With around 3000 known species within its borders, Peru is home to approximately 10% of the world’s orchid species, which total a remarkable 30,000. Of the orchid species known to exist in Peru, a government study conducted in 2006 identified 31 species as threatened, 220 species as vulnerable, 19 as endangered and a further 65 as critically endangered.
It is Peru’s exceptional variety of climate zones and geographical regions which makes it home to so many orchid species; the country’s vertical topography is the setting for ecosystems ranging from coastal deserts to highland prairies and lowland tropical and subtropical forests like Tambopata National Reserve.
Some of Peru’s orchid species thrive at altitudes in excess of 4500 meters (14,800 feet). Across the world and within Peru, the sheer variety of orchid species can be explained by how these plants have adapted to depend upon individual species of birds, bees or other insects for pollination. Orchid species vary from those the size of a small coin to others more than three meters in height.
In lowland rainforest ecosystems like those of Tambopata National Reserve, orchids can be found in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The two main groups of orchids are: epiphytic orchids, which grow on the surfaces of other plants, usually clinging by their roots to the branches or trunks of trees, and obtaining water and nutrients from the air and rain; and terrestrial orchids, which as their name suggests grow on the ground.
The extremely rare terrestrial orchid Phragmipedium kovachii was discovered in Peru by scientists in 2001 and was singled out by the expert Dr. Eric Christensen (author of “The Orchids of Machu Picchu”) as “the most glorious orchid described in two decades”.
In Tambopata National Reserve, orchid species include members of the extremely beautiful Masdevallia genus, with tube-like flowers in a variety of colors, including red, orange and bright pink. This genus is named after José Masdeval, the botanist dispatched to Peru in the 18th century by the Spanish monarch Charles III.
In Peru, including the rainforests of Tambopata, the rainy season tends to run from November to April, and this is also the orchid season, when flowers bloom. Perhaps the best time to see orchids in Peru is April, when they remain in flower as the rainy season comes to an end. Among the orchids recorded in the Tambopata / Madre de Dios region are Pearce’s Phragmipedium (Phragmipedium pearcei), the tiny Pale Yellow Cattleya (Cattleya luteola) and Dark Brown Catasetum (Catasetum tenebrosum).
During the Inca period, orchids were reserved for the delight of the nobility and cultivated in royal gardens. While orchids have been valued for their beauty since ancient times by cultures throughout the world, indigenous peoples have also found uses for these flowers in the treatment of a range of ailments.