Plants of Peru
September and October 2004

In September of 2004 I had the privelege of visiting Peru courtesy of an organization called Bikers Without Borders. We spent part of the time constructing a medical/dental clinic and painting a church in Trujillo, part of the time attempting to remain healthy while trekking through the mountains, and part of the time just relaxing and enjoying the pace of life in Peru. I expected to enjoy this experience, but by the end of the trip I really didn't want to come back!

So this wasn't really a plant expedition at all; in fact, I went on this trip before I even started up The Desert Northwest. We went at the beginning of the rainy season, exactly the wrong time of year to collect any seeds, so I brought back only a few seeds. But of course, such a person as myself couldn't help but to notice all the fantastic and interesting plants, and take as many pictures as possible, which was especially challenging at times when this had to be done without me getting too far behind the rest of the group or missing the bus. So even this trip was not primarily about plants, I have no excuse not to show these pictures!

So, what follows is a mix of interesting plant pictures, along with a few pictures of the people and scenery of Peru. They're not in strictly chronological order, but have been adjusted to make these pages hopefully at least somewhat coherent for those of you who are expecting an "exlporing for plants" theme. I regret all the notes on "plants I saw but didn't photograph" but that just means I will have to go back, I suppose! In my opinion Peru has an incredible wealth of plants that remains largely untapped by the world of horticulture. The era of plant exploration isn't over yet.....

Page 1 - Huaraz
Page 2 - The Cordillera Blanca I
Page 3 - The Cordillera Blanca II
Page 4 - Cusco
Page 5 - Machu Picchu

Our flight came into Lima, of course, and after a brief rest there we started our way north along the coast on this truly unbelievable road. The Pan American highway north of Lima - the main north-south thoroughfare along the west coase of South America - is built, for part of its length, on a sheer slope of soft sand going right down to the ocean!! Apparently because it never rains (or at most, only once every few decades), erosion doesn't cause the sand, and thus the road, to slide into the ocean.

To quote Mauseth, Kiesling, and Ostolaza regarding this road: " seems to have been bulldozed out of the sides of giant sand dunes that plunge from several hundred feet high down to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. Everywhere along the road, sections of sand up to 100 feet wide have lost the battle against gravity and cascaded down onto the road. How does the road stay on the steep sides of these dunes? Does it? We think it best not to drive too slowly...." (A Cactus Odyssey, Timber Press, 2002).

As the coast of Peru receives rainfall ranging from "none at all" to "maybe one good rain during an El Niño", the roadsides and landscapes were quite barren, the only greenery occurring where rivers came down out of the Andes. In a few places, attempts to green up the land could be seen, where date palms and other plants sat languishing along the roadsides, apparently dying a slow and painful death in a climate that was cool and humid but unable to provide any soil moisture. However, the landscape was not completely barren: in some places, mat-forming, terrestrial bromeliads; and some cacti, possibly Haageocereus, could be seen. These were not at all photogenic (in fact the cacti were downright ugly), especially from a bus.

After a week in Trujillo, which was memorable but not relevant to this photo-essay, we started away from the coast up the road to Huaraz (via Yungay), high in the Andes. As we entered an area that possibly sees some precipitation at least once a decade, this was some of the first vegetation we spotted.

Our road, which began serenely enough, eventually found its way into a steep walled canyon with numerous tunnels. Our bus drivers seemed comfortable enough with this road, as we considered that they have no interest in driving the bus off the road and into the river any more than we do.

Then the road climbed way up above the canyon bottom. I've heard of "El Camino de la Muerte" (that's Spanish for "The Road of Death") in Bolivia, but really, a lot of roads in the Andes have to be like this because the terrain is so rugged. This road, being a little wider and less prone to rain, mud, landslides and poor visibility (thanks to the dry climate) was probably much safer than the road of death.

At certain points, these cable cars are the only means of crossing the canyons. On the other side were usually mines, with the occasional house or structure where a space in the canyon wall could be found.

The road passed through about 50 tunnels. In this picture we are approaching 7,000' elevation and everything is still very dry.

Finally we climbed above the canyon and into a wider valley, near Yungay. This is a nice town, sitting at about 7,800' with splendid mountain views: Huascaran, Peru's highest peak, looms almost uncomfortably close by. Sadly, in 1970 20,000 people, almost the entire population of the town, died in a massive landslide triggered by the Ancash Earthquake. This is considered to be Peru's largest natural disaster in their history. At this altitude Washingtonia robusta is very happy, as seen here in the plaza.

I also saw a few Trachycarpus between Huaraz and Yungay, but I couldn't get a photo. This was also the only place in the mountains of Peru that I found another eucalyptus besides E. globulus - someone was growing E. pulverulenta.

Finally we arrived in Huaraz, where we stayed for a few days. At the exhilerating altitude of 10,000', it has a spectacular view of the Cordillera Blanca (a prominent mountain range in this part of the Andes), a pleasant climate, and the feeling of very clean air. Here is the local Quechua market where the indigenous peoples come down out of the mountains to sell their produce and various other things.

Tomatoes, peppers and who knows what else!

These niños at the tourist marketplace in Huaraz really wanted their picture taken!

The high Andes are, of course, Passiflora country, though they are more prevalent on the wet eastern slopes of the mountains. Here someone is cultivating a Passiflora species in front of their house in Huaraz.

At this altitude nights are always crisp but frost hardly occurs (Bougainvillea thrives quite well), and days are mild and pleasant. Unlike Lima, sometimes it rains, including when we were there. This combination supports an interesting mix of vegetation including many of the same plants we saw at sea level in Lima, such as this Norfolk Island Pine. This picture also illustrates something I saw frequently: those who can't afford a large concrete wall to protect their house build a wall of clay bricks and plant cacti all along the top to ward off intruders. That is pretty cool; I will have to do that sometime. Sorry, I can't tell you what species of cacti those are.

True to the Latin American pace of life, a street volleyball game occasionally interrupted by passing cars.

A small plant nursery in Huaraz. It was cool to see someone selling plants. If there is a market for them, that to me says something positive about the quality of life here.

A nice Phoenix canariensis in Huaraz, just as happy at 10,000' as it is at sea level in Lima.

Washingtonia robusta was less common in Huaraz and did not look quite as happy at that altitude. I think P. canariensis wins the title for best cool-tolerant introduced palm around here.

Eucalyptus globulus has naturalized throughout the high Andes up to about 11,500'. In one instance, I saw planted E. globulus at 12,500', but at that altitude they seem unable to naturalize. Its timber is much used for construction and firewood by the locals, but its presence makes life more difficult for many of the native plants there. Spartium junceum was also a ubiquitous weed.

Just to see how much the altitude would kill us we hiked up the hillside above Huaraz to this cross above the city.

The Cordiella Blanca from the top of that hill. Glaciated areas close to the equator are intriguing to me, and this is one of the world's largest. Sadly, though, the glaciers are melting, along with most of the world's temperate and equatorial glaciers. You can see where the eucalyptus trees stop at 11,500', and the oncoming rain!

Eucalyptus globulus being used for firewood.

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