Some 33 percent of the tepuis’ known plants are endemic to the region. Most of the Lost World’s wondrous botanical bounty lies on Mount Roraima. Nineteenth-century explorer Im Thurm wrote that “Probably no district of equally small size has yielded greater botanical results as has Roraima.” Many of these plant species have never spread any further than the mountaintop that they call home. Whether insectivores or orchids, they have learned to survive in a harsh environment.
SUNDEW (Drosera roraimae)
Just call it the flypaper plant. The drosera, found throughout the world, features long leaves with tentacles sticky with nectar, digestive enzymes, and adhesive. Attracted by the nectar, visiting insects find themselves literally glued to the spot. Additional tentacles then move in to anchor the struggling insect. At times, the entire leaf will surround it. Once sure of its prey, the plant sends the digestive enzymes into action. Bug eaten, the leaves open again, releasing the insect’s shell to the wind. In the Lost World, the sundew lives on the tepuis’ surface, where it can soak up the maximum sunlight its multiple flowers — sometimes up to 50 per plant stem — require.
SUN PITCHER (Heliamphora)
A tepuis native, sun pitchers live for bugs. As rain fills the pitcher, the plant’s sides begin to curve in towards its upper section. The section, known as a bell, features a slippery surface that forces unwitting insects attracted by the pitcher’s red nectar stem to fall into the water below. Those bugs that don’t manage to fly out before hitting the water are absorbed through plant bacteria. When temperatures are moderate (61 to 80° F) with damp, humid atmospheric conditions, the sun pitcher flourishes in five species: Heliamphora heterodoxa (olive green, with a red line on the rim and pink and white flowers); Heliamphora ionasi (features a large red nectar spoon and can stand up to 18 inches tall); Heliamphora minor (at three inches tall, the smallest species); Heliamphora nutans, and Heliamphora tatei.
Though a relative of the pineapple, the tepuis’ two bromeliad species are more pitcher plant knock-offs than tropical fruit. The bromeliads use the same techniques as the pitcher plant to attract their bugs, but also will take in decaying organic matter and dust. They can be found on rocks or tree limbs. The tepuis bromeliads’ talent for insect digestion is not shared by other bromeliads elsewhere — it’s an attribute essential for survival in terra tepui.
Tepuis country is an orchid lover’s paradise. As one orchid tourist to the Lost World recalls in his Web journal, “We were approaching nirvana.” An estimated 500 species grow throughout Canaima National Park. Here, orchids are almost a casual wildflower and grow effortlessly on leaves, rocks, trees, sand, and soil. Some clusters can be found growing up to 6.5 feet tall. One native favored by the Pemón for decoration is the Cattelaya jenmanii, found at altitudes between 1,312 and 3,280 feet in the Roraima area of Bolivar State and in Guyana. Horticulturalists temporarily lost track of this purple orchid for 63 years until it was reidentified in 1969. BLADDERWORT (Utricularia)
Another insectivorous plant, bladderworts like the Urticularia humboldtii (named after 19th century explorer Alexander Humboldt) favor the tepuis summit where they can get steady sun. Their roots prefer cool, boggy land. Their flowers are usually violet with a sunny orange center. Found on Mount Roraima, this bladderwort digests insects via the “bladders” on its aquatic roots. The Utricularia humboldtii is the largest of the bladderworts and is prized by horticulturalists for its beauty.
Hungry for greens? The Pemón say sucking on the leaves of this fan-shaped plant could keep you alive for weeks:
If you’re thinking of walking off with a pitcher plant or plucking a rosy orchid as a tropical keepsake, think again. Only the Pemón have an official right to gather vegetation grown on the Gran Sabana.