My trip to Peru for Solanum collecting began with a stop in Durham, North Carolina – home of Duke University – where I was invited to talk at the opening of an exhibition about the herbarium.
This small but extremely rich university herbarium has great strengths in particular parts of the world, like Costa Rica – and the director, Kathleen Pryer (a fern taxonomist) has very ably convinced the administration that it is a real treasure. I feel very honoured that they have invited me to open the exhibit. University collections like this are really important for teaching and for introducing a whole range of biologists to the importance of museums and what they hold.
But before we do that – I got to go out in the incredibly biodiverse North Carolina forest for a walk with a great group of Duke biologists and friends. We dodged poison ivy (a southern speciality) to see some really lovely late spring flora – I left London as spring was just beginning, but here, much further south, early spring is long gone. But a few jewels were still to be seen.
The spring wildflowers come out before the tree canopy closes over and the light is limited
Trilliums are a North American speciality – this one is named for Mark Catesby, whose book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in the early 1700s brought the wealth of American plants to European eyes. We hold many of the plant specimens Catesby collected in the Natural History Museum – in the historically very important Sloane herbarium that is kept safe on the top floor of the Darwin Centre cocoon.
The peculiar 'wild gingers' are not gingers at all, but are related to Dutchman’s pipe, in the family Aristolochiaceae. The common name of this species is apparently 'Littlebrownjug' – very apt. The flowers are borne under the leaf litter and the seeds are dispersed by ants. We saw another Hexastylis as well, with smaller flowers - this part of the world is rich in species of the genus.
Arisaema triphylla - Jack-in-the-Pulpit
Jack-in-the-pulpit is a common woodland herb in the arum family – the flowers are held inside the spathe, or arched hood. In this North American species plants are either male, with all the flowers having pollen, or female, and all the flowers develop into fruit. So my colleagues said this one – with all female flowers – was a “Jill-in-the-Pulpit”!
An individual plant is male when it is young and doesn’t have enough energy to develop fruit, and when it is big enough and can generate enough energy to see fruit development through to seed maturity, switches to being female. Seeds are a big investment for a plant. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a perennial, living through many years, so when its reserves are not enough to support fruit and seed production it produces male flowers only and doesn't lose out in the reproduction stakes.
For me one of the most exciting plants we saw on the walk was the paw-paw, or Asimina triloba – a real taste of the tropics. Most of the members of this family are to be found in tropical rainforests, this is the only species in this family in North America! The fruits are edible and it is thought that native peoples spread them all over the southeastern USA.
Asimina triloba - the Paw-Paw, a very tropical looking flower!
We didn’t see any nightshades, but that didn’t matter – it was great to see the truly special flora of the southeastern part of the United States. Walking in the forest made me think about what it must have been like for those first plant hunters like Catesby and the Bartrams (Judith Magee of the Museum Library has written a wonderful book about William Bartram) who encountered all these strange and wonderful plants and sent them carefully back to England to be planted in British gardens.
The Duke plant hunters - Mike Windham, Alec Motten, Job Shaw, Yu-Hsuan Liu, Fay-Wei Li, Layne Huiet, Blanka Shaw, Diane, Paul Manos, Jose Eduardo Meireles (also known as Dudu) and Eddie the dog!