Skip navigation
1 2 3 Previous Next

Seeking nightshades in South America

42 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
0

We began the day by visiting Cecilia Ezcurra in the herbarium of the Universidad Nacional de Comahue in Bariloche. The collection is quite small, and like all collections quickly running out of space! Cecilia and her students have collected a lot in the province of Neuquén and so we were hoping to find some new localities for the plants we were interested in. We were not disappointed! Lots of lovely treasures to look for (including a Benthamiella we thought we had left behind) and Cecilia’s in-depth knowledge of the area will help us find some of the more difficult species we hope.

 

As is usual when visiting other collections, we spent time identifying the unidentified Solanaceae – taxonomy works well on a tit-for-tat system – everyone helps one another out for mutual benefit.

IMG_5227.JPG

Cecilia Ezcurra and her PhD students Daniela (working on high elevation cushion plants) and Rita (working on some different high elevation herbs)

 

We decided to go and try to find Solanum valdiviense – a mostly Chilean species that just gets into Argentina in the Bariloche region. One locality for it was in the “7 Lakes” area – where amazingly blue lakes are nestled in amongst craggy peaks with Nothfagus forest – truly stunning. Along the way (whilst looking for grasses) we collected a wild potato relative – Solanum etuberosum – so called because it does not have tubers. The fruits are a very odd translucent purplish green.

_MG_3675.JPG

Solanum etuberosum fruits – the biggest ones are about the size of a cherry

 

We stopped at the campsite where Solanum valdiviense had been collected before – the camping area was completely full of people in tents and in small trailers. This is a very touristy area and it is high summer (hence all our difficulty in finding places to stay, not that it helps that we get there past 10pm!). The water in the lakes is incredibly clear and very cold; I can see why this is a top vacation spot!

IMG_5235.JPGLago Villarino

IMG_5236.JPG

Beautifully clear water in Lago Villarino

 

Solanum valdiviense is a very peculiar arching shrub, and has extremely variable leaf shapes – this has led to it being given several different names. One of the great things about seeing plants in the field is that you can see variation – these stems had all shapes of leaves on the same stem! The flowers though are typical Solanum – and don’t vary much across this species. Although I have just finished revising the taxonomy of the group to which Solanum valdiviense belongs, it was still good to see it in the flesh!

_MG_3723.JPG

_MG_3710.JPG

0

To begin our day driving to the north we stopped on the way out of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno to see if we could find some more Benthamiella azorella. We did, so more photos and collections. Just to show you how small this thing really is, below is a photo of the flowers with an Argentine 10 centavo piece next to them (for reference, this is about the size of a 5 pence piece). They are MINISCULE! The flowers are a pale tan colour, the leaves are packed into domed shapes that look white from the hairs on the leaf margins…  these plants are certainly easy to miss….but definitely worth finding!

Benth_azorella_scale__MG_3598.JPG

The tiny tan flowers are dry, we missed the flowering season. They have 2 stamens that stick way out of the flower.

 

Whilst looking for the Benthamiella we were carefully watched by a troop of guanacos (not sure if troop is the right collective noun, herd might be better!) from the hill overlooking the lake. They were not quite sure about us, and made some very odd bird-like noises. Near the national park and away from hunting pressure they are less fearful and tend not to run away so quickly – they do in the end though.

guanacos_IMG_5128.JPG

Three guanacos suspiciously watched me look for Benthamiella around a small lake full of flamingos and geese

 

Driving out of the side road that led to the park we re-joined Ruta 40 – Argentina’s equivalent to the iconic Route 66 of the western United States. Ruta 40 goes for more than 5000 kilometres from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to Quillaca on the border of Bolivia, traversing the country. There are teeshirts, mugs, stickers – everything you could want with Ruta 40 on it. Like Route 66 it is a national icon. Unlike Route 66 though Ruta 40 is of variable quality! It can be lovely and paved, or a dirt track, depending upon where you are along its long trajectory. For miles today we drove along a bumpy gravel road, with a beautiful newly paved, but not quite ready, Ruta 40 alongside. Quite frustrating. We finally did get onto the paved road, but at the province border between Santa Cruz and Chubut, it suddenly became gravel again. Long days on gravel roads across what seem like trackless plains are tiring!

ruta40_IMG_5148.JPG

The gravel stretches seemed to go on forever, Juan did most of the driving today, thank goodness

 

The road goes for miles with no people, no sign of any habitation at all, expect every now and then there is a sign to an estancia, or occasionally a tiny little town. Petrol is hard to come by, and filling up is a priority. Our truck uses gasoil (diesel) so we are OK, almost, but cars using petrol often have to carry jerrycans to make it between stations.

Bajo_Caracoles_IMG_5138.JPG

The metropolis of Bajo Caracoles

 

We stopped a few times in our rush to the north, at one place just north of Baja caracoles we found an extraordinary Lycium species that hugged the ground in the dry river bottom so tightly it seems to be fused to the mud. Lycium is the genus from which we get go ji berries (a Chinese species known in the UK as the Duke of Argyll’s teaplant).

Lycium_repens_MG_3626.JPG

Lycium repens (the fruits are about half a centimetre long)

 

On the way we passed through an archeologically important region of Argentina – in these painted hills is the Cueva de las Manos where early humans (probably more than 10,000 years ago) made handprints on the walls of the cave. These sites are among the earliest evidence of human occupation of South America – I wish we had had time to stop. Next time.

coloured_hills_IMG_5144.JPG

The landscapes in Argentina remind me of my home in New Mexico – the same painted hills that Georgia O’Keefe so loved and painted in northern New Mexico are also found in Argentina – convergent landscapes!

 

We got to the town of Rio Mayo at about 8 pm – early for us; we had planned to go on, but decided the next town was just too far, we would have arrived at 11 pm, had to press all the plants and set up the dryer – we wouldn’t have finished until the next morning! So we had plenty of time to get all the collections organised and drying (we always dry plants in the field on a rack over two heaters – we had a picture of this in the blog from last year!). I had collected a tiny little tobacco, Nicotiana acaulis, in the dry steppe near the park, and when we found it in the morning, the flowers were closed. Putting in the press though revealed open flowers – this species flowers at night, and is probably pollinated by moths. The flowers smelled very sweet as well. So all is well with the plants, they are happily drying, we are resting up for another marathon drive tomorrow – then some more fertile collecting in the Andes….. we are leaving the Benthamiella behind, but there are Solanum species to come!

Nicotiana_acaulis_MG_3654.JPG

Nicotiana acaulis – this tiny species grows like a strawberry and throws out runners that develop into small plantlets in loose soil around lakes and along roads

0

Estancia La Leona was just as lovely in the morning as last night. It has had an interesting history – the estancia was the ferry point for sending sheep on balsa rafts down the Rio Santa Cruz to San Julian – 200 head of sheep to a raft, imagine! The station developed into a buzzing meeting point, and all kinds came through, including, it is said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on their way north after robbing a bank in Rio Gallegos. Today it is run as a stop on tours between Calafate and Chalten – the lemon pie looked amazing!

LaLeona_IMG_3404.JPG

La Leona from the bridge over the river - imagine carrying sheep on rafts down this!

 

Shortly after passing the eastern edge of Lago Viedma – another one of these lakes of an unreal blue – we began our day on gravel roads. Out in the desert steppe again, we made a stop to collect a couple of things and lo and behold what did Franco find along the road in the construction loose banks but Nicotiana ameghinoi – sounds a bit like an anti-climax, but this plant is a real find. The last monographer of the genus Nicotiana, Thomas Goodspeed, had never seen it in the field, its chromosome number is not known and we have never included it in any of our phylogenetic work on the genus. Goodspeed speculated it would be like another Argentine species, Nicotiana acaulis, but it is a another matter altogether. The leaves are thick and fleshy and covered with sticky hairs, the flowers obviously open at night and were closed in the morning, but were pale green with brownish petals. It had a thick taproot like a carrot…. It will be great to find out where this belongs in the genus – we collected seed and leaf material for DNA sequencing, so a bit of lab work and we should have a better idea.

Nicotiana_ameghinoi_IMG_3440.JPG

Franco collecting seeds of Nicotiana ameghinoi

 

Along the same road we had another great find – a different Fabiana; Fabiana foliosa. This species has only been collected a few times, and we have been looking for it! There it was, tucked behind a rock where we stopped to look at another population of Petunia patagonica. This little shrub looks a lot like the Fabiana nana we collected at the petrified forest, but has spine-tipped branches and little leaves. At the same place we found a Benthamiella (at last), the common species Benthamiella patagonica. It was turning out to be an amazing day!

Fabiana_foliosa_IMG_3494.JPG

Fabiana foliosa, not much of a plant!

 

Benthamiella_patagonica_IMG_3515.JPG

Benthamiella patagonica - much cuter, but tiny and hard to find!

 

Many kilometres of dirt road later, we ended up (after a certain amount of discussion of the difficulties of buying fuel versus finding a place to stay versus collecting some more new things) deciding to go towards the west again and head for the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (yes, he also has a national park named for him!) where in some estancias outside the park a different Benthamiella had been collected. By this time it was about 6 pm, and the park was some 90 km in on a dirt road…  there were supposed to be places to stay in the park…… so off we went, towards more snow-capped peaks in the distance.

 

Choiques (Patagonian rheas) and guanacos were abundant along the road, I don’t even get excited any more when they appear. As we approached the mountains small lakes began to appear; at one of them a large flock of birds was wading, getting out the binoculars we saw they were flamingos! And behind them grazing peacefully at the lake edge was a herd of guanacos. We were so taken by the birds that we only absent mindedly looked for plants until Gloria found a tiny grey cushion and called for the handlens. It turned out to be Benthamiella azorella – with flowers so tiny you can’t really see them easily without a lens. This was just the species we came here for! Juan also found Deschampsia antarctica at the lake edge, so all in all a terrific stop.

flamingos_IMG_5087.JPG

 

Benthamiella_azorella__MG_3548.JPG

Benthamiella azorella close up and personal

 

By this time it was sunset and getting dark, so we will be back tomorrow for another look in better light. We found the estancia that rented rooms (at a price!) – so will set off early tomorrow back to the east again, and hopefully to more Benthamiella azorella. We might have to go look at the mountains a bit first though – they are spectacular!

day_end_IMG_3569.JPG

Flamingoes and the Andes - can't beat it

0

Last night we finally found a place to stay, at supper and crashed at 2 am – Calafate is a tourist town and all the hotels were full. We found one in the end though, and collapsed. Morning had us headed for the wet, towards some more Benthamiella localities – can you guess what happened? That’s right – no luck. These collecting records are all from almost a century ago and the habitat has changed so much that finding these incredibly small, quite rare plants is difficult even at the best of times. We decided we need to come back to this area and spend a week or more just exploring all over. The old lables don’t even say what typ of habitat the plant was growing in or what it looked like – so it is a matter of guess work and some incredible luck.

 

All was not lost though, as Juan had some localities for a grass (Deschampsia) he is working with in the same area so we carried. Juan is looking at the phytogeography of Deschampsia antartica, a tiny little grass that grows all over Patagonia and on the Antarctic peninsula as well; they are studying its chromsomes and geography. More tiny plants to find! Fortunately these were more common once we got to the southern beech (Nothfagus) forests as we went west. The change from dry desert steppe to beech forest was quite abrupt, almost from one hill to the next.

Nothofagus_IMG_3279.JPG

Southern beech (Nothofagus) forest at the base of Cerro Buenos Aires, not sure which species yet...

 

The Nothofagus all had a sort of mistletoe – a parasitic plant of the genus Misodendron. The seeds have sticky plumes and after collecting a few specimens we were covered in them!

Misodendron_MG_3275.JPG

Misodendron - these plants are dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants - this one is a girl

 

Because we were quite close, we decided to go see the Perito Moreno glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The glacier is named for Francisco Pascasio “Perito” Moreno, who was a geographer of the 19th century who not only helped to set the Argentine-Chile border, but battled for the education of the indigenous people of the region. He was awarded the King George IV medal by the RGS, among many other honours. Having a glacier named after you had to be one of the coolest ones though! This was definitely a detour worth taking – one of the wonders of the world – it is the centrepiece of the Parque Nacional los Glacieres; accessible by really organised walkways. The first sight of it brought gasps to us all, then we saw the viewpoint – called “Mirador de los Suspiros” (was that a joke? – it means Viewpoint of Sighs).

PeritoMoreno_far_IMG_3289.JPG

It is now summer in Argentina, so the ice melts, causing bits of the glacier to fall off. This particular glacier sits over a stream, so every year the water undercuts the glacier, making an ice bridge, which then collapses. This had happened a few days ago – it makes the national news! As we walked along the lower of the walkways big bits of glacier fell into the stream – the noise is quite loud, even the little bits seem like huge cracks. The entire glacier face is 60 m tall, and it is 5 km wide at the base – an impressive sight. This was a detour totally worth making – even if it did set us back a bit in the collecting line.

icefall_IMG_3371.JPG

A huge piece of glacier falling - we have a video, but I haven't figured out how to put it up yet! The noise was tremendous

 

team_IMG_3330.JPG

Here we all are - Juan, Franco, Gloria and I - all windblown and pretty cold, the glavier creates its own weather it seems

 

We realised we had spent too long at the glacier and would not make it as far as we thought, unless of course we were to break our record of arriving at midnight! So we saw a hotel advertised in the middle of the steppes and decided to try. So here we are. Moonlight outside, along a glacial river in the Patagonian steppes, the owner’s son in gaucho dress came to fix the heat (it is VERY cold) – AND we collected another population of Petunia patagonica at 10 pm!

moon_IMG_3396.JPG

0

"I do not think I ever saw a spot, which appeared more secluded from the rest of the world, than this rocky crevice in the wide plain." - Charles Darwin (1838, Puerto Deseado, Patagonia, Argentina).

rocksRioDeseado_MG_2932.JPG

Rocky cliffs along the Rio Deseado

 

Charles Darwin landed in Puerto Deseado, where we woke up this morning, on 23 December 1838 – it must have looked quite different then! We usually associate Darwin’s ideas with his experiences in the Galapagos, but these Patagonian steppes had to have influenced his ideas – life is so difficult here, in the vastness of the steppes, living through incredible extremes of heat and cold. He rode and collected along the Río Deseado probably in the exact same area where we found Petunia patagonica yesterday. He probably even saw it!

port_IMG_2983-Optimized.JPG

Puerto Deseado

 

We actually didn’t follow in Darwin’s footsteps today, we just went looking for more plants! Along the road we saw a large group of choiques – Darwin’s rhea (the “avestruz” Darwin shot and ate before remembering to make a specimen!). In this species the males have harems of several females, all of whom lay eggs in the same nest. He then looks after the chicks (called charitos) – this was a male with about 10 little ones!

[choique]

Our first port of call was the Bosque Petrificado (Petrified Forest) National Park towards the west in the centre of Santa Cruz province. It is about 50 km off the main road on a dirt track and as we entered the landscape just got more and more spectacular. At the park headquarters where we needed to check in to show our permit and talk to the guardaparques (the national park system in Argentina is very organised, being a park ranger is a proper career and they are fantastically knowledgeable people) the ground is literally littered with the fossilised remains of upper middle Jurassic forests – huge trunks of long dead monkey puzzle trees more than 10 metres long abound; this was no crumbled fossil bed – it was amazing. The trunks are the remnants of Araucaria mirabilis – an extinct species belonging apparently to a clade now only found in Australia, thus providing rock solid evidence of the ancient connection of the southern continents. There was a really nice little museum as well, where there were great examples of some pretty amazing fossils that had been found there.

Bosque_petrificado_IMG_3066.JPG

Bosque Petrificados - looking to the west, the large rocks in the front are fossilised tree trunks!

 

I haven’t yet properly introduced my colleagues…  all are from the InstitutoMultidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal of the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba – a real powerhouse of South American botany. I am lucky tohave such good colleagues for field work – although my Spanish  is pretty good, as a group we find more plants and have more fun!

team_IMG_4978-Optimized.JPG

From left to right - Gloria Barboza, Juan Urdampilleta and Franco Chiarini (note the Araucaria mirabilis!!)

 

Although we had gone in towards the park looking for a special Nicotiana (we didn’t find it, but we have more chances to come), we came away with a real prize – Fabiana nana, a plant we had been seeking for the last couple of days. It is a tiny spiky cushion plant and looks like something you might avoid if you had the chance – but there it was with beautiful white flowers. The whole thing is only about 10 centimetres high, and the flowers are tiny. There are no leaves, the green stems do the work of photosynthesis – this is a common strategy in dry desert areas, it reduces water loss from leaves. Tiny leaves do form on new shoots, but they don’t last long! My colleague Iris Peralta has a student who is studying these plants and she has had a very difficult time getting DNA out of them – they are full of resin. Coping with life in Patagonia can be difficult! Guanacos are everywhere – the grazing pressure must be very high.

Fab_nana_MG_3049.JPG

The leafless stems and tiny flowers of Fabiana nana

 

We carried on looking for plants along the main road, heading for some specific places and all the time looking for characteristic domed shapes of Fabiana or Bethamiella. The roadsides in Argentina all have shrines to Gauchito Gil – a gaucho from Corrientes who defied the boss and eloped with his daughter, and was a sort of latter-day Argentine Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The Gauchito is a driver’s “saint” and shrines vary from huge and elaborate to quite simple and personal. This one was kilometres from any village or habitation and quite new, older shrines have many little red huts and lots of flags. It is traditional to leave gifts of alcohol, cigarettes and red bunting.

Gauchito_IMG_3095.JPG

At the last stop –again at 9:30pm – failing to find the target plant – we encountered another population of Petunia patagonica, it is becoming commoner now we are further south, but it seems we don’t find it unless it is almost dark! Still no seeds though, this will help tell us if this is a different genus to Fabiana. As we entered the tiny port town of San Julian it began to rain – it looks like the heat wave is over and we are really in for a big change.

Pet_pat_IMG_3113.JPG

0

I was told that Patagonia was always cool and incredibly windy – but things that are always true usually slip up sometimes! We hit a heat wave – today the temperature reached 40°C, and there is absolutely NO shade. We began the day looking for Benthamiella again – they are so tiny you need to get up very close…  Gloria used the handlens to figure out if we even had a Benthamiella! One we thought was turned out not to be once we looked closer in the cool of the car. We did find one though…. They certainly are a struggle!

Gloria_MG_2846.JPG

Searching for the elusive Benthamiella.


About 3 in the afternoon we went looking for a collecting locality called Manantiales near the town of Fitzroy (named for the captain of HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin travelled, more about this later!) and ended up walking along an old abandoned railway line (probably built by the English) in the blazing heat – it was a bit like the end of the world. All the plants were dried up and crispy – we felt the same. It was starting to be a not such a great day.

ferrocarril_MG_2871.JPG

Juan rather desperately looking along the railway

 

So on we went – slightly desperate by now, to the next locality – to find one of our stars for the trip – Petunia patagonica. We had some pretty good locality information, so headed off on a tiny dirt road across the steppes. It seemed we were the only people in the world, so deserted was it – but we were accompanied by wonderful Patagonian wildlife – guanacos, maras (Patagonian hares, they look a bit like a cross between a hare and a kangaroo) and more rheas. This time the rheas were smaller – they were the endemic choique, or Rhea darwinii, first collected in Patagonia and described from his collections which are now in the NHM in London. He killed and ate his specimen – ours just ran away too fast even to photograph!

guanaco_MG_2921.JPG

Guanacos are so much more elegant and beautiful than their cultivated cousins, llamas and alpacas, this group had males, females and babies.

 

We went to what we thought was the locality, and spent quite a time looking for Petunia – no luck, and we thought it really was going to be a bad day. After some heated discussions about the map, distances and whether or not sat-navs actually work in places like Patagonia for measuring distances, we decided to head for Puerto Deseado on the coast for the night and try one last place that might be the locality. Good job we did that rather than continuing on the road in the other direction! There it was – a big population of Petunia patagonica in sandy soil in an old river bottom.

Petunia+moon_IMG_4968.JPG

Collecting plants in the dark has its advantages - it is nice anad cool by then, even if you can't see very well! The blobby green mounds are all Petunia patagonica.

 

By this time it was almost dark (about 9pm) so it was almost other worldly walking amongst these most peculiar plants. This is certainly NOT a Petunia! The shrublet forms mounds to about 1.5 m in diameter and the woody bases were as big as 5-6 cm in diameter (that is when they could be seen- they were mostly covered in sand!); the leaves are tiny round blobs that are slightly sticky – most peculiar. No flowers, and very few fruits, but seeing this plant in the field will certainly be one of the highlights of the trip. All the more for finding it at the end of what was a really hard, very hot day. The rest of the way to Puerto Deseado we invented new names for it – we’ve come up with a good one, but let’s wait and see if it really is a new genus; we need a bit more study. More populations beckon…. 

G+S_MG_2978.JPG

A new genus?

2

This was the day when the plants were to begin – again though we began by driving a very long way! Our destination was the Pampa del Castillo where three species of the Solanaceae genus Benthamiella had been collected - old collections, but these plants are very rare and we are trying to hit every locality in the hopes of finding at least some of them. Benthamiella is a genus that is endemic to Patagonia, with 12 species in Argentina and Chile. These are tiny cushion plants of the steppes, hard to find!

steppe_MG_2751.JPG

As we drove south the landscape became more and more desert-like, the plants lower and lower and drier and drier. We began to see guanacos along the road, grazing in the weeds, and also in the native vegetation. These camelids are the wild ancestors of the “cultivated” llamas and alpacas of the Andes and are absolutely beautiful – they look like proper wild animals, sleek and beautifully colored.  Petrol stations are few and far between in Patagonia, so every time one appears everyone tries to fill up, there are always queues!

ACA_IMG_4917.JPG

Petrol queues in the middle of nowhere!

 

We turned off for Pampa del Castillo, and began to search the steppe for Benthamiella. We found lots of interesting things, and it was very hot!, but no luck. The sight of four botanists, heads down looking at the ground must have looked absolutely crazy! The only creatures that would have seen us were rheas though – the area was absolutely deserted.

buscando_MG_2757.JPG

You can just make out Juan, Franco and Gloria heads down searching the steppes for Benthamiella!!

 

rheas_MG_2758.jpg

Rheas - the epitome of avian elegance, and not the slightest bit interested in us....

 

We drove and collected and drove – all the way to what was on maps as the town of Holdich – abandoned long ago. It must have been so difficult living in this dry exposed area – today it is a large oilfield, full of “grasshoppers” extracting black gold…..

Holdich_MG_2767.JPG

This abandoned house had a deep basement and was full of beautiful old tiles - it must have been quite some residence at one time.

 

In a last attempt, we stopped at the last locality – not hoping for much – but success at last! Two species of Benthamiella! The flowers were less than 4 mm long, and dried up and almost falling off – we wondered if we had just walked by these plants earlier. Once you get your eye in for a plant, it appears everywhere – let’s see if we can find Benthamiella more efficiently tomorrow!!

Gloria+Benthamiella_MG_2783.JPGGloria with our first Benthamiella find.

2

So – after having to buy a new tyre in Bahia Blanca, another day of driving to the south…  Patagonia is a long way from central Argentina! Although we were in Patagonia strictly speaking in Bahia Blanca, we still had a long way to go before our plants appear. After an early start we hurtled along the excellent roads – along the sides were harvested fields, all pretty normal looking until you looked closer to see flocks of rheas (South American ostriches) grazing the stubble!

 

Passing into Patagonia proper there are strict controls on the transport of fruits and food products – this is a big agricultural region and many diseases are absent (like brucellosis for example) – so all vehicles are carefully inspected at the border of the province of Rio Negro…  so we had to eat out fruit before crossing over! The lovely salami from Cordoba didn’t pass muster, so had to be thrown away...  a tragedy.

puesto_IMG_4902.JPG

We headed for a beach resort right at the mouth of the Rio Negro, not for the usual, but again in search of Jaborosa bergii. This plant is proving totally elusive – we failed again! We did collect a beautiful composite – Grindelia – whose chromosome Franco is studying, and a couple of other things.

 

We also failed to see whales or dolphins, but then again that requires going out on a boat and that is not really what we are here for! We did, however, take a tiny detour to see the largest parrot nesting site in the world – 12 kilometres of coast line is occupied by thousands of burrowing parrots who nest in holes in the soft cliffs. The fledglings were leaving and the hawks circling – an amazing sight.

dunas_IMG_4903.JPG

The Atlantic in the distance, mouth of the Rio Negro

loros_MG_2701.jpg

Burrowing parrots near the nest - slightly out of focus - I do plants not birds!!

 

We headed for the tourist town of Puerto Madryn for the night, a mistake as it turned out. Gloria and Franco had had trouble there before finding a hotel, and we ought to have learned from that experience! No rooms were to be had anywhere. It was Franco’s birthday – so we had a nice meal with a birthday ice cream cake and singing in a restaurant on the sea front (by this time it was almost midnight – the sun doesn’t set until 9pm this far south in the austral summer!), and drove on to the next town – Trelew. We finally reached a hotel at 2 am….  a very, very long day!

0

Back to the "real" world?

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 23, 2012

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

IMG_3403.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

0

The road to Abancay.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 10, 2012

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

potatoes_snow_DSC_9545 (Mobile).JPG

llamas_DSC_9546 (Mobile).JPG

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

cultivation_DSC_9541 (Mobile).JPG

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

tomentosa_DSC_9679 (Mobile).JPG

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

camion_trancado_DSC_9637 (Mobile).JPG

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

 

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

stream_DSC_9765 (Mobile).JPG

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

neorickii_DSC_9708 (Mobile).JPG

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

 

physalifolium_DSC_9761 (Mobile).JPG

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

huaico2_DSC_9770 (Mobile).JPG

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

huaico3_DSC_9773 (Mobile).JPG

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

                                                                                          

0

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

 

Calilegua_DSC_7105 (Mobile).JPG

Calilegua2_DSC_7137 (Mobile).JPG

 

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

 

huaylavillense_DSC_7029 (Mobile).JPG

 

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

 

toad_DSC_7213 (Mobile).JPG

 

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

 

spider_DSC_7179 (Mobile).JPG

 

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

 

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

 

carneval_DSC_7204 (Mobile).JPG

 

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

3

Setting the scene...

Posted by Tiina Feb 2, 2012

We all like eating tomatoes and potatoes - what could be better than chips with ketchup ! But did you know tomatoes and potatoes are extremely closely related? Although a red juicy tomato looks totally different to a pale yellow potato, the two plants share much of their DNA.

 

Potato and tomato belong to a group of plants known as Solanaceae - the nightshade family. In actual fact, they are so closely related they belong to the same genus within Solanaceae, known as Solanum. Tomato is called Solanum lycopersicum L. in scientific latin, whilst potato is known as Solanum tuberosum L.

 

 

Other well known species in the group include the bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplants, petunias, and tobacco - yes, incredibly this strongly flavoured plant is related to commonly eaten yummy things! South Americans might know more fruits from the family, such as naranjilla (Solanum quitoense Lam.), or tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea Sendt.) used for making preserves and juice. If you visit Mexico and indulge in local food culture, you come across another species from the family, tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica Lam.) which is used to prepare salsa for buritos, tacos and tortillas.

 

Below is a lovely phylogeny of the nighshades which illustrates how the species are related within the family. It's based on a small set of DNA data. It is still not complete as it only includes roughly 30% of all the species in the family. Our aim is to add more species as our research progresses. What you can see is that eggplant, tomato, potato and pepino are really closely related, and tobacco is the furthest relative of them all. Solanaceae_large_phylogeny_SMALL_for_blog.jpg

 

 

The nightshades were known to be a group of closely related plants before anybody even knew they are related based on their DNA. This is because all species in the group share a set of morphological characters. Some of these are very obvious such as flowers which are generally stellate, with five corolla lobes, and five stamens. The most clear character that unites the family is seeds. Seeds are small – think of tomato seeds! – flattened, kidney-shaped, and have puzzle-piece shaped cells if looked under a microscope. Most of seeds in the nightshade family have curled embryos. If you are curious, try looking at dried tomato seeds closely! You will see the impression of the curled embryo on the seed quite easily.

 

 

Other characters of the nightshade family are more hidden. For example, all nightshades have internal phloem which means that sugars produced in leaves via photosynthesis are transported down to roots inside the water transport system known as xylem. Most plants have an opposite type transport system where sugars are transported outside the waterpipe system.

 

 

Anyways, why all this ramble? Well, the thing is that we are about to go hunting for nightshades in the Andes! There are an estimated 4,500 species of nightshades in the world, and large number of these is found in the Andes. These are wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes and such likes, some weirder than other, some with tubers, whilst other climb trees! There are still species remaining to be described, waiting in the forests and mountain sides for discovery. We will be travelling in the northern part of Argentina and in Peru over the next coming 3 months – our aim is to collect as many species of Solanaceae on our way. This time we are targeting the particularly poorly known species of the Morelloid clade in the genus Solanum, a set of roughly 60 species.

1 2 3 Previous Next