2001, Ruth Bone, Study Tour, Giant Alpines Of Ecuador

Giant Alpines of Ecuador

by Ruth Bone

In June of this year I flew to the Andean city of Quito, a UNESCO world heritage site at an altitude of 2,500m. The Spanish colonial buildings of the Old Town tower above narrow stone paved streets full of market vendors, cobblers and beggars. In the east of the city high-rise glass tower blocks house the financial brokers and business executives of the new Quito. My accommodation for my first week in Ecuador was located in the in-between streets which make up the tourist district. Patrolled by security officers, the streets here are lined with internet cafes, restaurants and tourist centres where holiday-makers can book anything from a bungee jump to a guided tour of the Galapagos.

Ecuador is a small country, approximately the same size as Britain, and is remarkable for its diversity of environments, people and cultures. To the west, over the Cordillera Occidental, lie the mangrove swamps of the Pacific coast and 2,000 miles beyond that are the famous Galapagos Islands. To the east, over the Cordillera Oriental, water pours from the mountains to form tributaries to the Amazon Basin. In the highlands the majority of the population lives on the altiplano, a plateau formed between the two ridges of the Cordillera chains. Agriculture is the main industry but tourism is becoming increasingly important to the economy.

My travel scholarship aims were to see the giant alpine tree daisy, Espeletia, which in Ecuador is restricted to an area of grassland towards the country’s northern border with Colombia, and to find alpine Puyaspecies. Puyahas a much wider distribution in Ecuador and can be found in a range of habitats from the dry desert valleys of the equator (after which this country is named) to the snowy inclines of volcanoes such as Chimborazo (exceeding 6,000m in height) and the cloud forests of the northern sierra.

In Quito my first task was to pick up a telephone and attempt a Spanish conversation. I then ventured out into the city to acquaint myself with Q.C.A. Herbarium at Universidad Catholica and Q.C.N.E. National Herbarium. Here I studied pressed specimens of Puyaand Espeletiaand made notes from their collection details. Mercedes Asanza of Q.C.N.E. was instrumental in arranging my visit to the biological research station at Guandera in the north, and, in the company of David Suarez (a mycology and botany student) I traveled at the end of June to the wet and windy home of Espeletia pycnophylla subsp. angelensis.

Preceding this, however, I undertook a 14 hour bus journey by night from Quito due south to Loja, near the Peruvian border. My generous host Dr. Jens Madsen (Aaarhaus Botanical Institute Denmark) found work for me in the university herbarium and ensured that I was able to explore the fringes of Podocarpus National Park. Due to uncharacteristically bad weather that caused landslides left right and centre on all branches of the muddy Pan American Highway, botanical exploration had to be curtailed on more than one occasion. However I was delighted to witness the flowering of a magnificent Puyawith a 2m tall inflorescence of iridescent green flowers and yellow pollen.

The diversity of the paramo flora exceeded all my expectations and the travel scholarship, for all of its challenges and difficulties, has been one of the most rewarding experiences during my time at Kew. Financial assistance from the Kew Guild, the David Dalziel Scholarship, the R.H.S. and the A.G.S. made this trip possible. Thanks also to all those who helped, particularly Mercedes Asanza, Dr. Katya Romoleroux, Dr. Bente Klitgaard and Dr. Jens Madsen.

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