Near Coca
Aechmea mertensii
A. nivea (tentative identification).

figure 4

From here and there
Guzmania rubrolutea (growing in the spray of a waterfall at 4200 feet)
G. mosquerae was found just south of Baeza
G. melinonis
Mezobromelia bicolor (figure 4).
Three as yet unidentified pitcairnias, and a few aechmeas.

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This article appeared in BSI Journal Vol.44 #4
also see: Bromeliads in Habitat - Ecuador and Adventures of a Novice: Part II