Ecuador’s Wonderful Ferns by Martin Rickard - NatureTrek, 30 April 2012

Blechnum auratum subsp. auratum, Ecuador

I have sometimes been pressurised into writing accounts of various exploratory fern trips in exotic places to no avail. Usually they are joint trips with other fern enthusiasts and thus written up by others, or not, in my opinion, sufficiently interesting to merit a report. My recent venture into the Andes of Ecuador was an exception. It possibly ranks as the best fern paradise I have ever visited.

The trip was organised by Naturetrek under the heading of Andean Flora of Ecuador. We were led by a very knowledgeable and likeable botanist/ornithologist, Gustavo Canas. The main thread of the trip was to sample some of the 3,700 species of orchid known to grow in Ecuador. Other plants of interest were noted on the way. We were only 4 on the trip; I was the only ferny. Gustavo knew most plants by at least their genus, but not the ferns! That did not worry me, as I can appreciate beautiful and interesting ferns without having to know their names! Fortunately I did go on a recent fern trip to Costa Rica so some of the plants we saw were familiar, if only at generic level.

The trip started slowly: seeing some sites in Quito, including the fruit and vegetable market – amazing! They certainly have a lot of fruits – they certainly have a lot of traffic too – at least in the Quito region! Our first night was in the beautiful Hacienda Leito in very rural countryside at an altitude of 2540 metres in the hills north of Banos and east of Patate. From the dining room we overlooked the gently smoking, yet snow-capped, volcano Tungurahua (5023m) in the far distance. (Since our return home it has erupted much more spectacularly. Naturetrek changed our itinerary to this Hacienda away from a hotel near Banos for safety reasons.) The next morning we drove up a rural road (actually a track!) into a hilly area to the east of the hotel. There were lots of ferns in the hedges and on banks but the highlight for me, at just under 3000m, was a splendid plant of Dicksonia sellowiana. Unlike plants I’d seen a few years earlier in Costa Rica, this plant was just the right height to photograph and examine its sori and the hairs in the crown. Nearby were: Asplenium monanthes, Polypodium monosorum, and as yet unidentified species ofPolystichum, Adiantum, Diplazium, Elaphoglossum, Grammitis etc. etc. A little further along the road on our descent I saw my first Lophosoria quadripinnata, not much bigger than the plant in my garden back in central England! We soon stopped for lunch and, strolling off with my sandwiches, I was fascinated by the frequent tufts of various species of Huperzia. The rest of the day was spent in semi-urban areas on the outskirts of Banos – ferny, but nothing which really got me excited apart from trees abundantly festooned with bromeliads etc. and magnificent plants of Asplenium uniseriale with metre-long fronds all rooting at their tips.

The next day we botanised a very dry, rocky area in the river valley near Banos at about 2000 metres – plenty of rather splendid orchids and beautiful Passion flowers. Not surprisingly there were few ferns but I did see a xerophytically modified polypodium looking suspiciously like Pleopeltis thyssanolepis together with masses of Cheilanthes bonariensis. Passing the bungee jumping area of Banos (we did not have time for frivolous things like that) we took a long drive east into the fringes ofAmazonia at Puyo. Here the attraction was a collection of native orchids. There were inevitably plenty of ferns, some unidentified filmies and a magnificent Lophosoria quadripinnata.

The next morning we quit the very pleasant Hacienda Leito and struggled with traffic for about two hours through a confusing patchwork of villages – even our local guides seemed to be lost! Our prize was worth it! We skirted the great Volcano Chimborazo reaching 4300metres, pretty high! The main mountain with huge cliffs of glaciers loomed above, reaching a height of 6310 metres. Walking 100 yards, even on the flat, required frequent pauses for breath. No ferns at all here but the alpine flora was stunning, despite the soil looking like dust-dry sand. Late afternoon we headed back to Quito ready for our early departure by air to southern Ecuador early next morning.

The flight landed at Catamayo: much drier and, at around 1300 metres, a much lower altitude than Quito (2800 metres). From here we drove up a local hill towards Loja. It looked unpromisingly dry, but at the top the road reached 2640 metres and vegetation was much greener, although I would not think it was cloudforest. This was a good stop. Plenty of orchids and ferns. Everyone was happy, except it rained! Highlight here was a blechnum which looked very similar to, but not quite the same as, Blechnum chilense. It keyed out as B.cordatum. The frond ended abruptly with a terminal segment, and the basal pinnae were reduced to lobes. The lamina texture was even, unlike B.chilense. Later, nearby, we found a young blechnum which more closely resembled B.chilense.  Seeing the degree of variation in blechnum here it is perhaps not surprising that some literature often supports B.cordatum as the correct name for B.chilense. Nearby was an Eriosorus sp., which looked like E.hirtus – except it was far too hairy. Several lycopods were common, including Lycopodium clavatum. I am always a bit cynical about the same species occurring inEurope and the Americas, but this looked identical to British material to me! Another widely distributed species, and common here, was Asplenium monanthes. The highlight, not far away, was possibly the rarest fern we saw all trip – Asplenium theciferum – a most un-asplenium-like asplenium! 10 to 20 cm tall, bi- to tri-pinnate with fleshy, linear lobes. The sori are in pockets at the tip of each segment.

We stayed the night in Loja, a pleasant town. A short drive the next morning took us to the Podocarpus Forest National Park. This was a very special Podocarpus forest – we saw NO Podocarpus! (There were some newly planted saplings!) I believe there are still some trees in remote areas outside our range. Never mind. This was the best site to date! Real rain forest! We were only at about 2800 metres but there were plenty of tree-ferns and filmy ferns including the beautiful brownish, congested fronds of Hymenophyllum multialatum, with orange-brown hairy indusia. Sadly we did not have enough time here, perhaps an hour when two days would not have been enough. Ferns were everywhere. Occasionally, on track-side banks, was Grammitis heteromorpha, superficially looking like Asplenium trichomanes with branched fronds! Blechnum binervatum subsp. fragile was climbing many trees with the newly flushed fronds a stunning pink. On the way back down to the road we made a stop to see Maxilaria sp., an orchid which was unfortunately virtually over. At the same spot I acquainted myself with Lycopodium Jussiaei,L.glaucescens, and L.vestitum. L.clavatum was also there! This was the last botanical stop of the day. After leaving the park we followed one of the main roads fromEcuador south towards Peru. Well short of the border we stayed the next two nights in The Hosteria de Vilcabamba, a delightful hotel with a swimming pool – but no time to use it!

If the day before had been good, the next day was fabulous! Our target area was Cerrado Toledo, not far from Vilcabamba, but most of the way was on an awful track. Together with birding stops it must have taken 2 to 2 1/2 hours to get to the top. We passed masses of ferns on the way up but it was the summit area I wanted to see. We had been promised high-altitude heath, and that’s what we got! The vegetation was amazing. Bromeliads everywhere were full of water, making exploration a very wet job, even though the herbage was only about 2 feet tall! Here I found my first tree blechnum for the trip. It was beautiful (of course!) with a maximum trunk height of about 2 feet. The blechnum part of Flora of Ecuador has not been printed yet so I was not sure what it was, but it looked like the Venezuelan B.colombianum. I now know I was wrong. It has been identified by Robbin Moran as B.auratum subsp auratum from my photograph. (B.columbianum has been sunk into B.auratum as B.auratum subsp. columbianum, so I was close!) Just for good measure it had an unidentified hymenophyllum growing on the trunks. Huperzias were common as was a rather splendid dwarf polystichum. Several stunted plants of Lophosoria quadripinnata were scattered around, but it was not until I returned home that I discovered I was in the only area where the very distinct variety L.quadripinnata var. contracta grows. Not only did I not see it but I did not even look out for it! There were so many ferns everywhere you look that I could easily have missed it.

The weather at Cerro Toledo was a bit misty and moist but most of the time the beautiful mountains of the Andes could be seen undulating as far as the eye could see. What we could not see was any significant sign of man. No houses. No fields. Just very occasional cleared areas of forest in the far distance. We were truly in a wilderness. I loved it! My altimeter told me we were at about 3100 metres but the distant hills were much higher.

Our next day was very interesting but nevertheless a bit of an anticlimax for a fern lover! We travelled far south west of Loja to within a few miles of the Peru border to a semi-desert area near El Empalme to see some special trees. They were baobabs, or close relatives, rather splendid with their bottle-shaped trunks with green photosynthetic bark. I only saw one species of fern. It was a species of Adiantum cooked to a crisp! Not my favourite day of the trip!

The next day we flew very early back to Quito and by mid-morning were climbing the pass of Papillacta to the east of Quito. Our first stop was at 3200 metres. The others saw condors in the distance. I didn’t! I did not see any exciting ferns either! As we drove ever upwards the flora improved rapidly. At about 3600 metres I was fascinated by a superb little polystichum with upright fronds (like so many American polystichums). I’ve identified this as P.orbiculatum. This species continued to the col’s summit at just over 4000 metres – or did it!? At higher altitudes the fronds were narrower and more upright: could there be a species complex here? In banks at around 3600 metres I also saw Asplenium peruvianum and Cystopteris fragilis, not looking like UK material! The real highlight for me was at the summit of the pass, it was Jamesonia alstonii growing on a roadside bank at 4080 metres. (Fascinating to think I had been reading Alston’s handwriting on my Jones Nature Prints only a few weeks before!). These banks were covered with ferns. Elaphoglossum spp. in particular, Grammitis moniliformis, G.heteromorpha and another as yet unidentifiedJamesonia sp. Numerous lycopods too, including Huperzia crassa and H.hypogaea. Curious how most of the ferns and lycophytes had erect fronds/stems in this environment. While still at the col, Gustavo drew my attention to a large bog (at 4120 metres) where he believed Isoetes spp. grew. Could this be the site where Carl Taylor found I.andina in 2001 – as reported by Joan Gottlieb in the Hardy Fern Foundation Quarterly in 2002? Unfortunately, we did not find any. We did, however, see more Jamesonia alstonii and lots more huperzias including the lovely pink H.crassa.

What a fabulous place! It was a wrench to leave but we had to hurry off to our hotel nearby on the outskirts of Papillacta village at 3330 metres. This was a treat! As usual we had our own chalets with en suite. Perhaps a little rustic but perfect in the circumstances. Better still, the hotel was built on top of thermal springs, steaming hot water seemed to be running in channels everywhere! It did not take us long to get into one of the many pools: some were almost too hot to bear – but we managed!

The next morning we climbed into the minibus to travel only 1 or 2 miles up a track behind the hotel to a cabin at 3730 metres. The idea was to walk down at a leisurely pace looking at birds and orchids. Unfortunately I was distracted by yet another fern paradise! Behind the cabin in relatively tall forest I found a very tall blechnum. My suspicion that it might be B.buchtienii, has been confirmed by Robbin Moran (curator of ferns at the New York Botanical Garden), albeit under the more modern name of Blechnum auratum. The trunk was about 7 or 8 feet tall and 8 inches in diameter. Fronds were about 6 feet long. All around, the trees were festooned with filmy ferns, polypods, grammitids and of course elaphoglossum. Wandering back out onto the track in a more open area there was a huge stand of a different blechnum. It looked like B.loxense, since confirmed by Robbin Moran. It was a beauty with a tendency to produce a trunk. The leaves, especially the rachis, were covered with scales giving the whole plant a silvery appearance. At this altitude this could well be hardy in the UK, if only I could have collected material…! Steep grassy banks by the side of the track were populated by many elaphoglossums, huperzias, Grammitis heteromorpha, Pteris muricata, Lophosoria quadripinnata, other blechnums, Polystichum orbiculatum etc. etc. Climbing up along a steep stream bed in very thick undergrowth, I was surprised to find another species of Jamesonia. This deep-shade habitat was very different from the open grassy paramo where I’d spotted the other two species the day before. Going ‘off piste’ elsewhere I found myself in pristine jungle. Wonderful! Over a stream there were curtains of hymenophyllum.

So that took us to lunchtime! After nourishment we climbed part of the way back up towards the Papillacta pass to examine a large larva flow (3400m). Many exciting orchids occurred here. If I can digress briefly Telepogon sp. was particularly stunning and sought after by collectors. Our guide, Gustavo, was worried it would be collected in the near future. The lava flow was treacherous underfoot but most goodies could be seen from the various paths and tracks. Mainly the same genera of ferns were represented here, but of greatest interest to me was to see again the beautiful neat tree fern, Bechnum auratum subsp. auratum we’d seen a few days earlier at Cerro Toledo in southern Ecuador. It too had its trunk covered with what looked like the same species of small Hymenophyllum sp., plus other epiphytes. Quite a lot of tree-like blechnums here and I suspect some were species other than B.auratum. Returning to the hotel we stopped at 3177 metres so I could admire a splendid grove of Cyathea caracasana (or something very similar) with trunks perhaps 12 feet tall. This species is very distinctive with white coin-spotting on the trunk, particularly near the top. Rather like C.cooperi but more spectacular. Old fronds seem to be shed almost immediately. Shortly after we were all in the hot baths again! Amusingly another guest was reading in the pool then dropped her book, it was a write off and she was halfway through it. I shouldn’t laugh but I did – so did she!

The next morning we returned to the lava flow but did not see much new. After a couple of hours we started the drive east down towards Amazonia stopping en route at Guando Lodge where we ate lunch and were refreshed with tea and coffee. This place was set up for hummingbirds. Even I was impressed with the one with a very narrow needle-like bill as long as the rest of its body (about 7 cm long). I did wonder how it got affectionate with its partner! Not being a birder I wandered off and saw many wonderful ferns. We were lower here (2700 metres) and more tropical species were common in the woodland by the river. Huperzia curvifolia was new to me with rather spindly pendant branches. An unknown species of Vittaria amazed my non-ferny companions with its narrow, pendant string-like fronds. Similarly the newly flushing pink fronds of Blechnum binervatum subsp. fragile were almost admired! Another blechnum caught the eye here. I thought it might be B.proliferum: the fronds were bulbiferous, narrow and very long, trailing across the ground for three feet or more. Robbin Moran has since identified it as B.sprucei. Some nice filmy ferns included Trichomanes polypodiodes. There were several more magnificent plants of Cyathea aff. caracasana too. There were of course many non-ferns but I will pick out just one – gunnera with 3 or 4 foot trunks – splendid!

Following afternoon refreshments we made our way further east, right to the fringe of Amazonia. Our stopover for two nights was going to be Cabanas San Isidro near Cosanga at about 2000 metres. A marvellous place! Hummingbird feeders were everywhere and I guess most visitors here are birders – but do they know what they are missing!? This was yet another fern paradise! By now Cyathea caracasana, or something very like it, was becoming an old friend and a beautiful group of them outside our chalet window was just perfect. While the others went birding as the light was fading I set about trying to identify some more cyatheas. I think I succeeded with one – Cyathea quinduinsis.

The next morning we set off to a mountain pass from where we had a good view of the flat Amazon forest disappearing into the distance – fabulous, but give me the mountains any time! Our viewpoint was at 2260 metres. Along the roadside here were many ferns new to me. Most remain unidentified, unfortunately. A pretty passiflora was admired, Passiflora mixta. Disgustingly mucilaginous croziers of a blechum were common, although it seems different from the earlier sample we found (Robbin Moran thinks this too is Blechnum cordatum). On the roadside banks a strange hymenophyllum was common. The fronds, about 9 inches long, stuck out at right-angles to the bank. The frond rachis was thick for a hymenophyllum at 1 to 2 mm, and arched downwards, as did all the pinnae. This plant was totally exposed to the sun and wind yet still managed to look in pristine condition. I’ve since keyed it out as H.ruizianum. Orchids were a major distraction here, and we also saw a large-flowered Pinguicularia sp. high on a roadside cliff where moisture flowed over the roots. We returned to the Cabanas for lunch, stopping briefly by the river bridge in Cosanga where a spiny tree fern defeated my efforts at identification. Subsequently, Robbin Moran has suggested the name Cyathea cf. bicrenata for it.

After lunch I wandered off on my own exploring around San Isidro. It was fabulous. In a boggy spot I found a few plants of a large fronded fern with virtually no trunk that looked like a Cibotium or Culcita, but every thing else was wrong. I eventually realised it was a Cyathea: C.gracilis, a real beauty. By the main track another tree-fern keyed out at Cyathea heliophila. Lophosoria quadripinnata was frequent. An interesting mistletoe, perhaps Phoradendron, caught my eye – as did so much else. I only had walking boots, not wellies, so my reluctance to get wet feet deterred me from exploring seriously boggy areas. There was much else to explore! Continuing to explore along the main track/road I eventually stumbled across a possible footpath into non-boggy woodland. I entered and a paradise opened up before me! Bulbiferous Diplazium with 3-foot trunks were everywhere. What I tend to classify rather unsympathetically as ‘thelypteroids’ were also everywhere (Prof. Holttum would be turning in his grave at my indifference!). Elaphoglossum, Asplenium, Polystichum, Hymenophyllum etc. were abundant. How great it would have been to have Alan Smith or Robbin Moran along for a brain-picking session! So much has so far gone unidentified. I do have many photos but no specimens – collecting was discouraged, but I still hope to eventually identify more material. I did manage to work out Dennstaedtia dissecta and Marattia laevis. Time was running out so I hurried back to our chalet just before dusk. Weeks later Robbin Moran tentatively identified a species of Megalastrum from my photographs. I should have realised this for myself after seeing several Megalastrum in Chile in the past. He also named a smallish blechnum as B.divergens.

That evening, before supper, Gustavo very patiently identified the bulk of my orchid photos for me – pity about the fern pics.! A few glasses of wine helped the determinations …

The next day, our last in the forests, saw us explore as a group very near where I had been the previous evening. Being near the centre we were able to cut back for a mid-morning coffee break before following another trail to a waterfall. Again, much the same pteridophyte/lycophyte flora was seen apart from an elegant slender tree fern identified by Robbin Moran as Cyathea xenoxyla and, at the last moment amongst the cabins, I noticed a plant of osmunda, apparently collected locally. This is nothing like osmunda in Europe – or North America. It seems to be recorded as Osmunda regalis, but to me it’s something else. Incidentally the ‘O.regalis’ in Reunionlooked just like this form.

After lunch we headed back to Quito in time for a late afternoon tour of the city centre then, after a farewell dinner, it was off to bed ready for our departure the next day – except our flight was delayed by bad weather – but that’s another story!!!

Most determinations in this account are by me and must be treated with some caution. Hopefully the designated genus will always be right but determination at species level is difficult and will surely not always be correct. On the plus side this account will hopefully give a feel for the wonderful fern flora up there in them there hills! I have emailed some images to Robbin Moran who, where possible, has very kindly supplied me with correct identifications. These instances are mentioned in the text. Non-pteridologists might not know that Robbin Moran is the fern specialist at the New York Botanic Garden with a special interest in South America.