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Franco and Juan have been working on the genomic structure of Solanum crispum – one of the species in the Dulcamaroid group that I have just finished revising (now in press in the journal PhytoKeys!). It mighty peculiar, and they were very keen to collect another accession to see if their observations were applicable to more than one collection.

 

Solanum crispum is a Chilean species, and like Solanum valdiviense, has only been collected a few times in Argentina and only in the Bariloche region. It has medicinal uses in Chile, and Cecilia thought that perhaps all the collections in Argentina were associated with Chilean settlers and that it was not really native here. We only had a few localities, but Cecilia had seen it just a few months ago just over the border in Chile – so we decided to go and see if we could find it. The border between Chile and Argentina is only about 40 km from where we were staying, so we left everything from the back of the truck in the hotel and set off.

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Looking towards back to Argentina at Argentina’s customs sheds

 

Driving across the 17 km bit of 'no-man’s land' between immigration posts we realised why there had been so much fine dust all over the trails and roads in the area around La Angostura, where we had been staying. In June 2011 Volcán Puyehue that sits right on the Chile/Argentina erupted – the fine white dust was ash! I had completely forgotten about this eruption – the ash was several metres deep and at the top of the pass the Nothofagus trees were all dead – desolation. But some trees had a few live branches and new weeds were coming up along the road. I had never seen the results of a eruption so close to – the devastation is total.

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Volcán Puyehue just covered with clouds – its slopes were white as if with snow

 

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The ash was fine, whitish grey and several metres deep; it must have taken ages to clear this road after the eruption

 

In this part of Argentina it snows in the winter – this is a big skiing area – so there are a lot of road signs warning of slippery roads. I have never seen a warning of slipperiness due to snow and ash before!

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The sign says “Caution – pavement slippery from ice and ash”

 

The forest on the Chilean side of the mountains is similar, but much wetter than that on the Argentine side, where the Andes act as a rain shadow. It was cloudy and misty and there were huge Gunnera plants along the streams. Gunnera is an amazing coloniser, it grows in many wet places in the New World tropics and has blue green algae (cyanobacteria) in its roots, providing it with extra nitrogen.

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Gunnera magellanica (this southern species) is cultivated at Kew – you can see it all around the lake outside the Palm House!

 

Despite it being such a lush forest, we failed to find Solanum crispum – more Solanum validivense was all over the place, but not really what we were after. A frustrating start to the day – but it got worse!

 

Having spent half the day going to Chile, we decided to try to find one of the genera of Solanaceae found only in this area of South America – Combera. This little plant only grows high up in the mountains on scree slopes; it seemed the best and quickest way to get to a collecting locality was to go a ski area and take the chair lift up to where the plant was found.

 

So, arriving at the Chalpeco ski area we saw the telecabin going up and down, and went to buy tickets… what a disappointment! The lifts were not working and the woman firmly told us no one was allowed up beyond the top of the grassy slopes – Combera was up on the ridge. By this time it was 7pm and far too late to walk from the base up to the top – the total ultimate in frustration. This had to have been the worst collecting day ever – how can a mountain be CLOSED!

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Combera grows on the ridge between Cerro Teta on the left and Cerro Escalera on the right – we could almost taste it up there!

 

After a great deal of discussion we headed north on Ruta 40 again – towards two more treasures, Jaborosa volkmannii and Pantacantha (another endemic genus). Let’s hope for better luck tomorrow!

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Heading north into a rainstorm, the first rain we have seen since Puerto San Julian on the Atlantic coast!

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We began the day by visiting Cecilia Ezcurra in the herbarium of the Universidad Nacional de Comahue in Bariloche. The collection is quite small, and like all collections quickly running out of space! Cecilia and her students have collected a lot in the province of Neuquén and so we were hoping to find some new localities for the plants we were interested in. We were not disappointed! Lots of lovely treasures to look for (including a Benthamiella we thought we had left behind) and Cecilia’s in-depth knowledge of the area will help us find some of the more difficult species we hope.

 

As is usual when visiting other collections, we spent time identifying the unidentified Solanaceae – taxonomy works well on a tit-for-tat system – everyone helps one another out for mutual benefit.

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Cecilia Ezcurra and her PhD students Daniela (working on high elevation cushion plants) and Rita (working on some different high elevation herbs)

 

We decided to go and try to find Solanum valdiviense – a mostly Chilean species that just gets into Argentina in the Bariloche region. One locality for it was in the “7 Lakes” area – where amazingly blue lakes are nestled in amongst craggy peaks with Nothfagus forest – truly stunning. Along the way (whilst looking for grasses) we collected a wild potato relative – Solanum etuberosum – so called because it does not have tubers. The fruits are a very odd translucent purplish green.

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Solanum etuberosum fruits – the biggest ones are about the size of a cherry

 

We stopped at the campsite where Solanum valdiviense had been collected before – the camping area was completely full of people in tents and in small trailers. This is a very touristy area and it is high summer (hence all our difficulty in finding places to stay, not that it helps that we get there past 10pm!). The water in the lakes is incredibly clear and very cold; I can see why this is a top vacation spot!

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Beautifully clear water in Lago Villarino

 

Solanum valdiviense is a very peculiar arching shrub, and has extremely variable leaf shapes – this has led to it being given several different names. One of the great things about seeing plants in the field is that you can see variation – these stems had all shapes of leaves on the same stem! The flowers though are typical Solanum – and don’t vary much across this species. Although I have just finished revising the taxonomy of the group to which Solanum valdiviense belongs, it was still good to see it in the flesh!

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