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After our fantastic day in Serra da Jibóia we decided to go west to the small bit of protected forest in Serra do Timbo, where Lynn had been in 2009 and seen the very narrowly distributed and quite peculiar genus Heteranthia (PDF 103KB), long thought to not be a member of the Solanaceae. In fact it is a perfectly good member of the family, as Lynn has shown using DNA sequencing and phylogenetic reconstruction.

 

First we had to go into the small town of Amargosa to check in with the NGO who manage the land. They were a bit discouraging - there hadn’t been anyone up there for ages and there were no trails, and lots of roads. But we thought, what could the problem be? We have our GPS…and the coordinates of Lynn’s previous collection…what can possibly go wrong?

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I love the Brazilian flag – what I didn’t know until now was that the stars represent the state capitals, only one of which (Amapá) is north of the equator – the banner says “Ordem e Progreso” (Order and Progress).

 

In Amargosa we were given a note and a rough map – the note to hand to the manager of the huge farm Fazenda do Timbo, in which the forest patch sits, the map to help us find it. We duly checked in at the farm, where the manager was out, but we spoke to one of his deputies and all was well.

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These women were separating beans from the bits of husk and dirt left behind from shelling – all by hand. In the house next door was a huge skip-sized container full of the ones they had left to do.

 

We could see the forest on the top of the ridges so headed up – confusingly the directions given to us at the farm were slightly different to those given to us in town – we should have had an inkling of trouble then! But up we went.

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In the stream-bottom in cultivated land we saw these Mauritia palms – I usually associate these with the Amazon, it was odd to see them here; these forests in Bahia share many elements with Amazonian forests further north, but have many endemic elements as well.

 

Back in the ridges there was an absolute maze of tiny dirt roads – junctions everywhere you turned – incredibly confusing! None of them connected either, so we would see a road on the next ridge over that seemed to be going into forest, but had to go all the way back to the bottom to go up it… the GPS kept telling us we were a bit wrong, and we kept going away from the forest. This is when a GPS can be so irritating, always pointing in slightly the other direction; the roads were so small that none of them were on the road layer either! But at least the sun was shining...

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Eventually we found one edge of the protected area we were looking for, but the GPS said the Heteranthia was to the south – we reckoned we were on one edge of the forest, but needed another road to get into the middle of it.

 

We did find some nice Solanum species in this forest patch, including the lovely species Leandro had just published – Solanum anisocladum (PDF 460KB). It only had tiny buds though.

 

We found another road in and went back up, this time into a bigger patch of forest, where we all leapt out of the car and walked up a small trail along a stream. It didn’t look right to Lynn for Heteranthia, but we were all really sick of driving around and around!

 

In the understory Lucas found a real prize – Solanum restingae – another of the species of section Geminata I described from Brazil in the late 1980s. Just like Solanum cordioides, it usually occurs on the coast and an enigmatic collection from this forest patch had me wondering. I hadn’t expected to find it in this spot though, the coordinates I had were some 10 kilometres to the southwest.

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Solanum restingae is a small tree about 4 metres high, with the characteristic geminate (twinned) leaves of the group. I always think these plants are beautiful, but I guess it is an acquired taste.

 

Solanum restingae was the other target for the day – in herbaria people had been identifying specimens of any Solanum from Bahia with non-hairy leaves and stems as this, while it seemed there might be two very similar species. One of these we had collected at Fazenda Duas Barras – it was a little tiny forest shrub with green fruits, but the leaf bases and stems looked different to me in the herbarium. Seeing true Solanum restingae in the field would confirm or deny my suspicions about these – were they two species or just one variable one?

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Our Fazenda Duas Barras specimen is a new species! It was also exciting to see Solanum restingae from the field – another one I can now imagine as a real plant and not just herbarium sheets.

 

Solanum restingae was indeed quite different – so our Fazenda Duas Barras is a new species! The differences between the two species are many, including:

      • Tree versus small shrub
      • Stems winged versus smooth
      • Leaves tapering at the base versus slightly heart-shaped
      • Calyx tiny and almost absent versus long and swollen

So now I will just need to be sure I can see these on herbarium specimens, and write an identification guide that allows others to do so as well!

 

Solanum restingae is a good example of the pitfalls of naming new species… when I first named it this species was known from only two or three collections from the very particular coastal habitat in Bahia called “restinga arborea” – so I named it for what I thought at the time was its specialised habitat. Oh, how wrong can one be!! Solanum is such a big genus that new names are hard to come up with – most obvious epithets referring to the plant form or colour have already been used. So – Solanum restingae is a misnomer, it certainly does not only occur in the restinga. It is the oldest name, however, so we will have to live with it – and besides it rather trips off the tongue, so is not so bad. 

 

Habitats under pressure

 

The new collecting that has been done in these Atlantic forests of southern Brazil has really increased our knowledge of the diversity of the plants in them – so species we thought were highly restricted a decade or so ago are now known from more collections so we have a better idea of their ecology and habitat preferences.

 

Still, these deep forest solanums like Solanum restingae have less and less habitat all the time as the forest is cut down, so small protected areas like that in the Serra do Timbo are essential for their survival. Once they might have occurred all the way from the coast inland where now there are only agricultural fields; we are unlikely to ever know for sure, our human footprint on the landscape is so big.

 

Exhausted from the to-and-fro driving, but pleased to have found at least one exciting thing, we gave up on Heteranthia for this year. Maybe another time…all in all not a bad last day in the field for a while.

 

On our way out we stopped for one last Solanum – and collected a prickly monster from the roadside with dark burgundy colored thorns about 1cm wide at the base. In the key it comes out as Solanum jabrense, described by our colleague Fatima Agra – but that species is supposed to have straight prickles, not these flattened monsters. We will have to save a piece for her to look at when we get back to Belo Horizonte.

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Yet another mystery – another new species or just variation that hasn’t been recorded yet? Either is just fine and an increase in knowledge.

 

Our GPS track around the Serra do Timbo must look like spaghetti junction – it seems we went everywhere but where to find Heteranthia! Next time for sure…

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Leaving Itabuna we wound our way up through cacao country along the main road, through long stops due to road repairs, villages full of roadside stands and mile after mile of cacao planted in the understory of large trees. From the air it looks like forest and retains many of its functions - it is good for birds, for example (like shade coffee), but not good for the understory Solanum species I am interested in.

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These roadside stands in small villages sell everything – this one has oranges, pottery, chopping boards in the shape of cashew fruits, cacao pods, and lots of bags of beijú, a sort of cracker made from cassava flour.

 

We stopped in the town of São Antonio de Conquista to collect a Masters student from Bahia who will be with us for this stretch of the journey – Lucas Marinho. He is studying the genus Tovomita in the family Clusiaceae, and works with André Amorim, the curator of the CEPEC herbarium, where we were a few days ago in Ilhéus. We also did some shopping – we will be camping (sort of) for the next few days.

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Another brand name amusing for English ears – this juice drink comes in all sorts of flavours – but they all basically tasted the same – sweet, although I think I liked pineapple (abacaxi) best!

 

We are staying in a small house in the protected area run by Gambá (Group Ambientalista de Bahia) – they do great work managing the forest, providing native trees for reforestation projects and rehabilitating animals for release back into the wild.

 

One of these is unlikely to go back any time soon though – a tame guan (jacú) immediately found us and begged for food with a soft, but incredibly irritating (after a while) cooing noise. Lynn tried, rather unsuccessfully, to train her to perch on her (Lynn’s) arm by offering bits of papaya, but Tonia liked crackers better and refused.

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Her name is Tonia and she is a species of the genus Penelope, we are not sure which, the bird book here is not the best.

 

Although birds are great, we were after plants so off we went into the forest along the small river coming out of the mountains. This was a much drier area than places we had been, some of the trees were deciduous and the understory was much vinier. We came here to find Leandro’s new species – called by us now the “fan thing” and we were not disappointed! It was everywhere along the trail… But no flowers or fruits…

 

That (momentary) disappointment was made up for though by finding what is certainly a new species related to the Solanum polytrichum we collected along the road to Una, much closer to the coast! Its relationship to that species is clear in its intense prickliness, very star-shaped flowers and fruits that are enclosed in the prickly calyx that grows a lot after flowering. We are sure this is different – how exciting!

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The star-shaped flowers of this new species are pink, rather than green.

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The calyx lobes that enclose the white fruit are thinner than those of the Solanum polytrichum we found close to the coast.

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We stopped at a little waterfall, an oasis of wet vegetation amidst the drier (but pretty wet all the same) slopes.

 

We came back to the house for lunch and a bit of interim plant pressing before going up to the microwave towers on the top of the ridge - these are called La Pionera as well as Serra da Jibóia apparently – this can be why plant labels are so confusing, these sorts of double namings are never on maps or in atlases or gazetteers.

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Leandro and Lucas pressing in front of the house with an audience (you can see Lynn in the background trying to train Tonia)!

 

The road up to the top of Serra da Jibóia was chock-full of solanums – including the “fan thing” in fruit! Now we can see why it has this temporary name…

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This new species appears to only flower and fruit sparingly – or perhaps we are in the wrong season. The calyx in fruit expands to look like a little miniature ceiling fan – hence the name; it needs a good scientific name now…

 

We also found another one of the incredibly prickly vines with hairy fruits related to the Solanum rupincola we collected in Fazanda Duas Barras. This one had white flowers and a smaller fruit that was dark burgundy red outside and with only a very few black seeds inside – it tasted good though!

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Another species in this group, Solanum depauperatum, had been collected along the same road, but this plant is not that – maybe it is another new one!

 

The top of the ridge was amazing – the quartzite rock was covered with huge terrestrial bromeliads (pineapple family) with inflorescences that were taller than I am – about 2m tall! These rocky outcrops have a special flora …  But we were still on the hunt for the one species that had been recorded from here that I couldn’t believe actually grew here…

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The view from the top towards the west – the huge rocky outcrops are inselbergs.

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A member of the Velloziaceae, a family most diverse in these habitats on inselbergs and a Brazilian speciality; the flowers are about 3-4cm across. At the foot of this plant we also saw tiny sundews (Drosera) – this is very nutrient-poor soil.

 

After some time looking around the top and climbing down the slopes, we decided to go back before it got dark, giving up on finding Solanum cordioides, a species I had described in 2002 from areas near Una on the coast. I thought that perhaps the label had been in error or something – until Lynn sang her Bob Marley Solanum-finding song, and then a few minutes later shouted out STOP!! And there it was, a 7m tall tree of Solanum cordioides – I had wanted to see this in field ever since first seeing it in the herbarium, and oh how lovely! This has got to be one of the most beautiful solanums I have described… but what a strange distribution…

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Our working idea is that Solanum cordioides occurs in nutrient poor soils, like the sandy soils of the coast and these inland inselbergs, but I need to do some more mapping and looking at specimens to see. The flowers are only about 6cm across, but are very conspicuous in upright groups amidst the shiny dark green leathery leaves…

 

What a way to end the day… I am not sure I have ever been more excited to see a plant in the field – it is great when you see something you are seeking that in turn generates new ideas about how nature works. We left agreeing with the sign we found at the top – it says “Nature is the only book all of whose pages (leaves) have value” – so very true.

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After our hard day finding Solanum paralum we decided to take it a bit easy before heading into the forest again. Looking up at the hill we climbed, it didn’t seem so far away…

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We found Solanum paralum in the valley behind the first peak, just under the arrow.

 

We decided to have a day of searching for plants along dirt roads leading from inland to the coast – in the hopes of finding an enigmatic species I am looking for, Solanum evonymoides. I treated this as a member of the large and complicated section Geminata (with more than 150 species, one of the biggest groups in Solanum), but have always worried about whether or not I was right. Now was my chance to see it in the field and check!

 

We set off down the road to Una from Såo José de Vicente, winding through farms and patches of forest. On the other side of the river was the Una Reserve, a pristine piece of forest which is the type locality for a species I described in 2002, Solanum cordioides. It has been collected many places since, but many collections come from around the area of Una. We did not find this species today – but might another day – I’d love to see it in the field…

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The contrast between the cut over areas in the non-protected area with the high forest across the river was quite striking; human impact on the landscapes of southern Bahia is great and forest only exists in small protected reserves of many different types.

 

As we came closer to the coast the vegetation changed and all of a sudden plants of Solanum crinitum appeared along the road. This large species is an absolute beauty, with flowers the size of saucers and fruits like baseballs – it is hard to miss! It is characteristic of slightly drier, sandy soils and is common throughout Brazil from the Amazon to northern Minas Gerais. I had never seen it growing in the field before, so of course was excited – Lynn and Leandro on the other hand were more blasé, but still, it is a killer plant.

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Solanum crinitum is a small tree with big, felty leaves – hard to miss.

 

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Both the flowers and fruits of Solanum crinitum are over-sized; the fruit looks creamy and edible, but definitely is not, the flesh is quite bitter.

 

Although Solanum crinitum doesn’t have any obvious prickles, it is a member of the spiny Solanum clade (subgenus Leptostemonum); the main distinguishing character of this group is the long, tapered anthers in the flowers. We did find a super-prickly member of this group though – Solanum polytrichum. This is another common plant in these habitats along roads and in disturbed places.

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Solanum polytrichum has long, stiff hairs and many prickles on its stems and leaves. The calyx grows after flowering (a bit like the ground cherries or Cape gooseberries in the Solanaceae genus Physalis) to enclose the fruit, perhaps protecting it from unwanted predators.

 

In these slightly drier forests we also saw many different types of chili peppers – among them one of the cultivated species mostly found in South America. There are five species of cultivated chilis, all of them native to the Americas. The peppers we have in the UK are almost all of the species Capsicum annuum, but Scotch Bonnets are Capsicum chinense (not from China, despite the name). Brazil is the centre of diversity for the genus Capsicum, so we hope to see many more of this fascinating genus as we go to more different habitats.

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Capsicum baccatum is a cultivated species rarely found outside South America – the fruits are blindingly spicy! These are still green and unripe, so we didn’t have a try…

 

We found Solanum evonymoides in a small patch of forest at the edge of an old cacao plantation – nothing at all like its type specimen I showed you in the post before I left! It is a beautiful plant - much prettier than in the dried herbarium specimen, but that is part of being a plant taxonomist, being able to translate from dried to fresh, sort of like origami, making something 2D into 3D. Collecting plants, of course, is the reverse – so collecting yourself is essential to being able to translate from herbarium specimen to live plant with any degree of accuracy.

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Solanum evonymoides sure looks like a member of section Geminata, but still has some peculiar features, like where the inflorescence originates; there is something interesting going on in this species. More work needed...

 

So all in all a successful and rather relaxing day – tomorrow we head out for the forest again, this time north and a bit west on the hunt for, among other things, a new species Leandro will describe as part of his thesis work – currently its name is “the fan thing” – we MUST think of something better soon!

 

We stopped in Itabuna for petrol and saw this bar – a new take on drowning your sorrows! Fortunately after many very successful days of collecting we have no sorrows to drown, but lots to celebrate.

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The bar is named Friend’s Meeting Place, and the bottle is labelled “A cana que amansa” – essentially the drink that soothes.

 

Looking forward to three days in the woods in the wonderfully named Serra de Jibóia (Boa Constrictor range) – how many novelties will we find? Lots I hope...