Article published in The Gloxinian - Vol. 54 Nº 2
Second Quarter 2004
Brazil – The Trip of a Lifetime
After an all-night flight, we landed in São Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world. It was quite exciting as there were buildings as far as you could see. I had wondered what this trip would be like because the participants were from such diversified backgrounds. They were Mauro Peixoto (our Brazilian guide), Gussie Farrice (our treasurer), Jeanne Katzenstein (our wonderful coordinator), Marilyn Allen, Robert Hall, and Bill Price (from Canada), Nola Carr and Elizabeth Glazebrook (from Australia), Ingrid Lindskog (from Sweden), and Carol Ann Bonner, Thad and Betty Holcomb, Dave Moody, Ben Paternoster, Carolyn Ripps, Wallace Wells, and me (from all around the USA). Last, but not least, was our bus driver, Antonio "Toto" Domingos.
I thought this would be a "roughing it" trip so you can imagine my surprise when we walked out of the airport to board our deluxe Mercedes Benz bus, complete with rest room and refrigerator. As we started our trip into the Atlantic coastal rainforest areas of Brazil, Jeanne pointed out the Cecropia tree, a good indicator plant for finding gesneriads. Later we also discovered other indicator plants for finding them such as begonias, orchids, bromeliads, and tropical cactus. Well out of the city heading toward our first hotel, we stopped to search for gesneriads. Even though it was raining, we wanted to walk up a short trail along a small stream just to see what was there. Growing in heavy shade in a very moist environment, we found our first gesneriad – a Besleria species with white flowers and yellow calyces.
Our second day was even more exciting for me as we headed into the mountains near Parati enjoying a wonderful view up into the clouds. It was fascinating to see the clouds wrap around the slopes and bathe the plants in a cool mist. The elevation was about 800 meters (2500 feet) when the bus could travel no further on the small road. We got out and started walking further up the hill and found Sinningia schiffneri and a Besleria species, both growing in heavily shaded wet areas. We found Codonanthe gracilis and C. devosiana growing low on the sides of some rocks. Higher up on other boulders grew Nematanthus brasiliensis and N. fluminensis with their attractive flowers and open seed pods. We also saw many plants of Nematanthus monanthus in the same area. Find a large boulder, and chances are you would find a Nematanthus rambling around on top or on the sides, partially shaded by other plants, not really growing in much of anything except some compost and around other plants.
Further up the trail we spotted Sinningia douglasii tubers that were hanging from the rocks and about to fall. With a boost from yours truly, Bill Price rescued a few. These tubers grew, mostly exposed, holding on only by a few roots clinging to cracks in the rocks with small amounts of compost. Some were bathed with a small stream of water trickling around them. We found several fallen flowers, and Jeanne showed us how "nectar robbers" had chewed holes in the sides of the flowers to steal the nectar.
Going from one extreme to another, we headed down the mountain to visit a park at sea level. In much warmer conditions there along the ocean, we saw Codonanthe gracilis growing in open woods. There seemed to be much less humidity in this area, and I could see that the plant's succulent leaves would come in handy. At times, the ocean would bathe the beach and wooded areas in a salty mist. How could a gesneriad survive in this? We also found Nematanthus fissus growing on a mango tree in the same area.
Later we passed the mountain where Sinningia sp. "Rio Das Pedras" was found. It was a bittersweet sight as it was great to see the locale, but we didn't have time to make the 2-1/2 hour (or more) hike up to where the plants grew. On the trip we spent many hours riding from spot to spot enjoying the wonderful scenery of Brazil. The views heading up to Teresópolis were fantastic with the most wonderfully steep peaks you could ever imagine. We stopped along the way and found two species of Vanhouttea growing next to the highway. After arriving at our next hotel, we took a walk in the open woods nearby. In fair light there, attached about five feet above the ground in a tree with no media to speak of, grew Nematanthus crassifolius.
The next day was our planned visit to the popular Serra dos Orgaos park. We took short and long hikes, on many trails, searching for gesneriads. I fell in love with an unusual form of Nematanthus sericeus (which means silky leaves) that we found growing on a stump in full sun. This form had large red flowers, kissed with a yellow star across the front of the flower, and grew with its many branches standing almost straight up. Not the norm for sure, as most Nematanthus we had seen earlier grew with their stems arched toward the ground and in much shadier conditions. Also in the park we found Nematanthus crassifolius, a Besleria species, Vanhouttea gardnerii, Sinningia douglasii and Sinningia cooperii just coming out of dormancy. It was interesting to find S. cooperii growing on tree trunks under a light coating of moss, bone dry at that particular time of year.
Near the top of the park was a sky trail, unfortunately closed as huge rocks had come off the mountain and smashed the trail and the woods for some distance ahead. Surely that might have opened up new habitat for the various plant species to reclaim, amongst them, hopefully, more gesneriads. Mauro did some fast-talking and got permission for us to walk part of the trail. This sky trail wasn't in the trees but was along the side of the cliff in places too steep to walk. I admit I was a bit disappointed at first that day because the drought they were having had kept many plants from growing or flowering well yet. As we walked along the trail, we found some Sinningia tubers here and there on the trees. I had never expected to see them growing like that! We walked as far as we could on the trail, then turned around. Just behind us, part-way up a tree, was a beautiful plant of Sinningia cooperii in full bloom. The tuber was fully exposed, and a huge bromeliad was growing over it. It was a fantastic sight, and I had fun taking pictures of people taking pictures of it.
The next day we started early for our eight-hour ride to Campos. We left the mountains and headed down toward Buzios, a resort area along the coast as this was known to be Sinningia speciosa country. Arriving at the beach area, we walked down a steep bank toward the ocean and looked for plants among grasses and big cactus in full sun. It was bone dry at the time. I was amazed to think that such a delicate-looking plant like S. speciosa could survive these conditions. We searched on a cliff and found tubers just starting to sprout. They were high up, out of reach, except to the zoom lens of the cameras. I couldn't imagine how the plants survive in that habitat – the other plants must provide some shade and protect them from the ocean winds. We continued our ride heading further north.
The next morning we were again going to an area with smaller roads so two small vans had been contracted to take us through sugar cane fields and up a mountain to find the habitat of Sinningia pusilla. There were few epiphytes except Spanish moss to be seen on the way up the mountain. We parked near the top and took a short walk to a large boulder where Mauro had previously seen S. pusilla. We were surprised to see a whole colony of plants growing there on the less-exposed side of the boulder. They were growing vertically, among the dry moss, with a few grasses and small cactus shading them. I had to wonder if this out-of-the-way area was one of the last places this species grew in the wild. Some of the plants were in flower. We were fortunate enough to see a small bee visiting and thought that perhaps it was the natural pollinator of this species. (I hope someone in our group got a photo.) We said goodbye, sweet pusilla, and headed back down the mountain to meet our bus and head south toward Rio.
The next day we took a side trip to find Sinningia bulbosa. We spotted tubers growing fully exposed on vertical cliffs, with water dripping on some of them. Their roots must grow into the cracks in the rocks. On the lower side of the road, we found some plants in flower. They were growing, in full sun alongside cacti and kalanchoe, in some rotting debris nestled in large chunks of rock that had been dumped there. It was hard climbing down to get good photos, but we enjoyed the added bonus of a beautiful ocean view. Later that day we saw some of the sights of Rio.
Our next planned excursion was an overnight trip to Iguassu Falls which is located on the western border of Brazil. Our flight arrived that afternoon in time for some of us to take helicopter rides to better view the falls, and they were breathtaking, while others explored a nearby bird park. We spent the next day at the falls taking photos, seeing monkeys and coati-mundis, and looking for the different color forms of Sinningia sellovii. I had to laugh thinking that only gesneriad addicts would be looking at the ground when everyone else was watching the waterfalls (and probably laughing at us). We found numerous plants, a few in bloom. Many grew so close to the railings that someone had decided to groom the area and cut them down. It was hard to imagine gesneriads growing like weeds here.
We flew back to São Paulo and met Toto and our bus to continue our adventure. Mauro arranged for us to spend the next day near Nova Odessa with Rogerio Salviani who had previously discovered field locations for S. piresiana, S. eumorpha, Sinningia guttata " and a few others, perhaps even another new species. We visited Saltão Falls and descended a steep trail there and found Sinningia eumorpha growing along the banks in the clay, silt, and loam soil with oxalis and begonias. At the base of the narrow waterfall, we found Sinningia macropoda growing among chunks of rocks, not in bloom on the drier, shadier side. On the sunny side, we found plants in bloom; and in some cases, the mist from the falls would even bathe them as the wind blew the water over them. These were growing in loose chunks of rocks with debris, soil and leaf matter.
We walked down the main stream and up another small stream to a dead end with a cliff in front of us. Rogerio got out his rope and scrambled up to secure it. We climbed up the wet, muddy, slimy rocky slope around 40 feet to a small ledge where we were able to walk with some difficulty alongside the cliff. We found a few plants of Sinningia piresiana in bloom. When they get too big, the tubers fall off the cliffs and rot. We found some dead tubers on the ground, along with bunches of orchids. Also growing up there were begonias and some pleurothallid orchids. In damper areas on the ground, tubers of Sinningia eumorpha were sprouting. That was a wonderful climb, but we still had more places to go, and headed out for our next stop.
We arrived at the privately run Instituto Plantarum. It was established by Harri Lorenzi who grows plants to photograph for the books he publishes – he even autographed some copies for us. (Mauro and Rogerio had both previously worked at the Instituto collecting and maintaining the plants in the collection.) Inside the office was a huge plant of Sinningia sp. "Ibitioca" that really impressed me. Many gesneriads were in the greenhouses and others, like Sinningia warmingii and S. sellovii, were growing outside in full sun. The grounds were wonderful, filled with so many tropical plants that I didn't want to leave. We were getting down to only a few days left on our trip, and I started to wonder how I could leave all these great people we had met and fantastic places we had been. It was quite emotional to think of letting go of all this and going back to New York.
But more excitement was yet to come. Our next day's visit was to the country home of the Peixoto family – a beautiful place with a large house, small chapel, pond, swimming pool, and plants everywhere, of course. We were greeted with kisses from Mauro's mom. She prepared the BEST meal I had the whole trip, and we had some pretty good ones. It was a feast fit for kings. Mauro's family and friends were wonderful to us and made us feel right at home. The day was cold and misty, perfect for spending hours in Mauro's greenhouse enjoying the many plants there. I saw the biggest tuber ever (I bet it was the size of a beach ball) and took a picture of Mauro next to the plant. There were impressive species of Nematanthus in bloom like N. punctatus with large, heavily spotted white flowers and another that was not as large but also spotted which Mauro thinks is a new species. Besides gesneriads, Mauro was growing orchids, begonias, carnivorous plants, hoyas, vines, and many other plants I had never seen before. Mauro was a very hospitable host, and we cannot begin to thank him for all he did for us.
On our last day in Brazil we explored some areas around São Paulo. We drove to a favorite nearby spot of Mauro's and walked down a path to a place in the woods so beautiful that it could have been the Garden of Eden. There was a small waterfall, meandering streams, and lush undergrowth, and, most importantly, the best habitat for all sorts of epiphytes. Unfortunately the stream was swollen and we could not easily cross it. We were so near, but yet so far. I was ready to wade across the fast-moving stream but waited to see what the group wanted to do. Luckily we had a quick-thinking construction worker in our group who took control of the situation. Dave disappeared, then came back with a huge board so heavy it really needed two people to carry it. He plopped it across the stream and we were able to reach that beautiful habitat. There we found Nematanthus fritschii and N. villosus as well as a natural hybrid between the two species. We only had a little time left to scan the area, but we did find several species of Codonanthe, too. (C. gracilis, C. cordifolia. C. devosiana)
Along the road on our way back was an above-ground water main that carried water to São Paulo. The pipe was enormous, and a large access strip was kept cleared on both sides of the pipe. Growing in this clay loam, which seemed quite heavy to me, were plants of Sinningia allagophylla just coming into bud. I was told that the tubers were quite deep in the ground. In a nearby wooded area we found Nematanthus fritschii in bloom. As we were about to leave, we spotted Sinningia elatior growing on the bank above the road in full sun. Seeing those plants in full bloom was a fitting end to our visit to Brazil.
Time to leave was sad, but I think we were all too tired to realize it. It was a trip of a lifetime with friends I hope to have for a lifetime as well. Growing gesneriads has bought so many wonderful people into my life that it isn't just about plants now. It's about the friendships they kindle.
I would like to add special thanks to Carol Schreck who helped me with this article.