Two Orchids in a Former War Zone

Two Northern Beauties

Hidden in the mountains of the north are two of my favorite orchids, and a tale or two of finding them.

Stanhopea ruckerii:

  This orchid flowered this morning at 5:00 a.m. just as it was getting light.  It is a magnificient Stanhopea, and has a fragrance somewhat like neoprene rubber.  Finding it turned out to be a bit of work, and like many things in the mountains, I discovered it completely by accident.  In 1970 or thereabouts, Alfonso Heller, intrepid orchid hunter and mining engineer, found the orchid Ryncolaelia glauca, a close relative of the national orchid of Honduras, the  Ryncolaelia digbyana, on an obscure mountain close by the Honduran border, very close to the highest mountain in Nicaragua, Mogotón.

Trouble is that when the Contra War broke out its location made it a natural mountain pass for the Contra to pass into Nicaragua from one of several Contra bases, including La Lodosa,  that were located just over the Honduras border.  And land mines, the small  ones called pisa bobos, or stupid steppers, were liberally distributed by both armies, especially in retreat.  They  were made of brown colored plastic and looked like the top of a coffee can and held 400 grams of Semtex. They had a Titanium firing pin, so they could not be detected by a metal detector. They went off not when you stepped on them, but when you took your foot off, a sort of mad bomber´s sense of humor.  When the Contra War ended I got the hots to go looking for the Ryncolaelia glauca, which has a very pretty white flower and a sweet fragrance. 

I went up there with distinguished Nicaraguan  biologist Jaime Villa, and took along Smitty my mechanic, who could keep my ancient Land Rover running under all circumstances.  He could fix anything with a big ball peen hammer and a couple of pairs of pliers.  For Jaime I took along a bottle of formalin, to preserve specimens, weird frogs and snakes and such. I also took along master tree climber Raymundo Solorzano,  one of my high school students and  who liked adventure and turned out to be a great.  I also took along my step son Stuart, who was a budding naturalist and liked the many life forms we found in the northern mountains.

We struck out with the Ryncolaelia, but I did spot a Stanopea plant, unmistakable in its form.  Local workers were just starting to  clear an old coffee finca that had been left abandoned for 10 years and had cut down a tree that had the Stanhopea growing on its branches. We found some weird frogs, and Jaime dumped them in the formalin.  Unfortunately, there was also a bottle of wáter that looked identical to the bottle of formalin, and old Smitty took a swig of formalin.  Luckily he did not swallow, but ran behind a coffee tree and was sick for a long time. 

I told him the formalin was an elixir and was not really poisonous and would improve his relations with his wife. He felt better, still barfing down the mountain.  We made it back to Ocotal that night, with a lot of interesting things, and went back to Managua. A month later I talked to one of my friends who lived in San Fernando. He told me the foreman of the finca had gone to the exact same place where we parked my Land Rover, and his worker stepped on a pisa bobo.  When it blew up the foreman dived to the side and landed belly first on another pisa bobo. Both men were killed in an ugly way.

How we went there, parked in the exact same area, walked all around, and picked up several orchids, frogs, and one snake, and did not step on a pisa bobo I will never know.  That place still haunts me, and I wonder if some angel somehow safely guided us through that minefield  to find the beautiful Stanhopea ruckerii.  I always think of that when I see the plant in bloom, as it did early this morning.

That was 25 years ago.  Jaime Villa, after a distinguished career as Nicaragua´s foremost biologist, finally retired.  Raymundo became one of the star tour guides for several of the biggest  tourist companies in Nicaragua and can handle tours in any part of the Republic.  He married and has a smiling, young daughter.  Stuart went on to graduate school, got married, and has two fine boys, and goes all around the world selling products for various types of crustaceans and fish.  Smitty had a stroke, lost his ability to speak, and retired to live in Ocotal. He still asked me through his son to take him along in my treks into the mountains. I hated to turn him down.  He later died  of a stroke in his rocking chair.  I do not know what happened to his ball peen hammer. 

I retired from university work and still work on obscure  research topics that interest me and do some rescue archaeology. With luck I will have two books out this coming year, one in Spanish and one in English.   No retirement for us old sinners. Much  happened because we did not step on that  mine.

Oncidium splendidum: 

I once knew a plant and orchid expert named Jon Hall, who was living in Costa Rica and had worked for Robert Vesco.  I asked him what was of interest in Nicaragua. He told me two things. First, the Laelia rubescens is rare in Costa Rica and worth a look.  I soon found out that they grow by the millions around the Masaya volcano.  He also told me of the most magnificient orchid of all was the Oncidium splendidum, the splendid Oncidium.  He was not sure where it could be found, but it did  not like too much wáter.  I finally found the Oncidium splendidum, and include this picture of the plant in bloom. 

It has a large, yellow flower typical of Oncidiums, and can be spotted for a distance.  Where it can be found I am not going to say.  But I will give one clue.  It grows in the land where the guerrilla chieftan Encarnación Valdivia, Comandante Tigrillo,  lived, and fought, and recently died of old age.  He was probably the most effective recruiter of campesinos for the Contra and he fought in many battles in the north. 

During a set to, a mortar round landed close and it seriously damaged his knee.  It got infected and the command in San Andres de Bocay sent a very good doctor, Comandante Javier, who ran the Contra hospital at Banco Grande on the shores of the Coco river.  He cradled comandante Tigrillo in a dug out canoe, shot the waterfall  of Tunawalán at the village of Amaka on the Bocay River, and got El Tigrillo to a hospital, where he survived. As an advantage El Tigrillo´s knee, when healed,  bent both ways. He retired and passed away not too long ago. By his village the splendid Oncidium may still be found.

By Pat Werner

Orchids 2

Orchids 1