A Contribution to Plant Conservation - Gongora boracayanesis

In May, 2003, a group of botanists from Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the University of Florida, and Lankester Botanical Garden of the University of Costa Rica gathered in the Boracayán Wildlife Refuge. This reserve is privately owned and lovingly managed by Ann Patton and John Bender. It covers 5,000 acres of original rainforest mixed with secondary forest and is situated on a ledge of the Fila Costeña Norte in southern Costa Rica, with a magnificent view of the Pacific beaches and coral reefs three-thousand feet below. We were invited by the generous owners of Boracayán to do an inventory survey of the epiphytic plants in the reserve, including orchids, bromeliads and gesneriads. This promised to be a very exciting project since this area is well known for its biodiversity, but is also poorly explored scientifically. After a week of strenuous fieldwork, trudging up and down slippery trails, carrying large sacks filled with plants, and carefully avoiding highly-venomous pit vipers we assembled an impressive first-round pile of specimens, both living and preserved. It was then time to return to our institutions and begin the slow and meticulous work of identifying our finds.

The following year, a small orchid seedling was discovered growing among the pseudobulbs of a Lycaste orchid in the collection at Selby Gardens. Since the Lycaste originated in Boracayán, so did the seedling of what appeared to be a different species. Our orchid horticulturist, Angel Lara, replanted the seedling in a wooden basket because he suspected it to be a Gongora (which has pendent inflorescences). The plant finally flowered in 2006, and flowers were identified by the Orchid Identification Center (OIC). After much searching in available literature, it was concluded that our Gongora represented a species that was known in cultivation under a misapplied name and that it actually did not have a valid scientific name. An international collaboration was then initiated between Selby Gardens’ orchid specialists and Rudolf Jenny, a Swiss taxonomist who specializes in Gongora studies and who became very enthusiastic about finally naming the Costa Rican species. The name of choice was Gongora boracayanensis, after the area of origin, and in honor of Ann Patton and John Bender’s passion for orchid conservation in Costa Rica. The official name was published in our flagship scientific journal Selbyana 28(2): 2007.

Only a few days after the publication, the OIC received an email message from an excited German botanist contracted by the Panamanian government to do a rapid assessment of the flora in an area soon to be flooded by a hydroelectric power station dam. The botanist, Stefan Laube, was very pleased to find a name for a plant he had recently collected but suspected never would be properly identified, since Gongora orchids are notoriously difficult to understand and classify taxonomically. He suddenly and serendipitously had a positive identification and a scientific name, and he could add a species new to Panama as well as to the list of threatened plants and animals in the area. This is a wonderful example of how Selby Gardens’ staff contributes to international projects and conservation-oriented efforts worldwide.