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After another day  identifying all the unidentified Solanaceae in both the herbarium of the Instituto and the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, we went in search of Solanum juncalense, a species we had been looking for on previous field trips in the Mendoza area.

 

I had accumulated much locality information for this solanum in the herbaria – we have very few collections of this species in the Museum’s collections, so my work in the collections here in Mendoza has really helped my understanding of its distribution and variation. One of the localities was in the department of Tunuyán, up the valley from where Claudio’s parents had a farm. We had intended to spend the day there anyway, so went in search of Solanum juncalense – the last chance to find it!

 

Today was the first Sunday of a long holiday, and everyone was out with tents camping or barbeques having a Sunday asado in the countryside. We headed up the valley, on a road that crossed several streams – a bit worrying, as it had rained every day and the arroyos grow quickly and become impassable. We carried on past a guardia post where we had to leave our names to a confluence of two valleys – one of the localities I had found in the herbarium yesterday.

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The valley is called Cajón de los Arenales, and is the jumping off place for the ascent of the mountain at its head

 

And there it was….  at the side of the road, right where we parked the car was Solanum juncalense in full flower. The botany gods were smiling on us for sure…..  everywhere else we had been looking for this we had looked in vain, but there it was!

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Solanum juncalense is a member of the Morelloid clade Tiina and I are currently working on, and an endemic to this part of Argentina and adjacent Chile (although I think the one Chilean collection is actually from the Argentine side of the border!). It is a relative of Solanum sinuatiexcisum, which we collected high up in the northern Andes of Argentina last year

 

Solanum juncalense is a member of a species complex that I thought I understood before I saw the material here in Argentine herbaria. Previous taxonomic treatments distinguished the species by length of hairs (tiny to extremely tiny!!) and colour of flowers; I thought I had found another difference when I was in Córdoba, but looking at the many herbarium sheets of these plants in Mendoza I am now thinking this is all a cline – variation from north to south that is continuous, and not several species at all!

 

In addition, these plants we found sometimes had white flowers and sometimes purple (more commonly purple…  but both colours were there!). So maybe I am more confused now than I was before, but maybe not, at least now I know what to look for….. If I am right and this is all just continuous variation, then the correct name will be Solanum echegarayi, published a few years before Solanum juncalense.

 

The size of the plant had also been important in previous treatments, and plants were described as annuals. But how wrong….  these plants all grow from deep underground rhizomes (underground stems) and shoots grow up from buds along the stem to reach the surface, a bit like a potato grows from the eyes on the tuber. One of the rhizomes we dug up was about 1 centimetre in diameter and very corky. The snow is very deep in this area in winter and the plants die back to survive from Another example of why field work is so important – these sorts of characteristics are just not apparent from herbarium specimens, and are often not noted down on labels.

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Several different 'plants' of Solanum juncalense are sprouting from this rhizome – if a collector just pulled at the above-ground stem it would seem it was an annual plant!

 

I would have liked to dig some more and see if all the plants in one area were connected, but we needed to get back before the arroyo began to flood (we could see it raining up higher). In addition all the plants we found were growing in the loose soil of ant nests; the ants were not at all happy with us disturbing them and they both bit and stung. Apologies to my hymenopterist colleagues for not collecting them, all I could think of was to get them off me!

 

What a find though for my last day in Argentina – this time. This is an amazingly diverse and fascinating country, with many endemic species and genera of Solanaceae. I have great colleagues here in Argentina – Gloria and Franco in Córdoba and Iris in Mendoza – so I am sure I will be back….. but this has been a wonderful field trip, topped off by a great find and some new discoveries about the plant!

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Iris Peralta and her husband Claudio Galmarini in Cajón de los Arenales

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When we arrived in Las Leñas late at night it had been raining and there was no mobile signal – in the morning it was restored and we received several worried calls from Mendoza, there had been landslides in the mountains on the road to Chile and since we hadn’t been heard from people were concerned! We had been blithely unaware, but decided to watch the weather as we collected.

 

From Las Leñas we were headed for the Valle Hermosa – beautiful valley – a place right near the border with Chile. This area is where the plane crash about which the movie “Alive” was made – the survivors were not far from civilisation in Argentina, but thought they were closer to Chile and walked for days in the high Andes. The mountains are beautiful, but dangerous. We left our things in the hotel, and told them we would be back at noon or so to collect them and carry on back to Mendoza….

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The high Andes in central Argentina are very dry, above about 2500 metres elevation there is little or no vegetation; in winter these slopes will be completely snow-covered

 

As we drove up the valley, it was apparent that the rains had fallen and the vegetation was greener than I had seen for a long time. Patagonia had been so dry, but here it was almost lush, as dry deserts go. Crossing a small stream on the road, we found the first excitement of the day – Schizanthus grahamii – a plant I knew well from gardens but had never seen in the wild before. It was all over the banks of the stream, and individual plants varied a lot in flower colour, from pale to very deep pink.

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The flowers of Schizanthus (sometimes called butterfly flower or poor-man’s orchid) are highly asymmetrical, with one large upper petal usually a different colour than the rest; in this species the upper petal is orange and the side petals pink

 

The pass into Valle Hermosa is at about 2700 metres elevation, and the view is spectacular. The valley is glacial in origin, and has been further sculpted by the rivers that run through it. We got someone to take our photo at the top with the valley behind! This valley is famous for its fly fishing, people come from all over to fish in the rivers; our photo was taken by the guide who was taking a presenter from a Brazilian fishing TV channel around the region.

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The Mendoza team, from left to right Iris Peralta, me, Gualberto Salazar and Pablo Molina – Gualberto and I are leaning apart to show the lake!

 

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Fishing streams in Valle Hermosa

 

The bottom of the valley is flat and rocky, again with the sand beneath, a perfect habitat for the Portulacaceae Iris was searching. She had collected there before, so this trip was really not to find new things for her, but for her to show Pablo how to collect and recognise these tiny little plants. And they were tiny and hard to find!

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This is an annual species of Montiopsis that was growing in places where water had been standing but now dried out, on very loose sandy soil. The flowers were less than a millimetre in diameter – minute!

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The flowers of these purslanes only open at midday – once they are open they are pretty easy to see, this species Montiopsis gilliesii (named for Gillies the Scottish botanist!) has bright pink flowers that are held flat against the ground, when the fruits begin the develop the stem stands erect and they are held up high. Who says plants don’t behave!!

 

We stopped to have lunch at the lake overlooked by Cerro Torrecillos (little towers, what a good name!), but they wanted to charge us 10 pesos to sit there, so on we went. By this time the skies were getting dark and we began to hear thunder from the mountains to the west.

 

Bearing in mind that there had been landslides we decided to return ….... first stopping at the pass to collect the purslanes that were now in full flower. The clouds billowed, and the thunder rolled – there was definitely a storm on the way! The extraordinary thing was that people in city cars were attempting the descent into the valley – let’s hope they didn’t end up stuck there! The road was definitely not for city cars……

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Iris, Gualberto and Pablo racing around on the pass collecting as the storm rolled in

 

We got back to where we had left our things at 5 pm (a bit later than the noon we predicted!!) gathered all together and headed down the valley. We stopped at the Pozo de Animas, where we found another mixed population of tobaccos, this time Nicotiana linearis and Nicotiana corymbosa; the latter species we had also seen high up in the mountains – it has a huge distributional range and grows in many different vegetation types.

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The Pozo de Animas (Well of Souls) is a natural feature of this karstic landscape formed by the collapse of rock above an underground cave created by water eating away the limestone. The hole is perfectly circular and the water is VERY deep

 

We arrived back in Mendoza at 11:30 pm, and discovered why everyone was a bit worried about us up in the mountains! The landslides near Uspallata, where we had been a few days before, were huge and had blocked the road to Chile in at least six places. One slide was almost a kilometre across and several metres deep – the clean-up was predicted to take days…..  fortunately no one was hurt, but hundreds of people were trapped. We had been lucky to go up the road in full sun and to see the mountains in all their glory before these unusual rains set in!

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After a day of working the in herbarium in IADIZA ( Instituto Argentino de Investigaciones de las Zonas Aridas), where Iris works, we set off again to look for wild tobaccos, cacti and purslanes in the valleys leading to the high mountains in the more southern part of the province of Mendoza.

 

We made an early start, as we had far to go and little time! Iris and I were accompanied by Pablo Molina, her student who will be studying the phylogeny of cacti and purslanes, and Gualberto Salazar, who was driving, but was a dab hand at botany as well. Driving south from Mendoza to join my old friend Ruta 40 again we saw to the west the Cordillera, here called the “Chain of Silver” for the high snowy peaks that are always snow-covered.

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Cordon de Plata in the morning light – the highest peak to the left is Tupungato, almost as tall as Aconcagua, but difficult to access and climb, thus less well-known

 

Accessing the mountains involves driving out to flatter land in the east, then west again into deep valleys where rivers have carved out the mountains and roads can enter. We were heading for the Laguna Sosneado – we thought it might be an old name for the lake now called Laguna Blanca near the town of Sosneado, but no, we were wrong!

 

We stopped in the town to ask and were told exactly how to get there….  forty kilometres in on a dirt road up the Río Atuel, which was bad and then got worse. The valley was broad and rocky and the river must have been pretty impressive in full flood – as it was it was running quite red from rain in the upper reaches. The road was perfectly all right – not bad at all!

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The flat valley bottom of the Río Atuel is composed of sandy gravel – the plants trap the sand as it blows in the wind and small hillocks called “monticolos” are formed

 

We decided to drive straight to the lake, rather than stopping on the way up, as our locality data from the herbarium had cited the lake as a collecting site for several species we were looking for, among them a strange Jaborosa that Gloria and Franco from Córdoba were seeking.

 

The lake was a jewel in the dry vegetation all round – it was fed by small springs and was surrounded by grass. A gaucho 'puesto' or summer station was located at the lake – sheep, goats and horses are brought up the valley to graze in the summer, and then taken down again once the snow begins to fall in the autumn.  What a place to spend the summer!

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Laguna Sosneado – surrounded by rich grass that grows in what are called in Argentina 'vegas' – patches of lush vegetation near the water from springs in the middle of otherwise very dry scrub. The lake was beneath some tall basalt cliffs, evidence of the volcanic past of the region

 

Above us in the mountains we heard thunder and the sky turned black; rain fell, but not much – the show was spectacular though! We looked and looked around the lake and in the hills surrounding it for the Jaborosa and for the tobaccos also cited for the area, but to no avail. As it was really beginning to rain and it was getting late (again – it seems to be the story of this field trip!) we decided to go back down the valley…

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The storm came from the west over the Andes – storms in central Argentina can be very violent and hail often falls, damaging the famous vineyards further to the east. Nearer Mendoza they seed the clouds to prevent hail during these storms.

 

We did, however, see some pretty amazing cacti – this individual plant of the cactus Maihuenopsis was about 2 metres in diameter – from the car the mounds these cacti formed looked like sheep! This particular species was very common at one particular section of the valley – starting at about 1800 metres elevation and higher.

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Pablo was excited to find such large individuals – they were in fruit as well, so he could collect seeds to study their anatomy and structure

 

As we drove down the valley we looked for plants as we descended – as we had driven straight up to the lake, we were looking harder on the way down! Iris spotted what she thought was a wild tobacco – so we stopped. And my goodness, we found just the species we were looking for – Nicotiana linearis and Nicotiana spegazzinii. As part of long-term studies I have been doing with colleagues from Kew and Queen Mary, Laura Kelly has discovered that these two species are possibly of hybrid origin and is interested in studying them further. Once we stopped and began to walk around the ground was covered with Nicotiana linearis – it is a tiny little plant only a few centimetres tall, so not easy to see from the truck driving along.

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The flowers of Nicotiana linearis are held in tight clusters, each flower is less than a centimetre long and is a dirty white colour. The whole plant is covered with sticky hairs – in this place, all covered with sand!

 

Nicotiana spegazzinii was much less common that Nicotiana linearis – we only found a few plants, but what was really exciting was that we found intermediates – the two are not as distinct as it appears from the descriptions in the published literature! This will be a perfect place to return to study these plants in more detail – in the daytime! As usual, the best discoveries are made at the end of the day, when the light is dimming and night is falling….

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Nicotiana spegazzinii has  larger flowers (still only about a centimetre long) that are widely spaced along the stems and although it is sticky, does not have such long hairs as does Nicotiana linearis

 

It really started to rain as we finished up collecting the wild tobaccos – and we headed further south to Las Leñas, where we had reserved a room in a ski resort for the night. The central Andes in Argentina are a big skiing destination – the snow is deep and the scenery spectacular – but these resorts are not much used in the summer, so rooms are cheap! As usual, we arrived at about 10 pm – not late for eating by Argentine standards….  We still had a lot of plant organising to do though, and the next day to plan, back into the Andes up the valley.

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The flight to Mendoza was short and sweet, and I was met by my colleague Iris Peralta, with whom I had written a monograph of the tomatoes and their wild relatives when she was in London on a post-doctoral fellowship in 2001. We spent the afternoon in the herbarium, looking at the Solanum and Nicotiana from Mendoza province to see where was best to go in the field over the next few days.

 

Our first field excursion was to the valley of Cerro Aconcagua. Pablo Molina, a new PhD student studying the phylogeny of cacti and their close relatives the purslanes (Portulacaceae) came with us to look for his plants as well! The peak of Aconcagua is at almost 7000 m above sea level, making it the tallest peak in South America. The area around Mendoza and into the high mountains is a high elevation desert – the vegetation is of shrubs and grasses, and at higher elevations vegetation is almost absent.

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The vegetation on the way up the valley to Uspallata is dominated by creosote bush (Larraea); this genus also occurs in the deserts of California and Arizona in the USA

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All along the roadsides in the disturbed soil we found Nicotiana noctiflora – we were early enough in the morning to see the flowers still open; at one site a nectar-robbing carpenter bee was carefully alighting on each flower and biting a hole in the base to suck out the nectar – this species flowers at night (hence the name!) and is pollinated by moths

 

Although the area is arid and dry, in winter it is snowy and the pass over the mountains to Chile (this is a major connection between the two countries) is often closed; all up and down the upper parts of the valley were ski areas, very popular in winter. The region has been shaped by the action of glaciers and landslides – ancient rockfalls and terraces were easy to see with the light vegetation cover.

 

We came to Puente del Inca – now I truly felt I was following Darwin around! After the Beagle had rounded the tip of South America, the ship suffered damage that had to be repaired. They docked in Valparaiso, Chile to repair the damage. Darwin took two men with him and rode over the Andes and then to Mendoza, riding back across the Andes into Chile along exactly the same valleys we were driving along. He described the unusual geological formation of the Puente del Inca beautifully in his book about the voyage of the Beagle.

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The stone bridge over the river was formed from the concretion of chemicals from a thermal spring – this was the site of a thermal spa in the early 20th century with a posh hotel and baths. An avalanche completely destroyed the hotel (to the far right in the picture) but spared the church

 

Our first sight of Cerro Aconcagua came at Quebrada Horcones – it was a completely cloudless day – we were very lucky, the peak is often shrouded in clouds. What a mountain. Climbing it is tightly controlled – every year climbers die and they are buried in the “Cemeterio del Andinista” in the valley.

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Quebrada Horcones is one of only a few places where climbers begin the ascent – apparently the record climbing time is 15 hours, incredibly speedy, most take longer and spend the night on the glaciers

 

Although we a lot of locality information for the Solanum and Nicotiana we were seeking, they were nowhere to be found. Like Patagonia, it was very dry, so we suspect it has been a bad year. We did find several of the purslane species Pablo and Iris were seeking though, on the way up an incredible set of switchbacks (called caracoles – snails – in Argentina) to a pass at 4000 metres.

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Montiopsis andicola was named by John Gillies, a Scottish botanist who, between 1823 and 1828, explored this region botanically for the first time; this entire plant is smaller than a 5 pence coin!

 

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The switchbacks to the statue of the “Cristo Redentor” were amazing – but the road had been fixed so it was full of cars and microbuses, the tourists in summer clothes had a shock at the top in the cold wind

 

Our amazing day ended with a new route back to Mendoza, along the way we collected some Fabiana for Iris’s PhD student at an amazing petroglyph site.

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It had rained as we came down the valley from the high mountains and the resinous foliage of this species had a wonderful incense-y smell

 

Our last stop was at the plaque Iris and colleagues had organised to commemorate Darwin’s travels in the area. The plaque sits in the site of a petrified forest that Darwin described…  it was quite moving to think of him on horseback seeing these same hills and the same vegetation. Seeing it myself brought it home to me how much his entire experience in South America must have shaped his ideas, not just the Galapagos.

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Just behind the plaque we think we found the Solanum I was looking for, but only as tiny plants just breaking the soil…..  frustrating, but I hope we find it elsewhere in the region, it seems to be common, but might just be fussy and not grow some years. What a day…. and at the very end, the mountain let us see it again from the top of the pre-cordillera, an ancient range just to the east of the Andes themselves, we were indeed very lucky!

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After our sauna unloading the truck at the Instituto we got all our plants and equipment up to the herbarium – just in time it turns out! The skies that had been dark as we were unloading opened in a truly impressive storm – thunder, lightning and hailstones the size of golfballs! A few hours later, the sky was clear again, and the air had cleared a bit.

 

The flora of Argentina

Gloria and I spent the rest of that day and the weekend looking over Solanum species for our joint treatment of the genus for the flora of Argentina. The new flora will be a guide to all the plants of the country, and will be a modern treatment with illustrations and descriptions of all the species.

 

Sometimes scientists feel that flora writing is not as important as evolutionary studies, or molecular biology, but they couldn’t be more wrong. A good flora allows local scientists (and those from outside the region) to identify plants so that new studies can begin locally, and if done well, can reveal problems that can’t be solved in the timespan of a flora, but can form the basis for postgraduate work in local universities where field work can be undertaken more easily than from a European or North American university.

 

Solanum synonymy

We had a couple of really tricky problems in the group we were both working with and took advantage of our time together to discuss them with all the specimens from the Córdoba herbarium in front of us. One of these problems was that we had decided earlier to recognise two species in the Morelloid group (the black nightshades) that had greenish black fruits that fell with their stalk – Solanum cochabambense and Solanum aloysiifolium.

 

This time in Patagonia we had not collected any of these plants, but had some questions about some of the synonyms. A synonym is when a plant receives two names from two different (or even from the same!) botanists, and a later worker in the group decides that both names represent part of the same entity. The name that was published first has priority, and so the second one becomes a synonym.

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Solanum aloysiifolium

 

One way of deciding synonymy is to look only at the type specimens and see if they are similar, but a better way to assess this is to look at as many specimens of the group in question as possible. This way, one can see if the type specimens, that might look quite different if they come from the extremes of variation, are connected by continuous variation in different characters. The great advantage of being in Córdoba for this was that since these are common Argentine species, there was LOTS of material to compare.

 

We went back and forth trying to separate the masses of specimens into piles that corresponded to the types, and in the end, decided we couldn’t do it reliably with the data to hand. So, for the flora, we will recognise these as a single species with the name Solanum aloysiifolium (described in 1852, while Solanum cochabambense was described in 1912).

 

The complex pattern (or non-pattern) of variation needs close study by a local student who can go in the field regularly and can also bring seeds and plants back and grow them in a common garden – we suspect some of the differences we can see are environmental in nature. For example, plants with larger leaves are always found in wetter forests, and other characters seem to vary in the same way.

 

It might seem a bit of a cop-out to not resolve this problem here and now, but making these decisions is a practical compromise – the flora needs to be finished by a particular date, and best of all, we now have a great project for a student who likes plants and field work!

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So – it was our last day in Patagonia…  the region is defined by the Río Colorado that forms the border between the provinces of Neuquén and Mendoza, and last night we were almost there, we had made it (by midnight!) to the town of Chos Malal. Our target area was a high pass between two volcanos – Volcán Wayle and Volcán Tromen – we were looking for our last Benthamiella species – Benthamiella graminifolia (the one with leaves like grass!), that we had failed to find a few days earlier in the Estancia of Quichauré.

 

Volcán Tromen was spectacular – the lava flows were obvious and you could see the history of eruptions clearly. It is a perfect cone with a caldera, but looks like it has not been active for some time.

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The flows of lava were a mixture of shiny basalt and a sort of bubbly cinder (I am sure there are correct terms for this!) – they were about 30 metres high!

 

We had been told that the plant was to be found where the lava flows were near to the road – so we began looking. I went down to the edge of the flow and walked all along for ages, then doubled back; Franco and Juan went the other way towards the lake, and Gloria crossed the road to the other side. Finally, Gloria looked in the rocky area right near where we had pulled off the road – and there it was! Looking very grassy indeed – so exciting to have found one of our “signature” plants on our last day.

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Like all the other Benthamiella species we have found, Benthamiella graminifolia was past flowering, but still had lots of old dried flowers (the darker tan colored bits). The leaves are much longer than the other species we have seen

 

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The whole cushion grows from a single root like a carrot – in texture as well as in shape

 

We also thought we had found Pantacantha ameghinoi again, but the plant, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a member of the verbena family – a Pantacantha mimic! The number of different life forms in these high elevation deserts is limited – cushions, spiny shrubs, herbs, grasses….

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If you look carefully you can see the leaves of this plant are opposite, and the flowers have smaller calyces than the Pantacantha we collected in Primeros Pinos

 

So, collecting successfully completed, we had to begin the long journey back to Cordoba (more than 1000 kilometres) in the early afternoon. No field trip in the Andes, however, is complete without a road incident….. we decided to carry on down the dirt road to connect up with Ruta 40 (again!), but…. The road stopped and turned into a stream bed – the tractors were there fixing it, sort of – but as our truck was not 4WD there was no way through….

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You can just see the truck, Gloria, Franco and Juan in the distance – it doesn’t look so bad in the photo, but trust me!

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We were getting into the really tall Andes now – this is (we think!) Volcán de Domuyo, which at almost 5000 m elevation was completely snow-covered; the tallest peaks in the Andes are in central Argentina, Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Andes at almost 7000 m, is near the town of Mendoza

 

Turning around and heading back the way we came, another road appeared – the satnav told us to take it and that it would connect up with Ruta 40 at a place called Buta Ranquil. So, after a certain amount of discussion, it was decided that it would save us time and cut two sides of a triangle. Not so. No one had been on it for ages, and about halfway down the back of Volcán Tromen Juan pointed out that if we had to turn around again there was no way we would make it back up the hill! So on we went, fixing the road as we went by throwing stones into ditches and shovelling away ridges.

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As road incidents go this wasn’t a bad one – lucky we all were good at heaving rocks! We finally hit Ruta 40 at Buta Ranquil, filled up and were on our way. Ruta 40 was only paved for about 10 kilometres though, so it was back to dirt. We drove for several hours through the beautiful vegetation type called 'monte' – a high elevation (>1000 m) dry scrub on volcanic rock – there were fantastic gorges and rock formations and the light, as usual, was unreal.

 

As we got near the town of San Rafael, vineyards and fruit orchards began to appear – we were into the wine country. All of these orchards and vineyards are irrigated, there were some that had obviously failed and were totally dry. I wonder about the sustainability of an agriculture so dependent upon water from outside the region…. 

 

We finally got to San Luis, our destination (still 500 km from Córdoba), at midnight – fortunately in Argentina everything starts late and is still open at midnight, the schedule is a bit like Spain, no one even thinks of an evening meal until after 9 pm. Tomorrow it is another day of driving, and back to Córdoba for a bit of work organising everything in the herbarium and some work on Solanaceae for Flora of Argentina for Gloria and me.

 

And drive we did, through the miles and miles of soya, sorghum and maize – as we went north it got hotter and hotter (we are still in a heat wave here in Argentina!), and by the time we got to Córdoba it was 35 degrees (Centigrade!) and very humid. Unloading the truck at the Museum was like working in a steam bath. Now for the re-organisation of everything, and finishing off the plant drying. Franco drew the short straw and went to get the truck cleaned – it certainly needed it! Two weeks of Patagonian dust…..

 

I am sad to leave Patagonia, but will certainly be back! I need, badly need, the see all those Benthamiella species in full flower! Next stop on this trip though is Mendoza, where Nicotiana linearis and its friends await and I will see Iris Peralta, who worked with me at the Museum in 2001 on the tomato monograph…..