The naming of the Sobralia
A New Orchid Discovered
in the Asphalt Jungle
Photos and text by Guillermo Angulo
Click images to enlarge
The discovery of a new orchid is a task that day-by-day becomes
more difficult. Orchids have been mentioned in Indian literature
as far back as 1,500 years BC. In China orchids were well known
before Confucius and in Ancient Greece Theophrastus and Dioscorides
paid them attention.
What is amazing is that in this time and place there are still
orchids that have not been yet classified, and many others that
have not been properly described following the strict rules of
taxonomy and scientific nomenclature at the time of their discovery
and therefore their names are not accepted.
Eric Hansen in his thrilling book Orchid Fever recounts
his travels in search of strange orchids with natives in the
jungle of Borneo:
"Earlier that day, I had entered the Borneo rain forest
in search of wild orchids. The morning mist was still rising
and the dawn bird chorus had just faded as Tiong, a government
plant collector, and two of his helpers paused at the base of
a limestone cliff to burn joss sticks and stacks of Chinese devotional
money. These offerings were intended to appease the spirit word
before we started our climb. Everything began well enough, but
by midday the mountain spirits responded to our presence. Tiong
was near the top of a tree when he reached up and gripped a Wragler's
pit viper sleeping on a branch. Within moments, my guide and
protector was hurtling through space with two fang marks in the
back of his hand. We didn't find the orchids we were looking
for, and we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get Tiong
off the mountain."
Our adventure was completely innocuous, not dangerous at all,
more urban, with no risks, excitement or vipers, but maybe even
more extraordinary. We have already noted that it is very unusual
to find a new species, but to find one in the midst of a heavily
populated city, in the core of its downtown, in what the gringos
called the asphalt jungle is almost impossible and the
more unexpected since this plant has been for the past thirty
years exposed to public view, a few inches from the cement and
yet it remained unseen.
The first homage should be rendered to Rogelio Salmona, a
lover of plants and a distinguished architect in Bogotá,
who brought from the Tequendama zone the species object of our
study and proceeded to transplant it in the gardens, also of
his design, that surround his masterwork las Torres del Parque.
This residential high rise community in the center of Bogotá,
has as an added feature, besides the particular and beautiful
architectural design of its buildings: the fact that its residents
chose not to turn this project and gardens into an unsympathetic
closed space, but opened its paths for the delight and enjoyment
of all people.
As an additional bonus, the management of the Torres (Towers)
has placed under its care the monumental stairs that rise from
the Planetarium to the Alfonso López Avenue. The end (or
the beginning) of this flight of stairs is presided over by the
mute figure of Copernicus, the person who changed the position
of man in the Universe. This solemn stone sculpture was distorted
by one of Bogotá's "progressive" mayors who
turned it into a bust and erased by striking with a hammer the
name of Poland, the donor country, covering the rest of the statue
with a marble pedestal. When later, another "progressive"
mayor removed the marble covering disfiguring the sculpture,
the hammer blows came to light and as of this writing no one
has cared to right the wrong and restore the donor's words.
It was while walking in the gardens that surround these living
steps, by which an inscription quotes Jorge Zalamea´s poem
The dream of the stairs, "Oh, believers of lowly circumstances,
of voluble memory and uncertain will, the first fiscal requirement
of this court is your scornful ignorance and the definitive exile
of that horde that pretends to resemble men." that I,
whose main occupation is to look and see, a kind of voyeur, focused
my eyes on this plant, obviously an orchid in bloom. This was
a Sobralia, an orchid species famous for being the tallest
orchid plant of all. The Sobralia altissima from Perú
reaches a height or more than 40 feet. Our plant in question
reaches a more modest height, a mere 19 feet.
Vanna, my wife, helped me in bending the long stem as I took
a picture of the flower, since it was my intention to ask Reverend
Father Pedro Ortiz - without doubt the most renowned scientist
in the field of Colombian orchid species - for its name. Our
contact is through Internet and we compete as to which of our
servers gives the worst possible service, his at the Javeriana
University or mine from CableNet (I believe I´m winning).
My server as a rule zaps the pictures I send as attachments and
his server always suffers from unmentionable ills and malaises.
As a result I committed the sin of infidelity and resorted to
a Sobralia expert from Texas, Nina Rach, who immediately
e-mailed me back:
"Many thanks for the pictures. It seems to be Sobralia
cattleya, from Colombia and Venezuela. In the picture it
looks almost white, usually it shows more color, from pink to
a medium shade of coffee. Take a look at my web page
Two hours later, on the same day, November 6th, 2003, Nina
e-mailed me again:
"I was wrong, the plant is not Sobralia cattleya.
Better yet I believe it to be Sobralia dichotoma. Please
see my web page:
'I've placed your photo there. There's a similar picture in Orquídeas
Nativas de Colombia, Volume 4, p. 539.
In the meanwhile Father Ortiz had been able to fix his e-mail
and miraculously received my photo of the Sobralia (after
some unsuccessful attempts) and told me he believed it was neither
S. cattleya nor S. dichotoma, which happens to
be very colorful and a native of Perú. What then is our
orchid? He answered back that José Celestino Mutis, director
of the Colombian Royal Botanical Expedition (1783-1816) ordered
it drawn (with no attempt at classification) before Ruíz
and Pavón (of the Botanical Expedition to Perú
and Chile) had established the genus. It was later when someone
erroneously called our species Sobralia dichotoma, probably
from a hint given by Charles Schweinfurth, an authority on native
Peruvian orchid species. This icon can be found in the first
of the five volumes on orchids of the Botanical Expedition. This
is the origin of the error in classification of this plant later
found in Orquídeas Nativas de Colombia.
It was then that we decided to go and search for it in its natural
habitat, which Father Ortiz had perfectly localized in his memory.
Enrique Uribe, former director of the Jardín Botánico
de Bogotá, and a generous patron of new Botanical Expeditions,
led the way in the search for this orchid plant, in the region
that Father Ortiz, our resident orchid expert, remembered as
well as he remembered its exact flowering date. The journey was
planned for the next Sunday and Father Ortiz said, "I will
celebrate mass at eight o'clock in the morning, thus call for
me at eight thirty and if the weather is sunny we will go hunting."
That Sunday the weather was not promising but the absence
of rain was enough for us to decide to make the journey. We set
out towards San Antonio de Tequendama and as we reached
a height above sea level of 9,000 feet we started to see the
sought orchid plant in full flower. Unfortunately all plants
were well protected from intruders by high and inaccessible cliffs.
Later we came across some more accessible specimens, collected
a few plants for the Botanical Garden and were able to photograph
in situ the flowers of this Sobralia.
Those passing by and the owners of an almorzadero, a rustic
lunch place by the side of the road, looked with wonder and curiosity
at these strange Martians, dressed as if on their way to rescue
Stanley and Livingstone (I presume), with photographic
gear, film and digital cameras, flashes, approximation lenses,
tripods, binoculars, altimeters, hygrometers, who requested a
nimble young man to climb up a steep ravine with a small shovel.
Who were these strangers who looked with loving concern at the
flowers and smelled them as if they were experts from some famous
French perfume house trying a new fragrance? And all this just
to take with them some plants (for the natives only weeds) that
are found growing wild by the roadside since time immemorial.
And then it came to pass that all these strange gents went back
from whence they came, without even partaking a delicious chorizo
con arepa (a spicy pork sausage in open corn bread), as if
the mere act of taking pictures of this weed were enough to satisfy
them. Thus as this mini-expedition came to an end, with success
but no glory, the Father proceeded to study, patiently and in
solitude, his Sobralia specimen. He then contrasted it
with previously published scientific material in different languages,
compared pictures, talked to his colleagues. Then, and only then,
he wrote his description in Spanish, English and Latin, published
in Medellín's scientific magazine Orquideología.
Father Pedro Ortiz
And from now on, the plant is a new species named Sobralia
mutisii in honor of José Celestino Mutis, the other
botanist-priest who chanced to see it 200 years before.
Translated by Juli Carbonell
- Guillermo Angulo
Index of Orchid