The Orchids of Mombacho

By Pat Werner

May 5, 2015

The crown jewel of Nicaraguan cloud forest, and consequently of Nicaraguan orchids, is Mombacho. Located 15 km from the plaza of Granada, Mombacho hovers over the town like Graham Greene´s, Under The Volcano.   Luckily, there are no Sinarquistas, prominent in Greene´s novel, wandering around the countryside in Nicaragua.  There is a road to provides access to the plan de flores, the top of one of the twin peaks, with an altitude of 1220 meters.  The other peak, located east about a half of  km east , reaches 1394 meters, and is inaccessible.  No matter, the plan de flores has enough orchids and other life forms to make up for both peaks.

A few things should be said about orchids, to put the orchids on Mombacho into perspective.  Worldwide, there are about 30,000 species of orchids.  In Nicaragua, there are about 800 species, coincidently about the same number of birds found in Nicaragua.  Orchids themselves  have a distinctive form in that distinguishes them from other flowering plants.  The column and anther are united into one structure.  They are monocotyledons, meaning the seeds, which  in most orchid species are like dust, are one whole, as opposed to dicotyledons, like coffee, where the seed has two halves.  About three fourths of  the orchid species are epiphytic, since they live on other plants  with hold fast roots, and about one fourth of orchids are terrestrial, or live in the ground.  None are parasitic. For example, there are about 70 species of orchids in  the continental United States, and most are terrestrial,  so that they do not freeze in the winter.  One of the most famous north American orchids is  the lady slipper, the Cypropedium acaule, which peeks out of the ground soon after winter snows melt,  in my native Michigan, about the same time morel mushroons also appear, and the opening of stream  trout fishing,  around the middle of April.

Orchids have been admired, especially in Asia, because of their complex and sometimes fragrant flowers.  There are six pedals in every orchid flower, and one of them is usually large and showy, called the lip.

In order to understand the orchids of Mombacho, some consideration must be given to the volcano itself and its many micro climates, as there are several different Mombachos. The base of Mombacho is found in dry. savannah forest, much of which has been cut down and put into cultivation.  It is quite hot. Somewhere around 500 meters, the temperature cools, the humidity increases, and different families of plants begin to appear, as do a surprising number of howler monkeys.  Somewhere around 800 meters, the vegetation changes again, as it is cooler, and more humid.  Finally, at the plan de flores, at about 1220 meters in elevation, more and different species appear, this being full blown cloud forest, with remnants of dwarf forest, Spanish Moss, amphibians, frogs,  and many bromeliads, that cannot exist below where it is hotter and dryer.

To make things more interesting, there are three  different Mombachos, depending on which side you are on.  The wind comes from the east, so that side is the most humid. Orchid seeds from Chontales get blown over the Great Lake, stick to the vegetation, germinate, and present orchid species that are not found elsewhere on the mountain.  The west side of the volcano is  sort of a wind shadow and gets less rain, and present different species than those found on the east face.  Lastly, there is a big crack on the west face of the volcano. Argument goes that Mombacho exploded maybe 25,000 years ago, or that is collapsed from within.  No matter which theory is correct,  the big crack is there, and south west of the crack there is a huge amount of basalt blocks, some the size of a house, that look like they were blown out of somewhere.  The vegetation inside of the big crack resembles vegetation from transition dry savannah forest, not  cloud forest, regardless of altitude.

Somewhere below the big crack is a buried Indian village. In 1570, after a lot of rain, there formed inside a lake of mud.  There was  an Indigenous village  there of about 400 souls, that was registered as an encomienda for a Spaniard.  Unfortunately, there was an earthquake one night in the fall of 1570, and the big mud puddle washed away the village and left one or two survivors.  The event was felt in colonial Granada, and recorded.  The village was never found.  After the Contra War, archaeologist Fred Lange spent some time looking for the village remains. Nothing was ever found.

During the war, access to the plan de flores was restricted because there was a repeater station located where the lodge is located now.  It was guarded by army guards,  mostly teenagers, who did not have warm clothing and had little food. Once in a while they would  get tired of rice and beans and shoot a howler monkey for food.  One time I noticed a pair of little hands lying in the bushes by the satellite dish.  There was also a bush of blackberries, that are native to Nicaragua.  I used to hoof up the mountain, photograph orchids, and pick the black berries that were really good.  Sometime later the blackberry bush disappeared.

Because of its proximity to Granada, Mombacho is one of the first places botanists began looking for orchids.  In 1908 Nicaraguan scientist and teacher Ramirez Goyena prepared the first list of orchids in Nicaragua, using a system of taxonomy that has since been abandoned. Later, other botanists began to study the mountain. The Sarasota, Florida  Marie Selby Orchid Gardens´   own John Atwood wrote his Master´s thesis on the plants of Mombacho.  Later, the mountain was explored by botanist and miner Alfonse Heller.  His extensive findings throughout Nicaragua were later published in the Icones Plantarum Tropicarum by the Marie Selby Orchid Gardens, in eight fascicles, available in the late 1980s.  A few complete Icones were assembled, one by the author.  They represent over 600 orchids, drawings, and locations found.  The Icones served to be a valuable guide to finding the orchids of Mombacho.

Beginning in 1990, access to Mombacho was opened up and anyone could travel up the narrow road with 14 switchbacks, with care.  There is a coffee finca at about 800 meters in elevation that is visible for kilometers, even though there are many species of orchids that exist in the hot lowlands below the finca.  By about 2000, the Colcibolca Foundation was granted control over the  lodge at the base of the plan de flores, and also they began policing the access road, and providing old Army vehicles to make the climb up the mountain.

A world about picking and assembling orchids at home.  Currently, at least one producer is selling orchids commercially.  Those orchids are beautiful, and long lasting.  They are hybrids,  for the most part,  of the Asian species, Phalenopsis, Vanda, and Cymbidium.  Nicaraguan orchids are another matter.  No one is commercially producing them, and all orchids in homes are taken out of the wilds, something frowned upon by the Ministry of the Environment, MARENA.  As a practical matter, picking an orchid from the wild and taking it home is probably a death sentence for the plant.  A good rule of thumb is that orchids need to live in the same environment they inhabit in the wilds, with the same amounts of humidity, the same altitude, and the  same amount of sunlight and wind.  Taking most  orchids to a lower elevation, or a dryer environment, such as taking an orchid from Mombacho to Granada, will result in the death of the plant.  Lastly, unlike commercial orchids, many Nicaraguan orchids flower only for a couple of days, or in the case of the Sobralia and Stanhopea species, sometimes less than a day. Best to take along a good camera with a close up lens,   take a lot of pictures and copious notes,  and leave the orchid alone.

The following checklist of orchids is surely incomplete, and there are more orchids, probably terrestrials, to be discovered.

Checklist of Some Of The Orchids of Mombacho and the approximate altitude where they have been found

  1. Arpophylum medium, 1300 m.
  2. Barbosella propens, 1230 m
  3. Baskervilla nicaraguensis, 1100 m
  4. Bletia purpurea, 1100 m
  5. Dichaea dammeriana, 1350 m
  6. Dichaea graminoides, 1300 m
  7. Dichaea tuerckheimi, 1100 m
  8. Cattleya skinneri, 800 m

(national flower of Costa Rica, now called the Guarianthe skinneri)

  1. Dichaea verrucosa, 1100 m
  2. Dichaea brachypoda, very high
  3. Elleanthus caridoides, very high
  4. Elleanthus cynarochephalus 900 m
  5. Elleanthus, sp, above finca Las Delicias
  6. Elleanthus tonduzii, 1220 m
  7. Elleanthus poiformis, very high
  8. Encyuclia baculus, 600 m
  9. Encyclia fragrans, 600 m
  10. Encyclia vespa, 900 m
  11. 19.Elleanthus aurantiacas, 1000 m
  1. Lockhartia hercodonta very high
  2. Lycaste dowiana, east face
  3. Malaxis maxonii, 500 m
  4. Malaxis tipuloides, very high
  5. Maxillaria augustissima. Fvery high
  6. Maxillaria crassifolia, 550 m
  7. Maxillaria mombachoensis, 1200 m
  8. Maxillaria neglecta, very high
  9. Maxillaria reichenheimiana, very high
  10. Mormodes buccinators, 700 m.
  11. 30, Mespospinidium warscewiczii, 1220 m
  12. Oerstedella pansamalae, Plan de Flores
  1. Oncidium cebolleta, base of volcano
  2. Drydella simula, very high
  3. Malaxis excavata, 1220 m
  4. Masdevalia chontalensis, 1,000 ,
  5. Masdevalia, nicaraguae, 900
  6. Maxillaria brunnea, 1200 m
  7. Neolehmannia diformis, west slope, 800 m.
  8. 39.Physinga physodes, 1100 m
  1. Platystele compacta, very high
  2. Platystele querceticola, 1220 m
  3. 42.Platystele vaginata,  1220 m
  1. Pleurothallis quadrifida, 400 m
  2. Pleurothallis pruinosa, 1200 m
  3. 45.Pleurothallis convallaria, 1000 m
  1. Pleurothallis tribuloides, vry high
  2. Pleurothallis sertularioides, 550 m
  3. Pleurothallis masayensis, 1100 m
  4. Prescottia cordifolia, 1200 m
  5. Prescottia stachyodes, 1100 m
  6. Psilochilus macrophyllus, 1200 m
  7. Sarcoglottis sceptrodes, 500 m
  8. Scaphyglottis graminifolia, 1000 m
  9. Sobralia macrantha, 1200 m
  10. Sobralia powellii, 1200 m
  11. Sobralia suaveleons, 1200 m
  12. Sobralia warscewiczi, 1200 m
  13. Stanhopea, wardii, very high
  14. Trevoria glumacea, very high
  15. Trigonidium egertonianum, 550 m
  16. Epidendrum parkinsonianum, very high
  17. Epidendrum lacustre, very high
  18. Tropidia polystachya, southeast slope
  19. Beadlea elata, west slope
  20. Epìdendrum glumarum, plan de flores
  21. Maxillaria pachyacron, 1200 m
  22. Pleurothallis blaisdelli,1000 m
  23. Pleurothallis foliata, 1100 m
  24. Psilochilus modestus, very high
  25. Stelis parvula, plan de flores
  26. Tricophilia marginata, 1230 m
  27. Myrmocophila tibicinis, 500 m
  28. Beloglottis mexicana, 1200 m
  29. Epidendrum radicans, plan de flores
  30. Epidendrum pseudo- ramosum, 1200 m
  31. Epidendrum stangeanum, 600 m
  32. Habenaria alata, north slope
  33. Epidendrum turialve, very high
  34. Goodyera bradeorum, 1100 m
  35. Goodyera erosa, very high
  36. Hexadesmia fasciculata, very high
  37. Hexadesmia micrantha, south slope, 1000 m
  38. Houlettia tigrina, dangerous place
  39. Isochilus carnosiflorus, south face
  40. 85.Jacquinella globosa, very high
  41. Leochilus scriptus, east face
  42. Mormodes horichii, 500 m

 

For Further Reading:

Best source of all is the complete Icones, Plantarum, Tropicarum, if you can find a complete copy. I have one.  Two other excellent sources are:  Robert L. Dressler, Phylogeny and Classification of the Orchid Family, Dioscorides Press, Portland, Oregon, 1993; and his equally fine, Field Guide to the Orchids of Costa Rica and Panama, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, New York, 1993.  See also my, An Introduction to Nicaraguan Orchids, La Prensa Publishing, 2001; it is also on my web page, nicaraguanpathways.com.

B. purpurea

B. purpurea

C skinnerii

C skinnerii

E. baculus II

E. baculus II

Eleanthus tonduzii

Eleanthus tonduzii

Epidendrum lacustre

Epidendrum lacustre

gongora leucochilus

gongora leucochilus

Lycaste

Lycaste

M.chontalensis

M.chontalensis

Pat Werner – Bio

Born in Michigan in 1948, Werner received his education at Michigan State University and Wayne State University.  He began working in a gun shop at the age of 14, and began competitive shooting at 16. He worked as a friend of the court in family law matters, assistant prosecutor, and entered private practice, specializing in family law and bankruptcy.  In the intermountain west, he became involved in ranch management, began gold prospecting as a hobby, and got post graduate education in handling green broke horses.

Werner moved to Nicaragua at the later part of the Contra War, and was engaged by various news agencies, including Izvestia and the Los Angeles Times, taking reporters into various places in the northern mountains, and the Miskito Coast. He had the opportunity to wander the northern mountains and Miskito coast, and worked exporting fish from the Miskito Coast to Costa Rica in 1989. He worked at the American School and later began work at the University of Mobile, San Marcos campus.  He continued to work at the campus in various positions, including professor and Academic Dean at Keiser University, retiring in December 2014. He served for several years on the board of the CCNN of the American Embassy.

His scholarly interests include Nicaraguan archaeology and anthropology, ethno-botany, Hispanic colonial law and Nicaraguan history. He has published seven books, including the first guide to Nicaraguan orchids in English and has also written 10 manuscripts, and presented 60 papers at international conferences on botany, archaeology, anthropology, and Hispanic colonial law.

3 Comments

  1. Pat

    June 12, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Hi Pat, my name is Pat. My husband and I have property in Nicaragua. Now we are in CA, USA. I would very much like to be in Nic. I am very interested in orchids of Nic. We took a day trip up north in Nic. I had seen absolutely beautiful, big Nicaraguan orchids in books. We rode a totally bumpy bus to a mountain. They let us out and told us to start walking….that way. Supposedly, one and a half miles up and down muddy hills, we came to the orchid farm. We paid, ?2$, and got a guide to take us in to the trees. Finally, we found a couple of orchids attached to trees. They were approximately 1/2 -1 inch across. I don’t think we saw more than 3 total:( I was totally wiped out from the humid, hot walk. We took a few pictures, but hardly the book pictures I was hoping for. Are there places near Granada to look at orchids? thanks, Pat

  2. Siggy in Costa Rica

    June 14, 2016 at 10:37 am

    Elleanthus hymenophorus is a species not on your list that was blooming and fairly common when I was there a few days ago.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/66454855@N06/27635338526/in/dateposted-public/