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Touching the sky.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 22, 2012

Well, we did make it to the puna – and all there is to say is – wow. We first climbed from 1200 m above sea level in the town of San Salvador de Jujuy up the Quebrada de Humahuaca to 4500 m at the Abra de Lipán – up an incredible road. Unlike most of the roads we have been on this trip though, this one was paved – it is the road to Chile over the puna.

 

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Once over the pass we felt like we could touch the sky – it was amazingly clear and you could see for miles. Distances are hard to measure at these elevations – everything looks quite close. The snowy peaks we could see in the distance were in Chile! It looked as though they were right there…..

 

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As we looked for solanums at high elevations a storm gathered…. We found our friend from Catamarca – Solanum chamaesarachidium – but this time in miniature, who could believe a plant so tiny could reproduce. That is, however, what plants and animals do; this plant has a flower and a developing fruit - amazing.

 

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It started to rain, so on we went, heading to the tiny village of El Moreno, where Gloria had once before seen Solanum sinuatirecurvum, another high elevation speciality.

 

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We found the plant, got very excited, climbed the fence to photograph it – but then the storms gathering all round caught us up and thunder and lightening began, accompanied by hail. Now a bit of bad weather never really deters plant collectors, but being the tallest thing for miles in a lightening storm is not a great idea – so we got in the car to wait it out.

 

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After the storm we talked to some of the residents of El Moreno – imagine a place where water takes ages to boil, and the only fuel is wood – but there are no trees. Interestingly, the man we spoke to had a solar stove for boiling water – he said it took 25 minutes to boil 5 litres of water – using only sunlight – something there is plenty of high up in the puna.

 

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We then began the drive back through the puna to return to the town of Purmamarca for the night, seeing more vicuñas on the way, plus several other exciting plants. The main road to Chile goes over huge salt flats (the high Andes is full of these salt pans or salares) so we took a quick detour to see them. Optical illusions abound in places like this – the far-away mountains looked as though they were floating on air.

 

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It was a day of wonderful plants, amazing views and great fun. We spent the night in Purmamarca where we ate at a place with live music – Tiina learned to dance the chacarena – a local Jujuy dance, and the music was great. What stays with us still though, is the pure beauty of the weather in the high Andes – we were surrounded by storms all day, but never really got wet; what we saw was an ever-changing sky so close it felt like you could touch it.

 

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After a fantastic couple of weeks here in Argentina tomorrow we head for Peru, and more solanum hunting. We have spent the last few days since returning from the field in the herbarium here in Córdoba - a real treasure trove. We have added some 800 new records to the Solanaceae Source database - some very old specimens, but all new to us! Field work is great for sorting some problems, but the herbarium can bring specimens together in a way so that all the variation is laid out in front of you to see and decide what to do!

 

We have solved a number of knotty problems - realised that some of the species we were confused about were in fact only variants of a single widespread species - Solanum salicifolium - that can grow just about anywhere. Feels good to have sorted that out.

 

Tiina has gone out dancing with the post-docs - Gloria and I are making sure everything is in order for our joint treatments of Solanum for the Flora of Argentina, and generally just catching up. The list of things we will leave to do "next time" just keeps getting longer; it is clear there will another field trip next year, we are hopingn to go to Patagonia. We will be sad to leave this wonderful country and out great friends, but are looking forward to Peru, where we will arrive just in time for the Museo de Historia Natural's birthday party!

 

More solanums await in Peru - first we must sort out the permits for collection in Lima..... I am sure surprises await!