Sobralia altissima

D.E. Bennett & E.A. Christenson 1999

Native to Peru

Edited 29 June 2007
© Nina Rach

Photo by Erica Moron de Abad

Original publication in Orchids, 68(11): 1112 (Nov. 1999).
A newly published species, based on collections made by M. Leon M., Feb. 18, 1999, from 2800-2900 m, Huancavelica Dept., Tajacaya Province, Huachocolpa District, Inquilpata, Peru (175 miles SE of Lima).
The photo at left by Erica Morón de Abad depicts a plant from Pampa Hermosa (Wasa-Wassi) in the San Ramón (Central zone) of Peru. This area of high mountain forest is perpetually cool.

This species has earned the distinction as the "world's tallest orchid," growing up to 44 ft (13.4 m) tall. More typically it grows to 16.5 ft high in open, sunny areas and 23-26 ft in areas under a low tree canopy. The name "altissima" derives from the Latin "altus," referring to the long stems.

Three to four apical racemes of flowers, each with 8-9 buds, are borne atop the tall, woody canes with stiff, ribbed leaves. It grows terrestrially in "rocky, black organic soil covered by a thick mantle of sphagnumlike moss" (Collantes & Leon). The local people call this flower Inquil or Inkill in the Quechua language, which means "bearer of a tongue" because of the wide, flat lip. Flowers last for two weeks on the plant and one week as a cut flower.

The flowers have a natural horizontal and vertical spread of 12-15 cm. The overall color is an intense purplish-red with white-tipped sepals and petals. The flowers are very fleshy and long-lasting, with hard substance, similar to other southern Andean, high-altitude species such as Sob. boliviensis Schlecter, Sob. dichotoma Ruiz and Pavon, and Sob. mandonii Rchb.f.

Bennett and Christenson (1999) write "Leslie Garay points out the similarity of our species to the little known S. weberbaueriana Kraenzlin, known only from the type description and a photograph of the holotype (PERU: JUNIN: Tarma; mountains west of Huacapistana, 2600-3000 m, Weberbauer 2076 [Berlin, destroyed])."

Web References:

International Plant Names Index [IPNI],

ING: Index Nominum Genericorum, URL: from the U.S. National Herbarium, Dept. of Systematic Biology - Botany, Smithsonian Institution

Article, "The Orchids of Peru," by tourist guide Jimela Nevarez Swiecki, which describes the area of Huancavelica and the cloud forest of Tayacaja. Also available in Spanish.

Article by Víctor Villanueva, "Olor a orquídeas," in Rumbos. Link: [with several photos of Sobralia altissima]

Article by June Cheseldine in the EMOS Newsletter January/February 2001, Snippets from EMOS Newsletters

David Bennett's plans to return to the locale to collect pollen, in RBG Kew's News from Correspondents, 2000

Photo by Benjamin Collantes

Printed References:

Benjamin Collantes and Marco Leon (1999) "Inquil-- Symbol of Carnival in Huachocolpa, Peru,' in: Orchids, 68(11): 1102-1111. Photo at right by Benjamin Collantes, depicting a woman at the edge of the Amaru forest wearing a hat decorated with Sobralia altissima and Maxillaria pyhala.

Benjamin Collantes M. and Marco Leon M. (2000) "Die Entdeckung der weltgrossten Orchidee Sobralia altissima," in: J. Orchideenfreund 7(2): 88-95.

David E. Bennett Jr. & Eric A. Christenson (1999) "Sobralia altissima," in Orchids, 68(11): 1112-1113.

David E. Bennett Jr. & Eric A. Christenson (2001) "ICONES ORCHIDACEARUM PERUVIARUM," fourth installment, plate no's. 601 to 800; unbound, shrink-wrapped, 400pp [Sobralia altissima Plate 759].

José Roque and Blanca León (December 2006) "Orchidaceae endemicas del Perú," in: Rev. Peru. Biol., 13(2): 759s-878s. Link: [Sobralia altissima, calliantha, hirta, ruparupaensis, turkeliae, weberbaueriana]

Comments or questions? Send e-mail:

Sobralia Pages Banner Stanhopea Pages Banner

Houston Orchid Society Home Page Houston Judging Center website