Flora | Galapagos Unbound

Flora

GET ON ECUADOR’S GREEN SIDE

 

If you’re looking for a place where the verdure is riotous and as exotic as the wildlife, Ecuador is the place to visit.

Over 10% of the world’s plant species can be found in Ecuador. The highest percentage of these plant species can be found in northwestern Ecuador, in the Andes. More than 10,000 different plant species grow in this region, and around one half of them are endemic.

The Amazon, or Oriente, isn’t far behind with 8,200 species growing in that portion of the jungle. 2,725 species of orchids alone have been identified. The Ecuadorian region with the lowest percentage of flora is the volcanic Galápagos Islands, which boast of a ‘mere’ 600 native plant species and 250 introduced.

If you want to put these staggering numbers into perspective, they can be compared to the 17,000 species that grow on the entire North American continent. Essentially, whereas there are extensive populations of fewer plant species in North America and Europe, Ecuador is sprawling with smaller populations of more—much more—plant species. Throughout the entire country, 25,00 species grow--a testament to the importance of climatic diversity and the importance of conserving Ecuador’s biodiversity.

 

ECUADOR VEGETATIVE ZONES

MANGROVE SWAMPS

Mangrove trees develop along the tidal zones of bays of coasts and river deltas, and they have evolved to largely prefer the brackish salt water of these regions. In Ecuador, the largest sprawl of mangroves can be found in San Lorenzo, in northern Esmeraldas, along the estuary of the Cayapas and Santiago Rivers. The most developed and tallest mangroves are found in this region, inside the Reserva Ecológica de Manglares Cayapas Mataje (Ecological Mangrove Reserve Cayapas-Mataje). Here, the Red Mangrove (Rhizophoroa mangle) can grow over 30 meters tall in some mangrove stands.

Ecuador’s mangrove stands are predominately made up of Rhizophora harrisonii and R. mangle, and different Neotropical species are found inland. The Gulf of Guayaquil also has extensive mangrove swamps, though these mangrove stands have suffered the most destruction over the past 25 years. During that time, the mangroves were destroyed to create diked ponds for shrimp production. Despite Ecuadorian conservation laws to protect the mangrove stands, the industry of shrimp aquaculture has begun to move to the Esmeraldas mangroves.

 

COASTAL DESERT AND THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

Ecuador’s southwestern coast and the Peninsula of Santa Elena are similar in climate and vegetation to the Galápagos Islands: dry and arid. With low annual precipitation and a long dry season, arid scrub vegetation is the go-to flora of this region. Columnar cacti such as the Cardon (Armatocereus cartwrightianus) and scrubs carpet these areas. Similar vegetation occurs throughout the Galápagos Islands, and the islands have several plant species in common with mainland Ecuador. The Candelabra Cactus, for instance, can be found in both regions.

 

ECAUDOR’S COASTAL LOWLANDS AND CENTRAL COASTAL PLAIN

Coastal Lowlands

Savanna and deciduous forests occur in Ecuador’s coastal lowlands. Unfortunately, the vegetation in these areas has been so altered by prolonged human intervention that determining the region’s inherent natural vegetation is difficult. The savanna’s grasslands have been long affected by human fires meant to subdue the forests and develop plantations and farmlands. Further, the forests of western Ecuador were markedly deforested between 1938 and 1988, when the country’s pursuit of oil and their economic reliance on banana exports were at their height. During this period, around 90% of the region’s forests were destroyed.

In the deciduous forests, the most conspicuous tree is the Bombacaceae tree Ceiba trichistandra with its distorted, gnarled and thick limbs and trunk shadowed by the wide umbrella canopy of their branches. They top the forest canopy with their impressive height of 60 meters, a height aided by the buttresses that support their columnar trunks.

In Ecuador’s savanna regions along the alluvial plains, Mimosaceae trees are the most common sight. The Rain Tree (Albizia saman), a wide-canopied tree, is one of the most prolific trees amongst this region. It’s easy to spot as its umbrella-shaped crown can reach over 80 meters wide and it stands easily 60 meters tall.

Central coastal plains

Much like the coastal lowlands, the central coastal plain has also been incredibly affected by agriculture. As extensive regions of Ecuador’s coast have been cleared, two palm trees are often the only tree species remaining in agricultural regions.  A canopy palm and an understory palm are pervasive to the semi-deciduous forest of Ecuador’s central coastal plains. The royal palm, or chivila (Attalea colenda), is a canopy palm native to this region of Ecuador and southwestern Colombia.

The Ecuadorian ivory palm (Phytelephas aequatorialis) is an understory palm also endemic to western Ecuador. Both palms are economically important to the region. Whereas the royal palm is a lucrative source of kernel oil, the Ecuadorian ivory palm is a primary source of Ecuadorian vegetable ivory—or tagua. Tagua is named vegetable ivory for its resemblance to the elephant variety, and as such the palm seeds are an important resource.

 

LOWLAND RAINFORESTS OF NORTHWESTERN ECUADOR

Identifying flora in Ecaudor’s rainforest is no easy task, and it’s a task that no one believes has been completed. With over 4,000 varieties of vascular plants discovered with no sign of stopping and over 650 species of trees identified within a given hectare of the Yasuní National Park, the numbers testify to the amazing biodiversity of the region and the work botanists have ahead of them. In the rainforest, plants are not only the architects of the rainforest, but the architecture.

Although the rainforest looks filled to the brim with plants, you’re likely to find a variety of species rather than a surplus of the same. While the rainforest may seem to have an overabundance of plant life, the plant life actually has evolved in diverse and unusual ways to survive the harsh landscape. It’s a hard knock life in the Amazon.

In this jungle world dripping with vines, two plants of the Oriente stand out: the kapok tree and the naranjilla. Kapok trees are rainforest giants, and they can reach up to 200 feet. They can also grow over 13 feet in a year—an impressive growth spurt. They go by a variety of names, however, so in Ecuador you’re more likely to hear them referred to as ceiba trees.

The naranjilla, on the other hand, is a small gem of the jungle known in Spanish as “little orange.” The naranjilla is also known as lulo, obando, nuqui, and cocona. These plants have attractive thorn-covered purple flowers that protect the hairy orange fruit. Naranjillas are incredibly popular as a fruit in Ecuador, and while it’s commonly used as a juice they can also be used in desserts and savory dishes. If you find one in the wild, beware the thorns and don’t be scared off that the “little orange” actually has green juice.

 

The Amazon’s Plant Protection Program

Plants of the rainforest may not be Venus flytraps, but they definitely aren’t defenseless. Their methods and strategies are wide and far ranging. Some secrete harmful toxins to repel insect assailants, some are covered in thorns a la Little Shop of Horrors, and others have evolved to simply taste terrible. Tough leaves, latex and resin outer coatings, or nutritionally poor produce are excellent strategies a little less flora fatale.

 

Epiphytes: Nature’s Piggyback

Epiphytes are species that live on other plants rather than living off the rainforest floor. They are so ubiquitous to Ecuador’s lowland rainforest that botanists estimate that they constitute about a fourth of the region’s plant species. A variety of mosses, cacti, orchids, and ferns reside on other plant species or can even exist largely suspended in air sustained in part by soil carried by the wind.

Bromeliads, related to the pineapple family, can be little ecosystems all on their own. They can be terrestrial or found as epiphytes, and their waxy leaves form a bowl that catches rainwater and other nutrient-laden detritus. These aqua-filled basins provide the perfect sanctuary for creatures such as tree frogs and snails, and up to 250 species are known to inhabit bromeliads for this reason.

In this family of epiphytes and creepers are a number of aroids, which begin their life tendrils to the ground before taking to the trees. After awhile, aroids survive off their aerial roots and loose their ground roots, surviving as climbing epiphytes.

 

Walking on Palms and Vines

Palms and vines are some of the rainforest’s most distinctive elements, and they create many of the highways and homes for the resident wildlife.

Palms not only serve as a vital part of the Amazon’s ecosystem but the country’s economy, as they often have commercial value as both products and oil. Palm trees are also members of the Amazon’s hyperdominant species, of which there are remarkably few. The most popular species among the Amazon canopy is a palm tree called Euterpe precatoria.

Vines also come in several varieties: bole climbers clamber up tree trunks; stranglers do what they do best and wrap around trees, sometimes choking them; and lianas hang down from the canopy.

 

CLOUD FORESTS

Ecuador’s cloud forests run along the western and eastern slopes of the Andes, and higher montane rainforests are sometimes considered cloud forests as well. These forests get their name from the near-constant mist that covers the forest as the region’s higher elevations not only capture clouds but help create them. The Spanish term ceja andina ("eyebrows of the mountains") is often used for the elfin forest near the upper limit of forest. As this region is perpetually misted by cloud cover, they resemble fluffy eyebrows topping the mountains’ features.

Compared to the lower rainforests, cloud forests are more verdant, lush, and cool. With the moisture that’s often in the air, the forests are filled with mosses blanketing the tree trunks, orchids popping out between the moss bunches, ferns dangling down the branches, and algae covering leaves. It’s an epiphyte world, and Ecuador’s cloud forests literally offer layers upon layers of verdure.

Ecuador has an incredible array of orchids (over 4,2000 documented species and counting), and they are all unique, exotic, and beautiful. Some, however, get a bit more attention than others. One such orchid growing in Ecuador’s cloud forests is the monkey faced orchid—an orchid whose name is shockingly accurate. With its blooming leaves, it resembles a monkey face surrounded by manes of hair. When it is in full bloom, it also smells like sweet orange. It’s scientific name (Dracula simia) comes from “Dracula,” due to the long fang-like points of the flower, and “simia” for it’s monkey face. For this reason, it’s also referred to as the monkey-like Dracula.

Ecuador is also home to the world’s smallest species of orchid. It’s just over 2 millimeters wide and virtually transparent as its petals appear a single cell thick. Lou Jost, the botanist who discovered the minute flower, has yet to name the orchid.

 

FUN FACT:

One recently discovered endemic plant species has an interesting plot twist to its discovery. The Apparating Moon-Gentian was discovered in the Podocarpus National Park by a couple who thought nothing of the plant when they first passed it as it had no flowers or fruits. Upon giving up their botanical exploration for the night, they turned around to discover a profusely flowering plant where one hadn’t appeared before—as if it had apparated there better than Dumbledore himself. Taken by the allusion to the Harry Potter illusion, the couple decided the endangered flower’s magical discovery story part of history forever.

 

PÁRAMO

The cloud forests lead the way to the páramo, the scrublands that dominate the Andes. This uniquely neotropic habitat can only be found in the highlands ranging from Costa Rica to northern Peru—below the areas that receive snow, but above the tree line. The páramo’s harsh environment lends to hard grasses, small trees, cushion plants, and small herbaceous plants—mostly compact and low-to-the-ground plants that can withstand the wind and altitude. Although this might seem like a bare landscape, recent studies have claimed that South America’s páramos are the fastest evolving natural community in the world.  

The major exception to the páramo’s level look is the exotic and towering (comparatively) espeletia, nicknamed frailejones (‘gray friars’) by locals. These plants with their yellow daisy-like flowers and wide rosettes stand out on the páramo landscape as they grow as tall as the thickets of trees. The espeletia aren’t just a pretty face, however. Their thick trunks covered in succulent, hairy leaves are not just for looks. Rather, their spongy torso captures water vapor from clouds and then releases it through the roots. Once the water is transferred to the soil, it serves to create extensive subterranean water deposits that can ultimately form rivers. They form an important part of the high-altitude ecosystem with their role in water sustainability.

The páramo is also known for its dense thickets of trees—most of the Polylepsis variety. Though botanists suggest that Polylepsis trees used to grow rampantly throughout the Andean mountains, they have suffered from habitat fragmentation since the time of the Incas. The Polylepsis species are now considered endangered with one of the rarest types of the species only found in Northern Ecuador. Despite that, they remain highly visible as they are some of the world’s highest-growing trees and they make a stunning, fantastical sight with their papery, peeling skin.