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Seeking nightshades in South America

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The flora of Argentina

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

 

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

 

Solanum synonymy

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

 

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

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Solanum aloysiifolium

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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Looking towards back to Argentina at Argentina’s customs sheds

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Beautifully clear water in Lago Villarino

 

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

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So it turns out Rio Mayo is the national sheep-shearing capital of Argentina – who would have guessed! It was also one of the windiest places I have ever been – the hotel manager told us the rooms had no windows because they try to keep the weather out in the winter. Pretty grim. The street graffiti was great though..

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I think this is actually advertising a brand of yerba mate, but it felt like Darwin was still following us

 

Today was a day for getting to the north, through the province of Chubut to the district of lakes in the province of Neuquén. It was a marathon drive – still along Ruta 40, which the GPS satnav had real trouble with, it has recently changed course and the poor machine kept getting confused. This of course necessitated a lot of discussion about which way to go – but we got here in the end. We had one last Benthamiella stop at an estancia where a plant had been collected in the 1940s – not much use, these estancias are huge and we had no idea even where to start. We had a go though, both in some hills and around a dry lake – no luck. The sun was unbelievably strong, if it hadn’t been so windy we would have fried.

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The main houses of Estancia Quichaumes are the trees you can barely see in the middle distance – the only locality info on the label of Benthamiella graminifolia is “Estancia Quichaumes”; talk about needles in haystacks!

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The area is super dry, at an earlier stop all the plants we were looking for were dried out and crumbly – despite it being completely dry, this lake was full of geese (cauquenes)

 

We decided to make tracks for San Carlos de Bariloche, a large town in the middle of the national park of Nahuel Huapi. The habitat again changed rapidly and quite abruptly – from dry steppe to mountains with forests of Nothofagus (southern beech), Austrocedrus (southern cedar) and Araucaria (monkey puzzle trees)! We stopped to see an old friend, Cecilia Ezcurra, who works in the herbarium in Bariloche, where we will go for an hour or so tomorrow. Then it is into the mountains where new plants await!

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What a change from the dried out lake about 200 km to the south!

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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The metropolis of Bajo Caracoles

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Franco collecting seeds of Nicotiana ameghinoi

 

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

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Fabiana foliosa, not much of a plant!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Benthamiella azorella close up and personal

 

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

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Flamingoes and the Andes - can't beat it

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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With the morning and the break of the heat wave came the wind – I now believe the tales of Patagonian wind! We left San Julian, heading south… to find more populations of all of our solanaceous friends. The idea of the trip was to go south via the coast and then north again via the Andes, today was the day where we made the crossing to the west. But first, we looked for more Petunia patagonica. At a semi-random stop on a junction with a tiny (locked shut) dirt track to Punta Beagle (we can’t seem to get away from Darwin, not that one would want to!)  we found huge plants of the “petunia” – we are now certain it is not a Petunia! These cushion plants must be very old indeed, some of them were four or five metres in diameter and had entire ecosystems growing inside them. They seem to never get more than about 30 cm tall, but spread and die out in the middle.

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Juan sitting in the middle a huge Petunia that has died inthe middle; Franco has a theory that this is where the seeds fall!

 

Before our collecting stop we passed through Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, where Juan (who was driving) was breathalyzed – at nine in the morning! We went into town, bought petrol and then and to go back to our collecting site – fortunately for us they were all at lunch when we next passed through! After a bit more frustrating looking for and not finding Benthamiella, we headed west. Against all advice, and ignoring a sign saying “Camino intransitable” (Road impassable) we headed straight across the province of Santa Cruz on Route 9 – a dirt track that went along a high pampa above the extraordinarily coloured Rio Santa Cruz. The river, which we had crossed at its mouth in Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, was a milky blue colour – this comes from its origins in the glaciers of the Andes, where we were headed.

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The Santa Cruz River from the table land where we were driving...

 

The road of course was perfectly good, in fact excellent! The best bit was that there was no one else on it, so when we stopped to look for plants no one minded. The wind was incredible – it was blowing so hard that it was hard to stand up when you got out of the car. At one terrific stop we found a treasure trove of Solanaceae – including the quite bizarre Jaborosa magellanica that Gloria, who studied these plants for her PhD, had never seen in the field. The dark purple, almost black flowers smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies. We also found Nicotiana corymbosa – one of my target species; it is a wild tobacco with incredibly sticky (and smelly) leaves. The car stank!!

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Jaborosa magellanica - the flowers are almost black!

 

By this time it was freezing cold and the wind was blowing so hard that when I tried to climb back over the fence to get back to the car it pushed me back into it and I somersaulted backwards. The weather had definitely changed, and was changing as we went west. Route 9 was an amazing road, through wide open steppes, with guanacos everywhere and fantastic clouds framing the scenery. Before heading to our destination El Calafate we made one last stop looking still for Benthamiella – at about 9 pm, as usual for us on this trip. It must have been about 5 degrees Centigrade – what a change for the other day! And we have snow and glaciers to come, we could just see them in the distance as we approached Calafate at the end of the light…..

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The steppes at sunset

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

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Rocky cliffs along the Rio Deseado

 

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

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Puerto Deseado

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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The leafless stems and tiny flowers of Fabiana nana

 

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

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

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

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Searching for the elusive Benthamiella.


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

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Juan rather desperately looking along the railway

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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A new genus?

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

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

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Petrol queues in the middle of nowhere!

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Gloria+Benthamiella_MG_2783.JPGGloria with our first Benthamiella find.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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The Atlantic in the distance, mouth of the Rio Negro

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

 

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

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