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Seeking nightshades in South America

42 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
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From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!

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Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!

 

As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…

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Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…


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A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.

 

Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.

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Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…


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The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.

 

We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb. 

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Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!

 

Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…

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The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.

 

About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.

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Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.


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We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!

 

Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).

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Cordillera de la Viuda -  this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.

 

This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.

 

Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!

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Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…

 

The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.

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The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.


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We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!


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Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…

 

The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…

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The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.

 

The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.

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The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...


Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.

 

I wish I were going with them...

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Congresso over, samba danced, party enjoyed – we all now head off for fields new. Lynn has gone back to Utah, but Leandro and I, along with Izabella Rodrigues, set off for São Paulo state to look for a putative new species. My colleague Jefferson Prado, with whom I worked on the new International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants published in 2012, and his wife Cinthia Kameyama have sorted out permits for collecting in the famous reserve in Paranapiacaba also known as Alto da Serra that is owned and managed by the Instituto de Botânica de São Paulo.

 

First though we needed to get to São Paulo. Famed for its traffic jams (executives allegedly go everywhere in helicopters to avoid them) we thought that leaving at 6am on Sunday would mean we got there before the rush into town after the weekend. Well, how wrong can you be. We hit the tailback about 2pm, about 75 kilometres outside of the city…and crawled the rest of the way.

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Cars, lorries and all sorts -  all crazily trying to get into São Paulo… Bumper to bumper for hours and hours. The amazing thing was that people were selling water and sweets along the central reservation of the highway, at incredible risk when the traffic actually did move, but I expect they did pretty good business, otherwise they would have been nuts to be there at all.

 

We did arrive in the end, getting lost a couple of times, but we got there. Our first day was spent in the herbarium at the Instituto – looking for new localities of the probable newbie and generally identifying plants. My trip here has been paid for by the Virtual Herbarium of Brazil partnership – and in exchange my job is to identify as many herbarium specimens as I can, thus helping with the quality of information available from the consortium.

 

We got a taxi from the hotel to the institute – no way was Leandro driving in that traffic any more than he had to! Our driver was chatty as can be, and took us to the wrong place at first. But rather than complain and blame us, he quite amazingly took us back to the hotel, set the meter to zero and we began again. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else on Earth? All the while keeping up a constant monologue on politics, life in São Paulo and things in general, including the World Cup (to be hosted by Brazil in 2014, with one of the main venues in São Paulo).

 

He dropped us at the entrance and we walked through the botanical gardens to the herbarium. It took us ages as the road was lined with solanums… Including the amazing, altogether wonderful Solanum castaneum – the ultimate Bob Marley plant, I swear this one has dreadlocks!

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We saw a huge black Bombus species buzz-pollinating the flowers – these are Leandro’s thesis topic, so he was pretty excited to see them in a place he hadn’t expected them to be so common!

 

So the herbarium. The institute in São Paulo is one of the larger and older herbaria in Brazil and so there were a lot of plants waiting for us to name…  between us Leandro and I identified some 500 specimens, including many of the new species. In 2008 I had tentatively identified three specimens of a plant from the mountains of coastal São Paulo as Solanum evonymoides – a species we had collected in Bahia, but with reservations. The amount of material in São Paulo convinced me that the plant is indeed completely different to S. evonymoides – what an idiot for not realising it earlier! But this is the beauty of visiting other collections, with little evidence to go on one cannot make a decision – the evidence is there in the collections, and they are so, so valuable – all of them, big and small alike.

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Lunch in the botanical garden with (L-R) Maria Candida Mamede (curator of the herbarium), Cinthia, Jefferson, me, Leandro and Izabella.


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Leandro counting some of our identifications for the final report from my trip… we basically just counted the piles and multiplied!

 

Bright and early we set off for Paranapiacaba – about an hour towards the coast in the Serra do Mar, the coastal range that rises to almost 2,000 metres above sea level between the city of São Paulo and the ocean. The town of Paranapiacaba was built by the British who came to construct the São Paulo railway, and the reserve managed by the institute was established in 1909, making it the oldest protected area in Brazil. The famous British botanical artist Margaret Mee spent time at the reserve, mostly painting bromeliads – she stayed in the lovely little house on the top of the hill that has housed scientific visitors for decades.

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The Casa de Naturalista is idyllic – I wished we didn’t have to push on to get to our next Solanum-hunting spot…

 

One the path up the hill we saw Solanaceae galore – Izabella’s genus Aureliana was common, there were lovely little peppers, and Solanum castaneum for Leandro. Izabella, in her quiet understated way, mentioned she saw a little green fruit high in the canopy…so up we looked, and there it was – the new species – an 8m tall tree, looking not at all like Solanum evonymoides! For sure, sure, sure something new and different – and extraordinarily, it was quite common. The reserve guards told us that when it was in bloom it was incredibly sweet-smelling and perfumed the whole forest – everyone had just thought it was a common species in the same group (the one I did my PhD thesis on, section Geminata) called Solanum pseudoquina, and not bothered to collect it up there in the canopy…

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Doesn’t look like much, but I was pretty excited! The branches have an odd (for Solanum) whorled structure, so we might just call it Solanum verticillatum – the leaves are leathery and shiny – it really is a pretty plant.


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Izabella studies the Brazilian almost-endemic genus Aureliana - of the 13 species, 12 occur only in Brazil! This one is the common but incredibly confusing Aureliana fasciculata - Bella had to do oa lot of statistical analyses to work out the limits of this species for her PhD thesis - she is now doing a post-doc studying the pollination biology of these discrete forest plants.


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The town of Paranapicacaba was the hub of the São Paulo railway, taking goods from inland to the port – the Serra do Mar is so steep that a cog railway had to take things down the last slope to the sea. This is now a touristic region for Paulistas…


We would have loved to stay for ages in the reserve, or in the little town of Paranapiacaba – but on we needed to go. Firstly to get to our next destination, and secondly to miss the São Paulo traffic out of town! So we delivered Cinthia to the institute, and set on our way… We were aiming to get to the Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo state border to be able to spend the whole day photographing plants in the national park of Itatiaia, where several really interesting endemics occur.

 

We made it to the town of Queluz for the night, only a few kilometres from the turnoff to the park. Unfortunately, we missed the turnoff the next morning and ended up driving about 40 kilometres extra and having to pay a toll twice (about £10) because there was no escape from the toll road! Very annoying – but we had gone far enough so we didn’t lose much time.

 

The Serra da Mantiqueira is an ancient mountain range that rises to more than 2,000 metres above sea level, and the area around the tri-state border is protected and highly forested. We did not have a permit for collection in the park, so we went with our cameras instead – Leandro and Izabella had collected here many times before, so we were there to get good pictures of these rare plants, not really to collect specimens.

 

The area is a paradise for Solanaceae – they were all around us in all their amazing variety … Here are a few of the stars of the day:

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A new species Leandro will name to honour Alexandre Curt Brade, one of the great botanists of Brazil in the early 20th century.


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The extraordinary Solanum gnaphalocarpon with densely hairy fruits – I thought this was only found in dry areas, but as is so often the case – I was wrong!


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Solanum itatiaiae – only known from high elevations in this region, growing near a bridge at about 2,000m.


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Solanum cassioides – disjunct from populations in southeastern Brazil, this species has a foothold here at high elevation where it gets really cold…


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The view across the mountains from the road was spectacular – this is very large piece of well-protected forest, and harbours many exciting plants!


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And finally, from lower down, the almost unbelievable Solanum lacerdae – the hairs on the calyx are like little stars on stalks, bizarre but for real!

 

In the afternoon the thunder and lightning began – and the car developed an odd squeal… so down we went, well satisfied with our day of photography. We planned to stop in the touristic town of Caxambu – with hot springs and thermal baths – before heading back to Belo Horizonte. Too bad I forgot my swimming costume! And this was a staid, turn-of-the-century family resort town, not a place for skinny dipping… So we just slept…

 

Next day – Belo Horizonte again – all set for a few days intensive work in the herbarium before heading home. I need to do so much – annotate and identify specimens, describe the new species, work out some real taxonomic problems with Leandro and João… will I manage it all? I hope so – the plane home looms…

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After our great collecting in Bahia (even though we did miss seeing Heteranthia!) – it was time to go back to Belo Horizonte for the 64th National Brazilian Botanical Congress, where I would be giving the opening lecture. So we set off early to connect with BR 116 – the main road inland to the south.

 

The vegetation along the road out of the valley between the Serra da Jibóia and Serra do Timbo was completely different to the forest in which we had been collecting in the mountains – this is the caatinga – a dry forest dominated by spiny shrubs (often members of the pea family) and home to spectacular columnar cacti. I love this sort of habitat, it reminds of the western part of the USA, where I grew up – but it is hot and inhospitable for the most part, and here, in Bahia, there had been little rain for the last two years, so everything was tinder dry.

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Cereus jamacaru, known locally as mandacarú, can grow to 5 metres tall; it is an iconic plant of the caatinga regions of Brazil and has some non-spiny varieties that are used as animal feed. The huge white flowers open at night and are pollinated by bats - it was one of the very first cacti to be widely cultivated in greenhouses in Europe, in the Museum Library there are some amazing paintings of this species that I used in my book Potted Histories (soon to be released as Flora in late 2014).

 

We left Lucas in the town of Itatim, which is surrounded by inselbergs, some with extraordinary caves. He will return home to the town of Feira de Santana, then come back south to Belo Horizonte a few days after us. We will pick up another student on the way in the town of Vitoria da Conquista, so life is never dull!

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Lucas setting off to catch the bus to Feira de Santana, plants in hand – he was home a couple of hours later, while we were still on the road and far from our destination!


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This inselberg (right in the middle of the picture) at the outskirts of Itatim has two huge caves on the side – it almost looks man-made, but isn’t.


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This barber shop called to mind the insects from the forest, but also my entomologist colleagues back at the Museum – its name was the “Fly Barber”, must ask Museum fly curator Erica McAlister if flies often need a shave...

 

Our colleague from Argentina, Gloria Barboza, has found some new pepper species here near Itatim – but we had no time to stop, we had to get back to Belo Horizonte...

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The distances in Brazil are huge – this wall in a truck stop along the way (whose name I have completely forgotten!) tells the kilometres to various places –it was a late lunchtime and we were still more than 1,000km from Belo Horizonte AC.

 

Even though the distances are large and it takes ages, driving is worth it – one sees the vegetation and habitats in a new way. I had never really understood what caatinga was before – I had seen it on herbarium specimen labels, but now I understand better what sort of habitat those plants live in.

 

The distance was complicated by the enormous amount of traffic on the hilly roads, and further still by roadworks all along the privately owned and operated highway. Every so often the traffic would be stopped in one direction when the road went down to a single lane; the lorries then backed up and when the road became two, or even miraculously three, lanes again there was a lot of quite frenzied overtaking. At one stopping place I counted 64 lorries all waiting to go…

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When the opportunity to overtake presented itself everyone tried to go at once, but it all seemed to work out in the end, we didn’t see a single accident.


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Along the road in small Bahian towns we often saw amazing displays of auto parts – Lynn called them “muffler art”. Wherever the traffic was stopped loads of people selling things ran up and down the queue – it was hot, so I suspect they were doing a booming trade in water.

 

Google calculated it would take us about 4 hours to get to Vitoria da Conquista to collect Cleiton, another student of Andre Amorim’s from Bahia, but instead it took us almost 8 hours! But we got there, and Cleiton was patiently waiting… Once we got into Minas Gerais the road got better and the lorries turned off. We stopped for the night more than 13 hours after we had begun… in a mining town called Teófilo Otoni.

 

This part of Minas Gerais is famous for semi-precious stones and the hotel lobby had cases of jewellery with tourmaline, agate and other nice local stones. The state of Minas Gerais has a huge mining industry (minas means mines in Portuguese) - mostly iron ore sent to China to make car parts that are then shipped back to Brazil for assembly. In Minas we saw many trains full of iron ore heading out to the coast. Along with the iron there are semi-precious stones, but only in certain placees. Our hotel was across from the main town party place, and it was a Friday night, so not a lot of sleep… but we had less than 800km to go.

 

We hadn’t stopped for any plants on our first day – so bad was the traffic and so far had we to travel. But once close to Belo Horizonte I couldn’t resist a stop to see Solanum lycocarpon – the wolf fruit. This species is related to Solanum crinitum, the species we saw on the road to Una few days ago, and has big purple flowers and green fruit. These fruit though are whoppers – up to 15cm in diameter – they are eaten by Amazonian maned wolves supposedly as a vermifuge (a medicine to expel intestinal worms).

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This fruit was about 10cm in diameter and not at all ripe; once ripe the flesh is creamy yellow and smells nice, the seeds are very large and dark brown.


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Solanum lycocarpon flowers have slightly curved anthers, just like Solanum crinitum - if you look closely you can see the hairy anthers characteristic of this group of solanums. Special sets of characters like this are clues about evolutionary relationships, but must be tested against other characters to be sure they are in fact indicators of relationship and not just superficial similarity.

 

As we drew nearer to Belo Horizonte it became obvious that it had rained a lot – in a couple of places the road had collapsed and the traffic was back to one lane. But we made it home by late afternoon. We had driven more than 1,500 kilometres – but it was worth it, the plants were fantastically interesting and we had found real treasures. Now comes the work in the herbarium checking the ones we think are new against previously collected samples. But first, we put the specimens to dry on the dryer at the university, and then got ready for the Congresso – the annual get-together for all Brazilian botanists and a truly great occasion! Now to get my talks ready...

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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...

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We left João in Ilhéus to catch his plane back to Belo Horizonte, while we spent the afternoon in the herbarium at Centro de Pequisas do Cacao (CEPEC: Chocolate Research Centre) looking at new collections from Bahia – what a rich collection! Bahia is very diverse, and the collectors in the herbarium are very active, so we found many new localities for species we are interested in.

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Lynn readying herself for identifying specimens in the CEPEC herbarium.

 

Next morning we woke to torrential rain, and headed out to a private reserve called Serra do Teimoso, a bit further south than Ilhéus. This is a very rainy place – and it rained the whole way there, with a few breaks where the sun shone and we collected a few plants along the road. We passed through cacao plantations (this is a big cacao growing area) – they leave the tall trees and underplant with cacao. From the road it looks a bit like good forest – and it is for some animals, not for understory plants though.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao, first described by Linnaeus) grows as a small tree in the shade of the forest canopy.

 

We reached the private reserve Serra do Teimoso in the pouring rain, but found our little house and got settled in. The accommodation was luxurious – a bedroom each with sheets and towels, electricity, and all with the accompaniment of birds and cicadas, only the noises of nature.

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Lynn and Leandro getting settled in before we set out for the field – hoping it stops raining!

 

The main reason we had come to Serra do Teimoso (other than it is a very nice piece of forest) was to find the extremely rare Solanum paralum. This was one of the species Lynn had studied for her PhD, but she had never seen it in the field and it had not yet been included in any study of evolutionary relationships in the group. So it was a real target…

 

It might seem odd to be looking for things we know about already, but it is really important to see an organism in the field to understand how it fits into the grand scheme of things. For one thing, plant form is not well preserved (well, not at all!) on flat 2D herbarium sheets, collectors often write down incorrect or misremembered information about plant height or shape, flowers often have particular scents, and you often find associations with insects or other plants. Also, specialists in a group are the keenest observers of differences or similarities, and these are more often apparent in the field.

 

To get to Solanum paralum though, we had to climb the mountain – and there was not enough time on day one of our stay in Teimoso. We spent the afternoon looking in vain for other Solanaceae near the base of the mountain in a torrential rainstorm – it rained buckets! Rarely have any of us been so very wet….

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The Serra do Teimoso in the rain – we certainly hoped it would let up for the next day's collecting!

 

It kept raining most of the night – because it was so wet we had visitors. This little frog was nicknamed Ha-Ha by Lynn – a play on the word for frog in Portuguese ‘rã’, pronounced with a guttural r. There were many beautiful moths by the veranda light, its times like these I wish we were with a large team with other specialities (see Alessandro's Lepidoptera blog). But travelling with other solanologos (Solanaceae lovers!) is great – everybody is happy about the same things and no one is disgruntled having to wait for someone else to find his or her organisms.

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I am not sure of the identification of this lovely frog; it was about 4cm long and landed with a plop whenever it jumped!

 

It dawned perfectly clear and sunny – amazing – we took this to be a good sign. So off we set in search of Solanum paralum. Our guide, Francisco, was a bit uncertain as to whether or not there was a trail to the top, no one had been here for about 3 years – his observation was “it is very far and difficult, and there is probably not a trail anymore”.

 

But we were insistent and so off we set. Indeed there was no trail, well at the bottom there was a faint track through the forest, but once we began to climb – nothing at all. We followed a ridge, basically straight up, but with many detours getting a bit lost and having to go round huge treefalls.

 

Francisco was amazing – he made us stop every now and then so he could investigate, but he knew just where we were going – more or less. The treefalls were the worst – the trees here are very large, we saw some as big as almost a metre in diameter, so when they fall they leave a big tangle to get around.

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To get across these areas you have to cut a path through thick secondary growth that springs up where light reaches the forest floor once a big tree falls.

 

The forest going up the ridge was drier than we had expected, and was full of prickly vines and members of the mulberry family (Moraceae). We did find our friend Solanum bahianum, and an absolutely beautiful passion flower – growing straight out of a corky stem about 2cm in diameter.

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This Passiflora is a huge canopy vine; the flowers are asymmetric, so its identification will probably (?) be pretty straightforward once we are back in the land of botanical literature!

 

After several hours of climbing straight up we came to a place where the vegetation changed completely – no more mulberries and the understory was full of large monocots like Heliconia and Panama hat palms (not really palms, but Asplundia species in the family Cyclanthaceae). And there it was – a small sterile plant of Solanum paralum! It is easy to recognise by its fleshy, slightly blue-green pinnate leaves.

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Our first find of Solanum paralum with Francisco as scale – the plant was actually sprouting from a fallen stem.

 

Everyone, especially Lynn, was pretty excited even though there were no flowers and fruits. So we scouted around to see if there were more plants – this species is known from only a very few collections so we were expecting it to be rare. Alternatively, it might be known from so few collections because it is incredibly hard to find!

 

Francisco found another sterile stem, but when we looked down the hill we saw it was again from a fallen tree and that farther up the stem there were branches with flowers and fruit! The tree itself was about 6m tall and about 4cm in diameter – Solanaceae often have very soft wood but this species seems to topple over an awful lot, maybe it is something to do with the very wet habitat as well.

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We made a number of duplicate specimens for other collections – with something this rare it is important that it is represented in many herbaria. Since it was a tree we only took a few branches, and we left some of the ripe fruit for the forest…

 

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The flowers of Solanum paralum smelled like a strong perfume – not like anything else, but very strong smelling. This comes from the enlarged back of the anther (the dark purple bit) that produces scent that is collected by male bees for use as an attractant; a very specialised pollination system. The petals were also covered with fine glandular hairs, and the parasol-shaped stigma (for which Lynn named this plant) was really obvious.

 

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The fruit we found were absolutely ripe and full of pale orange pulp. Solanum paralum is related to the tamarillo, but the fruit did not taste as good. Not bad though, according to Lynn!

 

In the same area we also found a Brunfelsia growing in the understory in deep shade. We can’t figure out what species it might be, so will have to wait until we get back to the herbarium and library to do some careful comparison.

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Brunfelsia species often grow in a very dispersed way, one here one there. This was the only plant we found in bloom, but we saw other sterile ones. The flower tube was almost 4cm long

 

So what a plant was Solanum paralum!! Impossibly hard to get to and such a find – the trek was totally worth it.

 

If anything, the way back down was harder than the way up, we were all a bit amazed at the steepness of it. It didn’t feel that steep climbing up! Near the bottom, where there was actually a trail again, Leandro decided to climb to the canopy platform (Lynn and I bottled it – neither of us are fond of heights).

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The platform is about 30 metres up in a tall leguminous tree, the straight up ladder looked a bit scary to me!

 

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Leandro came back with amazing photos – he says this rainbow’s other end was at the Solanum paralum collecting site, something I quite believe (picture courtesy of Leandro Giacomin).

 

Looking back up the mountain at the end of the day it didn’t seem like we went that far. But it was a hard couple of days. The end result makes it all worthwhile though and that is one of the joys of collecting, seeing plants in their native habitat increases our understanding, but also appreciation for the richness of plant life. And that is why we all got into this business in the first place; it is trips like this that remind me how lucky I am to be doing what I do!

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After our long drive, we arrived in Santa Maria do Salto late at night to stay in a small pousada (hotel) called Recanto do Pedra. When we woke up the next morning we saw why the name! Several huge granite inselbergs towered over the town. A beautiful location for a town isn’t it?

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Huge granite inselbergs towering over Santa Maria do Salto.

 

We were headed to the forest, however, so off we went. Along the way we began to see Solanaceae – so very different than those of the Andes. Southeastern Brazil, and in particular the mâta atlantica (Atlantic forests), is the other main centre of Solanaceae diversity in South America.

 

What’s more, the species are completely different to those in the Andes, which is to be expected, but interestingly the major groups in Solanum also differ. So for example, groups that are diverse in the Andes are hardly found here, and groups diverse here are not found in the Andes. So for me – this is totally new ground!!

 

The Solanaceae team

 

I haven’t really introduced my travelling companions yet:

  • Lynn Bohs is a colleague from the University of Utah, we have been working together on Solanum for a long time
  • João Renato Stehmann is a professor at the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais, he is the world expert on Petunia and is a real knowledge bank about Brazilian Solanaceae
  • Leandro Giacomin is a PhD student with João, and is working on the Brevantherum clade of Solanum (more about that later) – he has just spent a year in Lynn’s lab in Utah

 

So with the addition of me that’s us – the four Solanaceae musketeers! They will be in pictures later on….

 

We began to see our targets along the road – the first was an exception to my rule above! Section Erythrotrichum (so called for its hairy fruits) occurs both in SE Brazil and in the Andes, but different species in each place.

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Solanum megalonyx has showy purple flowers – these were being visited by small metallic green bees.

 

The forest began to appear as we got closer to our destination – a private reserve called Fazenda Duas Barras, where the northern populations of muriqui monkeys are protected. Sadly, we didn’t see any monkeys, but the forest, though selectively logged in the past, was beautiful!

 

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Forest in Fazenda Duas Barras.


We were allowed to stay in a wonderful house right next to the forest – it only had a few leaks in the roof! And it did rain – most of the time... this is a very wet place. The house fortunately had a traditional cooking corner with a wood-burning stove that served very well for cooking and later for drying boots after a wet day in the woods!

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The house just before the rain began again, the lichens on the posts give a clue as to how wet it is.

 

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Leandro and Lynn cooking scrambled eggs and a new delicacy for the rest of the team - fried bread.

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Four very wet pairs of boots drying in front of the fire...

 

The reserve doesn’t have organised trails to speak of, so we were taken by Batista on a magical tour up and down hills and in the most amazing forest. He cut the trail as we went, but knew the forest so well that he recognised exactly where we were the entire time.

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Here is Batista Tavares de Oliveira standing next to a species of Capsicum (chili pepper) that grows deep in the forest; Brazil is the centre of diversity for this genus and we know there are more new ones to be described.

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We think this is probably Capsicum pereirae, endemic to the mâta atlantica and described by my colleague of Patagonian collecting days, Gloria Barboza – the leaves are rubbery and shiny and it really does grow in the deepest forest.

 

We had two great days collecting in this incredibly Solanaceae-rich forest – there were treasures galore.

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Brunfelsia hydrangiiformis is a spectacular plant also endemic to the mâta atlantica, but is really a complex mix of several species that still needs working out taxonomically.


The nightshades are not a common here as in the Andes – they are a bit harder to find! Each of us had a prize of the forest though – and here they are…. First João…

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João first collected this new species of the genus Aureliana ten years ago, and wasn’t able to find it again on a return visit – this time we got lucky! We only found a couple of plants though, so it is not common.

 

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The new species is another rare, spindly forest understory shrub - so many of these are hard to find, and are easily overlooked - but with four of us with our eyes peeled we did find it at last!

 

Then Leandro…..

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Leandro is working on a group of Solanum species that are most diverse in southern Brazil, with some species so rare they have only been collected a few times. This tree of Solanum sambuciflorum is only the fourth collection of this species since it was first described in the 19th century; Leandro was incredibly happy to have found it!

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The flowers of Solanum sambuciflorum have an odd, slightly sweet scent – we dithered between lilacs and talcum powder…

 

Then Lynn….

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Solanum rupincola is a member of an exclusively Brazilian group and is one of only a few of the species with a name! These are high-climbing vines and we were lucky to find one in a tree next to the road; this flower is about 1.5 cm in diameter.

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We were told the muriqui monkeys eat this fruit – difficult to imagine with the outer covering of tough prickles, but the flesh is lovely and sweet.

 

And although everything was new to me and therefore madly exciting, I had a favourite too!

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I described Solanum bahianum from specimens I had seen in the herbarium – I had never seen it in the field! Our collection may also be a new distribution record for the species, never before collected in Minas Gerais.

 

We also saw much other diversity - heard bellbirds and manakins all day, but never managed to see them high up in the canopy. The fungi were a real feature - not surprising for a place where it rained all the time!

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The veil on this delicate stinkhorn fungus was so easily damaged - we were lucky to have seen it at the edge of a treefall gap.

 

It rained on us for much of our two days in the field, so we were glad of a hot coffee with the manager of the reserve and his wife – they were so hospitable and kind.

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From left to right – Sandy, Senhor João"Dao" Tavares de Oliveira, Lynn, João, Senhora Tavares de Oliveira, Leandro.

 

João will leave us tomorrow to go back to Belo Horizonte to organise the National Botanical Congress – it was great he could come with us for these few days, we had a great time! Leandro, Lynn and I will then head north into the state of Bahia – more solanaceous treasures await I am certain… 

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Twenty four hours after I left my house in London I finally made it to Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. A bit of a delay in Lisbon was caused first by waiting for a planeload of late passengers, then some tinkering on the plane engine, then when that didn’t seem to work, unloading us all and putting us all on another plane. All very good natured and organised – but a delay all the same!

IMG_6707_resized.jpgThere are a LOT of moving parts in an airplane engine - this one wasn't going anywhere soon. Ironically the plane's name was Joao II, the Perfect Prince!

 

I arrived at about 3am, woke Lynn up to get into the hotel room – then off we went to the herbarium what seemed like only minutes later. But it is warm and sunny – quite a contrast from the big storm predicted for London. I felt very lucky to be here in Brazil. The herbarium at the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais is excellent, with many recent collections from the local region and this part of Brazil. Lots of new and exciting things – some we may get to see in the field, some probably not.

 

This is a HUGE country, with an equally huge diversity of Solanaceae, some of them pretty peculiar indeed. I found at least two new species of Solanum section Geminata (the group I did my doctoral thesis on) in the unidentified material, and numerous other excitements. Fortunately I will have some more time later on to spend really getting down to entering all these into the database.

BellaLynnBruno_croppeed_IMG_6711_resized.jpgBella, Lynn and Bruno next to a small tree of Solanum lycocarpon - the wolf fruit. The fruits of this species are more than 10cm in diameter and are eaten by Amazonian Maned Wolves (a sort of lovely long-legged fox), supposedly to worm themselves.

 

We went on a little Solanum walking tour of campus – saw about 6 species, some of which were new to me, like this rather lovely plant of Solanum didynum, a Brazilian endemic.

IMG_6714_resized.jpgThe stripy flower of Solanum didymum Sendtner - a Brazilian endemic.

 

A friend took us to the local (man-made) lake to see if we could see the capybaras – large South American rodents that look like nothing more than swimming rats; think of a stubby, furry, tailless rat about a metre high and you have pretty much got it. There they were, about 50 of them on a grassy slope – mothers, babies, teenagers – amazing. The water stank (they defecate in the water, and there are LOTS of them) and several of them were playing a sort of run-and-throw-yourself-in-the-water-and-get-out-again-then-do-it-all-over-again sort of game. Amazing sight in the middle of a big city!

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Tomorrow we head north at the crack of dawn – first stop a new species of the genus Aureliana (being worked on by Bella) with extraordinary purple fruits. We won’t see it tomorrow though, the collecting locality is 800km away just on the border between the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia.

 

So now, more than 1000km (almost twice the distance from London to Edinburgh!) and 14 hours of driving later we are in the small town of Santa Maria do Salto where we will spend the night before going the last hour or so to our hut in the mountains. We drove the whole way across Minas Gerais today – passing through amazing areas of huge granite outcrops – inselbergs – covered with terrestrial tank bromeliads. It must have been amazing before the forest was all cut down; still pretty beautiful now!

DSC_9363_resized.jpgThe original forset has all disappeared for cattle ranches and eucalyptus groves, except right along the rivers.

 

Rest stops in other countries are always great places to see new and often amusing things – here are a couple I saw today! The food, by the way, is delicious everywhere – new favourite is pao de queijo, cheesy bread made from cassava flour. Best really hot and with lovely coffee….  Yum.

IMG_6720_resized.jpgAn interesting Coca Cola mimic from a rest stop near the town of General Valadares.

 

DSC_9366_resized.jpgLynn striking a mimetic pose - never seen a ladies room sign like this one before!!

 

But what I am really excited about is the plants – everything will be new to me – I really cannot wait. As I said – Brazil is a HUGE country! I wonder what novelties we will find in the next couple of days in the back of beyond?

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After several months of work in the herbarium with specimens, giving talks at international symposia (the latest in Beijing) - I'm ready to head into the field again. This time it's Brazil - I have been invited to give a plenary lecture at the amazing Brazilian National Botanical Congress in mid-November - but first, it's the forests of Bahia with Leandro Giacomin and Lynn Bohs, both long-term Solanum collaborators.

 

Last time Lynn and I went into the field together was in 2001 to Bolivia - it's been a long time! We are aiming for the incredibly biodiverse coastal forests of the state of Bahia - a hotspot for Solanum diversity. I have described several new species (like Solanum bahianum and Solanum santosii) from there that I have only ever seen as herbarium specimens - so I am pretty excited!!

 

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The type specimen of Solanum evonymoides Sendtner  - another Brazilian endemic species I hope to see in the field for the first time!

 

I have never been in these forests before - so everything I see will be new to me. This is truly the joy of field work, in addition of course to seeing old and new friends and colleagues and being able to talk Solanum for weeks on end! I'll be trying to blog every day, but some of the places we plan to go are pretty remote - so hasta la vista! See you from Brazil!!

BrazilMap.jpgWe will start in Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais) and head to the circled area....  a long way!!

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'Flygirl' Erica McAlister and 'Psyllid lady' Diana Percy arrived in Lima without a hitch, and I handed the initiative field work baton on to them; they will carry on the blogging through Erica’s blog stream, so I’ll watch there for adventures and progress – they go by bus to meet Tiina in Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas, where mountains await them, while apparently snow in May lies in wait for me!


We had a productive day at the Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato Center, one of the 17 CGIAR centres worldwide and the one responsible for potatoes and other Andean tuber crops, as the name suggests). Here I gave a talk – foolishly I had the audience vote whether to have it in English or Spanish; they chose Spanish and I probably made all kinds of mistakes! But never mind – it was fun.

 

Erica will be blogging about their day – new contacts for the insect component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative and we are now completely rethinking our approach to the collecting. I had long and very good discussions about permitting and the new Peruvian laws with respect to collecting and using genetic resources. Perfect – just what I had hoped for this trip.

 

Now that I am on the plane on the first leg of my many-hour return to the Museum, I thought I might just share a few of the things that I love about field work and its ups and downs.

 

The people

The people you meet on the road in different countries are wonderful – so often generous, kind and friendly – they are really part of what makes travelling so rewarding. We scientists often write about our work in the field as an unending series of scientific thoughts, actions and discoveries – all of this is true of course, field work does let you think about your scientific work in different ways – but it is all underpinned by interactions with local people, whether local scientific counterparts or countryfolk.

 

Take the gentleman from a small village high above Caraz discussing the differences between plants with Emilio, or the man who proudly showed me his recent potato harvest, or this woman who discussed her garden in detail with Paul and gave us some lovely fruits – if one takes a little time, the human interactions can be great.

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People in small rural villages also tend to know a heck of a lot about plants and the environment as well! And they are usually very happy to talk about them with someone who is interested.

 

The food

Food – you can’t do without it (as I found this trip after several days of battling parasites before finding a pharmacy!). You can take all your own food, as do astronauts or high mountain trekkers, but that spoils half the fun. Partaking of local fare is much more fun, and besides, it helps support the local economy. Wondering what the 'Menú' (or standard fare) might be is half the fun of stopping in a small village for a meal. Will it be stewed chicken? Ullucu with tripe? Beans and rice? Nothing at all? Sometimes there is even the luxury of choice.

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These women in Cabanas were making a sort of fry bread and 'papas rellenas' – deep fried mashed potato with an egg inside

 

I have eaten all sorts of things in the field, some I liked and some I didn’t – but they were all fun to try out. In the Andes I like to try to eat the traditional crops like quinoa, and the Andean tuber crops ullucu (Basellus ullucus, a spinach relative whose tubers are slightly slimy, but delicious), oca (Oxalis tuberosa, whose tubers are multi-coloured and slightly acid) or mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum, a relative of our garden nasturtium).

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Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is probably (after potatoes of course!) my favourite Andean tuber – these tubers are about 5 cm long and the diameter of your thumb or a bit bigger

 

But villages are not always close at hand, and you don’t always drive through them at the right time of day. So snacks and road food are always necessary.

 

This trip Tiina and I had a slightly silly shopping expedition in which we bought snacks for their amusing (to us) names – resulting in a mish-mash that no one else was particularly keen on. But we ate them – when you are hungry, it doesn’t matter if you are eating something called a Bimbolete really.

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Water too is essential – although there are streams, it is best to either purify it or drink bottled water – the risk of parasites from the large numbers of animals like sheep and llamas in the areas we were travelling through is just too great.

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But there is always Inca Kola to fall back on if you are desperate – said to be flavoured with lemon grass; it is the sticky sweetest stuff I have ever tasted!

 

The facilities

Since we usually travel through populated areas we tend to stay in small hotels rather than camp – it makes drying the plants easier and you can work a bit longer during the day. Hotels vary from pretty basic – a bed and blanket and that’s it (like in Mollepata), to more comfortable with hot water and electricity and sometimes even good coffee!

 

A common denominator in Peruvian hotels though is the lack of electricity sockets. This means charging up all the devices we carry with us these days can be a challenge. Whose batteries are likely to run out first, the GPS or the camera? How do we both work on the computer at the same time and charge all the kit? It can be a real challenge.

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Maria and Tiina’s hotel room in Cabanas had a single wall socket – they used it to the max!

 

Toilet facilities can also be a challenge – I won’t go into it, but sometimes a tussock of grass has to be enough. And in Peru, travel without your own toilet paper in your pocket at your peril!

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Small disasters

Flat tyres, small bumps – car hiccups are common. Less common are more dramatic things, like the plant presses catching on fire. We use a dryer in the field that consists of a set of metal shelves with a gas burner underneath. On top we put the plant press, with the plants pressed in newspaper alternating with blotters and either cardboard or aluminium corrugates through which the heat passes, drying the specimens. The whole thing is wrapped in a sort of blanket contraption that keeps the heat from escaping out the sides and channels it up through the press.

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Paul with the plant dryer on a good day on last year’s trip in southern Peru

 

This system works really well, and specimens dried in the field are much nicer than those preserved and dried later – they keep their colour better and are just prettier. A day’s worth of collecting usually fills (usually a bit more than, so we are always a bit behind) the press and dries overnight.

 

In Caraz though, the top shelf collapsed – letting the press fall down onto the flame from the burner. Not good. Fortunately I woke up really early and went to check the dryer and found it smoking gently, not yet truly on fire. Phew! We managed to get all the plants out and stamp out the smouldering cardboard corrugates – only a little half-moon shaped area was really charred, and we only had a couple of quite charred specimens. All in all a lucky escape!

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The aftermath of our almost-fire – not too bad considering!

 

Getting plants for making specimens can also lead to hiccups – sometimes it is easier to climb up a steep bank than to get back down again!

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Emilio got up to this specimen of Solanum huaylasense, but once up there realised it was quite a way back down!

 

The roads

I’ve written about roads a lot on these Andean field work blog posts – they are one of the striking things about working in such a mountainous region. How they built some of these roads I cannot imagine, but they did, and they all have traffic. Meeting a large Volvo lorry head-on on a hairpin turn is a heart-stopper; someone has to back up to let the other pass. The general rule is that the person going up has right of way (it is more dangerous to back down the hill than up), but sometimes size matters.

 

Couple this with dirt, mud and ruts and it is pretty exciting. Our general rule is that the driver is not supposed to look out for plants – that is the passengers’ duty.

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If you look closely you can just see the amazing switchbacks snaking up the seemingly vertical bank opposite

 

The lorries are amazing too – they range from monsters belching black smoke to works of art. An endless parade of semi-hidden design talent exists on Peruvian roads.

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In all but the smallest, most remote villages there are swarms of mototaxis – like rickshaws, but motorised. They are used to carry everything from passengers to chickens and pigs. This one seemed to be carrying a full load of grass and alfalfa harvested to feed the owners livestock, but we didn’t stop him to ask. They too are often spectacularly decorated – I even saw one with angel wings on the top!

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Last but definitely not least, the plants

This is what I come in the field for – I’ve never been good at travelling for holidays, I feel I am missing something. There is nothing quite like the rush of seeing something you haven’t seen before, even if it is a species already described. I’ve written about why field study is so important before, but I’ll say it again – seeing plants (and insects) in their native habitats give a whole new dimension to the work we taxonomists do at the Museum, and allows us to go beyond just what they are to what we think they are doing.

 

I for one really appreciate the support the Museum gives to its staff to go in the field and collect – not only do we improve our collections with new material collected using modern methods, but I think we improve our interpretation of those and other collections as well. It might seem a luxury to allow staff to travel all over the world acquiring new specimens for an already large collection, but it is not a luxury, it is essential. The collecting we do is part of a global monitoring system for biodiversity; these specimens will provide future generations with the data and baseline for today. They allow us to see how organisms grow and co-exist in wild nature and provide a valuable record of where things occur.

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Solanum huaylasense flowers being buzz-pollinated by a small green bee – the brown matches on the anther cone are from where she has bitten to hang on

 

I always come back from the field buzzing with new ideas – for projects, about the plants themselves, about ways to look at data we have collected. Field work might not suit everyone, but for people like me, it pushes the science in exciting new directions.

 

Besides – it’s great fun!

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Land of the giants

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 15, 2013

So, waking up in Caraz we were greeted with the amazing sight of the Cordillera Blanca – the White Range – so named for its high, snowy peaks. The highest one is Huascarán, the fourth tallest mountain in South America after Aconcagua in Argentina (you can see pictures of that on the Patagonia blog from a couple of months ago!), and a couple of other more southerly peaks.

 

The Cordillera Blanca is granite and not volcanic like the rest of the Andes, although it does suffer earthquakes, one of which caused a landslide that completely buried the town of Yungay in the 1970s.

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Nevado Huascarán - at 6,768 metres tall the peak to the left is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere

 

The high peaks and surrounding forests are a national park, preserving their unique flora and fauna, and of course the spectacular landscapes. There are some solanums there I would dearly love to see, but since we have not got a permit to collect in national parks this time – we decided to go to the other side of the wide valley called the Callejón de Huaylas and collect in the Cordillera Negra (Black Range – so called because there are no snow-capped peaks in it!).

 

Our journey began with an exciting river crossing – the main bridge was out over the Río Santa, so all traffic was directed (by way of a few oil barrels painted orange and a small sign saying 'PELIGRO' [danger]) to an old bridge where we thought the traffic was behaving in a peculiar fashion.

 

It turned out that the bridge was in danger of collapse toward one of the ends, so the etiquette was that all the passengers in the bus or taxi or car got out, walked across the dodgy bit of the bridge, then waited for their vehicle to come across to a secure part in the middle. Everyone then piled into the vehicles again and set off. One vehicle at a time, passengers first. Very organised.

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This is the only bridge to cross the Río Santa and gives access to many communities in the foothills of the Cordillera Negra – people were being very careful indeed with it!

 

In the rich, fertile valley bottom there was extensive agriculture – the usual barley, wheat, peas, but with a new twist – kiwicha. This is the native grain Amaranthus caudatus, a health food craze for Europeans and Americans, but a traditional staple for Andean peoples. I haven’t seen much of it cultivated in Peru in my last few trips, but here it was quite common.

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Kiwicha is high in protein and in Peru is often 'popped' and made into sugary bars a bit like flapjacks, only lighter

 

As usual, the road was steep and twisty – we ascended from about 2000 to nearly 4000 metres in only about 20 kilometres. The road is two-way, but really only one car-width wide, in places not even that – the uphill traffic always has priority, but if you blink, you lose your rights. Fortunately for us, even though Maria is an amazing mountain driver, there wasn’t much traffic.

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The road up and over the Cordillera Negra snakes around incredible switchbacks, always with the Cordillera Blanca clearly in the distance

 

As we got near to the top of the pass one of Peru’s iconic plants began to appear. Puya raimondii is celebrated all over the country wherever it occurs. This member of the pineapple family is a true giant – the spiky puffball-looking plants are taller than a person, and the inflorescence (branches) on which the blue-green flowers are borne can be a much as 10 metres tall!

 

The plant blooms once and then dies – botanists call this monocarpic. Apparently the life span of an individual plant is around 30 to 40 years and they bloom erratically, so it is hard to catch them in flower. The ones we saw here had bloomed and were now dead – one even had a woodpecker nest hole in the inflorescence stalk.

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Every single plant in this Puya raimondii population was counted for a population study done by Peruvian botanists a few years ago

 

In the high elevation puna we found a Nicotiana (tobacco) species we had not yet seen – Nicotiana undulata. It is a really sticky, smelly plant – covered with glandular hairs. It is one of the parents of Nicotiana rustica, one of the allotetraploid cultivated tobaccos.

 

Allotetraploids are formed by the fusion of two genomes to create a new entity. Nicotiana is rife with allotetraploidy, something I have been working on with Andrew Leitch of Queen Mary and Mark Chase of Kew for many years. Many of our cultivated plants are tetraploids – they are usually self-fertilizing and vigorous.

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Nicotiana undulata has dirty cream-colored flowers, but up close they are quite beautiful

 

We stopped in a village to try to buy water (we had forgotten to do so further down….) and a lovely man proudly showed us his recently harvested potato crop. He had a good year and grew a variety he had obtained from the Callejón de Huaylas called 'yungaysina' – presumably after the town of Yungay. We asked about wild potatoes and he said no, there weren’t any in the hills any more, they were all eaten by animals like goats and cattle.

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Most of this farmer’s crop was already stored in the back ready for sale – these were just the last bits of the crop


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He was wrong about wild potatoes though – Paul found one up amongst the rocks! Potatoes are not my best group, but this one I ought to be able to identify once back in the herbarium

 

We eventually – many Solanaceae collections later – made it to the village of Pamparomas, where we found another tobacco (the other parent of Nicotiana rustica called Nicotiana paniculata) and could see far down the dry valleys and hills to the coast almost 100 kilometres away. I could feel the wild tomatoes calling from those valleys – but by this time it was 4pm and time to return to Caraz. So we snaked back up and over, and as we descended into the Callejón de Huaylas again were treated to the sunset over the Cordillera Blanca. What a last day of Solanaceae collecting in Peru for me!

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Although this has been a short trip for me – longer for Tiina and Maria – we have collected more than 100 new locality records for Solanaceae in northern Peru, filling some of the gaps in the collections from the country. We found exciting plants I have never seen before in the field, and had lots of theories about why things grew where they did.

 

Seeing plants in the wild, in their native haunts is so important to achieving a deeper understanding of their evolution; they do quite unexpected things sometimes. I am looking forward to reports from Tiina and Maria from their next journey with Museum entomologists!

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A day of contrasts (again!)

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

Mother’s Day came, and we left Cabanas on the road for more surprises! Every woman in the town greeted me with a hug for Mother’s Day – it is a big deal here, and taken very seriously – even football teams were dedicating their games to mothers everywhere. Quite nice actually!

 

Cabanas is at about 3000 metres elevation (or a bit more) and is relatively humid – lots of lovely crops. Leaving town in the early morning (after managing to get the pickup out of the hotel courtyard – this involved finding a truck driver, persuading him to move his truck then backing out of a very narrow doorway!) we found the hillsides covered again the same wild tomato from the day before – Solanum habrochaites.

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Solanum habrochaites – we learned the day before that it was used for lung problems – the leaves are burned and the aromatic smoke inhaled

 

The hillsides around Cabanas are a patchwork of fields; this area has been cultivated for a very long time, and there is little if any undisturbed vegetation left.

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Fields on the road from Cabanas

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Common crops at these elevations are quinoa, wheat, barley and of course potatoes – in these fields there is quinoa to the left and barley to the right

 

We had formed a theory the day before that elevation made a difference in the distribution of these tomato species, but much to our surprise we found Solanum huaylasense growing at similar elevations as we began our descent into the Río Chuquicara valley. Just like yesterday there was a long stretch with no wild tomatoes – but here aridity seems to be playing a role.

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Solanum huaylasense appeared once we began our descent into the dry valley

 

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The Río Chuquicara valley is very dry, a rather abrupt change from the slopes around Cabanas – the vegetation there is full of cacti and thorny shrubs

 

As we descended the valley the habitat got drier and drier, until we were in the same sort of deserts we had been in several days ago near the coast. But this time we were far inland; the complex interdigitating valleys of the Andes make for some quite spectacular changes in vegetation in very short distances. It is not as simple as mountain chain with rainshadow.

 

In these dry areas we began to find similar plants to the ones we had found in the coastal desert – one exciting find was a species of Exodeconus that has before today been known only from the coastal fog forests (lomas) – and here it was in the valley of the Chuquicara far inland.

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Exodeconus prostratus grew amongst rocks and had very fleshy leaves

 

Our aim had been to get to the town of Corongo – back up in the highlands again, but as we descended into the dry valleys – we went from more than 3000 metres elevation to less than 700 in a matter of hours!  - we realised that once again we had overestimated the distance we could travel while still doing our job of collecting. So we went to plan B.

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The extremely dry valley of the Río Santa has small areas of cultivation, but the hills are almost devoid of vegetation – unless you look closely. We found Solanum huaylasense here at 700 metres elevation! Quite an elevational range for a plant species

 

Plan B involved entering the Callejon de Huaylas and cutting Corongo off the route for this leg of the trip. This huge valley is bordered on the east by the Cordillera Blanca, with snow-capped peaks, and on the west by the Cordillera Negra, whose peaks do not have snow and ice.

 

To enter the valley one must pass through the Cañon del Pato – a steep and narrow gorge. Through the Cañon del Pato there are 35 tunnels in a distance of some 35 kilometres! The road is a real feat of engineering.

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Cañon del Pato with one of the many tunnels on the right

 

So we ended up in the town of Caraz, with glimpse of snow-capped peaks through the clouds. Tomorrow is my last day in the field – I will return on the bus to Lima to meet Erica McAlister and Diana Percy, who will be joining Tiina, Maria and Paul for the next leg. I wonder what new habitats we will see tomorrow? Every day in Peru brings something new – a new species for me, a new distribution record, and even new species for science.

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The long drive….

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

We left Huamachuco – joined by Emilio Perales, a friend of Tiina’s from the Agrarian University in Lima – so we were packed into the truck like sardines – something that got us rather hysterical towards the end of this long long day.

 

The area around Huamachuco, and this part of northern Peru in general, is home to a huge number of mines – mostly mining for gold, and sometimes copper as well. The method involves basically taking down the mountain bit by bit, mixing the earth with mercury and then evaporating off the mercury to extract the gold. This is definitely not gold mining Klondike style where nuggets are found – it involves big machinery!

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These mines are all pretty high up, often in the puna, or Andean grassland


We intended to go to our next destination, the town of Mollepata, via a road that crossed the puna and went into valleys that are big collecting gaps. So up into the puna we went – the pass we crossed and then began to descend was called Altos de la Flor – and it was spectacular.

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This area of puna was full of huge rocks, under which grew really interesting vegetation – but only where it could not be grazed by animals


Under one of these rocks we found what for me was the plant of the day – Saracha quitensis. One often sees the more common Saracha punctata, but this one was new for all of us. Solanaceae are fantastic plants – they come in all shapes and sizes, this flower looks nothing like a Solanum!

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Saracha quitensis differs from the only other species in the genus, Saracha punctata, in its spines and narrower flowers


Climbing up some of the rocks we also found a species of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae) genus Puya flowering high on the cliffs. The flower spikes of Puya can be very large indeed – last year in southern Peru we saw Puya raimondii, whose spikes reach several metres.

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We don’t know what species of Puya this one is – but the close ups of the blue-green flowers will help with its identification (we don’t have permits to collect any plants other than Solanaceae, so we collected with photos only)


We tried one road down, and then another – no way down at all. Wither the roads stopped dead at tiny houses, or were so bad that no vehicles could pass. So we moved to plan B - well, really by that time it was plan D or E, but we had to go back to the main road and go another way. As we left the puna, an alpaca superciliously looked us in the eyes as if to say “Well, what do you expect, this is my territory!”

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These high elevation grasslands are grazed by herds of llamas, alpacas and sheep – often seriously overgrazed


So on the road we went – one great aspect of travelling by road in Peru are the lorries. Each has a distinct painting on the back – we followed this one for a while, until he let us pass. The sign on the back says 'Imagine your destination, we will take you there' - quite a claim!!

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The road to Mollepata passed through several Andean valleys – this means going up and down several hundred to a thousand metres in elevation each time, and twisting and turning on switchbacks. So a distance that might look like 20 kilometres on a map can be 50 or more! But all this up and down means going through lots of habitats were different plants grow – near a town called Santiago de Chuco we hit a real Solanaceae gold mine.

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We think this is the species Browallia dilloniana – it had extraordinary black hairs tipped with orange glands


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The wild tomato Solanum habrochaites literally covered hillsides in the valley just below Santiago de Chuco at elevations between 2500 and 3000 metres


We collected like mad, and then drove for Mollepata on a terrible road – and drove, and drove. We arrived after dark, always a tricky thing in Peru, but found a hotel of sorts. No one was available to cook food and there were no restaurants – so a crisis loomed. Fortunately for us, the lovely store owner who also managed the hotel organised someone to cook us a few eggs with bread, so things started to look a bit better.

 

The town of Mollepata was celebrating Mother’s Day a bit early though, and the party started at 9pm at the school just opposite the hotel; it went on until 4am – complete with loud music, dancing and general mayhem. It did sound like everyone was having a good time though!

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After a great day in the Cajamarca herbarium, we set off to the south through the fascinating system of valleys of the western Andes. This region is dissected by many small river valleys, some draining to the Pacific, some to the Atlantic, and all with very different microclimates. This means the diversity one encounters is truly amazing; in an hour you can go from cactus scrub to fertile, moist agricultural land.

 

This is a highly settled region, so natural habitat is hard to find. Fortunately Solanum species are often plants of open spaces, so they hang on in the face of widespread habitat change as roadside weeds.

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The valleys are a mosaic of fields of barley, oats, potatoes, maize and alfalfa – interspersed with Eucalyptus trees, used for firewood. Very little original vegetation exists near the roads


We found several exciting Solanum species – including two I had described, but rarely seen in the field before! Solanum dillonii I described a few years ago grows in dry valleys – I had collected it in the 1980s in Ecuador, but never in Peru!

 

Solanum clivorum was described in the 1990s – I agonised long and hard over it, was it new, was it not, was it just a strange Solanum oblongifolium? In the end I described it as new and hadn’t seen many specimens until I hit the Trujillo herbarium a few days ago. Wow – is it different! Seeing it now in the field made me really glad I described it as new; it is quite peculiar.

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The anthers of Solanum clivorum are held splayed out in a way I haven’t seen in any other of the members of this group – they are tiny as well

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Another exciting find – a possible new species from rocky hillsides amongst cacti and verbenas – this was a straggly plant with fruits completely enclosed in the calyx and sticky leaves – I can’t think what it might be!


We had started really early, and finally begged for lunch at about 3 pm – sometimes you just get a bit carried away and forget the time, and then crackers and Nutella is just not quite enough. We stopped in the town of Cajabamba for a proper meal, and enjoyed the rest.

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Paul and Maria enjoy a sunny break and a coffee on the side of the main drag in Cajabamba


As we drove through Cajabamba we found our friend from southern Peru Solanum 'pseudoamericanum' (see my blog post from last year’s collecting trip) growing out of a wall in town – it still looks just the same, grows at the same elevations and still looks new to science. It is surprising how many new species there are that are actually quite common, merely overlooked.

 

Across the street from the Solanum we saw a family drying their beautiful multicoloured maize harvest. The maize in Peru has very large grains and is usually white, but these ears were of many colours. Dried maize kernels are traditionally served with ceviche – the Peruvian dish of raw fish cooked in lime juice, and mote, or cooked maize kernels, are a delicious side dish for many meals.

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Ears of maize are called choclo, and the grains mote – this was one of many mats of drying kernels this family had out by the side of the road drying; next to them are beans


What a day – we have been through loads of habitats, seen many wonderful solanums and found some exciting things. More valleys tomorrow, on the road to Ancash – I am anxious to find more of our little purple-flowered mystery, or is it endemic to the valley of the Río Condebamba? Or maybe it is a species already described, but just one I don’t know yet?

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End of a great day – the beginnings of sunset over the western Andes

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