After the disappointments of Chapelco and Chile we had high hopes for this section. We again headed west to the mountains – across Patagonian steppe again, the forests of Nothofagus are behind us now and we are into the dry Andean area of central Argentina. The landscape is breathtaking – horizons go on forever and the colours of the shrubs and rocks are not to be believed. This is a magnificent country.
We were headed to a locality called Primeros Pinos (First Pines), and stopped at a small stream called Arroyo Primeros Pinos to look for Pantacantha – one of those endemic Patagonia specialities I had wanted to see on this trip. And there it was! Looking like no other Solanaceae I had ever seen – it is a small, VERY spiny shrub, tucked in under even spinier shrubs.
Like other plants we have see on this trip it was past flowering and only had dried corollas left – but it was enough to study its morphology and understand it a bit better. Again – seeing a plant in the field is quite another thing from seeing it in the herbarium. Preparing herbarium sheets one tries to get things as flat as possible, but this stiff truly 3D plants lose their oomph upon pressing – I would have never thought it looked like it did.
The leaves of Pantacantha are tipped with prickles; this is being spiny in a different way to the “spiny solanums” – although true spines are branches, Solanaceae only really have prickles.
Although Pantacantha was exciting, our real 'plant of day' was Jaborosa volkmanii, a species neither Gloria nor Franco had seen in the field. Franco had good locality data, and we knew it would be hard to find – in flower it has long tubular white flowers, but we were long past the flowering date now and were after seeds.
Our first stop for Jaborosa was Primeros Pinos – so called for being the first large patch of the pines in this part of the Andes – Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree. These are truly trees that recall the dinosaurs – the bark is thick and wrinkled and their form is very distinctive. Of course, I knew these trees from cultivation – they are common in London, but it is another thing entirely seeing them in the wild. I had expected their habitat to be wet, but I was wrong – these were in the dry steppes!
This tree has male reproductive structures – the seeds from the cones are highly prized and delicious! We were out of season though, sadly.
The Jaborosa we found at Primeros Pinos was a miserable little plant growing along the road – but we did find one of my desires, Nicotiana linearis. Again, not a thing of great beauty or stature; this was a plant about 2 cm tall at the edge of the road in a ditch. But it had seeds, and was growing together with another very similar species, Nicotiana corymbosa. Laura Kelly from Kew and Queen Mary thinks Nicotiana linearis might be of hybrid origin – finding this mixed population adds another confusing card to the deck. I collected seeds of both species, and a possible hybrid plant – let’s hope they grow!
This whole plant is 2 cm tall, and covered with sticky hairs
At the next Jaborosa locality we looked and looked along a rocky river bank – Gloria and I were frustrated and finding nothing, but Franco found it – a large population of Jaborosa volkmannii! Pretty miserable looking, as it is the end of the season for these seasonal plants that die back in the winter, but there were fruits. The berries are borne underground at the base of the plant, an effective way to save water and be protected from casual frugivores.
This species has a huge fleshy taproot and grows in areas of loose sand, it was all over this slope. A flat little rosette of greenish grey leaves, it was incredibly difficult to see! You can see the one white fruit at the base of the leaves...
We carried on to another possibility for Combera – not to be defeated by this one! This involved going right up to the border with Chile again, and up in elevation to above 2000 m. As we headed west we saw smoke and thought there must be a fire. But no, it was the gently smoking volcano of Copahue! Our destination was the base of the volcano.
Volcán Copahue, just above the small villages of Cavihue and Copahue – both ski resorts!
We hiked up above the village of Copahue, foregoing the thermal baths (with some regret!) – in search of Combera (another Patagonian endemic). It eluded us again, but we collected some very peculiar plants of the high mountain alpine region. This little violet is a tight flat rosette only a centimetre in diameter, but as it grows it forms little towers that get to about 3 cm tall tucked next to rocks!
As is our usual pattern, we were collecting until almost dark, so headed off on a dirt track to try to make it closer to the next collecting locality – the last in Patagonia for this trip. We drove until midnight, passing only two other vehicles en route! Leaving the high mountains near Copahue was spectacular though – the smoke from the volcano does the same thing as pollution, makes the sunsets amazing. As we drove east again, a lightning storm lit up the sky over the steppes. It will be sad to leave Patagonia – we are hoping for some last plant excitements tomorrow!