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Seeking nightshades in South America

48 Posts tagged with the andes tag
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Back to the "real" world?

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 23, 2012

I left Tiina, Andy and Paul in Cusco and began my slow re-entry into the world outside plant collecting – culture shock for sure! Flying into Lima the world looked very different – big cargo ships, anchovy fishing fleets, dry desert – something I hadn’t seen for what seemed like years, but really was only a couple of weeks.

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I tried really hard not to be envious of their journey on the Interoceanica – failed of course, but I will hear about it eventually! They are sure to find great things, can’t wait to see them.

I spent a day and a half in Lima, working in the herbarium again trying to sort out a few mysteries, catching up with friends and generally getting things set up for when the others return. Some of the great old friends from previous times in Peru were in Lima (Blanca Leon and Ken Young from the University of Texas) – we all had a great Sunday walking along the seafront near their apartment in Miraflores.

Although I have now come back to the Museum and am getting to grips with the “real” world, the field trip work does not end yet. All those lovely solanums we collected need to have their data typed up into the database so the labels can be printed out. In order to export our part of the specimens from Peru we must provide complete data labels, too often people come and collect, leave the plants but never send the labels, making the collections a burden for the staff of our sister institution in Lima. Field work needs to be collaborative from start to finish, and the finish is long after one leaves what is considered the “field”!

The Museum hasn’t changed utterly since I left, so picking up the threads of what I was doing before is pretty straightforward. The best bit is that I feel a new excitement for what I am doing in Solanum taxonomy, a new appreciation for the collections we have and the ones we have just made, and have come back altogether rejuvenated – full of new ideas and plans. Seeing plants in their native habitat, doing what they just do, is without doubt once of the most important ways to increase understanding of the diversity and scope of nature. The collections we hold at the Museum are important, of course, but it is the combination of knowledge from the collections and field that really makes for good science - an integrative whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This is definitely the best job in the world!! Keep tuned in for Tiina's posts from Peru, and once she is back here in London, we will keep you up to date with what we do with the wonderful nightshades we have collected in South America.

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Goodbye western side!

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 18, 2012

from Tiina:

Today was a day of goodbyes. First we had to say goodbye to Sandy who is flew to Lima to catch her flight back to London. She has to teach in Spain in a week’s time, so it’s time to get things ready for the next trip. We have had great weeks together collecting Solanum and talking Solanaceae research with our colleagues in Peru and Argentina. Now the challenge is to continue our field work successfully with just three of us left!

 

We drove to Cusco to drop Sandy off at the airport. Cusco is a large city in a small valley, and by now the city has spread to the surrounding hills. As we navigated through the old and curvy streets of Cusco to get to the airport, I took a photo of the beautiful scenery over Cusco taken from the northern hills.

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We continued our day after sad goodbyes to collect in the surrounding hills of Cusco. It was wonderful collecting in such a historic place – we were basically collecting around old ruins! The whole area of Cusco surroundings is full of ruins, where ever you look. Each stone seems to have a carving or human made shape to it. One large rock that I went around turned out to have stairs carved into it! Here is a great sight of the caves in the ruins of Qenqo with Andrew and Paul.

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Amongst these wonderful areas we found a new Salpichroa species we haven’t seen on this trip yet, Salpichroa gayi. Unlike other species of Salpichroa, it has very unusual yellow-purple flowers. The corolla lobes curve very unusually at their tips, which we only spotted once we looked at our close-up photos in the evening!

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Another species we collected near Cusco was Solanum probolospermum, the usual suspect. This species is very common all through the department of Cusco west of the Eastern Cordillera. It’s a climbing species that scrambles on top of shrubs and roadside vegetation. It has attractive large purple flowers, and usually softly pubescent leaves. During our collections we have observed that the species varies enormously in habit and leaf shape, as well as corolla colour, shape and size. You might ask if there is nothing it doesn’t vary in… We are asking the same question by now. Despite all this trouble the species is giving us, here is a nice shot of the individuals we found growing in sunny hillside in Cusco. Sandy will be happy to see Paul is learning how to use our wonderful camera increasingly well!

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After a nice stroll around Cusco, it was time for second goodbyes. This time we are saying goodbye to the western side of the Andes. We are moving on to our next grand tour – a triangle route to the city of Puno through Puerto Inambari. This trip will take us through the Eastern Cordillera via the highway Interoceanica that goes through Peru all the way to Brazil. The road crosses the Andes at a pass at 4750 m elevation – can’t wait to see the views! After the high pass the road descents to the Amazon basin to 500 m elevation or so. This route will allow us to collect in the humid eastern slopes of the Andes where many interesting species of solanums live. We will take the Interoceanica highway all the way to Puerto Inambari which is way into the Amazon. You can see the pencil pointing to the city on the map above. Here we will turn south-east, where we turn south east towards Puno. The road from Puerto Inambari to Puno will take us over the Andes once again back to the western side.

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So goodbyes it was to the western side! We started off on the Interoceanica at four in the afternoon, with km0 saying 4700 km to São Paulo. It’s very tempting to think we could drive to São   Paulo for a lovely dinner, sushi perhaps as they have famously good sushi bars there, but perhaps we have to leave that for another day L. No need to be sad for too long though, there will be great plants to see J!

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We were aiming to stay the first night of our tour in a city called Ocongate, which is roughly three hours into the highway. The area we passed is full of small Andean villages, where most people speak Quechua, language very different from Spanish or English. Some of the local villages we passed had wonderful names – but we just didn’t know how to pronounce them! To give an example, here is a picture of a road sign to one of the villages:

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In case you are still trying to cough the name out, here is how it goes: cc is pronounced with a dry throat sound of “kha”. As there happen to be two double cc in the village name, it becomes a little problematic. Definitely not a word to pronounce whilst eating your dinner! So once you know how to pronounce double c, then it all goes smoothly, or does it?! We are still awake and trying!

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from Sandy:

For my last day of collecting with Team Solanum we decided to go down another of the roads out of the Sacred Valley up over the mountains and to the Amazon slope. This one made a loop, so we thought it would be a good idea! Well, it was, but it made for a VERY long day. First we ascended up a shale scree slope on a road (yes a road) to 4578m elevation over the Abra de Amparaes….

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We then descended through a wonderful glacial valley, classically shaped as a U – it was full of tiny communities with herds of llamas and alpacas. These iconic Andean animals are related to camels and are hardy enough to withstand the altitude and temperatures – although they are set out to graze every day and brought back to stone corrals every night by the local people. You can see the camel-like faces….

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Our first exciting solanum of the day was the enigmatic Solanum “Cusco-branched” – a plant sort of like Solanum probolospermum of the Abra de Malaga, but with dense branched hairs all over its stems and leaves. Is it the same, is it different? We needed to really collect it intensely over the range of elevations to be sure… it seems that this branched hair thing is on the Amazon side (E slopes), with Solanum probolospermum (with simple hairs) on the western slopes. We collected this plant as often as we could over the elevational gradient to be able to see if this idea holds once we get back and compare our collections to those made by others earlier and in different places.

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Down and down the valley we went, encountering more and more solanums as we got lower. We also saw lovely waterfalls and fantastic rock faces…..  this is truly a spectacular place. Driving along a one-lane road cut into the rock wall can be heart-stopping of course, but we are getting used to that!

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We encountered the junction to begin our ascent up the other branch of the road at about 2500m elevation – and just a few hundred metres up that road, a real prize revealed itself – Solanum sinuatiexcisum, the relative of Solanum fiebrigii we had collected in Argentina. This was a huge herb more than 2 m tall though – quite a different beast.

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By this time we were getting a bit nervous about climbing over the pass again (different road though this time) in the dark, so kept our collecting to a minimum…. this of course meant stopping a lot, and getting excited over all the new things we were seeing. One mystery was a small tree with shiny leaves and green fruits that I think might be a new species – I will need to check in the herbarium in Lima once I am back to be sure though, I think I have been calling this Solanum maturecalvans for ages, but it is really different seen alive – this is why field work is so important…. For now it is called Solanum “not-maturecalvans”!

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In a small village just before Lares we saw the beautiful solanaceous species Brugmansia sanguinea close up and personal – this is a magic plant, you can just tell can’t you by the lovely flowers!

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On and up we drove, racing to get onto the paved road before dark – we saw the locals bringing in their llamas, single file along a ridge…

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We made it back to Pisac just as the entire two was closing down at 8pm – a good final meal, a hot shower (the best we have had in Peru yet, in the Hotel Pisac Ayllu) and plant dryer organising finished the day. I will be really sad to leave the team here for the next set of adventures – they are hoping to take a route I have long wanted to go on, but life elsewhere is calling. I wonder what they will find, and I wonder if I will be able to resurface into the NHM again?

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From Tiina:

Today we started early again – destination was Paucartambo and beyond. Paucartambo is on the western side of the Andes west of Cusco, and beyond Paucartambo in the Amazon lowlands is Pilcopata. We wanted to collect on the montane forests again on the western side (Solanum heaven!), but in order to do this we needed to drive over a pass to cross the mountains to the other side.

 

The slope to the east from Pisac to Paucartambo is not as steep as in Abra de Malaga. The pass this time is ONLY 4000m high (everything is relative!).

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The road from the pass down to Paucartambo descents slowly, and past Paucartambo the forest is still relatively dry. Paucartambo itself is a lovely village with a really organised looking market – labelled as to types of produce – here is the “tuber section” – where they sell potatoes and other Andean tuber crops – Sandy went in and had a long conversation with a woman about her potatoes – so many different types!

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It only gets really humid once you get to the point where the road forks to Tres Cruces, where the Manu National Park begins. We got as far as the forking point and had to turn back in order to get home in time. We did find Solanum “morel-malaga” again – a sign that we had reached the humid eastern slopes again.  This individual of “morel-malaga” was a giant: the stem was 2.5 cm in diameter at the base. Again it was growing in a landslide site in very disturbed rocky soil. Everything was the same as in the previous collection we had made in Abra de Malaga, but just bigger!

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Manu  National Park is wonderful. It’s massive, stretching from the high elevation moist pre-puna to the lowland Amazonian rain forest. We couldn’t collect in Manu despite how wonderful it looked – collecting in Peruvian national parks requires a special collecting permit, which we don’t have, so instead of collecting we chatted to the park rangers that were at the main reception were we stopped to turn around. They recognised Sandy by her name, as she has collected along the Paucartambo – Pilcopata road before. What a temptation to be that close to the park and not to be able to go in and collect! Maybe we’ll get to see it one day… we promised the rangers we would be back…..

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After the excitement of our collections along the road to Quillabamba, we began today with a very prosaic collection  - in the garden of our hotel! They had a species of Tiina’s Morelloid clade growing right in their window (one reason we chose this particular hostal) – Solanum polytrichostylum. It was also growing along the stream, so it is defintely native here. It is great that people (not just us!) like solanums enough to cultivate them for ornament – this one is called “suyttu ccaya” in Quechua.

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We packed all our stuff (including the plants that had arrived via the encomienda from Andahuaylas) and set off up the Sacred Valley, as the valley of the Río Urubamba is called. The valley is the site of many Inca and pre-Inca ruins and settlements – many of these are famous, but many more are not excavated and are just part of everyday life. We decided to look for one of Tiina’s mysteries up a small dirt road out of the town of Urubamba; the collection locality was a bit vague and was from the 1960s so we didn’t really know what we would find.

 

Well, we didn’t find the mystery, but did find one of my favourite species, Solanum maturecalvans, at the end of a logging road. Its waxy white flowers seem not quite real, and the crinkled leaf base gave rise to the name of one of its synonyms – Solanum crotalobasis – the rattlesnake tail base! 

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Synonymy is one of those things that seems like a mistake – naming the same thing twice, but is really good evidence of how science really works. In the case of Solanum maturecalvans the German botanist Georg Bitter named two plants he thought were different Solanum maturecalvans and Solanum crotalobasis – they were from different places, looked a bit different, and he really didn’t have many specimens to compare in the early part of the 20th century.  Now I come along, some decades later, and decide that those two type specimens belong to the same species – therefore one (the later one described) becomes a synonym. Not a mistake, just a re-interpretation of the evidence, along with decades more collecting and specimens to look at.

 

In the same bit of forest we found Solanum maturecalvans we also saw a lovely Jaltomata with blood red nectar – how cool is that!

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Coming out of the mountains down through the town we saw Streptosolen jamesonii growing by the side of the road – it is really native to northern Peru and Ecuador, but we collected it anyway. It is a very interesting plant with a twisted corolla – essentially it has an upside down flower.

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We then headed up the Urubamba valley to the town of Pisac, the site of another massive Inca fortress.

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Here the excavations and restorations are still on-going – it was amazing to see the terracing being restored using ancient techniques, down to mixing the mud used as mortar by foot power!

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We got caught in a torrential rainshower, but afterwards explored the hills behind the town and found the wonderful Salpichroa weberbaueri – named for Augusto Weberbauer, the author of the wonderful book The Vegetable World of the Peruvian Andes, who had collected the type specimen.See an earlier post from Lima for more about him.....

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A bit of culture, a bit of botany – what a great day!

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from Tiina:

Staying at an Inca ruin has been a great experience, and today we made it even more special by heading over the clouds to the Amazonian side of the Andes.

 

Early in the morning we got to the pick-up, ready packed with lunch to drive along the road from Ollantaytambo towards Quillabamba. The road crosses the eastern cordillera at c. 4400 m elevation at Abra de Malaga, and the road then turns down towards the Amazon basin. The Amazon basin side is much more humid than the inter-Andean slopes we have seen thus far, but Paul, Andy and I had never seen these humid montane forests before so we were very keen!

 

Heading off on the road from Ollantaytambo towards the pass we were looking out for Solanum sumacaspi. This is a species of the Geminata clade of Solanum, a tree with remarkably glabrous leaves. Solanum sumacaspi only occurs in the Urumbamba valley, and only few collections of it are known. Luckily we did find it in flower AND fruit, which was fantastic. Sandy has described the species but never seen it in the wild, so this was a moment to cherish!

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Close to Solanum sumacaspi we also found Solanum probolospermum, one of my morelloid solanums. This species is nearly like Solanum pallidum, except that Solanum probolospermum has only simple unicellular hairs, whilst Solanum pallidum has branched hairs. We are yet to find out what the exact limits of these species are – more on that later when we get to see Solanum pallidum itself in Puno hopefully!

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We found more and more Solanum probolospermum when we went up the road. It was great to observe the large variation present in the species in terms of growth form. In some populations, we also observed some fantastic mutations – flowers with six corolla lobes, fasciated corollas, and super-numerous inflorescences. It was all a bit too much for Paul, who started doubting our taxonomic expertise when we said it was the same species. Observing natural variation can be mind boggling at times!

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Once we crossed the pass and started going down the eastern slope of the Andes, the air became more humid and clouds surrounded us. The humidity from the Amazon basin hits the Andean mountains on the eastern slopes, which creates moist montane forest habitats as well as special pre-montane rain forest habitats lower down. This time did not have time to go as low as the pre-montane forests unfortunately. Just as well, as many solanums are found growing in the higher elevation montane forest habitats. First, we found a fantastic species of Morelloid solanums, which we have named as “morel-malaga” for now. This species shows very unusual characters for Morelloids: it has enlarged pedicel apices, calyx with reduced calyx tube and tiny lobes, and most unusually, oval-shaped fruits. We observed this species growing along the eastern side from 3600 to 3450 m elevation, at which point we had to turn around to get home in time. As usual for solanums, this species shows great variation in habit and size, but it clearly likes disturbed microhabitats such as landslides. On our return to herbarium in Lima, we’ll keep our eyes open for this species, as some of the field characters such as pedicel size and fruit shape are not obvious on dried herbarium specimens.

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Second find of the day was Salpichroa didieranum. Generally Salpichroa flowers are c. 1-2 cm long, but this species has long yellow tubular flowers up to 12 cm long! Paul was well pleased, this genus is his favourite!

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Best thing of the day was a bunch of mad cyclists we saw. They passed us when we were collecting our final “morel-malaga” populations in the humid montane forest. It was raining at this point, the moisture was engulfing us in a thick fog, and we could barely see more than 30 meters ahead. First we saw one mad cyclist passing by. He was ecstatic with joy, rolling down the slope, and before we knew it, he had disappeared in the clouds. Second cyclist followed, this time he greeted us with joyful “hello” with a hint of Irish accent. At this point we thought these were just eccentric tourists. But then followed a whole crowed of them – cyclists coming down the hill, some silent some screaming for joy rolling down the hill in rain! What a bunch of mad but happy people, I wish I could do a similar downhill cycling route one day! I bet they just kept rolling down until they got to the Amazon lowlands!

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We decided to have a day off from driving madly across the Peruvian countryside and to explore the amazing ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is a small town with a huge ruin attached that is on the banks of the Río Urubamba.

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It was here that the Inca Manco Capac defeated the Spanish army, only to have them come back in more force later and over-run the fortress – he then retreated to Machu Pichu and beyond….  Today trains run from Cusco to Ollantaytambo to Machu Pichu several times daily (last time I was here it was once a day, starting at the crack of dawn! – how times change).

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Part of the site of Ollantaytambo is a temple to the sun (or so the guidebooks say) hewn of gigantic stones that were transported from across the river and high in the mountains. This temple was never finished, and one can see gigantic stones left along the trail from the quarry across the Urubamba. Like all Inca stonework, you can’t put a piece of paper between these stones – what is amazing about Ollantaytambo is the sheer size of these blocks (see Paul for scale in the picture). How did they do it?

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We climbed high on trails around the entire site, and managed to see some really amazing scenery, take some silly pictures of all of us, and see some interesting plants.

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To collect, we went across the river on an old Inca bridge (recontructed of course) and walked amongst terraced fields of maize and other crops.

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We of course found some solanums – the msot exciting of which was what we called Solanum “pseudoexcisirhombeum” – like our friend from the high puna, but a bit different.  For a start it has smaller flowers….

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Hot off the presses (several days later) – on downloading the original description from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), we find that it matches this Urubamba plant better than the puna plants from Ayacucho – so we will need to figure out what those are now! Being able to look at the literature in the field is truly amazing…

 

Landslides are a fact of life in Peru (as you will have seen from earlier posts!) and the Ollantaytambo area is no exception – this river of mud came down the mountain last October or so (we were told be a resident) at night with a huge whoosh. It hadn’t even been raining apparently, a piece of mountain just fell off. Wow.

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Ollantaytambo of course is more than just ruins, it is also a lovely village, and prides itself on retaining its Inca heritage. It also has some lovely Spanish touches as well, like these bulls on the rooftop for good luck, along with a bottle of champagne for celebration!

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Having a day off from driving was good for all of us – we have recharged our batteries and are ready to go again…  what will tomorrow bring? More solanums we are sure!

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Crossing the Apurimac

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 16, 2012

from Tiina:

Yesterday’s landslides were scary. This morning we thought we have seen it all, but today we saw something different. We were driving down the valley of Apurimac, when we came across a bit of road next to the river where the cliff side was hanging over us – not under like in most landslides! The river had clearly eaten away rock underneath the hillside during a flood some time ago. Now what was remaining was a whole cliff side loosely hanging on to the mountain, and a road going underneath it. We had to take it, there was no detour. We did not even stop to take a photo – trust me, better that way.

 

Once pass the scary cliff side, we came to a bridge to cross Rio Apurimac. Sandy thought the bridge would make a nice lunch spot, so we stopped to enjoy the scenery, to take photos and to eat a watermelon we had bought earlier. We found Solanum americanum growing at the bridge site just as Sandy had predicted earlier that morning – her philosophy is that every stop brings new discoveries. She is right: whenever we have stopped to take a photo, we have also managed to find good solanums!

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The trouble with this plant at the bridge was that it was growing out of the bridge. In order to get it, Andrew had to lower himself down one of the bollards of the bridge. Luckily we did get a photo of this!

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Later that day we took a side road to Mollepata. This detour was recommended to us by Alberto Salas who is expert on potatoes. We met him before heading to our trip in Lima, and we were following his great recommendations to check out some good side roads. Mollepata turned out to be a great side road. We found a new population of Solanum anomalostemon as well as Solanum physalifolium.

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We left the humming town of Abancay – having first sorted out how to get the plant presses we had managed to forget in Andahuaylas the day before (it always happens at some point!) sent on to Cusco.  Peruvians have a great system for this, called “encomienda” – we sent money by bus company to the hotel keeper in Andahuaylas, then he kindly packed up the presses and sent them by bus to Cusco – all very efficient and easy.

 

As usual in the Andes the day began with a steep climb over a mountain pass – this time in dense fog – but we still managed to see some great plants. We stopped to look back at Abancay in the distance and Paul found a lovely Jaltomata (another genus in the Solanaceae) with densely furry filaments that were deep purple, a beautiful contrast to the pearly white flowers. We are not sure what species it is – but colleagues will let us know once we can send them the specimens!

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As has been the case for a few days on this not-so-well-travelled part of the Andean range, we ran into a bit of road trouble – another huaico had covered the road in at least three metres of mud – but the machines were out there sorting it out. We only had to wait about 20 minutes or so – nothing really in the grand scheme of things!

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Descending into the valley of the Río Apurimac we began to find new and interesting solanums – among them the wonderful species Solanum iltisii – named for the American botanist Hugh Iltis by one of his graduate students. It is a rather large tree with pretty white flowers, but its most peculiar feature is its warty fruits – the “warts” are the bases of hairs that fall off as the fruit matures. I have seen this species in the harbarium – it was great to see it in the flesh!

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As we descended twoards the town of Curahuasi, where we intended to spend the night, we began to look for Solanum anomalostemon, a species I had described with my colleague from the New York Botanical Garden Michael Nee in 2009 from herbarium specimens – I was really keen to see it alive! We called in anomalostemon for its very peculiar (for a solanum) heart-shaped anthers; found nowhere else in the genus. Well, we looked and looked, found lots of other things, so were about to give up – but- decided to have a look along the roadside in the landslips to see if we could find it there.  And – amazingly – there it was! Inconspicously sitting at the base of a landslide…  when he saw it Paul yelled out loud; we thought he had fallen and hurt himself….

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And it is as odd and I expected –what a strange plant. Tiny and flat, but with large (for a solanum) flowers with these most strange-shaped anthers. We fell to speculating as to what pollinated it….

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What a wonderful way to end the day – and just as we got into the car to head into Curahuasi, the snowy peak of Salkantay decided to reveal itself. All was right in the world.

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In Curahuasi the townspeople were celebrating Carnaval still (during Lent it seems to be a continual celebration rather than a time of abstinence – a good idea I think!) with the ceremony of cutting a tree decorated with presents.. same sort of thing we saw in Andahuaylas a few days back.  We agreed – a celebration was in order – for the wierdest solanum ever!!

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The road to Abancay.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 10, 2012

Yesterday’s road probems were tiny compared to today….. sometimes Peruvian roads must be seen to be believed.  Andahuaylas awoke to pouring rain, not a great result for the festival, but loads of people were outside getting organised. Off we set into the cloud, again climbing to more than 4000 m elevation to cross over a pass to get into the valley of Abancay, our next port of call. As I jumped out to take a picture of potatoes being grown at 4200 m, I realised it was actually snowing! Even the llamas looked wet and miserable, but stoic all the same, just like botanists, but we smile more!

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The entire area between Andahuaylas and Abancay, both in the department of Apurimac, is highly populated, and heavily cultivated – every square inch had a field or animals grazing.

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As we came down in elevation the vegetation became drier ( repeat of our experience a few days ago), and we began to find solanums and other exciting Solanaceae. My top plant of the day was Nicotiana tomentosa – a wild tobacco that is a small tree up to 10 cm in diameter! I have seen what has been called this species in Bolivia before, but these plants were very different – I am going to need to re-think the species limits here.

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The torrential rains of the last few days have made collecting difficult, but have made travel even more so….  The road to Abancay had been reported as having several landslides (or huaicos); the heavy rains loosen the soil and the steep slopes the roads are carved into just slip and slide down, sometimes with quite alarming results. Some people who had come from Cuzco to Andahuaylas for the festival had warned us that there were many vehicles stuck. Well, eventually, after passing many places where rocks and mud had fallen across the road we came across a lorry that had got well and truly stuck in deep mud right on a corner. As we got out to check it out, we heard and saw large rocks falling from the cliffs above; they were so big that it took Tiina and I both to move them out of the way – Andy drove by next to the lorry with aplomb (secretly hoping the mud didn’t slide out from under him!).

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The road was partically blocked by many landslides further on down the mountain, but traffic (and there was a lot of it, mostly buses and lorries) passed through, often at quite a clip.

 

The unusually heavy and prolonged rains have also caused the rivers to swell. We came across one “small stream” that had turned into a torrent, for once, the adjective raging fit perfectly – we could see the boulders being taken down the streambed as we watched.it doesn't look like much in the picture, but trust me, it ws amazing!

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Abancay sits up above a low valley with a river we had to cross, and in the dry forest vegetation in the valley we found two more exciting Solanum species. Solanum neorickii is a wild tomato relative with tiny little flowers, it has green fruits that look just like minature green tomatoes – the plants we collected were in full fruit.

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Further down the splendid dry valley we came to the bridge over the Rio Casinchihua – where Tiina found her plant of the day, Solanum physalifolium. This species has a wonderful speckled fruit that is translucent when it is ripe – you can see the brown seeds through the fruit wall. In England we have a species we call Solanum physalifolium, but it is nothing like this little plant. As with the tobacco, we will need to rethink the species boundaries here!

 

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On our way into Abancay we were delayed by various road crews clearing away huge rocks that had fallen onto the (now paved) road…  but as we began to climb up the hill we were surprised by a long queue of vehicles, all stopped for some reason…  Paul jumped out to see what the story was and came back with the news that there was another huaico and that vehicles were only being let through in small batches, and then only some could make it. The road had turned into a rocky river bed… the tractor was fixing it constantly as sets of three or four vehicles went through.

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We had to cross the river twice – the second time was easier and we made a big splash!

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Tomorrow we head up again in order to descend again into the canyon of the Rio Apurimac, said to be even deeper than the Grand Canyon. Here we are seeking the rare and exciting species Solanum anomalostemon, known only from this canyon – with my colleague Michael Nee of the New York Botanical Garden I described this a few years ago, but I have never seen it alive and in its habitat – can’t wait! We can see that it is still raining in the mountains, so we wonder what we will find on the road?

                                                                                          

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Off for the mountains

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 2, 2012

Our vehicle was delivered (a nice 4x4 pickup truck that will be perfect for the mountain roads), we are almost finished in the herbarium - so today we will head south and then up into the Andes. Getting out of Lima is a challenge in itself!

 

It has been raining a lot in the mountains, so who knows what we will find. Peru is famous for what are known locally as huaicos - huge mudslips that block roads; none have been reported though for the road to Ayacucho, so we are hopeful!

 

I am very excited to be going to Ayacucho - when I live in Peru in the 1980s it was the centre of activities for the Shining Path, a violent terrorist group whose activities disrupted all of Peruvian society for years - it was a no-go area in those days. Now, in contrast, Peru is a vibrant buzzing place, and there is a new road from the coast directly to Ayacucho - very little plant collecting has been done in the area recently (although our Peruvian colleagues have of course been there), so we are not sure what we will find, but it is bound to be interesting.

 

We are joined on this leg of the trip by Andrew Matthews, an NHM volunteer and forester, and Paul Gonzales, a student from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, who has just finished his undergraduate degree and is on the way to becoming a top Peruvian botanist - we'll have more about them later. How many solanums will we find in Peru?

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Our permit has come through, we are awaiting the confirmation of our rental vehicle....  so while we wait and get organised, we are entering the data from specimens in herbarium collections here in Lima into the Solanaceae Source database. Solanum is such a large genus that botanists fear to tred (we, of course are a bit crazy, so here we go!!) - with 1500 species, it is hard for a non-specialist to get a handle on identification, so many many collections end up in the unidentified cupboards - our first port of call. What a treasure trove! At the Museo we have reduced this backlog by more than half, and in doign so, managed to enter very important collections to the database. Many recent collections have latitude and longitude recorded, so with these data, we can calculate species ranges. This will contribute directly to our new project on the correlates of extinction in the Solanaceae of Peru - THE hotspot of diversity in the family.

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a small part of the now identified Solanum collection at the Museo!

 

Before we leave Peru, we will copy the records from each herbarium to a new file and leave it with those in charge of herbarium management - taht way, no work is duplicated and our colleagues can use the records to enable their own research as well. As we sit madly entering data, students and visitors from elsewhere in Peru constantly arrive bringing small piles of dried plants in newspapers - their own collections for us to identify. Most of the time we can identify things to species, but when we can't it is frustrating to not be able to help. People are very tolerant of our failings however, and we have many very interesting conversations.

 

The other evening the Museo held its 94th anniversary celebrations - with the dedication of a fossil of Purussaurus - a huge crocodilian from the pre-Amazon basin discovered by palaeontologists on the staff.

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Purussaurus - reconstructed!

 

Peru does parties exceptionally well, and this one was no exception. There were several speeches, including a lvoely one from the widow of a prominent Peruvian grass taxonomist Oscar Tovar whose library has been donated to the Museo. I named a species in honor of Dr. Tovar (Solanum tovarii - from his native department of Huancavelica) in the 1990s - I am hoping we will find it when we go south into the mountains.

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Today we visited the herbaria (there are two, but confusingly they are advertised as only one) of the Agricultural University in the outskirts of Lima in La Molina. Here one can see the dry hills that surround the city - the coast of Peru is part of the Atacama desert and is very dry. The summer (now) is hot and dry, but the winter is damp, cold and wet with fog all day coming in off the Pacific Ocean - this "garua" creates a very special vegetation type called "lomas" in the hills where the moisture collects. Several endemic Solanum species are found in this habitat - like Solanum montanum (see the entry in Solanaceae Source for pictures of this species, http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/solanaceaesource/taxonomy/description-detail.jsp?spnumber=3951) - which makes an underground stem like a potato, but they are not related.

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At La Molina (as the university is called) we especially wanted to see the specimens collected by an amazing German botanist who lived and explored in Peru in the early part of the 20th century - Augusto Weberbauer. His book (in Spanish called El Mundo Vegetal de los Andes Peruanos - loosely translated as The Plant World of the Peruvian Andes) is still a classic for the understanding of habitats and vegetation in the country. Many of his specimens were used to describe new species by the great German solanologist Georg Bitter, but were tragically destroyed (along with many others) in the bombing of Berlin in the 1940s. But, fortunately for us, duplicates are held in the La Molina herbarium; to me, this is the single biggest advertisment for spreading the collections around, they are so easy to destroy and lose forever. Expert and careful curation is so important for future generations - thisis why we will be collecting duplicates of everything, half will stay in Peru, half will come to the NHM. These Weberbauer specimens are critical for understanding these names - some of these are the only specimens collected by him in existence. We were kindly received by the curators, and examined the type specimens that had been identified, but as I looked into the rest of Solanum - I saw at least three more Weberbauer types, lurking unknown inthe cupboards - a return visit is indicated!

 

Just as at the Museo, we identified many of the Solanum specimens without names and entered then into the database (well not all, there just was not enough time). We found some real oddities - like a minature species from the north of Peru, a bit like our friend Solanum chamaesarachidium from Argentina, but quite different; a new one? Only more study and collecting will tell......

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Andrew Matthews - slightly crazed from doing to much specimen databasing; without him we couldn't have done it!! He definitely deserved a cold beer......

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After a fantastic couple of weeks here in Argentina tomorrow we head for Peru, and more solanum hunting. We have spent the last few days since returning from the field in the herbarium here in Córdoba - a real treasure trove. We have added some 800 new records to the Solanaceae Source database - some very old specimens, but all new to us! Field work is great for sorting some problems, but the herbarium can bring specimens together in a way so that all the variation is laid out in front of you to see and decide what to do!

 

We have solved a number of knotty problems - realised that some of the species we were confused about were in fact only variants of a single widespread species - Solanum salicifolium - that can grow just about anywhere. Feels good to have sorted that out.

 

Tiina has gone out dancing with the post-docs - Gloria and I are making sure everything is in order for our joint treatments of Solanum for the Flora of Argentina, and generally just catching up. The list of things we will leave to do "next time" just keeps getting longer; it is clear there will another field trip next year, we are hopingn to go to Patagonia. We will be sad to leave this wonderful country and out great friends, but are looking forward to Peru, where we will arrive just in time for the Museo de Historia Natural's birthday party!

 

More solanums await in Peru - first we must sort out the permits for collection in Lima..... I am sure surprises await!

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Return to Cordoba

Posted by Tiina Feb 20, 2012

Today was the final day of our field trip. We all sat in the car doing nothing – except Leo of course as he was driving – chatting about what we have found during the past 10 days. The plants we have seen have been most amazing, all flowering AND fruiting which is excellent. They have also been the first nighshades I’ve ever collected, and the trip has brought home how diverse the family is!

 

The two day drive from Jujuy down to Cordoba has also brought home how far we have been. We have driven nearly 3000 km only in 10 days! Argentina is a large country and it takes some stamina to cover all of the northern parts in one trip. You can imagine how all my muscles are aching by now from sitting in the car for hours on end… During long drives I have struggled staying awake, the calm humming of the engine lulling me into sleep. Leo’s safe driving has helped too of course J. Lunch times are the worst, because after a full stomach there is a very high likelihood of finding me snoring on the back seat!

 

On a trip like ours, day-to-day mood of the team greatly depends on three things: car, the driver and roads. Leo has been amazing, and has made our trip. Our pick-up has been great too, and the roads, except for a few instances where sudden rains have flushed down parts of roads blocking our way to intersting localities. So given that the plants are blooming and there are flowers or fruits to look at, it’s all about cars, really. It doesn’t sound as exciting as trips trecking in the jungle, which focus on collecting in a single locality over number of days. But the most amazing thing about a longhaul trip like ours is that you get to see so many different species in one go! This is worth every moment and aching muscle!

 

We counted the number of Solanaceae species we have seen in 10 days – we’ve reached 100 by now! As I said, these are my first nightshades ever. Although I’ve worked in the Andes before and know already some plant groups well, I have never looked at nightshades before. The reason for this is that the group is so diverse that it feels inpenetrable to a non-specialist. Learning from Sandy and Gloria has been great, and I can now tell apart the large main groups within the family and especially within Solanum. I have also learned that there truly is great morphological variation in the family. Look at Nicandra for example: it’s a monotypic genus with a single species that occurs throughout tropics in the world, N. physalodes. The species has tomato like berries, but unlike fleshy tomatoes, Nicandra berries dry out!

 

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Other favorites of mine are the campanulate flowered Solanums, one of which is S. fiebrigii which we collected in Jujuy in the National Park of Calilegua.

 

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Then there is of course the Episarcophyllum group of Solanums, these are high elevation species, some with fleshy succulent leaves. We have found several of these, Sandy mentioned these earlier (see one about high elevation sand dunes). Here is another one of the Episarco’s from Catamarca yet to be identified. You can see in the picture that whilst I was filming, a lucky insect took the opportunity to get the photo!

 

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And then there is of course the Parasolanum group of Solanum, which consist of four species, some of which are prostrate creeping herbs growing amongst stones near rivers and streams in high elevations. My absolute favorite thus far in this group is S. tripartitum.

 

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During our trip we have not only seen over hundret species of nightshades, but sorted out some very important taxonomic issues. There are a bunch of names we now understand as we have been able to visit the type localities of these species. We have also observed how some species vary enourmously in leaf shape and growth form, and based on these observation we can synonomise names and simplify things on our return. We have two days remaining in Argentina. These will be spend in the herbarium annotating and databasing specimens, studying type material and editing species descriptions based on what we have seen. On Wednesday we will be heading off to Peru where Andrew Matthews is joining our team. Sadly we have to leave Gloria and Leo behind - but it’s not so sad as I’m sure we will return to Cordoba before too long.

 

Having seen over 100 different species of Solanaceae in Argentina, what will we find in Peru?

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We devoted today to exploring Calilegua National Park, an area that protects some of the rarest forest types in Argentina called the yungas. The forest is wet and mossy, and has big trees of walnuts and podocarpus – and of course, many solanum species. Argentina has a very efficient park system with professional park rangers, our day began with a visit to the ranger’s office to show our permit to collect. Once we were cleared, we set off up the mountain.

 

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One of our big finds for the day (we knew it was there) was Solanum huaylavillense – a very unusual little plant with yellow flowers known only from Argentina and Bolivia. Most Solanum species have white or purple flowers (except of course tomatoes), but this little beauty has translucent yellow flowers about half a centimetre long.

 

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We have had a “vertebrate of the day” ever since the vicuñas – today we had two, the first a toad so well camouflaged it took several minutes to point out to the others, and the second a bright orange and black toad hopping gaily amongst the rocks in a little stream. Can’t wait to figure out what this little chap is called!

 

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The spider was also gently minding its own business crossing the road – Jan Beccaloni I am sure can tell me what it is! We ate lunch to a chorus of parrots - loro alisero (Amazona tucamana - not sure what the name in English is, but here is the scientific one - universal!!); beautiful birds, with red beaks and a little yellow nose tuft.

 

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Our disappointment of the day was not finding Solanum calileguae, a vine endemic to this area. We looked and looked, but it clearly was not in flower or fruit, and amongst all that green would have been impossible to see. Another trip is clearly in order! Actually, it is good every now and then to realise that one never really finds everything every time, collecting is efficient if well-planned, but plants are on their own time schedule and may not flower or fruit at the same time every year. Some are also so rare that even finding them is difficult – it may be that Solanum calilegueae is one of those.

 

Passing through the town of San Francisco, we came upon the celebrations for Carnival – the week of feasts before Lent. Here in the mountains the people were offering gifts to Pachamama (Mother Earth), singing and dancing – and drinking! We were offered chicha (fermented corn drink) and beer, but managed to convince the festive crowd that we had a long drive ahead. All through the Andes there is a subtle and complex mix of Christian and indigenous celebrations; people have kept the things that are important to them.

 

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So tomorrow we head up to the puna again to look for some special high elevation plants (more Solanaceae of course) – it is a little unclear if we can really do this – it involves going up to 4500 m and driving a very long way. Can we make it?

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