In Search of Hooker’s Lips

Despite your possible first thoughts of the loneliness of the jungle finally getting to me, this search is botanical rather than brothel orientated. The plant scientifically known as Psychotria Elata – although commonly called Hooker’s Lips or Hot Lips – is endemic to Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama and Columbia. It is a critically endangered plant found only in the deepest darkest shade of rainforest canopy, so when there was a request to retrieve Hot Lip seed I jumped at the chance.

There are 1,850 species in the Psychotria genus, also known as Wild Coffee, with one species known as Viridis capable of producing the psychedelic chemical dimethyltrytamine (DMT). It is only Hot Lips however that produces the sumptuous bract responsible for its namesake. Bracts are specialised leaves associated with reproduction, serving to help the true flowers attract their pollinators which in the case of Elata is primarily hummingbirds. During the span of December to March, individual Elata bracts bloom into their lip form for only a week or two, for a few white flowers to then erupt from it’s “mouth” and change the bract’s shape. Once pollinated these flowers mature in to a bluish berry that holds the seed. My task was to bring back no more than two of these seeds so that they can begin to be grown on a conservation project.

IMG_0754My source told me that the flowers had been noted to grow east from where I am currently based in the Ecuadorian rainforest, further into the Amazon basin. I was expecting a two day round trip based on what I was told so headed out equipped with a machete, hammock and a pineapple. My trek took me away from the Rio Zamora, which is used as a boat highway for it is easier to travel on the water than in the woods, and out of sight of the few people in the area. After a few hours of following what seemed to be an overgrown trail, I came to what I had been looking for. A hill with steep sides, about a kilometre square on the bearing of what I had been given. It rose above the canopy like an island, with trees lapping at it’s flanks. It was up here I had been told that specimens were reported to have been spotted.

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“Hooker Hill”.

Approaching the hill I came across a shack and spoke to the only person present who was a six year old boy. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘is this the way to the top of the mountain’, I asked in Spanish. ‘Si’ he said without hesitation and began to walk in front of me on a trail. The trail quickly led to a stream where four women were bathing naked like nymphs, to my suprise. I was confused that I was led down to them but with some confidence in the knowledge that the boy had and that they showed no shame in my presence, I asked them the same question. ‘Sorry,’ I said now struggling to remember any Spanish, ‘is this the way to the top of the mountain?’ Only then did they start to become bashful, puzzled why I would be trying to speak with them whilst bathing. I realised the boy had done me no favour, apologised again, went as far as explaining my rudeness by saying ‘el niño—‘ but thought better of it and made a hasty retreat.

Circumnavigating the scene as best as I could, I began to make progress again, chopping my way up the slopes through the vegetation. It was on top of that little jungle covered plateau where I spotted my first Hooker’s Lips. Lushes red with a waxy gloss, they were everything I hoped that they would be. Alas though, these had not even flowered yet alone fruited so I kept looking. I hacked to and fro, occasionally finding a specimen until I found the mother-load. Up until that point I had only found one or two together but here there were a cluster of about twenty hookers (such is the collective noun). Now I could see all the shapes and sizes that they came in and was able to take observations of what I had already learnt.

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(Left) True flowers emerging from the bract; (Right) “The Brothel”.

Some of the leaves had been eaten between the veins, likely by the caterpillars of the golden silk moth who particularly like this plant. This is a large and beautiful moth of lemon yellow that has four brown “eyes” on their wings and brush strokes of pink that look like watercolour that has bled into paper. As well as feeding these insects, the Ngäbe-Buglé and Kuna amerindians in Panama use them with the bark as medicinals. By poultice or tea, they treat rashes, cough, ear ache and even dyspnea (the symptom of breathing too fast).

Despite all these specimens however not a single one of them was yet to seed. Indeed they had only just reached the stage of poking their white florets from their mouths like many tongues. The whole of the hill seemed to be in the same state of pollination, which makes sense, it just impeded my efforts. So I took stock of my surroundings, did the best to note where exactly on the hill I was and when I eventually returned back to base I labelled the site on a map as “brothel”.

My quest was unsuccessful in the sense that I did not return with seed, I was however able to note the development stage of the flowers and aim to return to the brothel to spread the seed. Deforestation is the main cause of their decline but hopefully if conservation projects like the one I was working for can grow and protect plants of critical risk we can prevent losing these curious flowers altogether.

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