Some 25, 000 species of vascular plants reside in Ecuador, and new species are being discovered every year. Compare this number to the 17, 000 species found on the North American continent! Plants in Ecuador are generally unique to their habitat, and the following are Ecuador’s primary habitats.
Above the cloud forests lie the Andes’ high-altitude grasslands and scrublands, known as the páramo. The páramo is characterized by a harsh climate, high levels of ultraviolet light and wet, peaty soils. It is an extremely specialized habitat unique to the neotropics (tropical America) and is found only in the area starting from the highlands of Costa Rica to northern Peru.
The páramo is dominated by cushion plants, hard grasses and small herbaceous plants that have adapted well to the harsh highland environment, and often look strange and interesting. Most plants up here are small and compact and grow close to the ground. An exception is the giant Espeletia, one of the páramo’s strangest sights. These Dr Zeussian plants stand as high as a person, and have earned the local nickname frailejones, meaning ‘gray friars.’ They are an unmistakable feature of the northern Ecuadorian páramo, particularly in the El Ángel region, near Tulcán.
The páramo is also characterized by dense thickets of small trees, often of the Polylepis species, which along with Himalayan pines, are the highest-growing trees in the world. They were once extensive, but fire and grazing have pushed them back into small pockets.
These forests are found at higher elevations and earn their name because they trap (and help create) clouds, which drench the forest in a fine mist. This continual moisture allows particularly delicate forms of plant life to survive. They have a characteristically low, gnarled growth of dense, small-leaved canopies and moss-covered branches, and support a host of plants, including orchids, ferns and bromeliads. The dense vegetation at all levels of this forest gives it a mysterious and delicate fairy-tale appearance. Some people find them even more beautiful than the rain forests since many of the plants grow closer to the forest floor. This creates a far more luxuriant environment where orchids, bromeliads and other plants are easier to see.
Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon is known as the Oriente. Of all the habitats in the country, it attracts the most attention – and it’s no surprise. The Amazon is the greatest rain-forest habitat in the world, supporting a bewildering variety of plants and animals. Unlike in temperate forests, which have relatively few plant species, if you stand in one spot in the rain forest and look around, you’ll see scores of different species.
Lianas (thick dangling vines) hang from high in the canopy beckoning you to swing from them, and the massive roots of strangler figs engulf other trees, slowly choking them of light and life. One of the most impressive characteristics of rain-forest trees are buttressed roots, which are sometimes so massive you can just about disappear inside their weblike supports. Equally impressive are the forest’s giant leaves, which are thick and waxy and have pointed tips, called ‘drip tips, ’ that help facilitate water runoff during downpours.
Much of the rain forest’s plant and animal life is up in the canopy, rather than on the forest floor, which can appear surprisingly empty to the first-time visitor. If you’re staying in a jungle lodge, find out if it has a canopy tower; climbing into it is unforgettable.
Mangroves are trees that have evolved with the remarkable ability to grow in salt water. The red mangrove is the most common in Ecuador and, like other mangroves, it has a broadly spreading system of intertwining stilt roots to support the tree in the unstable soils of the shoreline. These roots trap sediments and build up rich organic soil, which creates a protected habitat for many plants and fish, as well as mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates. The branches provide nesting areas for seabirds, such as pelicans and frigatebirds. The shrimp industry has extensively destroyed the mangroves on most of Ecuador’s coastline, and most are now found in the far northern and southern coastal regions. The tallest mangroves in the world are inside the Reserva Ecológica de Manglares Cayapas Mataje.
This fascinating habitat is fast disappearing and is found primarily in the hot coastal areas near Parque Nacional Machalilla and in southwest Loja Province en route to Macará. Its definitive plant species is the majestic bottle-trunk ceiba (or kapok), a glorious specimen of a tree with a massively bulging trunk and seasonal white-flowers that dangle like light bulbs from the bare tree branches.
The Galápagos Islands support surprisingly diverse plant species within distinctive vegetation zones that begin at the shoreline and end in the highlands. The shorelines of the main islands support low mangroves with bright-green leaves, while slightly higher arid zones are characterized by the islands’ eerie cacti, including forests of the giant prickly pear cactus. Trees such as the ghostly looking palo santo, the palo verde and spiny acacias are also found here. As you move higher, a transition zone supports perennial herbs, smaller shrubs and lichens, and the vegetation becomes increasingly varied and thick. This zone gives way to a cloud-forest type of vegetation, and Scalesia forests with bromeliads, ferns, mosses and orchids. The highest elevations are home to the unique Galápagos tree fern, which grows up to 3m high.