High in the cloud forests of the Tropical Andes, picking her way through the misted foliage of Las Orquídeas National Park, NYBG botanist Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa goes about the business of collecting plant specimens. This northwest Colombian landscape is renowned for its biodiversity–it is said to have more examples of plant, animal, and microbial life than almost any other ecosystem on earth. But that’s not necessarily the only reason that Pedraza, a Colombian native and Associate Curator of our Institute of Systematic Botany, has returned. While her work is indeed groundbreaking, her motivations extend well beyond the everyday specimen collections that take place day and night here in South America.
Far from the mere process of cataloging plant life, it is the shrinking timeframe and the aggravating factors surrounding it that make Paola’s undertaking so significant.
Once controlled by armed revolutionaries, indicative of the struggles facing Colombia throughout its late history, Las Orquídeas–named for some 200 species of orchids that grow there–remained off limits to the efforts of botanists. Recording the diversity of plant life within its borders became a pipe dream for an academic community anxious to uncover the Andres’ secrets. But the recent withdrawal of these militias has opened the park to exploration and conservation efforts. And with the proverbial gates now open, scientists face a new suite of challenges–many of them a greater threat to the plants and animals being studied than the armed gunmen ever were.
Each day had its findings. Each day came with at least one amazing plant that brought all work to a stop. That plant could be one we thought was special because of its rarity (restricted geographic distribution), or one that locals use in some interesting way; sometimes a plant could be deemed special just because it is simply too beautiful. We have selected some of our favorite plants to share them with you.
So what exactly does a botanist do in the field? In the field we look for plants that are in reproductive state, those bearing flowers or/and fruits. Reproductive structures are necessary to differentiate between closely looking species. For each species, we collect flowers, fruits, and leaves; these samples are processed and later dried for future study. The dried and mounted plant samples are called herbarium specimens and they are known to last for hundreds of years.
Las Orquídeas National Park is tucked into the westernmost mountain chain of Colombia, a part of the great Andean Cordillera. In the park the terrain is steep and rough and is crossed by many rivers and streams that originate in the upper part of the mountains. The constant presence of water makes these humid forests a source of abudant epiphytic plants. Epiphytes, like many bromeliads and orchids, are plants that grow on other plants without killing them. Epiphytes root in the humid mixture of mosses and decaying matter that cover the branches of the trees; they are a forest on top of the forest.
The Andes mountain chain, which crosses South America from north to south, is the longest in the world. The Andean forests of the northern range (Tropical Andes hotspot) are home to a level of plant diversity that is without match anywhere else in the world; they are also subject to high rates of deforestation, thus these forests are considered a top priority for conservation. Unfortunately, Andean forests remain insufficiently studied and protected. This lack of baseline information is often times the first impediment to effective conservation: It is impossible to efficiently protect what we do not know or understand.
After 14 days collecting plants in the field, we returned to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital with nearly 700 plant collections, and more than 10,000 photographs. Behind us we left Las Orquídeas National Park‘s 32 thousand hectares of rare and endangered tropical and montane forests, which make it part of one of the most biologically rich ecosystems of the world: the Andean and Chocó forests. We left behind more than 2,000 species of vascular plants, some of them still unknown to the science and probably not found anywhere else.