February 5, 2013

Tropiflora's News letter

If you don't get Tropiflora's News letter every week your missing a very good read.

Dennis Cathcart  of Tropiflora not only grows some of the best bromeliads and other rare plants but is a great writer as well. His stories of collecting plants in the wild is a must read. This week Tropiflora's News letter was one of the best.
Encholirium species Minas Gerais 95-0191 WB

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 This is a cut and paste of his News letter.


A Collector’s Missive, part 2

I have often felt as though I was born a generation or two too late. Before World War Two, plant collectors were not treated as a pariah, but rather celebrated as those that made discoveries and advanced science or horticulture. Sadly this is no longer the case. Even amongst plant lovers, those that actually go and collect them are often looked upon as sometimes less than honorable. That’s a shame. We have made many worthy contributions to science and horticulture by the discovery of new species, the introductions of new varieties, the reporting of important field data and bringing awareness to the plight of some species and habitats. On every expedition, part of our precious space was always given to botanical specimens for pure science. The bulk of such specimens that we collected ended up at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, but many also went to other herbariums and botanical gardens too.

I can remember several occasions when plants we brought back to Harry Luther, director of the Mulford B. Foster Bromeliad Identification Center at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, were especially well received, and not just those that were new to science. Once I had found a Tillandsia cyanea in southern Ecuador that had bloomed and set seed and I took the infructescence thinking to perhaps grow the seeds. When Harry saw the seed filled spike he was quite excited and said that this was the first time that this plant had been found with seed set in nature. Such a commonly cultivated plant, who knew? So, instead of growing the seed, Harry made a herbarium sheet of the infructescence, the first of its kind. I knew that Harry was always keen on finding plants from far flung parts of their ranges to ascertain the variability within a species across a wide area, and so I would frequently bring him common plants from distant places. One was the common Tillandsia juncea, and I added plants to Selby’s collection from countries from Belize to Bolivia, lending valuable data to the records to aid future taxonomic work. On occasion we had ‘special requests’ to find and bring back material or data for study or to complete a record. One such instance was Tillandsia subteres.

By the early ‘90s, this plant was already in cultivation but without an identity. It had been exported from Honduras in mixed shipments of orchids and Tillandsias by Enrique Kamm, a Swiss orchid grower and collector living in Honduras. It had been assumed to be a Tillandsia copanensis by some and was being sold under that name, as that rare species was also still little known in cultivation. Steve Correale of Miami was amongst the first to have this plant as he had actively imported orchids and sometimes other plants from Mr. Kamm in the pre C.I.T.E.S. days. When this plant was first brought to the attention of Harry Luther, all that was known was that the plant had come in originally from Honduras. Harry recognized it as something unrecorded and proceeded to do the preliminary work to describe it as a new species. Lacking any field data, its reported origin of Copan, in northern Honduras was not verified and was suspect. No one had ever encountered this species before in Copan, and such a large, decorative and apparently abundant species, if there, would surely have been noted before as the area had been well explored. Mr. Kamm had long since stopped exporting with the advent of C.I.T.E.S. (the endangered species act) and did not know from exactly where the plant had come.

In early 1992 I was preparing a trip to Honduras to collect bromeliads and was contacted by Harry to do some investigative work while I was there. He wanted to know the true locality where this new plant had been found so it would not have to be published as ‘ex hort’, something that no taxonomist likes to do. So I gladly accepted the challenge and headed off to the wilds of Honduras. Mr. Kamm had started growing Tillandsias for us a few years prior, and we would periodically visit his farm and while there, always try to spend at least some time in the field exploring. I asked Mr. Kamm if it would be possible to find the plant soon to be named subteres, in the wild. What he told me was interesting and what we learned was shocking. When Mr. Kamm used to export orchids and some Tillandsias, most were gathered by local farmers and Mr. Kamm would basically only clean and sort them for shipment. Occasionally they would come in with a plant that was new or different and even if he asked, they would not disclose the locality where it was found, preferring to protect their source. But it had been a long time since Mr. Kamm had bought plants from the collectors and he had never learned where the subteres was found. He did however remember the name of the original collector as Humberto and agreed to try to locate him. Our journey started by visiting his village and inquiring as to his whereabouts. We learned that he had moved some years before. After some more inquiries we found his new village and went there to talk with him. He was glad to see Mr. Kamm and missed the days when he could augment his income selling ‘parasitos’. When Mr. Kamm inquired about the Tillandsia in question, at first Humberto did not remember. Luckily we had brought one from Mr. Kamm’s garden and upon seeing it, his eyes lit up. Oh yes, he remembered that plant, it was from a very remote place. I was keen on finding the plant in the wild, the first outsider to do so, and asked if he could take us there. That’s when things got interesting.

It seems that this guy wouldn’t and couldn’t take us to the location because some years before, his son had murdered another man in village near the plant’s locality. To reach the locality, we would have to pass through this village and he and all of the rest of his family were persona non grata there. In fact, he insisted that he would be killed if he or anyone from his family showed their faces there. He was adamant but so was I. Having come so far and to be only a relative few miles from the locality of the plant I had come to find, I did not want to take no for an answer. Consulting with Mr. Kamm, we came up with a plan and Humberto actually liked it. On the following day we showed up early at his home with two trucks, each with three armed men in the back. Humberto got in the cab between me and Mr. Kamm and two of his friends, also armed, climbed in the back of the truck. Following his directions we made our way down rough, narrow mountain roads that likely were not on any map. Just before noon we passed through a small village where he had said his life would be in danger. The sight of two truckloads of armed men got the attention of everyone and likely someone recognized Humberto seated between me and Mr. Kamm. I’m not sure, but I think showing up in the village with a small army somehow made Humberto feel good, a show of strength or something. I didn’t ask him, but you could read his face and for sure, something was going on that made him smile. Anyway we passed through without incident and drove on another hour or so to a place that Humberto indicated was near the locality for the subteres.

Leaving two armed men with the trucks, we climbed a barbed wire fence and started our trek down the mountain towards a forest. Neither I nor Mr. Kamm knew how far we had to go on foot, but after an hour or so, with Humberto repeatedly saying ‘not too much further’, Mr. Kamm turned back toward the trucks. As we continued on not much was said. My Spanish was quite rudimentary and none of the others spoke English, so I pretty much just followed Humberto’s lead. We passed from pasture to forest and through the forest to a narrow trail along an escarpment. It was sometime late afternoon when Humberto indicated that the plants were located at the base of a cliff, somewhere below where we stood. I should take this opportunity to mention that I am a flatlander, and mountain travel is a real chore for me. Even given that I was only in my early 40s then and pretty fit, we had been walking basically downhill for a few hours, from over 5,000 feet to our present location at about 3,000 feet, with the prospect of now climbing down a cliff. It wasn’t a sheer cliff but rather a steep slope that was, thankfully, fairly heavily wooded. The trees lent much need navigational tools to prevent crashing down the steep slope! By now the sun was behind the mountains and it was getting to be twilight. In the forest it was darker and I felt the need to hurry. Going downhill ought to be quick and easy, but when the forest is full of ledges and drop-offs, and carpeted with really giant sized, spiny Hechtias, things do not move as quickly as we would have liked. Fortunately it was cool and I had on a jacket, which was needed now more for protection from the spines than from the evening cool. In fact we were sweating quite profusely in our haste, trying to beat the loss of light. Too late, darkness fell before we reached the bottom and between us eight men, there were only three flashlights. I suppose it’s a miracle that we had those as most of us did not suspect it would take until after dark to reach the plants, but thought we might need them during our climb back out.

Finally, we emerged out of the forest at the base of the escarpment and looking around I didn’t see anything that looked like a Tillandsia. Humberto indicated to follow him and we walked along the base of the slope until it became steeper and more cliff-like. After just a few dozen yards or so, there on the ground and up the slope was a colony of many large T. subteres, some in bloom. I can’t express how delighted I was as I had been doubtful that we would find them after all this time. Sadly though, now it was dark and photographing the habitat would be out of the question. Luckily I had carried my flash and proceeded to photograph the plants in situ for the first time, for the permanent record. This is all that Harry really needed; proof that the plants existed in that location, and of course, the location itself which had been unknown. I took quite a few pictures and took a blooming plant and a few offsets from other clones, there were hundreds of them, but no one, least of all me, wanted to carry more back up the mountain to the trucks.

The climb up was arduous but because it was dark and with nothing to see, we pressed on at a fast pace. I, of course, was the slowest, struggling with climbing in the relatively thinner air. I declined an offer of a flashlight because I needed both hands to climb! The worst part was through the forest with the Hechtia understory which was not only spiny, but very steep with poor footing. After that it was all relatively easier, even so I thought I’d die of exhaustion. I am sure the others were quite amused.

We reached the truck about 8 p.m. to find Mr. Kamm and the others patiently waiting and napping. No one had approached them in the hours that we were gone and we did not see another soul either. Passing through the village on our way out after dark was a bit tense, but nothing happened and soon we were safely out of the valley. After dropping Humberto off at his home, we reached Mr. Kamm’s house at almost midnight. No matter where you are in Honduras, it’s not a good idea to be out on the roads at that late hour, but luck was with us and we arrived safely. In a few days I returned to Florida with the plant specimens, data and precious photos. Within a week I had the slides developed and was sitting in the research building at Selby, going over the trip details with Harry. In the January-February 1993 BSI Journal, Harry published the article describing the ‘new’ Tillandsia subteres. My photos, one taken at the type locality, in the dark, and another taken in Mr. Kamm’s nursery illustrated the article. A brief mention was made about the “difficult and dangerous access in a rough and remote part of Honduras”, and now you know the whole story…

I hope Dennis is OK with me re-printing it here.

Tillandsia subteres

Tillandsia subteres


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