—“Stop! Don’t touch that tree!”
I quickly step back and slip in a cow patty. My glasses are full of little prisms from drops of perspiration and they make me dizzy. My clothes are soaked and my legs are full of lactic acid.
—“That tree in front of you is an Alubillo tree,I think, and very toxic. You don’t even have to touch it to be in trouble.”
My orchid hunting companion, Lou Jost, explains what can happen, and it sounds terrible with all kinds of pain involved. He adds that the tree also affects certain body parts in a most remarkable way…and in order to avoid the complications you need to take off your hat and humbly ask the tree “how do you do?”
I have no problem with that, besides, it is lunchtime and with fumbling fingers I manage to splash the greasy contents of a can of tuna in my lap. We eat in silence, fish and bread, flushed down with warm water. The view over the Pastaza Valley is incredible, with the small settlement of Rio Negro in the distance. This is prime orchid habitat and quite possibly one of the richest places on earth in terms of biodiversity. People have come here for centuries, searching for exotic plants and animals in general and orchids in particular. Lou tells me that the valley has a high level of endemism (higher than the Galapagos), meaning that certain plants and animals are known from here and nowhere else. The area is also amazingly poorly explored because of the rugged terrain with inhospitable mountains, covered by lush cloud forest. WWF calls this valley a “Gift to the Earth”, Lou Jost calls it his home and has discovered a large number of new orchid species in the last few years.
—“You’ve got to be nuts to do this!” I say between the bites.
—“Yup!” comes a response from my side.
We have climbed the mucky trail as far as it goes and reached a mobile-phone antenna of all things. From here on we have to improvise. The logical choice is a narrow and steep ridge that disappears somewhere in the clouds. The alternatives are too dense and uncertain to even consider, so we start climbing the ridge. It becomes easier than we expected because it forms a natural trail. My tongue soon feels like a baseball again. I want to drink but there is no water up ahead so I have to save as much as possible, making it heavier to climb, which makes me perspire more, and so on. I try not to think about it and to focus on the luscious surroundings instead. There are orchids everywhere, mostly Pleurothallids but also Odontoglossums, Maxillarias, Epidendrums etc. Suddenly my eyes subconsciously react to a particular leaf shape and I stare at a huge Masdevallia without flowers. I am not familiar with any species of this size and shape from the area so we collect some plants for cultivation. The bags get heavier and it begins to rain.
This is a typical day in the life of an orchid hunter. It involves lots of hard work and some risks but also overwhelming rewards. When we eventually return, slipping and sliding down the ridge, I dash straight into the darned tree and smear the leaves all over my face. I try to convince my immune system that it really is just an ordinary tree, and that I did in fact take my hat off! Lou says that I will know for sure tomorrow morning when I go to the bathroom. Yikes!