| A golden orchid in the highlands of Ollanta, Peru.
(LIP-wb) -- This is the colorful description of a journey into the heart of the mountains around Ollantaytambo in search of a magical orchid which for many years was hidden from Western eyes. Biologist Benjamín Collantes led the search and brought us this account, which all those who love nature and believe in its conservation will enjoy...
“You, who are in search of orchids, look higher and imagine what you may find in the heights of my temple, there where the condors fly swiftly. If you can’t see me, then you will at least see my golden tears in the form of golden orchids spread across the Andes.
They are tears of joy, not of sadness, because in these places my subjects preserve the ancient traditions and maintain my garden – a sanctuary which nobody enters or despoils”. I heard this ancient call in my dreams whilst in Ollanta, one of many remote corners in the Urubamba Valley.
In this way my restless urge to find the Orchid of the Sun was born, which I called Qoriwaqanki (“the wakanki of gold” – due to its similarity to the Masdevallia veitchiana
– the orchid which is the symbol of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary). One might think that the Qoriwaqanki is just a fantasy, but in fact it actually exists. Its botanical name is Masdevallia davisii
, and it was discovered by Walter Davis in Cusco in 1873.
| Masdevallia davisii flowering in the heights of Ollantaytambo.
We made our first reconnaissance trip in September of 2001, and our second expedition was supported by the Finnish Embassy, through Ambassador Mikko Pyhälä, a conservationist and long-time friend of Peru.
We went by car as far as the Yauriqunqa Pass at more than 4,300 meters above sea level. From there we began our walk among impressive scenery that appeared and disappeared in the thick mist and torrential rains.
In the Kingdom of Mist
This highland region is where the Pataqancha river is born. The inevitable rain begins to fall on us, but protected by plastic ponchos we continue on our way. Occasionally, we pass a few locals with their trains of llamas and horses loaded with potatoes, corn and other crops. In the distance condors fly high and somewhere a kestrel breaks the silence of the high plains. We also hear the sonorous song of the jakacllo
, a colorful golden-breasted bird, a little smaller than a pigeon.
| Chloraea reticulata, another one of the ground orchids which flower locally.
We approach an apacheta
, or natural shrine, where all those who pass by commend themselves to the Apu Wairaqpunku
, the spirit of the mountain that watches over this region.
| A profile image allowing a clear view of the sepaline tube.
We are still a long way from our destination, and now the vegetation begins to change from grassland (ichu
) to shrub-like vegetation interspersed with occasional small trees, and the constant birdsong and the noise of the river break the silence of the area.
On the Trail of the Golden Orchids
The following morning we wake early, keen to begin our search for the Qoriwaqanki. The first rays of the sun fall on the flowers and they gleam with an intense golden yellow. Climbing to the top of the ridge we witness the most lavish spectacle we have ever seen in all our years of research into orchids.
Before our eyes thousands of Masdevallia davisii
are spread across the slopes of the mountain, as if this place were the chosen garden of the sun god Inti
, whose tears of joy lay spilled everywhere along with drops of his sweat, all transformed into golden orchids which light up the earth.
This species has a long (20 to 30cm) stem, and so when the wind blows the flowers sway and seem to leap among the surrounding vegetation. The flowers grow both on the rocky surface of the mountain and under the thick covering of ichu
grass at intervals of between 3 and 8cm.
| A young Wayruro with the Qoriwaqanki orchid. These orchids are collected in the heights of the Pataqancha valley and offered to the local community leaders as a sign of respect.
On close observation, the flowers’ predominant feature is their thickly textured and well-developed sepals, which end in three characteristic tails (one pointing up and the other two pointing down).
At about five o’clock in the afternoon, with a fine rain falling and after studying several of the orchid colony sites, we prepared to return to camp. At that moment a small boy appeared carrying a fascinating bunch of Masdevallia davisii
flowers in his right hand.
We were astonished by this spectacle. Could this apparition possibly be real, or was it a spirit from the mountain? When we questioned him he said, “I am from the village and these lands belong to us. I have picked these flowers to take them to our mayor to pay homage to our authorities”.
Another Marvelous Apparition
| A young woman decorated with the Sun Orchid.
We had still not recovered from that happy meeting when we saw a colorfully-dressed woman coming towards us wearing a traditional hat (or montero
) which shone with the bright yellow blooms of the golden orchids.
How had this unique flower managed to prosper here in this remote corner of Ollanta? Masdevallia davisii
is not subject to over-collecting, and livestock does not feed on it. Perhaps its only enemy is the occasional forest fire which may sweep across the slopes.
Before returning the way we had come we met with the local villagers and recommended to them – as we also did with local travel agents and guides – that awareness campaigns be launched to advise people not to burn the grasslands or woodland, and that they bear in mind that these beautiful local flowers could constitute a unique attraction for specialist tour groups to the area.
- D. E. Bennett Jr. and E. Christenson: Icones Orchidacearum Peruviarum, Vol. 4 (2001)
- Willibald Königer and Berthold Würstle: Die Orchidee (1980)
- National Research Council: Lost Crops of the Incas. Promising Plans from the Andes, little expoited. (1989)
| a spray of Chloraea reticulata, a ground orchid.