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Seeking nightshades in South America

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

The people

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

 

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

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

 

The food

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

The facilities

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Small disasters

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

The roads

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Last but definitely not least, the plants

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Besides – it’s great fun!

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Land of the giants

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 15, 2013

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

 

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

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A day of contrasts (again!)

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Fields on the road from Cabanas

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Exodeconus prostratus grew amongst rocks and had very fleshy leaves

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The long drive….

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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

 

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

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


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

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


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

 

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

 

Carnivore country


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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Fishing streams in Valle Hermosa

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The flora of Argentina

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

 

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

 

Solanum synonymy

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

 

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

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Solanum aloysiifolium

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Looking towards back to Argentina at Argentina’s customs sheds

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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