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Seeking nightshades in South America

42 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
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Field work began in earnest today – we headed from the coast up into the mountains, the destination was Cajamarca, by fast road 6 hours away – but we were taking the road less travelled. We took a tiny dirt track up a dry valley to a village called San Benito; our research in the herbarium in Trujillo told us this would be a good place to look for some special endemics. Wild tomatoes are most diverse in the dry western regions of Peru – so I was hoping to see some of the species I have not yet seen in the wild.

 

It took us a while to find the right road – road signs don’t really seem important in Peru, people generally know where they are going I guess! The area was fantastically dry, with rocky slopes and tall columnar cacti. This is the northern part of the Atacama, the desert created by a combination of the cold ocean current called the Humboldt Current coming from Antarctica and the rain shadow of the Andes to the east.

 

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The tall cactus peeking out from behind the hill is called Neoraimondia; Antonio Raimondi was a famous Peruvian botanist of the late 19th century and really began the exploration of the plant diversity of the country


The first plant we saw (well, the first one we were going to collect!) was a genus I have never seen in the field before – Exodeconus. It is an Atacama endemic, and this species is the only one to grow in northern Peru. Tiina collected a couple of other species last year in the southern part of the Peruvian coast.

 

The plants we saw in this valley were tremendously variable in size, from tiny with only a couple of leaves to large and fleshy and extending to a metre or more. It all depends on water, as is usual in a desert. Desert plants are masters at making do.

 

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Exodeconus maritimus growing in a shady  place under a rock – some leaves on other plants were the size of saucers! The flowers are beautiful, bright white with a deep purple centre


The tomatoes soon began to appear, like Exodeconus growing in slightly wetter microhabitats. The first species we saw was Solanum pennellii – the closest relative of the tomatoes proper. It doesn’t have the pointed anther cone of the rest of the group, so was placed in the genus Solanum, rather than Lycopersicon, as the tomatoes used to be known.

 

We now recognise all of the wild and cultivated tomatoes as members of the genus Solanum, based on the molecular studies done by my colleague David Spooner in the early 1990s. His results showed tomatoes are closely related to potatoes; many characteristics of the plant form also support this evolutionary relationship. So we now group the tomatoes as part of the large genus Solanum, reflecting their ancestry and evolution more accurately.

 

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Solanum pennellii has stubby anthers – here being buzzed by a small bee


All Solanum species are buzz pollinated by bees – the anthers open by tiny pores at the tips and female bees grasp them and set up a resonance inside using their flight muscles, pollen squirts out lands on the bee and she carries it to another flower – if you sit by flowering tomatoes long enough anywhere, bees will come and buzz, the sound is quite audible!

 

Tomatoes proper have a long beak on their anther cone, but there are pores inside – the beak is a shared evolutionarily derived character that tells all tomatoes are closely related to one another.

 

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Solanum arcanum – a northern Peru endemic species only recently described by my colleague Iris Peralta (with whom I was recently collecting in Argentina), has the elongate beak typical of wild tomato relatives. This species began to appear a bit further up the valley towards the mountains

 

The small fruits of wild tomatoes are usually green and hairy, but even from them you can tell the species apart. The sepals of Solanum pimpinellifolium – the progenitor of our cultivated tomato – are strongly turned back, while those of Solanum arcanum (below) are always held flat – easy!

 

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Solanum pimpinellifolium

 

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Solanum arcanum

 

We were elated with our success at finding the wild tomatoes, all in flower, but were becoming disappointed about one special species we were seeking – Solanum talarense, an endemic to the dry coastal valleys of northern Peru and rarely collected.

 

We had almost given up, the road was going up the valley into wetter habitats and higher elevations, but then we saw it – possibly the rattiest plant I have ever seen! Eaten by goats, despite its ferocious prickliness, there it was hanging on in rocks by the roadside.

 

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Solanum talarense amongst the rocks, completely eaten by goats (we think, but it certainly had been munched by something!)

 

Jumping out of the truck I felt prickles in my shoes – only to discover that several 2 cm long thorns had gone right the way through the bottom of my boots; it will be interesting to see how this affects them when we get to wetter places! Solanum talarense was most definitely THE plant of the day, totally weird and wonderful – a plant only a Solanum taxonomist could love.

 

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The 'spines' on the stems and leaves of Solanum talarense are technically prickles, outgrowths of the surface – true spines, like those that went through my boot, are bits of stem. Prickliness does not seem to have deterred the animals eating this plant at all!

 

Ascents from the coast to the Andes in Peru are amazing – in a single day you can go from sea level and a dry desert to 4000 metres elevation and dripping wet cloud forest. This time we went over a pass that was only 3500 metres elevation, to descend again into the dryer valley of Cajamarca (via a couple of other passes – the geography is incredibly complex in northern Peru).

 

DSC_7103_resized.jpgWet cloud forest beckons ahead in the mountains

 

In the village of San Benito, in the cloud forest – in the pouring rain – we found our last wild tomato of the day. Solanum habrochaites used to be called Lycopersicon hirsutum, but when the time came to change its name to put it into Solanum, there already was a Solanum hirsutum (a European species) – so we had to think of another species name for it. The name we chose – habrochaites – means softly hairy in Greek; we thought it described the plant exactly.

 

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The fruits of Solanum habrochaites are covered with long hairs each of which has a small sticky gland on top. These glands exude a substance that gives each wild tomato species its particular smell, and gives us that lovely smell of ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine

 

We reached Cajamarca at about 11 pm, a bit later than planned – maybe we spent too much time collecting in the desert, but none of us thought so! This first day collecting was a great success – lots of other wonderful northern Peru endemics and some real surprises and firsts for me (Leptoglossis schwenckioides, Browallia acutiloba and on and on).

 

Now for a day in the herbarium of the University of Cajamarca and a visit to the wonderful Peruvian botanist Isidoro Sánchez Vega, for whom I named a lovely species of Solanum a couple of years ago. I am hoping we find Solanum sanchez-vegae on this trip – maybe when we leave Cajamarca for points south. Can’t wait.

 


Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on field work in Peru.

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Today we spent the day databasing specimens in the local Trujillo herbarium; all herbaria have 1-4 letter acronyms, standard codes so we all know what collection we are talking about – the one for the herbarium in Trujillo is HUT. It is a small collection and has been built up over the last few decades by a series of local botanists – the one I knew the best was Abundio Sagástegui, who sadly died a few years ago.

 

The collection is rich in material from this area of Peru – and has a lot of gems. For example – I described Solanum clivorum in 1992 and have only seen a few specimens. Here at HUT we saw eight new ones, thus expanding our knowledge about this species’ distribution hugely! 

 

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Space is at a premium at HUT – Tiina and my computer tried to share the desk – Tiina eventually won!

 

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Maria used the other computer to database specimens, balancing it all on a stool…..

 

Trujillo is a beautiful city, with old colonial architecture and wonderfully painted buildings. We managed to become part of a parade to celebrate the local team having won the national women’s volleyball championship – brass bands and all.

 

The Plaza de Armas is the heart of any Peruvian city – the one in Trujillo features brightly and freshly painted buildings, now mostly government offices (it is the capital of La Libertad Department) and a fantastic mustard coloured cathedral.

 

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The taxi count in Trujillo’s city centre is phenomenal – we counted about 10 taxis to every private car, and no buses – perhaps the streets are too narrow

 

Trujillo was named after the birthplace in Spain of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who led the expedition that defeated the Inca rulers of Peru. It has a long and distinguished history since that founding in 1536, and has been the site of many important events in Peruvian history; it was the first Peruvian city to declare independence from Spain.

 

But Trujillo's history began long before Europeans came onto the scene – it was at the centre of both the Moche and Chimu cultures, pre-Inca coastal peoples who constructed monumental pyramids of adobe (clay bricks) and mud. One thing I love about Peru is that wherever you are, the history stretches far back into extraordinary events and cultures, but those cultures are also alive and evident today.

 

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Many of the houses on the Plaza retain the original (or restored) Spanish colonial balconies made of wood from which women would watch festivities safely hidden from view

 

So after a day’s hard work in HUT, we re-identified about half of the Solanum collection, added new and exciting locality records to our field trip planning and made new friends.

 

Although many of the collections we entered into the database were already represented by duplicates from elsewhere (because plants are big, botanists usually collect several examples and share them with other collections), I still think it is important to have the specimens from small local herbaria like HUT in a main project database – it gives visibility to institutions that otherwise sometimes go un-noticed and lets other botanists know that there is treasure to be found in these small collections!

 

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Sandy, William and Paul outside the door to one of the rooms housing the HUT herbarium

 

Tomorrow collecting begins in earnest – our route has been planned using the information we have derived from the collections we saw today, plus those already in the database, and from the knowledge of where people haven’t been!

 

If all goes well we will go from the deserts of the coast to montane cloud forest near the town of Cajamarca, where we will find another small, but rich herbarium to work in the next day. What will be our most exciting find? It’s bound to be something we don’t expect……

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Heading north…

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 6, 2013

After a last push in the herbarium and a bit of shopping for containers for Erica to rear flies in (obtained by Maria in the Mercado Central in Lima, where you can quite literally buy anything!), we were ready to go…

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Maria Baden and Tiina Sarkinen with the fruits of an amazing shopping expedition to the Lima Central Market – the plastic containers will be used to rear fly larvae we find in fruits of Solanaceae

 

Leaving Lima at 6am (to beat the traffic) we drove through grey, gloomy fog – typical weather on the coast at this time of the year. The fogs come in off the cold Humboldt current – making it cold and damp, but never truly wet; the unique vegetation of the coast lives entirely off the moisture from these seasonal fogs. Several endemic species of Solanum live in the lomas – or fog forests – but we are a bit too early to catch them. The foggy season has only just started and plants are only just beginning to grow.

 

The coast of Peru always fascinates me – it is such a dry desert, yet people live wherever water presents itself. At intervals between desert sections, the Panamerican Highway on which we drove north crosses small rivers coming from the Andes to the east, and there agriculture flourishes.

 

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Sugar cane is a common sight in the river valleys; increasingly it is being grown under irrigation farther into the desert – surely an unsustainable practice. This is, after all, one of the driest deserts in the world!

 

Once we got further north, the skies cleared, the fog burned off and the sun came out – and on we went! When the Pacific came in view we all got out to have a look, even though the area was completely devoid of plants. The water is clear, blue and cold – we saw fishermen in tiny rowboats fishing what looked dangerously close to rocks just off the coast. This part of the coast is famous for its anchovy fishery – the fish are used for fishmeal, but also end up on pizzas worldwide.

 

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Our rental pickup parked near the coast – it really is a desert!

 

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Maria shooting video footage of the fishermen – the sea was an unreal colour of blue

 

One peculiar vegetation formation that occurs on the desert hills is the 'tillandsial' – patches of small bromeliads, plants related to Spanish moss or airplants, that are the only living things growing. Like all the other native plants of this coast, they get their water entirely from the fogs that come in off the sea. Their leaves are covered with scales that help trap the water from the air. In a way, they are like epiphytes, but on the ground!

 

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Tillandsial near the town of Casma – this species is probably Tillandsia purpurea

 

We didn’t stop for lunch until quite late – between towns in river valleys there is nothing at all. When we did stop we had our usual coffee rating - coffee can be wonderful (10) here, or dire (0)– this rated about a 2, pretty awful, but the Inca Kola sugar canister made up for it. Inca Kola is the local soda pop – fluorescent yellow and sticky, it is said to be flavoured with lemon grass; I don’t believe it!

 

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Tiina with the Inca Kola canister (we had to stop her asking to buy it, it is her favourite sort of enamel kitchenware!)

 

We made it to Trujillo and a wonderful colonial hotel; tomorrow we hit the herbarium on the search for more localities for Peruvian endemic Solanaceae. So – I’m sure we will find them, but the big question is – what will the coffee tomorrow morning be like?

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One of the things scientists do today that never happened in the past is to request official permission to conduct scientific research in another country. It might seem a bit bureaucratic and overly pernickety, but the issue of permits for collecting is an important way in which tropical countries rich in biodiversity manage their natural resources – probably the most important of which is biodiversity itself.

 

In Peru, all permissions for collection are managed through the Ministry of Agriculture, and there are clearly laid out rules for how to apply. I already have a permit for collecting Solanaceae – but this year I needed to sort out a permit for new work to be done under the Museum’s science initiatives.

 

The Museum's Natural Resources Initiative has three strands:

 

  • Critical Elements managed by Richard Herrington of Earth Sciences
  • Neglected and Emerging Diseases managed by Tim Littlewood of Life Sciences
  • Crop and Pest Wild Relatives (CPWR), managed by me – we jokingly call it the rocks, pox and crops initiative!

 

Crop and Pest Wild Relatives


Our main idea in the CPWR strand is to use the data from our and other collections to look at the distributions of crop wild relatives and the wild relatives of major crop pests, then use these data to model both plant and insect responses to the changing environment, taking into account the evolutionary relationships of each of the groups, a sort of orthogonal axis.

 

We have chosen to begin with the rich Solanaceae dataset I and collaborators have amassed over many years of databasing specimens in herbaria all over the world and manage through Solanaceae Source – it means the plant layer is done already! We will then begin to digitise (image, database and geolocate) all the Museum’s specimens of three major pest groups – beetles (relatives of the Colorado Potato Beetle, one of the worst pests of potato), leafhoppers or jumping plant lice (devastating pests of all kinds of crops), and fruit flies (big pests of tomato and aubergine). We also will do a new kind of collecting, where entomologists and botanists go in the field together – we will collect all the insects associated with particular Solanaceae species (well, really from any we see), thus compiling data on who lives where and on whom.

 

Hence the need to collect insects on Solanaceae in Peru – the centre of diversity for both wild potatoes and tomatoes. And the necessity of obtaining a legal permit to export the specimens so they can be compared with our collections and identified; I completed all the paperwork last night, and submitted it all at the Ministry today.

 

The importance of doing this now is that we are taking advantage of my current collecting trip to Peru for Tiina and my joint project on endemics, and two Museum entomologists are joining us in the middle of May – Erica McAlister (curator of flies and well known from her flygirl blog!) and Diana Percy (researcher on leafhoppers) will test out our collecting protocols and get the first field data for the initiative. It is exciting, as it feels like things are really starting!

 

Changes in Peru

 

Lima is a funny place – it is big, chaotic and has a very energetic, almost frenetic feel. It is in the dry coastal zone of Peru, so rain never (or very rarely) falls – the only moisture is fog from the sea. Getting to the Ministry involves wild taxi rides through crowded streets – dodging accidents and traffic jams. I lived in Peru in the 1980s, at a difficult time for the country; it was in the grip of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist threat then.

 

Today Lima is a more open, vibrant place – and things are really happening. Even the huge multistory tower that is part of the Social Security complex next to the Peruvian National Natural History Museum looks like it is due for changes – the sign says 'Soon this tower will be at your service. After 30 years'. This building has stood empty since the early 1980s, towering over the museum gardens. So, let’s see if things really do change!

 

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The Seguro Social tower - ready for a long-delayed makeover!

 

We head to the north on Sunday – passing through the herbaria of Trujillo and Cajamarca to enter data from specimens of endemic species into Solanaceae Source. Then the fieldwork blog will really be about field work at last!

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I finished most of what I wanted to do (this trip!) in the Duke herbarium – so my kind hosts thought it might be nice to go see the rare and endangered (in the wild) Venus-flytrap in the swamp. I jumped at the chance – these extraordinary plants are common in cultivation, but the chance to see them in their native habitat was so exciting!

 

We were headed to the Green Swamp – near the coast of North Carolina – in the middle of the very narrow range of these wonderful plants. They only occur in the swamps of North and South Carolina in a radius of about 90 miles! We met an ex-graduate student of Kathleen’s and now professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, Eric Shuettpelz and his student Alex Davila, who know this area well.

 

Carnivore country


The vegetation in these coastal areas is quite special – the soil is bright white sand and the forest are composed of various species of pines, interspersed with grassy open areas and shrubby thickets, called pocosins. The pine species are different in the pocosins and forests – it is an interesting mosaic.

 

The mosaic is maintained by burning – these areas are burned regularly through lightening fires and the Nature Conservancy, who look after these pieces of pristine habitat, regularly conduct controlled burns, usually in winter, to keep the shrubs from taking over. The main pine species of the open areas is the long-leaf pine – Pinus palustris.

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Controlled burns are not so hot as to completely decimate the forest, but clear out the understory and let light in – this area was probably burned a couple of years ago.

 

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The young plants of long-leaf pine persist in a grass-like state for years, until a fire comes along and opens the canopy so they can grow tall.

 

We emerged from our first pocosin – thick with holly, magnolias and lots of rhododendron and blueberry relatives – and looked down on the wet ground amongst the grasses, and there they were – the carnivores! Venus flytraps and sundews, growing together on the wet ground. Not quite the size of those of the film Little Shop of Horrors, but pretty exciting all the same. If you weren’t looking carefully, you would walk right by or even on top of them.

 

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Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipila) and sundews (Drosera leucantha) catch their prey in totally different ways – both with modified leaves.

 

Sundews have sticky glands all over the leaves that trap insects in their glue, then the stalks of the glands themselves bend to further engulf the prey.

 

Venus flytrap leaves are modified into a sort of snap-jaw trap – tiny hairs in the open surface trigger the folding of the leaf like a prison when an insect blunders in; the spiky leaf edges mean the trap is shut even before the leaf itself completely closes.

 

Insectivorous plants usually grow in nutrient-poor soils; it is thought that they obtain nitrogen much needed for growth from their insect prey. Charles Darwin was fascinated by insectivorous plants, and a good review of their biology and diversity was published in his celebration year in 2009.

 

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The shut trap in this individual just has a piece of stick, so I think insect catching must be relatively rare!

 

Further on, in the grass under the long-leaf pines – we saw yet another famous carnivorous plant – the yellow pitcher plant Sarrecenia lutea. The insect trapping leaves of these plants are long erect tubes in which water collects – the rim is slippery and an unaware insect can plunge to its death, to be decomposed and its nutrients absorbed by the plant. Not quite as active as the flytrap, but pretty effective nonetheless.

 

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The flowers of pitcher plants are large and showy and have a most peculiar umbrella-like style that looks like a flying saucer in the middle of the bloom.

 

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This fly looks like it will probably escape – so again, trapping is not a common occurrence, the pitchers are not full of insects.

 

At the Green Swamp we also saw two other carnivorous plants – the butterwort (Pinguicula) and the bladderwort (Utricularia), and a host of other fascinating plants special to these swampy, nutrient-poor habitats. Members of the blueberry and rhododendron family – Ericaceae – are very common and important members of the shrub layer in these communities.

 

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This blueberry relative – Lyonia lucida – has dry capsular fruits rather than the juicy berries we associate with its relatives.

 

We finished the day with another stop at Boiling Springs Lake – a more upland forest with pines and oaks.

 

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The turkey oak-pine forest is more open than that we saw at Green Swamp.

 

At Boiling Springs Lake we saw bladderworts in abundance – tiny yellow flowers about 2 mm across emerging from the white sand at stream edges. The leaves of these plants trap water shrimp (Daphnia) and other minute water creatures – they open and shut using changes in water pressure and their movement has been shown to be among the fastest movements in nature. Quite amazing for something so tiny and seemingly insignificant!

 

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The leaves of Utricularia are small globular 'bladders' – hence the common name – that trap microscopic organisms living in the water between soil particles in this waterlogged soil.

 

Leaving the forest, we were reminded of some friends not to take home with us! Ticks are common in these forests and we did find a few – big and little.

 

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Thanks to the Green Swamp expedition team! Eric Shuettpelz, Alex Davila, Fay-Wei Li, Tiff Shao (hiding!), Layne Huiet and Jose Eduardo Meireles (Dudu)

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My trip to Peru for Solanum collecting began with a stop in Durham, North Carolina – home of Duke University – where I was invited to talk at the opening of an exhibition about the herbarium.

 

This small but extremely rich university herbarium has great strengths in particular parts of the world, like Costa Rica – and the director, Kathleen Pryer (a fern taxonomist) has very ably convinced the administration that it is a real treasure. I feel very honoured that they have invited me to open the exhibit. University collections like this are really important for teaching and for introducing a whole range of biologists to the importance of museums and what they hold.

 

But before we do that – I got to go out in the incredibly biodiverse North Carolina forest for a walk with a great group of Duke biologists and friends. We dodged poison ivy (a southern speciality) to see some really lovely late spring flora – I left London as spring was just beginning, but here, much further south, early spring is long gone. But a few jewels were still to be seen.

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The spring wildflowers come out before the tree canopy closes over and the light is limited

 

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Trillum catesbyi

 

Trilliums are a North American speciality – this one is named for Mark Catesby, whose book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in the early 1700s brought the wealth of American plants to European eyes. We hold many of the plant specimens Catesby collected in the Natural History Museum – in the historically very important Sloane herbarium that is kept safe on the top floor of the Darwin Centre cocoon.

 

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Hexastylis arifolia

 

The peculiar 'wild gingers' are not gingers at all, but are related to Dutchman’s pipe, in the family Aristolochiaceae. The common name of this species is apparently 'Littlebrownjug' – very apt. The flowers are borne under the leaf litter and the seeds are dispersed by ants. We saw another Hexastylis as well, with smaller flowers - this part of the world is rich in species of the genus.

 

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Arisaema triphylla - Jack-in-the-Pulpit

 

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a common woodland herb in the arum family – the flowers are held inside the spathe, or arched hood. In this North American species plants are either male, with all the flowers having pollen, or female, and all the flowers develop into fruit. So my colleagues said this one – with all female flowers – was a “Jill-in-the-Pulpit”!

 

An individual plant is male when it is young and doesn’t have enough energy to develop fruit, and when it is big enough and can generate enough energy to see fruit development through to seed maturity, switches to being female. Seeds are a big investment for a plant. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a perennial, living through many years, so when its reserves are not enough to support fruit and seed production it produces male flowers only and doesn't lose out in the reproduction stakes.

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For me one of the most exciting plants we saw on the walk was the paw-paw, or Asimina triloba – a real taste of the tropics. Most of the members of this family are to be found in tropical rainforests, this is the only species in this family in North America! The fruits are edible and it is thought that native peoples spread them all over the southeastern USA.

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Asimina triloba - the Paw-Paw, a very tropical looking flower!

 

We didn’t see any nightshades, but that didn’t matter – it was great to see the truly special flora of the southeastern part of the United States. Walking in the forest made me think about what it must have been like for those first plant hunters like Catesby and the Bartrams (Judith Magee of the Museum Library has written a wonderful book about William Bartram) who encountered all these strange and wonderful plants and sent them carefully back to England to be planted in British gardens.

 

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The Duke plant hunters -  Mike Windham, Alec Motten, Job Shaw, Yu-Hsuan Liu, Fay-Wei Li, Layne Huiet, Blanka Shaw, Diane, Paul Manos, Jose Eduardo Meireles (also known as Dudu) and Eddie the dog!

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Tiina Sarkinen, who until late March was working with me on South American Solanum, has now set out on her own with a new job at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. We will continue to work together - the world of nightshade research is ever-expanding!

 

She left for our second big Peru trip at the beginning of April, and has just posted her first blog post through Edinburgh's website. The work is funded by National Geographic, so blogs will appear there too. Watch NaturePlus to see the work expand!

 

I go out to join Tiina on the 1st of May, after a brief stop-over to give a couple of lectures about Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon in the USA - our objective is the Cordillera of Huascaran and more exciting solanums!

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Fishing streams in Valle Hermosa

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The flora of Argentina

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

 

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

 

Solanum synonymy

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

 

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

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Solanum aloysiifolium

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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After the disappointments of Chapelco and Chile  we had high hopes for this section. We again headed west to the mountains – across Patagonian steppe again, the forests of Nothofagus are behind us now and we are into the dry Andean area of central Argentina. The landscape is breathtaking – horizons go on forever and the colours of the shrubs and rocks are not to be believed. This is a magnificent country.

 

We were headed to a locality called Primeros Pinos (First Pines), and stopped at a small stream called Arroyo Primeros Pinos to look for Pantacantha – one of those endemic Patagonia specialities I had wanted to see on this trip. And there it was! Looking like no other Solanaceae I had ever seen – it is a small, VERY spiny shrub, tucked in under even spinier shrubs.

 

Like other plants we have see on this trip it was past flowering and only had dried corollas left – but it was enough to study its morphology and understand it a bit better. Again – seeing a plant in the field is quite another thing from seeing it in the herbarium. Preparing herbarium sheets one tries to get things as flat as possible, but this stiff truly 3D plants lose their oomph upon pressing – I would have never thought it looked like it did.

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The leaves of Pantacantha are tipped with prickles; this is being spiny in a different way to the “spiny solanums” – although true spines are branches, Solanaceae only really have prickles.

 

Although Pantacantha was exciting, our real 'plant of day' was Jaborosa volkmanii, a species neither Gloria nor Franco had seen in the field. Franco had good locality data, and we knew it would be hard to find – in flower it has long tubular white flowers, but we were long past the flowering date now and were after seeds.

 

Our first stop for Jaborosa was Primeros Pinos – so called for being the first large patch of the pines in this part of the Andes – Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree. These are truly trees that recall the dinosaurs – the bark is thick and wrinkled and their form is very distinctive. Of course, I knew these trees from cultivation – they are common in London, but it is another thing entirely seeing them in the wild. I had expected their habitat to be wet, but I was wrong – these were in the dry steppes!

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This tree has male reproductive structures – the seeds from the cones are highly prized and delicious! We were out of season though, sadly.

 

The Jaborosa we found at Primeros Pinos was a miserable little plant growing along the road – but we did find one of my desires, Nicotiana linearis. Again, not a thing of great beauty or stature; this was a plant about 2 cm tall at the edge of the road in a ditch. But it had seeds, and was growing together with another very similar species, Nicotiana corymbosa. Laura Kelly from Kew and Queen Mary thinks Nicotiana linearis might be of hybrid origin – finding this mixed population adds another confusing card to the deck. I collected seeds of both species, and a possible hybrid plant – let’s hope they grow!

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This whole plant is 2 cm tall, and covered with sticky hairs

 

At the next Jaborosa locality we looked and looked along a rocky river bank – Gloria and I were frustrated and finding nothing, but Franco found it – a large population of Jaborosa volkmannii! Pretty miserable looking, as it is the end of the season for these seasonal plants that die back in the winter, but there were fruits. The berries are borne underground at the base of the plant, an effective way to save water and be protected from casual frugivores.

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This species has a huge fleshy taproot and grows in areas of loose sand, it was all over this slope. A flat little rosette of greenish grey leaves, it was incredibly difficult to see! You can see the one white fruit at the base of the leaves...

 

We carried on to another possibility for Combera – not to be defeated by this one! This involved going right up to the border with Chile again, and up in elevation to above 2000 m. As we headed west we saw smoke and thought there must be a fire. But no, it was the gently smoking volcano of Copahue! Our destination was the base of the volcano.

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Volcán Copahue, just above the small villages of Cavihue and Copahue – both ski resorts!

 

We hiked up above the village of Copahue, foregoing the thermal baths (with some regret!) – in search of Combera (another Patagonian endemic). It eluded us again, but we collected some very peculiar plants of the high mountain alpine region. This little violet is a tight flat rosette only a centimetre in diameter, but as it grows it forms little towers that get to about 3 cm tall tucked next to rocks!

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As is our usual pattern, we were collecting until almost dark, so headed off on a dirt track to try to make it closer to the next collecting locality – the last in Patagonia for this trip. We drove until midnight, passing only two other vehicles en route! Leaving the high mountains near Copahue was spectacular though – the smoke from the volcano does the same thing as pollution, makes the sunsets amazing. As we drove east again, a lightning storm lit up the sky over the steppes. It will be sad to leave Patagonia – we are hoping for some last plant excitements tomorrow!

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Franco and Juan have been working on the genomic structure of Solanum crispum – one of the species in the Dulcamaroid group that I have just finished revising (now in press in the journal PhytoKeys!). It mighty peculiar, and they were very keen to collect another accession to see if their observations were applicable to more than one collection.

 

Solanum crispum is a Chilean species, and like Solanum valdiviense, has only been collected a few times in Argentina and only in the Bariloche region. It has medicinal uses in Chile, and Cecilia thought that perhaps all the collections in Argentina were associated with Chilean settlers and that it was not really native here. We only had a few localities, but Cecilia had seen it just a few months ago just over the border in Chile – so we decided to go and see if we could find it. The border between Chile and Argentina is only about 40 km from where we were staying, so we left everything from the back of the truck in the hotel and set off.

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Looking towards back to Argentina at Argentina’s customs sheds

 

Driving across the 17 km bit of 'no-man’s land' between immigration posts we realised why there had been so much fine dust all over the trails and roads in the area around La Angostura, where we had been staying. In June 2011 Volcán Puyehue that sits right on the Chile/Argentina erupted – the fine white dust was ash! I had completely forgotten about this eruption – the ash was several metres deep and at the top of the pass the Nothofagus trees were all dead – desolation. But some trees had a few live branches and new weeds were coming up along the road. I had never seen the results of a eruption so close to – the devastation is total.

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Volcán Puyehue just covered with clouds – its slopes were white as if with snow

 

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The ash was fine, whitish grey and several metres deep; it must have taken ages to clear this road after the eruption

 

In this part of Argentina it snows in the winter – this is a big skiing area – so there are a lot of road signs warning of slippery roads. I have never seen a warning of slipperiness due to snow and ash before!

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The sign says “Caution – pavement slippery from ice and ash”

 

The forest on the Chilean side of the mountains is similar, but much wetter than that on the Argentine side, where the Andes act as a rain shadow. It was cloudy and misty and there were huge Gunnera plants along the streams. Gunnera is an amazing coloniser, it grows in many wet places in the New World tropics and has blue green algae (cyanobacteria) in its roots, providing it with extra nitrogen.

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Gunnera magellanica (this southern species) is cultivated at Kew – you can see it all around the lake outside the Palm House!

 

Despite it being such a lush forest, we failed to find Solanum crispum – more Solanum validivense was all over the place, but not really what we were after. A frustrating start to the day – but it got worse!

 

Having spent half the day going to Chile, we decided to try to find one of the genera of Solanaceae found only in this area of South America – Combera. This little plant only grows high up in the mountains on scree slopes; it seemed the best and quickest way to get to a collecting locality was to go a ski area and take the chair lift up to where the plant was found.

 

So, arriving at the Chalpeco ski area we saw the telecabin going up and down, and went to buy tickets… what a disappointment! The lifts were not working and the woman firmly told us no one was allowed up beyond the top of the grassy slopes – Combera was up on the ridge. By this time it was 7pm and far too late to walk from the base up to the top – the total ultimate in frustration. This had to have been the worst collecting day ever – how can a mountain be CLOSED!

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Combera grows on the ridge between Cerro Teta on the left and Cerro Escalera on the right – we could almost taste it up there!

 

After a great deal of discussion we headed north on Ruta 40 again – towards two more treasures, Jaborosa volkmannii and Pantacantha (another endemic genus). Let’s hope for better luck tomorrow!

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Heading north into a rainstorm, the first rain we have seen since Puerto San Julian on the Atlantic coast!

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