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To begin our day driving to the north we stopped on the way out of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno to see if we could find some more Benthamiella azorella. We did, so more photos and collections. Just to show you how small this thing really is, below is a photo of the flowers with an Argentine 10 centavo piece next to them (for reference, this is about the size of a 5 pence piece). They are MINISCULE! The flowers are a pale tan colour, the leaves are packed into domed shapes that look white from the hairs on the leaf margins…  these plants are certainly easy to miss….but definitely worth finding!

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The tiny tan flowers are dry, we missed the flowering season. They have 2 stamens that stick way out of the flower.

 

Whilst looking for the Benthamiella we were carefully watched by a troop of guanacos (not sure if troop is the right collective noun, herd might be better!) from the hill overlooking the lake. They were not quite sure about us, and made some very odd bird-like noises. Near the national park and away from hunting pressure they are less fearful and tend not to run away so quickly – they do in the end though.

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Three guanacos suspiciously watched me look for Benthamiella around a small lake full of flamingos and geese

 

Driving out of the side road that led to the park we re-joined Ruta 40 – Argentina’s equivalent to the iconic Route 66 of the western United States. Ruta 40 goes for more than 5000 kilometres from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to Quillaca on the border of Bolivia, traversing the country. There are teeshirts, mugs, stickers – everything you could want with Ruta 40 on it. Like Route 66 it is a national icon. Unlike Route 66 though Ruta 40 is of variable quality! It can be lovely and paved, or a dirt track, depending upon where you are along its long trajectory. For miles today we drove along a bumpy gravel road, with a beautiful newly paved, but not quite ready, Ruta 40 alongside. Quite frustrating. We finally did get onto the paved road, but at the province border between Santa Cruz and Chubut, it suddenly became gravel again. Long days on gravel roads across what seem like trackless plains are tiring!

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The gravel stretches seemed to go on forever, Juan did most of the driving today, thank goodness

 

The road goes for miles with no people, no sign of any habitation at all, expect every now and then there is a sign to an estancia, or occasionally a tiny little town. Petrol is hard to come by, and filling up is a priority. Our truck uses gasoil (diesel) so we are OK, almost, but cars using petrol often have to carry jerrycans to make it between stations.

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The metropolis of Bajo Caracoles

 

We stopped a few times in our rush to the north, at one place just north of Baja caracoles we found an extraordinary Lycium species that hugged the ground in the dry river bottom so tightly it seems to be fused to the mud. Lycium is the genus from which we get go ji berries (a Chinese species known in the UK as the Duke of Argyll’s teaplant).

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Lycium repens (the fruits are about half a centimetre long)

 

On the way we passed through an archeologically important region of Argentina – in these painted hills is the Cueva de las Manos where early humans (probably more than 10,000 years ago) made handprints on the walls of the cave. These sites are among the earliest evidence of human occupation of South America – I wish we had had time to stop. Next time.

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The landscapes in Argentina remind me of my home in New Mexico – the same painted hills that Georgia O’Keefe so loved and painted in northern New Mexico are also found in Argentina – convergent landscapes!

 

We got to the town of Rio Mayo at about 8 pm – early for us; we had planned to go on, but decided the next town was just too far, we would have arrived at 11 pm, had to press all the plants and set up the dryer – we wouldn’t have finished until the next morning! So we had plenty of time to get all the collections organised and drying (we always dry plants in the field on a rack over two heaters – we had a picture of this in the blog from last year!). I had collected a tiny little tobacco, Nicotiana acaulis, in the dry steppe near the park, and when we found it in the morning, the flowers were closed. Putting in the press though revealed open flowers – this species flowers at night, and is probably pollinated by moths. The flowers smelled very sweet as well. So all is well with the plants, they are happily drying, we are resting up for another marathon drive tomorrow – then some more fertile collecting in the Andes….. we are leaving the Benthamiella behind, but there are Solanum species to come!

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Nicotiana acaulis – this tiny species grows like a strawberry and throws out runners that develop into small plantlets in loose soil around lakes and along roads

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Estancia La Leona was just as lovely in the morning as last night. It has had an interesting history – the estancia was the ferry point for sending sheep on balsa rafts down the Rio Santa Cruz to San Julian – 200 head of sheep to a raft, imagine! The station developed into a buzzing meeting point, and all kinds came through, including, it is said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on their way north after robbing a bank in Rio Gallegos. Today it is run as a stop on tours between Calafate and Chalten – the lemon pie looked amazing!

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La Leona from the bridge over the river - imagine carrying sheep on rafts down this!

 

Shortly after passing the eastern edge of Lago Viedma – another one of these lakes of an unreal blue – we began our day on gravel roads. Out in the desert steppe again, we made a stop to collect a couple of things and lo and behold what did Franco find along the road in the construction loose banks but Nicotiana ameghinoi – sounds a bit like an anti-climax, but this plant is a real find. The last monographer of the genus Nicotiana, Thomas Goodspeed, had never seen it in the field, its chromosome number is not known and we have never included it in any of our phylogenetic work on the genus. Goodspeed speculated it would be like another Argentine species, Nicotiana acaulis, but it is a another matter altogether. The leaves are thick and fleshy and covered with sticky hairs, the flowers obviously open at night and were closed in the morning, but were pale green with brownish petals. It had a thick taproot like a carrot…. It will be great to find out where this belongs in the genus – we collected seed and leaf material for DNA sequencing, so a bit of lab work and we should have a better idea.

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Franco collecting seeds of Nicotiana ameghinoi

 

Along the same road we had another great find – a different Fabiana; Fabiana foliosa. This species has only been collected a few times, and we have been looking for it! There it was, tucked behind a rock where we stopped to look at another population of Petunia patagonica. This little shrub looks a lot like the Fabiana nana we collected at the petrified forest, but has spine-tipped branches and little leaves. At the same place we found a Benthamiella (at last), the common species Benthamiella patagonica. It was turning out to be an amazing day!

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Fabiana foliosa, not much of a plant!

 

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Benthamiella patagonica - much cuter, but tiny and hard to find!

 

Many kilometres of dirt road later, we ended up (after a certain amount of discussion of the difficulties of buying fuel versus finding a place to stay versus collecting some more new things) deciding to go towards the west again and head for the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (yes, he also has a national park named for him!) where in some estancias outside the park a different Benthamiella had been collected. By this time it was about 6 pm, and the park was some 90 km in on a dirt road…  there were supposed to be places to stay in the park…… so off we went, towards more snow-capped peaks in the distance.

 

Choiques (Patagonian rheas) and guanacos were abundant along the road, I don’t even get excited any more when they appear. As we approached the mountains small lakes began to appear; at one of them a large flock of birds was wading, getting out the binoculars we saw they were flamingos! And behind them grazing peacefully at the lake edge was a herd of guanacos. We were so taken by the birds that we only absent mindedly looked for plants until Gloria found a tiny grey cushion and called for the handlens. It turned out to be Benthamiella azorella – with flowers so tiny you can’t really see them easily without a lens. This was just the species we came here for! Juan also found Deschampsia antarctica at the lake edge, so all in all a terrific stop.

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Benthamiella azorella close up and personal

 

By this time it was sunset and getting dark, so we will be back tomorrow for another look in better light. We found the estancia that rented rooms (at a price!) – so will set off early tomorrow back to the east again, and hopefully to more Benthamiella azorella. We might have to go look at the mountains a bit first though – they are spectacular!

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Flamingoes and the Andes - can't beat it

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Last night we finally found a place to stay, at supper and crashed at 2 am – Calafate is a tourist town and all the hotels were full. We found one in the end though, and collapsed. Morning had us headed for the wet, towards some more Benthamiella localities – can you guess what happened? That’s right – no luck. These collecting records are all from almost a century ago and the habitat has changed so much that finding these incredibly small, quite rare plants is difficult even at the best of times. We decided we need to come back to this area and spend a week or more just exploring all over. The old lables don’t even say what typ of habitat the plant was growing in or what it looked like – so it is a matter of guess work and some incredible luck.

 

All was not lost though, as Juan had some localities for a grass (Deschampsia) he is working with in the same area so we carried. Juan is looking at the phytogeography of Deschampsia antartica, a tiny little grass that grows all over Patagonia and on the Antarctic peninsula as well; they are studying its chromsomes and geography. More tiny plants to find! Fortunately these were more common once we got to the southern beech (Nothfagus) forests as we went west. The change from dry desert steppe to beech forest was quite abrupt, almost from one hill to the next.

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Southern beech (Nothofagus) forest at the base of Cerro Buenos Aires, not sure which species yet...

 

The Nothofagus all had a sort of mistletoe – a parasitic plant of the genus Misodendron. The seeds have sticky plumes and after collecting a few specimens we were covered in them!

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Misodendron - these plants are dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants - this one is a girl

 

Because we were quite close, we decided to go see the Perito Moreno glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The glacier is named for Francisco Pascasio “Perito” Moreno, who was a geographer of the 19th century who not only helped to set the Argentine-Chile border, but battled for the education of the indigenous people of the region. He was awarded the King George IV medal by the RGS, among many other honours. Having a glacier named after you had to be one of the coolest ones though! This was definitely a detour worth taking – one of the wonders of the world – it is the centrepiece of the Parque Nacional los Glacieres; accessible by really organised walkways. The first sight of it brought gasps to us all, then we saw the viewpoint – called “Mirador de los Suspiros” (was that a joke? – it means Viewpoint of Sighs).

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It is now summer in Argentina, so the ice melts, causing bits of the glacier to fall off. This particular glacier sits over a stream, so every year the water undercuts the glacier, making an ice bridge, which then collapses. This had happened a few days ago – it makes the national news! As we walked along the lower of the walkways big bits of glacier fell into the stream – the noise is quite loud, even the little bits seem like huge cracks. The entire glacier face is 60 m tall, and it is 5 km wide at the base – an impressive sight. This was a detour totally worth making – even if it did set us back a bit in the collecting line.

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A huge piece of glacier falling - we have a video, but I haven't figured out how to put it up yet! The noise was tremendous

 

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Here we all are - Juan, Franco, Gloria and I - all windblown and pretty cold, the glavier creates its own weather it seems

 

We realised we had spent too long at the glacier and would not make it as far as we thought, unless of course we were to break our record of arriving at midnight! So we saw a hotel advertised in the middle of the steppes and decided to try. So here we are. Moonlight outside, along a glacial river in the Patagonian steppes, the owner’s son in gaucho dress came to fix the heat (it is VERY cold) – AND we collected another population of Petunia patagonica at 10 pm!

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With the morning and the break of the heat wave came the wind – I now believe the tales of Patagonian wind! We left San Julian, heading south… to find more populations of all of our solanaceous friends. The idea of the trip was to go south via the coast and then north again via the Andes, today was the day where we made the crossing to the west. But first, we looked for more Petunia patagonica. At a semi-random stop on a junction with a tiny (locked shut) dirt track to Punta Beagle (we can’t seem to get away from Darwin, not that one would want to!)  we found huge plants of the “petunia” – we are now certain it is not a Petunia! These cushion plants must be very old indeed, some of them were four or five metres in diameter and had entire ecosystems growing inside them. They seem to never get more than about 30 cm tall, but spread and die out in the middle.

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Juan sitting in the middle a huge Petunia that has died inthe middle; Franco has a theory that this is where the seeds fall!

 

Before our collecting stop we passed through Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, where Juan (who was driving) was breathalyzed – at nine in the morning! We went into town, bought petrol and then and to go back to our collecting site – fortunately for us they were all at lunch when we next passed through! After a bit more frustrating looking for and not finding Benthamiella, we headed west. Against all advice, and ignoring a sign saying “Camino intransitable” (Road impassable) we headed straight across the province of Santa Cruz on Route 9 – a dirt track that went along a high pampa above the extraordinarily coloured Rio Santa Cruz. The river, which we had crossed at its mouth in Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, was a milky blue colour – this comes from its origins in the glaciers of the Andes, where we were headed.

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The Santa Cruz River from the table land where we were driving...

 

The road of course was perfectly good, in fact excellent! The best bit was that there was no one else on it, so when we stopped to look for plants no one minded. The wind was incredible – it was blowing so hard that it was hard to stand up when you got out of the car. At one terrific stop we found a treasure trove of Solanaceae – including the quite bizarre Jaborosa magellanica that Gloria, who studied these plants for her PhD, had never seen in the field. The dark purple, almost black flowers smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies. We also found Nicotiana corymbosa – one of my target species; it is a wild tobacco with incredibly sticky (and smelly) leaves. The car stank!!

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Jaborosa magellanica - the flowers are almost black!

 

By this time it was freezing cold and the wind was blowing so hard that when I tried to climb back over the fence to get back to the car it pushed me back into it and I somersaulted backwards. The weather had definitely changed, and was changing as we went west. Route 9 was an amazing road, through wide open steppes, with guanacos everywhere and fantastic clouds framing the scenery. Before heading to our destination El Calafate we made one last stop looking still for Benthamiella – at about 9 pm, as usual for us on this trip. It must have been about 5 degrees Centigrade – what a change for the other day! And we have snow and glaciers to come, we could just see them in the distance as we approached Calafate at the end of the light…..

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The steppes at sunset