A Brazilian's shrine to bromeliads may one day save the plants

Elton Leme, a high court justice, has found more species than anyone alive – in his free time.

Andrew Downie
Shrine: Elton Leme has discovered more than 300 species of bromeliad, one of the largest families of flowering plants.

Elton Leme's garden is to bromeliads what St. Andrews is to golf or what Cooperstown is to baseball: a living shrine.

There are plants in the soil, plants peeping from between rocks, plants hanging from the roof of Mr. Leme's home-built hothouse. There are even plants planted on plants.

He has discovered more than 300 species of bromeliad, the largest family of flowering plants endemic to the Western Hemisphere – including pineapple. No man alive has discovered as many.

Now, with flora disappearing at an increasing rate, he is rushing to find and catalog as many new species as he can and then give them to botanists all over the world as an insurance policy against future destruction.

"Today we don't just talk about extinction of species but of ecosystems," Leme says from his garden high in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. "It's a race against time to discover species before they are lost forever."

Leme plans to share the 2,000-odd plants he has gathered during his 35-year career with botanists and other bromeliad buffs. He has already given duplicate flowers to research institutes and botanical gardens and he aims to grow more so his legacy will outlive him.

"I am preserving nature," he says. "If there's a forest fire, say, and land is destroyed, then the species that are there won't become extinct. We can repopulate using what I have."

"All this is public heritage," he says, gesturing to the greenery that surrounds him. "The more I give away, the better it is for conservation."

Leme's crusade would be impressive enough if he were a botanist. But this is merely his pastime. He has a taxing full-time job as a high court justice.

Nevertheless, since discovering his passion for bromeliads when he was 12, he has become one of the world's top experts.

"He is a hobbyist but he has a great knowledge and can recognize new species," says Eric Gouda, a Dutch botanist who is a director of the Bromeliad Society International. "Everybody can find plants, but the thing is to recognize plants that are new species. He has the knowledge to publish what he knows and not many countries have this kind of person."

Leme has the advantage of living in Brazil, a continent-sized nation that is home to an estimated 2,000 of the world's 3,000 known species of bromeliad.

Much of his free time is devoted to searching for new species. He once found 18 new species in five days on a granite rock formation and he has even discovered new species in books, erroneously labeled as existing ones. Just by looking at pictures and cross-referencing the botanists, the discovery date, the ecosystem where it was found, he has a good idea of whether a plant is new.

Once he saw a photograph and spotted a bromeliad sitting quietly in the foreground. He didn't recognize it and immediately suspected it was a new species. A few weeks later he was leading an expedition to find it.

That hunger to find new species is becoming increasingly important given the environmental destruction in Brazil.

In the Atlantic Forest, a diverse stretch of Brazil's wooded coastline that forms a natural habitat for many bromeliads, the devastation is acute – only 7 percent of the original forest survives.

The new big threat is an agricultural push into fertile inland areas coveted by sugar-cane, soybean, and beef producers.

"There will be more loss as the forest and other habitats are reduced in size," says Dr. Gregory Brown, a professor of botany at the University of Wyoming and a frequent collaborator of Leme's. "The vast majority of the damage has been done but we are going to lose more."

In the midst of this destruction, Leme's collection is a veritable oasis. He believes it is the most varied collection of Brazilian bromeliads in the world, and specialists agree, coming from far and wide to visit.

Right now he is digging the garden, a deceptive term for what involves replacing the current bed of soil with six tons of earth, phosphates, coconut fibers, pine cones and other elements.

It will take months of hard work and $4,000 of his own money. Not that he is complaining. A look around his garden provides enough value for the money.

"It is," he says with a wry smile, "the price of my hobby. This will be my legacy."

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