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Seeking nightshades in South America

78 Posts tagged with the botany tag

After our hard day finding Solanum paralum we decided to take it a bit easy before heading into the forest again. Looking up at the hill we climbed, it didn’t seem so far away…


We found Solanum paralum in the valley behind the first peak, just under the arrow.


We decided to have a day of searching for plants along dirt roads leading from inland to the coast – in the hopes of finding an enigmatic species I am looking for, Solanum evonymoides. I treated this as a member of the large and complicated section Geminata (with more than 150 species, one of the biggest groups in Solanum), but have always worried about whether or not I was right. Now was my chance to see it in the field and check!


We set off down the road to Una from Såo José de Vicente, winding through farms and patches of forest. On the other side of the river was the Una Reserve, a pristine piece of forest which is the type locality for a species I described in 2002, Solanum cordioides. It has been collected many places since, but many collections come from around the area of Una. We did not find this species today – but might another day – I’d love to see it in the field…


The contrast between the cut over areas in the non-protected area with the high forest across the river was quite striking; human impact on the landscapes of southern Bahia is great and forest only exists in small protected reserves of many different types.


As we came closer to the coast the vegetation changed and all of a sudden plants of Solanum crinitum appeared along the road. This large species is an absolute beauty, with flowers the size of saucers and fruits like baseballs – it is hard to miss! It is characteristic of slightly drier, sandy soils and is common throughout Brazil from the Amazon to northern Minas Gerais. I had never seen it growing in the field before, so of course was excited – Lynn and Leandro on the other hand were more blasé, but still, it is a killer plant.


Solanum crinitum is a small tree with big, felty leaves – hard to miss.




Both the flowers and fruits of Solanum crinitum are over-sized; the fruit looks creamy and edible, but definitely is not, the flesh is quite bitter.


Although Solanum crinitum doesn’t have any obvious prickles, it is a member of the spiny Solanum clade (subgenus Leptostemonum); the main distinguishing character of this group is the long, tapered anthers in the flowers. We did find a super-prickly member of this group though – Solanum polytrichum. This is another common plant in these habitats along roads and in disturbed places.


Solanum polytrichum has long, stiff hairs and many prickles on its stems and leaves. The calyx grows after flowering (a bit like the ground cherries or Cape gooseberries in the Solanaceae genus Physalis) to enclose the fruit, perhaps protecting it from unwanted predators.


In these slightly drier forests we also saw many different types of chili peppers – among them one of the cultivated species mostly found in South America. There are five species of cultivated chilis, all of them native to the Americas. The peppers we have in the UK are almost all of the species Capsicum annuum, but Scotch Bonnets are Capsicum chinense (not from China, despite the name). Brazil is the centre of diversity for the genus Capsicum, so we hope to see many more of this fascinating genus as we go to more different habitats.


Capsicum baccatum is a cultivated species rarely found outside South America – the fruits are blindingly spicy! These are still green and unripe, so we didn’t have a try…


We found Solanum evonymoides in a small patch of forest at the edge of an old cacao plantation – nothing at all like its type specimen I showed you in the post before I left! It is a beautiful plant - much prettier than in the dried herbarium specimen, but that is part of being a plant taxonomist, being able to translate from dried to fresh, sort of like origami, making something 2D into 3D. Collecting plants, of course, is the reverse – so collecting yourself is essential to being able to translate from herbarium specimen to live plant with any degree of accuracy.


Solanum evonymoides sure looks like a member of section Geminata, but still has some peculiar features, like where the inflorescence originates; there is something interesting going on in this species. More work needed...


So all in all a successful and rather relaxing day – tomorrow we head out for the forest again, this time north and a bit west on the hunt for, among other things, a new species Leandro will describe as part of his thesis work – currently its name is “the fan thing” – we MUST think of something better soon!


We stopped in Itabuna for petrol and saw this bar – a new take on drowning your sorrows! Fortunately after many very successful days of collecting we have no sorrows to drown, but lots to celebrate.


The bar is named Friend’s Meeting Place, and the bottle is labelled “A cana que amansa” – essentially the drink that soothes.


Looking forward to three days in the woods in the wonderfully named Serra de Jibóia (Boa Constrictor range) – how many novelties will we find? Lots I hope...


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


Lynn readying herself for identifying specimens in the CEPEC herbarium.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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



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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


Huge granite inselbergs towering over Santa Maria do Salto.


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


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


The Solanaceae team


I haven’t really introduced my travelling companions yet:

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


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


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


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


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



Forest in Fazenda Duas Barras.

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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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



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


Then Leandro…..


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


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


Then Lynn….


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

capybara_cropped_DSC_9356_resized.jpgA mother capybara (I suppose) and her two babies feeding on grass by the lakeside in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte - they sort of look like giant wombats.


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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



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


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

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


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

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


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


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


The people

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


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



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


The food

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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


The facilities

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


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


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


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



Small disasters

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The roads

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


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


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


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



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



Last but definitely not least, the plants

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


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


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


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


Besides – it’s great fun!


Land of the giants

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 15, 2013

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


A day of contrasts (again!)

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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


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


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


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


Fields on the road from Cabanas


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


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


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



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


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


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


Exodeconus prostratus grew amongst rocks and had very fleshy leaves


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


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


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


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


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


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


Mollepata looked a lot better by daylight, even though we were all a bit groggy from lack of sleep.


Mollepata – the plaza and church

To get to today’s destination, we had to descend to the Río Tablachaca, and then climb back out of the valley again – 1000 metres in elevation each time. The switchbacks were tremendous.


Switchbacks down from Mollepata on the top of the hill – you can just see the river at the bottom

Although the area around Mollepata was somewhat humid as we descended into the river valley, the vegetation changed completely to dry arid scrubland with cacti and spiny shrubs. This is the sort of habitat the wild tomatoes love, and sure enough we saw one when we hit about 2500 metres elevation. What was exciting about it was that it was Solanum huaylasense – a species we previously thought only grew in the Callejón de Huaylas in the Department of Ancash. We were in the Department of La Libertad so this is a range extension for this species – another one described by my colleague Iris Peralta.


Solanum huaylasense – not in the Callejón de Huaylas!

Since this trip is all about gathering data to investigate how range sizes and extinction risk correlate, we were keen to look at just what the altitudinal range of this species was in this particular valley. We found it on the way down – again at the bridge over the river, and then again on the way back up, until about 2500 metres elevation.


Above that elevation it was replaced by the wild tomato species we saw yesterday – Solanum habrochaites. It was almost as if they swapped places, the change was so sudden. We didn’t see them together anywhere, but once Solanum huaylasense stopped appearing along the road, the next wild tomato we saw was Solanum habrochaites.


The ranges of plant species are highly complex, especially in the Andes, where river valleys can be dry or humid, sometimes differing on either slope. The collections we make this trip, combined with the data we have gathered from herbarium specimens, will allow us to accurately map distributions so we can see how climate and slope affect them.


This Lycianthes species we found on the way up the river valley has flowers that look just like Solanum, but the calyx lobes are like a brittle stars' arms – what species could this be?

We stopped for lunch – not wanting to risk another Mollepata evening! – in the town of Pallasca, where the church was built in 1650 and still had what looked like original frescoes on the front. Many of the old churches in the mountains of Peru have been destroyed by earthquakes – this one escaped.


Pallasca – on the plaza

We had to decide in Pallasca which route to take to Cabana – up and over, or down the river and around. Both apparently took longer than we had expected (you’d think we would learn!) – so we chose up and over. It turned out to be up and down and up and down and over, but never mind – we arrived in Cabana in great time. In time, in fact, to join another Mother’s Day celebration, this time with a man dressed as a bull, chased by a small boy dressed as what looked like a pirate and a band with flutes and drums.


The bull and his entourage danced all over town several times, all the while accompanied by the special music of the Andes – huaynos, repetitive and sung in highpitched voices, I like them, but they can take getting used to!

It was great to get somewhere before dark and to be able to enjoy the town, especially one in the grips of cheerful celebration. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day for real – so we wonder what we will find after all our ups and downs and overs and plants in the next town we end up in. It is always a surprise!


The long drive….

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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.



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.



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.



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.



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!




Solanum pimpinellifolium



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.



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.



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.



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.


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! 



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



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.



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.



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!



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……


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…


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.



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.



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



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!



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!



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?


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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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!



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.





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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