Last Thursday morning, by very good fortune, I went to see the plants in flower in the páramo, the high elevation, dwarf vegetation environment found in the highest parts of the Andes and in certain peaks of Central America.
We visited the páramo (pronounced “PAH ram oh”) on about 20 km above (east of) Guaranda, or about 15 km below (west of) Chimborazo. Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador: its snow-capped peaks are 6,268 meters (20,564 ft) above sea level. Most days the peaks are surrounded with clouds, but this morning was clear and bright.
My trip was organized by Diego Gutierrez, a botanist from Spain now working in Ecuador. He had arranged for a vehicle and driver to be provided by our hosts, the Agriculture College at the Bolivar State University (UEB). Our driver William brought us from Guaranda up the winding, two lane highway that connects Guaranda with Ambato and Riobamba.
We pulled over slightly below the high plains, at patch of semi-level ground along the road. Our elevation was around 3800 m. The ground was a broken surface of hard sandy soil and nearly flat clumps of vegetation. A few flowers were obvious, especially the bright yellow dandelion-like heads of Hypochaeris sessilifolia. They grow in the typical form of páramo plants: low cushion-like or pillow-like clumps. Their leaves are also typical of the plants from these heights: very reduced in size, and the small blades are rather thick. Both of these traits are common adaptations to dry environments.
Another bright yellow inflorescence (flower cluster or head) belonged to Bidens andicola, a páramo species in the genus of “Spanish needles”, so named for the narrow black seeds with barbed hooks which it produces.
Another prominent flower was a relative of the mouse-eared chick-weed, a Cerastium species. In the family of carnations (Caryophyllaceae), this species has fuzzy gray-green leaves and five-petaled white flowers with fine lines (nectar guides for the pollinators). The fruit is a capsule which opens from the top to release its seeds.
Blue flowers were also abundant. The most showy blue flowers were those of Gentiana sedifolia, a gentian native to the high mountains from Costa Rica to Bolivia. The round flowers are about 1 1/2 inches (>3 cm) across. The gentian family (Gentianaceae) includes some of the most showy flowers in the páramo flora.
Other blue flowers aren’t so obvious, but are just as abundant. An bean family plant bears the pea-shaped flowers typical of the bean family. This species, Astragalus geminiflorus, has tiny, pinnately compound leaves (leaves with multiple leaflets arranged along a central axis, like parts of a feather) that are amazingly small: with about a dozen leaflets per side the leaves are only about an inch long. They are gray-green, covered with whitish hairs, another common adaptation of xeric (dry area) plants. Their little bean-fruits are also covered with grayish hairs, and though relatively large, are only about 1/4″ long.
Diego is particularly fond of the legumes (bean family plants), and calls for me to see another tiny representative of this global, and often woody, plant family. The tiny lupine (Lupinus microphyllus) is aptly named: “microphyllus” means “minute leaves”.
The lupines have palmately compound leaves (leaves with multiple leaflets radiating from a central point, a bit like fingers on a hand), but the leaflets of this lupine are so small (about 1/4 inch or less) that one might need a 10x hand lens to really see how they’re arranged. The lupine flower is very similar to other pea flowers, which all belong to the bean sub-family Papillionoideae (papillion: butterfly, due to the butterfly wing-like side petals of these flowers).
Knowing some of the major plant families (groups of related genera, usually with common morphological traits) helps to add meaning and interest to this sort of flower-hunting. The flowers of Pernettya prostrata are almost identical to flowers of our blueberry plant – white urn-shaped corollas with small petal-lobes surrounding a downward-facing opening. These blueberry-type flowers are designed for buzz-pollination: visiting bees buzz beneath the flower and their wing vibrations eject the pollen onto their backs, to carry to the next flower. The leaves of this Pernettya, like other páramo plants, are tiny and thick.
Another well-known northern plant family is the Rosaceae, named for Rosa, the genus of roses. Included in the Rosaceae are the apples (Malus), pears (Pyrus), cherries, peaches, plums and apricots (Prunus), blackberries and raspberries (Rubus), and strawberries (Fragaria). Here in the páramo one Rosaceae is abundant and in flower, but its flowers are inconspicuous to our eyes. They’re a light green-yellow color, and lack petals. The leaves are rather round and folded with zig-zag edges, like an oriental fan. This genus, Lachimella, includes some 80 species, ranging from southern California to Chile, and 34 of these grow in the páramos from Costa Rica to Peru. There appear to be two different Lachimella species growing on the rocky ground here, differing in leaf lobe-depth, inflorescence shape and flower number, however its also possible that they belong to one highly variable species. One of these species is likely Lachimella orbiculata, a common ground cover in high open areas.
Another member of the rose family Rosaceae was in fruit, its flowers matured and passed. This miniature plant, like its neighbors, was only a few inches high, and its pinnate leaves only about an inch long. Its fruits were covered with hooked hairs or barbs, a means of dispersal on the fur of animals one assumes. This plant, Acaena elongata, belongs to a genus of about 100 species, mostly Southern hemisphere in distribution, especially New Zealand, Australia and South America. Like Lachimella, its flowers lack petals.
I climbed down a drainage ditch that led below the rim of the upper pull-over area, and found another much of a muchness of floral diversity. The yellow “little slipper flowers” (“zapatillas”) of a Calceolaria species stand out with their pouch-like petals. Their flowers provide the pollinator-bees with oils instead of sugary-nectar, a welcome reward at these chilly high elevation environments. This genus is species-rich: 260 species from Mexico to the tip of South America (Tierro del Fuego), with 65 páramo species. Perhaps this one is Calceolaria rosmarinifolia.
Growing on rocks below the drop-off is a beautiful red and yellow flower with a long, bell-shaped corolla: Gentianella cernua. Red flowers often attract hummingbirds, while yellow flowers are typically bee-pollinated. I wonder who pollinates these! As the genus name suggests, this flower belongs to the gentian family.
The Gentian family (Gentianaceae) is also represented here by Halenia weddelliana, a common páramo species, but a most bizarre flower. Halenia flowers are yellow-green and have four long nectar spurs extending from their petals. The flowers hang downwards, and the pointy spurs point up. The name of this plant in Quichua is Turugacacho, which translated means “bull’s horns”. The common name in Spanish is the same: cacho de venado. All this complex floral morphology suggests a specialized pollinator: I wonder what insect we can thank for this service.
Another red blossoming plant here is the Indian Paintbrush, which grows amid the rocks and grass. Its genus, Castellija includes some 200 species, mostly in western North America, with a handful of species from the eastern US, from north Asia, and from Central and South America. The páramo hosts three Castellija species. Their bright red surfaces aren’t petals – they’re bracts, or modified leaves surrounding the inconspicuous flowers. They perform the same function as colorful petals- to attract pollinators. Castellija species are hemiparasitic (half parasites): they’re both photosynthetic (their green, chlorophyllous leaves make sugar) and parasitic (their roots tap into the roots of other plants to take nutrients.
We climbed the few meters back to the roadside area, photographed a few more species, and then crossed the highway to have a look at the grassy páramo on the hill opposite our pullover. We entered the hilly terrain where an old dirt road had eroded deeply into the soft dirt. Páramo grass, Calamogrostis intermedia, covered the hilly ground with its clumped, needle-like brown-green blades. Parts of this area had been burned about three years ago, and there was evidence of grazing near the roadway. From a distance one wouldn’t guess that the spaces between the páramo grass were bright with the colorful blossoms of low-growing páramo plants.
The páramo plants here showed the classic growth structure for this habitat: mound-shaped pillows growing in low clumps, with their tiny leaves held tight to the surface, the flowers just above the leafy cushion. Their stems grow deep beneath the surface, branching underground where they slow grow atop the wind-blown soil. One of the cushion-plants flowering there was Azorella tridentata, a carrot family (Apiaceae) species with three-pronged leaves and tiny white flowers.
Another big pillow-plant, belong to the sunflower family (Asteraceae), is Baccharis caespitosa (“caespitose” means “growing in small clumps or tufts”). Baccharis, like all Asteraceae, bears its flowers in heads (tight clusters with surrounding scale-leaves). The flowers of Baccharis are all small tube-flowers; the daisy-like ray flowers are absent from this genus. Baccharis species are numerous in the páramo, but most are trees and shrubs. Two Baccharis species occur along the coast of North Carolina. The páramo has about 52 Baccharis species; South America has about 400.
Werneria nubigena is another member of the sunflower family. This small plant has thick strap-like leaves growing in two rows, the white and yellow daisy-like head of flowers (inflorescence) held close to the ground between the low-spreading leaves.
The Asteraceae (sunflower family) is one of the most diverse and distinctive parts of the páramo flora. The small plant Loricaria thuyoides looks almost fern-like, but is a member of the Asteraceae. The tiny overlapping scale-like leaves help this plant survive the cold and wind of the páramo. Even without flowers, this species is distinctive.
A valerian species presents its clusters of white flowers on a long stem to get above the bunched grasses. This species may be Valeriana microphylla.
Genera familiar from the southeast US (or Tennessee mountain) flora are also present: a geranium (perhaps Geranium multipartitum)
and a buttercup (perhaps Ranunculus praemorsus) flower between the mounds of páramo grass.
Ferns are also quite present in places not covered by the grass, as along the trench-like banks of the deep-worn animal paths. A fern with entire (un-lobed, un-divided) leaves is Elaphoglossum.
Its fertile leaves are covered with spores on their bottom side. Another fern encountered in the fertile condition has spores in clusters (sori) on the leaf underside. This one may be a Thelypteris, another genus with species in the Tennessee mountains.
One plant that had us guessing (what is it?) for a while was Eryngium humile, a member of the carrot family. This páramo species, from a widespread genus also represented in Tennessee, grows in a low clump – called a basal rosette – with a circle of small, stiff leaves surrounding a central flower cluster. This basal rosette growth form occurs in páramo species of many different families, and thus exemplifies convergent evolution for this growth form.
We returned to the truck and proceeded up a couple kilometers up the highway to the rather flat plain which sits below the towering slopes of Chimborazo. There the vegetation was more intermittent, the ground more wind-swept and eroded. Even so, the clumps of plants amid the desert-like dusty volcanic soil.
I was really impressed to see the pale purple flowers of a member of the mallow family (Malvaceae), because I associate this family with warm habitats, not the cold wind-blown páramo. The flower was unmistakable: members of this family, which includes okra, cotton and hibiscus, have a very distinctive tube, formed of the stalks of the stamens (the male reproductive parts), bearing the anthers on a column which surrounds the style (the stalk of the ovary, the female reproductive part). This flower type is a familiar motif on Hawaiian shirts. This species is Nototriche hartwegii. It normally occurs at or over 4000 m elevation (13,200 feet).
Close by was a large Chiquiraga plant, with its distinctive tops of orange-red bracts (modified leaves). This high-páramo plant, Chuquiraga jussieui, is used medicinally in teas as a diuretic and kidney anti-inflammatory. It’s another unusual member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae. The leaves are stiff and prickly. The flowers are bright yellow, but are smaller than the overlapping red bracts. The genus includes 20 species from the Andes of Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, and grows to elevations of 4750 m (15,700 feet).
Another very strange cushion plant is Eudema rubigena. I was surprised to find a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) growing here, but the flowers, with four petals (“crucifer” or cross-bearing) is a key trait for this largely temperate plant family. Eudema is yet another cushion-plant, its low build and thick leaves in a basal rosette protecting the stem from páramo’s wind, drifting soil, cold and high light.
Before leaving – we had a lunch meeting in Salinas de Guaranda – we stopped by the statue of Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1759-1859). In 1802 and 1803 Von Humboldt traveled in Ecuador, from Guayaquil on the coast to the snowy peaks of Chimborazo. The field of biogeography, which examines the distributions of species, is founded on his publications, including his book “The Geography of Plants”, which is based on his botanical travels in Ecuador and around the world. The von Humboldt statue stands in front of a small museum, closed at the time of our visit.
[see detailed information on von Humboldt at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt]
Upon leaving the von Humboldt statue, we drove 1-2 kilometers towards Ambato and the Via Flores (the Flower Road). The old cobblestone roadway is visible along the newly repaved asphalt of the new two-lane highway.
It follows the ancient Inca and pre-Inca road which connected Guayaquil and the coastal cities with Ambato and the cities of the inter-Andean valley, including Riobamba and Quito. This ancient road ran through Guaranda on its way across the western cordillera of the Andes. Along the road we passed a flock of vicuñas. Thousands of hectares surrounding Chimborazo are protected as a wildlife sanctuary.
In just two hours of sunny-bright morning we’ve seen over 30 species in flower. Most are small plants, a few inches or under a foot high. They represent diverse plant families. Ferns, mosses, lichens and mushrooms were also present. What a pleasant, continuing surprise to see, photograph and puzzle out the identity of these bizarre and beautiful species. I feel most fortunate to have had the chance to visit the Chimborazo páramo in blossom time! I recommend the trip to anyone who may get the opportunity. Many thanks to all who’ve helped make my trip possible.
A super web resource for information on the plants of the páramo is provided the Missouri Botanical Garden botanist Dr. Carmen Ulloa Ulloa and associates.
See the excellent links for greater detail on the paramo vegetation, especially an introduction to the páramo by New York Botanica Garden botanist Dr. James L. Luteyn.
A well illustrated description of the páramo at Cajas Nationa Park near Cuenca is provided by MBG Drs. Ulloa and Peter Jørgensen, with both english and spanish text.
For a great resource available on-line, but actually the pdf files of a great book, see the amazingly well written (in Spanish) and superbly illustrated volume by Erwin Patzelt titled “Flora del Ecuador”. It’s found on-line in a series of pdf files at:
The chapter on the paramo vegetation is in file 2, especially pages 24-56, at:
Some of the botanical names have changed since this 1995 book was published.
A similarly book by Patzelt on the “Fauna del Ecuador” is also on-line in pdf:
Another useful on-line source is a study of one páramo in Columbia. This is the reference:
Madriñán, S. & F. Zapata. 2001. Flora Ilustrada del Páramo de Chingaza, Colombia. Laboratorio de Botánica & Sistemática, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá [http://chingaza.uniandes.edu.co/FIC/].
It includes many photos for plant species, found on the web pages linked to here: