Staying at an Inca ruin has been a great experience, and today we made it even more special by heading over the clouds to the Amazonian side of the Andes.
Early in the morning we got to the pick-up, ready packed with lunch to drive along the road from Ollantaytambo towards Quillabamba. The road crosses the eastern cordillera at c. 4400 m elevation at Abra de Malaga, and the road then turns down towards the Amazon basin. The Amazon basin side is much more humid than the inter-Andean slopes we have seen thus far, but Paul, Andy and I had never seen these humid montane forests before so we were very keen!
Heading off on the road from Ollantaytambo towards the pass we were looking out for Solanum sumacaspi. This is a species of the Geminata clade of Solanum, a tree with remarkably glabrous leaves. Solanum sumacaspi only occurs in the Urumbamba valley, and only few collections of it are known. Luckily we did find it in flower AND fruit, which was fantastic. Sandy has described the species but never seen it in the wild, so this was a moment to cherish!
Close to Solanum sumacaspi we also found Solanum probolospermum, one of my morelloid solanums. This species is nearly like Solanum pallidum, except that Solanum probolospermum has only simple unicellular hairs, whilst Solanum pallidum has branched hairs. We are yet to find out what the exact limits of these species are – more on that later when we get to see Solanum pallidum itself in Puno hopefully!
We found more and more Solanum probolospermum when we went up the road. It was great to observe the large variation present in the species in terms of growth form. In some populations, we also observed some fantastic mutations – flowers with six corolla lobes, fasciated corollas, and super-numerous inflorescences. It was all a bit too much for Paul, who started doubting our taxonomic expertise when we said it was the same species. Observing natural variation can be mind boggling at times!
Once we crossed the pass and started going down the eastern slope of the Andes, the air became more humid and clouds surrounded us. The humidity from the Amazon basin hits the Andean mountains on the eastern slopes, which creates moist montane forest habitats as well as special pre-montane rain forest habitats lower down. This time did not have time to go as low as the pre-montane forests unfortunately. Just as well, as many solanums are found growing in the higher elevation montane forest habitats. First, we found a fantastic species of Morelloid solanums, which we have named as “morel-malaga” for now. This species shows very unusual characters for Morelloids: it has enlarged pedicel apices, calyx with reduced calyx tube and tiny lobes, and most unusually, oval-shaped fruits. We observed this species growing along the eastern side from 3600 to 3450 m elevation, at which point we had to turn around to get home in time. As usual for solanums, this species shows great variation in habit and size, but it clearly likes disturbed microhabitats such as landslides. On our return to herbarium in Lima, we’ll keep our eyes open for this species, as some of the field characters such as pedicel size and fruit shape are not obvious on dried herbarium specimens.
Second find of the day was Salpichroa didieranum. Generally Salpichroa flowers are c. 1-2 cm long, but this species has long yellow tubular flowers up to 12 cm long! Paul was well pleased, this genus is his favourite!
Best thing of the day was a bunch of mad cyclists we saw. They passed us when we were collecting our final “morel-malaga” populations in the humid montane forest. It was raining at this point, the moisture was engulfing us in a thick fog, and we could barely see more than 30 meters ahead. First we saw one mad cyclist passing by. He was ecstatic with joy, rolling down the slope, and before we knew it, he had disappeared in the clouds. Second cyclist followed, this time he greeted us with joyful “hello” with a hint of Irish accent. At this point we thought these were just eccentric tourists. But then followed a whole crowed of them – cyclists coming down the hill, some silent some screaming for joy rolling down the hill in rain! What a bunch of mad but happy people, I wish I could do a similar downhill cycling route one day! I bet they just kept rolling down until they got to the Amazon lowlands!