“Nowhere, perhaps, can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants,” von Humboldt later wrote.

Von Humboldt had stumbled into a remarkable ecosystem, known as a Páramo. Páramos blanket the Andes in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia, growing at altitudes between 9,200 and 14,800 feet above sea level.

“They’re like islands in a sea of forest,” said Santiago Madriñán, an expert on Páramos at the University of the Andes in Colombia. All told, Páramos cover about 13,500 square miles — an area the size of Maryland. In that small space, Dr. Madriñán and other researchers have found 3,431 species of vascular plants, most of them found nowhere else on Earth. The Páramos are home to strange variations on familiar forms, such as a daisy known as Espeletia uribei that grows as tall as trees.