Searching for Miss Fortuna, 2010 style.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Travel (Panama)
Travel (Personal narratives)
Bromeliaceae (Personal narratives)
Bromeliaceae (Appreciation)
Author: Tristram, Peter
Pub Date: 05/01/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of the Bromeliad Society Publisher: Bromeliad Society International Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Bromeliad Society International ISSN: 0090-8738
Issue: Date: May-June, 2010 Source Volume: 60 Source Issue: 3
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Panama Geographic Code: 2PANA Panama
Accession Number: 248734315


The jungles of Panama abound with tropical plants in great diversity. Bromeliads, from the beautiful to the bizarre, flourish in its pristine rainforests. Panama's mountains thrust upwards from the massive forces of geological subduction, separating the warm waters of the tropical Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The latitude, altitude and proximity to the warm oceans ensure a warm wet climate, perfect for the diverse and lush flora.

We planned a trip to visit these forests--the veteran from Costa Rica, Chester Skotak, the local expert and our gracious host, Bill Fitz and the novice, me. We were to meet up later at Fortuna with two more Aussies, Mark Paul and Bruce Dunstan and another Panamanian local, Carla Black. It would be the wet season, flowering time for many plants, too.

Searching for Miss Fortuna, 2010 style. The fabled Guzmania 'Fortuna' screamed into the brom headlines after the rare plant auction at the Houston World Bromeliad Conference in 1990. It had been introduced into horticulture in the late '80s by Harry Luther, ex Bromeliad Identification Centre director at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. It was the sort of plant that would be the jewel in a hybridising program, a plant worth being obssessed with.

The lure of the new and colourful jewels, like G. 'Fortuna', was the inspiration for Chester Skotak's highly entertaining 2007 novel, Searching for Miss Fortuna, a story loosely based on true events.



The original plant was collected past the town of Fortuna, at the pass above the hydroelectric dam, at an altitude of about 1100m (3300ft). Unless it were in bloom, it would have looked like a small Guzmania lingulata or G. glomerata, sharing the forest with many other Guzmania species including G. scherzeriana, musaica, plicatifolia, rosea, zahnii, angustifolia as well as a myriad of Thecophylloid Vriesea species now placed in the genus Werauhia. Readers of the novel will know that the mystery Guzmania remained hidden during that mischievous adventure. We did not find it where Harry bagged it, but I will come back to this area later.

Our plan was to first explore the pass at El Cope, where I was assured by Chester that splendid specimens of G. 'Fortuna' ('El Cope' form) would be found in the Atlantic zone. Plants have been marketed for years as either 'Fortuna' or 'El Cope', both variations of a yet-to-be-published Guzmania species. For Chester this was bad memory lane, but for me it was paradise, back in bromeliad habitat at last, after a few years of abstinence.

The coastal plain along the Pacific side, the path of the Pan American Highway, has been largely cleared and settled. Nevertheless occasional areas full of epiphytes were observed. Of particular interest we spotted a spectacular form of Tillandsia fasciculata, in full bloom with imposing rosettes and shiny, multi-branched, cerise-red inflorescences. Other species noted included T. caput-medusae, T. brachycaulos, W sanguinolenta and a few Pitcairnia species growing on rock walls. Mostly, though, there were no epiphytes.

The old road to El Cope rises quickly to the pass, with the imposing metal cross still where it was when the "Man from Florida" allegedly visited. Epiphytes increasingly adorned the trees, changing with altitude and at their climax just over the top, at about 800m. On the way up were more T. fasciculata and masses of G. monostacha in the regrowth before the fantastic diversity a little higher, with many Werauhia species like W kupperiana and W lutheri, stunning Pitcairnia species, like the ornamental, petiolate-leafed P. arcuata and P. aff. multiflora and many others.

Our tired vehicle had been parked near the pass where Chester remembered a long dead saw mill from thirty years ago when he first came here. We set off searching. The track snaked up to the lookout with the strangely incongruous cross, past the showy Pitcairnias and patterned-leafed Werauhias, past the vivid pink and yellow G. circinnata, and dazzling, similarly-coloured G. calamifolia v. rosea and groves of post-floral G. plicatifolia

At the top we admired the view over the narrow Atlantic plain to the Caribbean coast and beyond, the sea appearing mirror smooth in that grey, early morning light. But still no 'Fortuna'! There was only one way now to the lowlands--down the slippery, rocky, muddy path, still used by the local Indians.

Chester laughed, "No way boys," and decided to reminisce back at the top taking in more of the inspiring views while Bill and I scrambled and slid, eyes peeled for a flash of red, camera ready.

For the first few hundred metres nothing changed much, the forest largely logged out and host trees infrequent. The sheer dropoffs were just as Chester described in his book. Among the grasses were more delightful Pitcairnias with Werauhias and Guzmanias visible in occasional trees. The track was still being used as it has for eons, with occasional folk heading to the Pacific side on foot and steed.


Then, around a corner in a patch of forest, just as Chester swore, there they were, resplendent, in full neon-red bloom, brightening the deep shade. What a sight! I wonder how the "Man from Florida" would have reacted if he had ventured down the same trail, still sobering up from a night with the Indians and saw this glory.


Further on many more were observed, always inside the canopy, though few were flowering. Closer inspection revealed the climbing nature of the species with the uppermost generation "feeding" from those lower, no doubt enhancing the size of the inflorescences. Another climbing species, G. musaica, adorned the same trees as well as G. donnel-smithii overlooking the beautiful Aechmea veitchii scrambling in the deep leaf litter.

Many images were taken, but my shoes had failed me, veteran "solemates" of Peru and Brazil, the worn leathers were destined to join the many other shoes strewn along the trail. I could go no further. I tied discarded plastic bags around them and could walk once more. I struggled back to the top vowing to purchase a pair of gum boots (rubber boots to you blokes in the States) in the first store I saw!

At the continental divide we joined up with Chester, who had found some interesting Pitcairnias, and headed back to the car. All evidence of the sawmill seemed gone until a faintly-yellow frame was noticed in the regrowth. The dozer skeletons were still there, abandoned, beside the concrete slabs from a previous age. The forest is returning and soon the legendary 'Fortuna' will have her kingdom to herself again.

And then it rained. The Heavens opened as we headed back, wet season after all, but clear skies greeted us for the next day's short trip to Fortuna. We started early, passing through magnificent groves of T. fasciculata, up, into the cloud forests of the Fortuna area. Near the dam we met up with Carla, Bruce and Mark ready for some serious exploration. I donned my new gum boots!


Things have changed since the first brom collectors went to Fortuna. The rough road is now a modern highway going all the way from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Much of the lush forest is still there, though significant areas have been heavily logged. The vegetation has inexplicably changed at the pass, where the first 'Fortuna' was found: not a single G. musaica, scherzeriana, lingulata, rosea nor 'Fortuna' was to be seen in the vicinity as remembered by Chester.

The area is a bromeliad lovers paradise. Many of the same species at El Cope adorn the trees and grassy areas in Fortuna. Carla, a heliconia enthusiast being "corrupted" into bromeliads, knew of excellent trails so our first was before the dam. The diversity was immediately evident--all manner of tropicals, many highly ornamental, flourished everywhere.

There were at least five terrestrial and epiphytic Pitcairnia species, many Guzmanias including G. scandens with its grassy foliage and delicate, pendant inflorescence, pin-striped G. circinnata, G. musaica var. rosea and G. glomerata full of ooze, caulescent G. angustifolia and a stunning red-bracted G. desautelsii, a myriad of Werauhia species including W. lutheri with its large leathery silver funnels, the purple foliaged W. woodsonii and discolor W. latissima, banded W. vittata, W. hygrometrica and many other hieroglyphed species and the occasional weird Racinaea contorta. Spined genera were conspicuous in their absence. The display of orchids, gesneriads, anthuriums, heliconias, etc, etc were also fabulous.

Once again Chester, Bill and I were tuned in for the hunt but we were to be disappointed--after 2 days in the area on both sides of the range, no 'Fortunas' were found. No doubt they are still there, somewhere.

On other trails many of the same species were seen as well as G. zahnii, G. sanguinea, W insignis and its interesting variety brevifolia, so many other Werauhia species as well and so many Pitcairnia species.

Visitors to Panama would know that very few roads head to the hills, basically to Fortuna, Santa Fe and El Cope, so the view from the Pan American is an endless forested range to the north. It's hard to imagine what bromeliad treasures have yet to be looked upon, no doubt some new to science. Bill has also found large-growing 'Fortunas' in the coastal forests to the northeast of El Cope, as well as over the range from Volcan Baru in almost inaccessible areas. Chester still believes 'Fortuna' may be the most common bromeliad in all of Panama.

We suffered no misfortunes on this trip. Little Miss Fortuna, Chester's patron saint of calamities, reigns supreme in these forests.

Photos by the author.

Peter Tristram, email
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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