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Seeking nightshades in South America

8 Posts tagged with the brazil tag

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The 64th Brazilian National Botanical Congress ended today after five pretty amazing days of talks, posters and conversations. The theme of the congress was “botany, always alive” – a clever play on the universality and persistence of the science and the members of the plant family Eriocaulaceae – called sempre vivas (live-forevers) here in Brazil. The flowers and stems of Eriocaulaceae are sold as dry flowers; one stand at the congress venue was selling them made up into small trees and wonderfully elaborate arrangements. The flower stalks are also used as a thin, wiry straw to make jewellery – it looks like thin bronze wire… very beautiful.


The congress was held in the downtown part of Belo Horizonte, in a venue called Minascentro – an old building, with a very modern interior.


The week was jam-packed full of wonderful talks – there was never a dull moment. My two talks were on the first day, so I got to relax and really enjoy the science for the rest of the week. What was mind-boggling to me was the sheer number of botanists attending the congress – more than 1000 people were registered, more than half of them Master’s degree or undergraduate students. This to me shows that botany and the study of plants is alive and well in Brazil, one of the mega-diverse countries of the world. This is quite right – this is where the study of plants should be thriving. And it is…..


Students are encouraged, if not required, to present posters, and posters there were! Every day there was a new poster session with hundreds of really interesting studies on show – in total nearly 2000 posters were displayed (1809 to be exact), giving the students a chance to show off their work and talk with the crowds who came to look at the work being done.


For me this was a challenge – but my Portuguese improved greatly! Students were so kind about understanding my fractured attempts to ask questions about their work….. the best bit was everyone having a great time – the noise level was astounding!


The opportunity to talk with students was great – many of them, like Luiza Fonseca de Paula here talking with Lynn about the phylogeny of a small group of really fascinating Brazilian solanums in which she has discovered a peculiar new species, have made some really interesting discoveries.

The range of topics covered spanned the gamut of organismal plant sciences – ecology, taxonomy, anatomy, conservation, floristics. My personal (highly personal and idiosyncratic) highlights were talks on the future of forests and on the Flora of Brazil. Each plenary talk was held in the main lecture hall – huge and almost always packed out. Lots of time was allowed for questions and discussion and the student participants really participated – even with talks given in English (translation services were provided).


Paulo Motinho answering the many questions from the very interested audience.


Paulo Motinho of IPAM (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, or Amazon Environmental Research Institute) gave a thought-provoking talk about the future of Amazonia, looking at trends in deforestation and the increase in fire risk. He summarised some truly amazing experiments that involved covering hectares of the forest floor with plastic to see the effects of drought… headline answer, it really matters! The news that deforestation in the Amazon had increased and the newly published interactive map of world deforestation brought his talk into fresh relief.


But Brazil is more than “just” the Amazon – the habitat diversity here is extraordinary (as you can see in previous posts from this trip), part of what makes the flora here so diverse. Toby Pennington of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh gave another thought-provoking talk (in Portuguese, making it even more impressive) about the seasonally dry forests, often neglected in favour of the Amazon, but very diverse and evolutionarily very important for the generation of diversity in the tropics (Särkinen et al 2011). I was reminded of a talk I heard earlier this year at another conference where a speaker showed a map of agriculture and said that it was good that the area south of the Amazon basin was being used for widespread intensive agriculture because the Amazon was being “spared”. The area is the cerrado, an amazingly diverse and evolutionarily important dry grassland/tree habitat. There isn’t a one for one trade – all habitats hold unique elements and no one is more important than another. Nor can a country like Brazil put a fence around all natural habitats. The sheer diversity of forests here means the “agony of choice” is ever present.


Caatinga is another example of a seasonally dry forest, a bit spiky and maybe not as romantic sounding as the Amazonian “jungle”, but important just the same – and highly understudied!


For me, the most exciting part of the week was discussions about the Flora of Brazil. A flora can be two different things – flora with a little f is usually used as a collective noun for the plant diversity of a country, while Flora with a big F refers to a publication describing and documenting the plant diversity of an entire country or region. The last Flora of Brazil was published in the nineteenth century by the great German botanist Carl von Martius, and remains a key reference work still. But knowledge of the diversity of the Brazilian flora has moved a long way since then!


A series of talks over one entire day of the Congresso set the Brazilian flora in context and laid out plans and tools for pulling the community together to make a 21st century Flora of Brazil. Inspiring.


Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (whose talk was given by her colleague Marli Morim from the Jardim Bôtanico do Rio de Janeiro as she couldn’t attend) set the flora in context. Brazil contains about 9% of the total plant diversity of the world, some 33,000 species, of these, 56% are endemic to Brazil and occur nowhere else. Wow.


Other talks in the symposium outlined


Though this seems like a daunting task, producing a compilation of all the plants (including fungi and bryophytes – not just flowering plants) of Brazil, the mood was so positive that this was really doable by 2020 – linking the effort to the targets set by the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Lots of arguments about how to do it and how to measure the impact of such work were had in satellite meetings in the evenings – but the dedication and positivity of this community was really inspiring. You know, even if only half of the Flora of Brazil is completed by 2020 a huge amount will have been achieved – but I would be willing to bet more is done.


Vinicius Castro Souza leading a discussion of how a Flora of Brazil might be achieved, with others of the organizing committee looking on.


The congress was punctuated by the ascent of one of the local football teams, Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, to the top of Série A of the Brazilian league.


The streets were full of people selling flags and banners – bought and hung out of car windows and draped around supporter’s shoulders.


The bars and restaurants all over town filled with excited supporters decked out in blue and white to watch the games on tv screens in the streets. So far, so normal – a bit like my neighbourhood in Highbury when Arsenal plays, although the noise here is on a different level altogether – car horns hooting, constant fireworks in the streets. When Cruzeiro won midweek to claim the league for the third time in history (with 4 games to go!) Belo Horizonte exploded – all night. The chap I bought a banner from was slightly mystified with my comment that 1966, the year Cruzeiro first won the league was the same year that England won the World Cup – it didn’t register, or perhaps it was my fractured Portuguese! Jeff Ollerton, a colleague for Northampton also here for the congress, likened the horn tooting to cicadas – it got to be background noise after a while, but the big booms were startling, especially during talks!


Another high point of the Congresso was its location – right across the street from the central market of Belo Horizonte. The pepper stalls were truly amazing – fresh and pickled peppers like I have never before seen. I could have spent days wandering through the stalls and small shops – everything and anything was for sale from brooms and kitchen pots, to herbal medicines, to pets.


In this Aladdin’s cave peppers preserved in oil and in cachaça – all sorts, all sizes, all colours – were for sale.


Each variety in this shop (called Paraiso da Pimenta – pepper paradise!) was rated for spiciness.


Cachaça, a spirit distilled from fresh sugarcane juice and a key ingredient of the famous cocktail caipirinha, is a speciality of Minas Gerais – and the sheer variety of types was amazing. Just like whiskey it is cured in wooden barrels, with age and method important for achieving the very different tastes – tasting was tempting, but there were talks to go to in the afternoon!


The congress dinner involved great conversation and samba music – Brazil really knows how to throw a party. João Renato Stehmann, the president of the congress, summed up the event in numbers

  • 1461 botanists registered
  • 1809 posters
  • 156 speakers
  • 11 keynote lectures
  • 20 training courses…..


My colleague from the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais João Renato Stehmann did an incredible job begin the president of this event while all the while being cheerful and a great colleague – he had even been in the field with us a few days before the event began! He deserves his halo…

All in all an inspiring week of botany in a country whose botanical community is vibrant, young and who are all really going places. This week has reminded me of why I study plants, and how lucky I am to be doing so.


I’ll miss walking from my hotel past the beautiful architecture of Belo Horizonte – but the field beckons again.


This apartment block on the Praça da Liberdade was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, one of the key figures in modernism and the designer of many buildings in Belo Horizonte (most notably in Pampulha, where I had seen the capybaras early on in my stay).


A new species from the state of São Paulo and the enigmatic Solanum enantiophyllanthum are calling to us now, and tomorrow we set off to the south for a few days in the forest and in the really important herbarium of the Instituto de Bôtanica de São Paulo, where I am sure treasures await…. I’m glad I don’t have to leave Brazil quite yet!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


After our fantastic day in Serra da Jibóia we decided to go west to the small bit of protected forest in Serra do Timbo, where Lynn had been in 2009 and seen the very narrowly distributed and quite peculiar genus Heteranthia (PDF 103KB), long thought to not be a member of the Solanaceae. In fact it is a perfectly good member of the family, as Lynn has shown using DNA sequencing and phylogenetic reconstruction.


First we had to go into the small town of Amargosa to check in with the NGO who manage the land. They were a bit discouraging - there hadn’t been anyone up there for ages and there were no trails, and lots of roads. But we thought, what could the problem be? We have our GPS…and the coordinates of Lynn’s previous collection…what can possibly go wrong?


I love the Brazilian flag – what I didn’t know until now was that the stars represent the state capitals, only one of which (Amapá) is north of the equator – the banner says “Ordem e Progreso” (Order and Progress).


In Amargosa we were given a note and a rough map – the note to hand to the manager of the huge farm Fazenda do Timbo, in which the forest patch sits, the map to help us find it. We duly checked in at the farm, where the manager was out, but we spoke to one of his deputies and all was well.


These women were separating beans from the bits of husk and dirt left behind from shelling – all by hand. In the house next door was a huge skip-sized container full of the ones they had left to do.


We could see the forest on the top of the ridges so headed up – confusingly the directions given to us at the farm were slightly different to those given to us in town – we should have had an inkling of trouble then! But up we went.


In the stream-bottom in cultivated land we saw these Mauritia palms – I usually associate these with the Amazon, it was odd to see them here; these forests in Bahia share many elements with Amazonian forests further north, but have many endemic elements as well.


Back in the ridges there was an absolute maze of tiny dirt roads – junctions everywhere you turned – incredibly confusing! None of them connected either, so we would see a road on the next ridge over that seemed to be going into forest, but had to go all the way back to the bottom to go up it… the GPS kept telling us we were a bit wrong, and we kept going away from the forest. This is when a GPS can be so irritating, always pointing in slightly the other direction; the roads were so small that none of them were on the road layer either! But at least the sun was shining...


Eventually we found one edge of the protected area we were looking for, but the GPS said the Heteranthia was to the south – we reckoned we were on one edge of the forest, but needed another road to get into the middle of it.


We did find some nice Solanum species in this forest patch, including the lovely species Leandro had just published – Solanum anisocladum (PDF 460KB). It only had tiny buds though.


We found another road in and went back up, this time into a bigger patch of forest, where we all leapt out of the car and walked up a small trail along a stream. It didn’t look right to Lynn for Heteranthia, but we were all really sick of driving around and around!


In the understory Lucas found a real prize – Solanum restingae – another of the species of section Geminata I described from Brazil in the late 1980s. Just like Solanum cordioides, it usually occurs on the coast and an enigmatic collection from this forest patch had me wondering. I hadn’t expected to find it in this spot though, the coordinates I had were some 10 kilometres to the southwest.


Solanum restingae is a small tree about 4 metres high, with the characteristic geminate (twinned) leaves of the group. I always think these plants are beautiful, but I guess it is an acquired taste.


Solanum restingae was the other target for the day – in herbaria people had been identifying specimens of any Solanum from Bahia with non-hairy leaves and stems as this, while it seemed there might be two very similar species. One of these we had collected at Fazenda Duas Barras – it was a little tiny forest shrub with green fruits, but the leaf bases and stems looked different to me in the herbarium. Seeing true Solanum restingae in the field would confirm or deny my suspicions about these – were they two species or just one variable one?


Our Fazenda Duas Barras specimen is a new species! It was also exciting to see Solanum restingae from the field – another one I can now imagine as a real plant and not just herbarium sheets.


Solanum restingae was indeed quite different – so our Fazenda Duas Barras is a new species! The differences between the two species are many, including:

      • Tree versus small shrub
      • Stems winged versus smooth
      • Leaves tapering at the base versus slightly heart-shaped
      • Calyx tiny and almost absent versus long and swollen

So now I will just need to be sure I can see these on herbarium specimens, and write an identification guide that allows others to do so as well!


Solanum restingae is a good example of the pitfalls of naming new species… when I first named it this species was known from only two or three collections from the very particular coastal habitat in Bahia called “restinga arborea” – so I named it for what I thought at the time was its specialised habitat. Oh, how wrong can one be!! Solanum is such a big genus that new names are hard to come up with – most obvious epithets referring to the plant form or colour have already been used. So – Solanum restingae is a misnomer, it certainly does not only occur in the restinga. It is the oldest name, however, so we will have to live with it – and besides it rather trips off the tongue, so is not so bad. 


Habitats under pressure


The new collecting that has been done in these Atlantic forests of southern Brazil has really increased our knowledge of the diversity of the plants in them – so species we thought were highly restricted a decade or so ago are now known from more collections so we have a better idea of their ecology and habitat preferences.


Still, these deep forest solanums like Solanum restingae have less and less habitat all the time as the forest is cut down, so small protected areas like that in the Serra do Timbo are essential for their survival. Once they might have occurred all the way from the coast inland where now there are only agricultural fields; we are unlikely to ever know for sure, our human footprint on the landscape is so big.


Exhausted from the to-and-fro driving, but pleased to have found at least one exciting thing, we gave up on Heteranthia for this year. Maybe another time…all in all not a bad last day in the field for a while.


On our way out we stopped for one last Solanum – and collected a prickly monster from the roadside with dark burgundy colored thorns about 1cm wide at the base. In the key it comes out as Solanum jabrense, described by our colleague Fatima Agra – but that species is supposed to have straight prickles, not these flattened monsters. We will have to save a piece for her to look at when we get back to Belo Horizonte.


Yet another mystery – another new species or just variation that hasn’t been recorded yet? Either is just fine and an increase in knowledge.


Our GPS track around the Serra do Timbo must look like spaghetti junction – it seems we went everywhere but where to find Heteranthia! Next time for sure…


Leaving Itabuna we wound our way up through cacao country along the main road, through long stops due to road repairs, villages full of roadside stands and mile after mile of cacao planted in the understory of large trees. From the air it looks like forest and retains many of its functions - it is good for birds, for example (like shade coffee), but not good for the understory Solanum species I am interested in.


These roadside stands in small villages sell everything – this one has oranges, pottery, chopping boards in the shape of cashew fruits, cacao pods, and lots of bags of beijú, a sort of cracker made from cassava flour.


We stopped in the town of São Antonio de Conquista to collect a Masters student from Bahia who will be with us for this stretch of the journey – Lucas Marinho. He is studying the genus Tovomita in the family Clusiaceae, and works with André Amorim, the curator of the CEPEC herbarium, where we were a few days ago in Ilhéus. We also did some shopping – we will be camping (sort of) for the next few days.


Another brand name amusing for English ears – this juice drink comes in all sorts of flavours – but they all basically tasted the same – sweet, although I think I liked pineapple (abacaxi) best!


We are staying in a small house in the protected area run by Gambá (Group Ambientalista de Bahia) – they do great work managing the forest, providing native trees for reforestation projects and rehabilitating animals for release back into the wild.


One of these is unlikely to go back any time soon though – a tame guan (jacú) immediately found us and begged for food with a soft, but incredibly irritating (after a while) cooing noise. Lynn tried, rather unsuccessfully, to train her to perch on her (Lynn’s) arm by offering bits of papaya, but Tonia liked crackers better and refused.


Her name is Tonia and she is a species of the genus Penelope, we are not sure which, the bird book here is not the best.


Although birds are great, we were after plants so off we went into the forest along the small river coming out of the mountains. This was a much drier area than places we had been, some of the trees were deciduous and the understory was much vinier. We came here to find Leandro’s new species – called by us now the “fan thing” and we were not disappointed! It was everywhere along the trail… But no flowers or fruits…


That (momentary) disappointment was made up for though by finding what is certainly a new species related to the Solanum polytrichum we collected along the road to Una, much closer to the coast! Its relationship to that species is clear in its intense prickliness, very star-shaped flowers and fruits that are enclosed in the prickly calyx that grows a lot after flowering. We are sure this is different – how exciting!


The star-shaped flowers of this new species are pink, rather than green.


The calyx lobes that enclose the white fruit are thinner than those of the Solanum polytrichum we found close to the coast.


We stopped at a little waterfall, an oasis of wet vegetation amidst the drier (but pretty wet all the same) slopes.


We came back to the house for lunch and a bit of interim plant pressing before going up to the microwave towers on the top of the ridge - these are called La Pionera as well as Serra da Jibóia apparently – this can be why plant labels are so confusing, these sorts of double namings are never on maps or in atlases or gazetteers.


Leandro and Lucas pressing in front of the house with an audience (you can see Lynn in the background trying to train Tonia)!


The road up to the top of Serra da Jibóia was chock-full of solanums – including the “fan thing” in fruit! Now we can see why it has this temporary name…


This new species appears to only flower and fruit sparingly – or perhaps we are in the wrong season. The calyx in fruit expands to look like a little miniature ceiling fan – hence the name; it needs a good scientific name now…


We also found another one of the incredibly prickly vines with hairy fruits related to the Solanum rupincola we collected in Fazanda Duas Barras. This one had white flowers and a smaller fruit that was dark burgundy red outside and with only a very few black seeds inside – it tasted good though!


Another species in this group, Solanum depauperatum, had been collected along the same road, but this plant is not that – maybe it is another new one!


The top of the ridge was amazing – the quartzite rock was covered with huge terrestrial bromeliads (pineapple family) with inflorescences that were taller than I am – about 2m tall! These rocky outcrops have a special flora …  But we were still on the hunt for the one species that had been recorded from here that I couldn’t believe actually grew here…


The view from the top towards the west – the huge rocky outcrops are inselbergs.


A member of the Velloziaceae, a family most diverse in these habitats on inselbergs and a Brazilian speciality; the flowers are about 3-4cm across. At the foot of this plant we also saw tiny sundews (Drosera) – this is very nutrient-poor soil.


After some time looking around the top and climbing down the slopes, we decided to go back before it got dark, giving up on finding Solanum cordioides, a species I had described in 2002 from areas near Una on the coast. I thought that perhaps the label had been in error or something – until Lynn sang her Bob Marley Solanum-finding song, and then a few minutes later shouted out STOP!! And there it was, a 7m tall tree of Solanum cordioides – I had wanted to see this in field ever since first seeing it in the herbarium, and oh how lovely! This has got to be one of the most beautiful solanums I have described… but what a strange distribution…


Our working idea is that Solanum cordioides occurs in nutrient poor soils, like the sandy soils of the coast and these inland inselbergs, but I need to do some more mapping and looking at specimens to see. The flowers are only about 6cm across, but are very conspicuous in upright groups amidst the shiny dark green leathery leaves…


What a way to end the day… I am not sure I have ever been more excited to see a plant in the field – it is great when you see something you are seeking that in turn generates new ideas about how nature works. We left agreeing with the sign we found at the top – it says “Nature is the only book all of whose pages (leaves) have value” – so very true.



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…