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Seeking nightshades in South America

38 Posts tagged with the identification tag
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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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Today we spent the day databasing specimens in the local Trujillo herbarium; all herbaria have 1-4 letter acronyms, standard codes so we all know what collection we are talking about – the one for the herbarium in Trujillo is HUT. It is a small collection and has been built up over the last few decades by a series of local botanists – the one I knew the best was Abundio Sagástegui, who sadly died a few years ago.

 

The collection is rich in material from this area of Peru – and has a lot of gems. For example – I described Solanum clivorum in 1992 and have only seen a few specimens. Here at HUT we saw eight new ones, thus expanding our knowledge about this species’ distribution hugely! 

 

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

 

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Maria used the other computer to database specimens, balancing it all on a stool…..

 

Trujillo is a beautiful city, with old colonial architecture and wonderfully painted buildings. We managed to become part of a parade to celebrate the local team having won the national women’s volleyball championship – brass bands and all.

 

The Plaza de Armas is the heart of any Peruvian city – the one in Trujillo features brightly and freshly painted buildings, now mostly government offices (it is the capital of La Libertad Department) and a fantastic mustard coloured cathedral.

 

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The taxi count in Trujillo’s city centre is phenomenal – we counted about 10 taxis to every private car, and no buses – perhaps the streets are too narrow

 

Trujillo was named after the birthplace in Spain of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who led the expedition that defeated the Inca rulers of Peru. It has a long and distinguished history since that founding in 1536, and has been the site of many important events in Peruvian history; it was the first Peruvian city to declare independence from Spain.

 

But Trujillo's history began long before Europeans came onto the scene – it was at the centre of both the Moche and Chimu cultures, pre-Inca coastal peoples who constructed monumental pyramids of adobe (clay bricks) and mud. One thing I love about Peru is that wherever you are, the history stretches far back into extraordinary events and cultures, but those cultures are also alive and evident today.

 

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Many of the houses on the Plaza retain the original (or restored) Spanish colonial balconies made of wood from which women would watch festivities safely hidden from view

 

So after a day’s hard work in HUT, we re-identified about half of the Solanum collection, added new and exciting locality records to our field trip planning and made new friends.

 

Although many of the collections we entered into the database were already represented by duplicates from elsewhere (because plants are big, botanists usually collect several examples and share them with other collections), I still think it is important to have the specimens from small local herbaria like HUT in a main project database – it gives visibility to institutions that otherwise sometimes go un-noticed and lets other botanists know that there is treasure to be found in these small collections!

 

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Sandy, William and Paul outside the door to one of the rooms housing the HUT herbarium

 

Tomorrow collecting begins in earnest – our route has been planned using the information we have derived from the collections we saw today, plus those already in the database, and from the knowledge of where people haven’t been!

 

If all goes well we will go from the deserts of the coast to montane cloud forest near the town of Cajamarca, where we will find another small, but rich herbarium to work in the next day. What will be our most exciting find? It’s bound to be something we don’t expect……

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One of the things scientists do today that never happened in the past is to request official permission to conduct scientific research in another country. It might seem a bit bureaucratic and overly pernickety, but the issue of permits for collecting is an important way in which tropical countries rich in biodiversity manage their natural resources – probably the most important of which is biodiversity itself.

 

In Peru, all permissions for collection are managed through the Ministry of Agriculture, and there are clearly laid out rules for how to apply. I already have a permit for collecting Solanaceae – but this year I needed to sort out a permit for new work to be done under the Museum’s science initiatives.

 

The Museum's Natural Resources Initiative has three strands:

 

  • Critical Elements managed by Richard Herrington of Earth Sciences
  • Neglected and Emerging Diseases managed by Tim Littlewood of Life Sciences
  • Crop and Pest Wild Relatives (CPWR), managed by me – we jokingly call it the rocks, pox and crops initiative!

 

Crop and Pest Wild Relatives


Our main idea in the CPWR strand is to use the data from our and other collections to look at the distributions of crop wild relatives and the wild relatives of major crop pests, then use these data to model both plant and insect responses to the changing environment, taking into account the evolutionary relationships of each of the groups, a sort of orthogonal axis.

 

We have chosen to begin with the rich Solanaceae dataset I and collaborators have amassed over many years of databasing specimens in herbaria all over the world and manage through Solanaceae Source – it means the plant layer is done already! We will then begin to digitise (image, database and geolocate) all the Museum’s specimens of three major pest groups – beetles (relatives of the Colorado Potato Beetle, one of the worst pests of potato), leafhoppers or jumping plant lice (devastating pests of all kinds of crops), and fruit flies (big pests of tomato and aubergine). We also will do a new kind of collecting, where entomologists and botanists go in the field together – we will collect all the insects associated with particular Solanaceae species (well, really from any we see), thus compiling data on who lives where and on whom.

 

Hence the need to collect insects on Solanaceae in Peru – the centre of diversity for both wild potatoes and tomatoes. And the necessity of obtaining a legal permit to export the specimens so they can be compared with our collections and identified; I completed all the paperwork last night, and submitted it all at the Ministry today.

 

The importance of doing this now is that we are taking advantage of my current collecting trip to Peru for Tiina and my joint project on endemics, and two Museum entomologists are joining us in the middle of May – Erica McAlister (curator of flies and well known from her flygirl blog!) and Diana Percy (researcher on leafhoppers) will test out our collecting protocols and get the first field data for the initiative. It is exciting, as it feels like things are really starting!

 

Changes in Peru

 

Lima is a funny place – it is big, chaotic and has a very energetic, almost frenetic feel. It is in the dry coastal zone of Peru, so rain never (or very rarely) falls – the only moisture is fog from the sea. Getting to the Ministry involves wild taxi rides through crowded streets – dodging accidents and traffic jams. I lived in Peru in the 1980s, at a difficult time for the country; it was in the grip of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist threat then.

 

Today Lima is a more open, vibrant place – and things are really happening. Even the huge multistory tower that is part of the Social Security complex next to the Peruvian National Natural History Museum looks like it is due for changes – the sign says 'Soon this tower will be at your service. After 30 years'. This building has stood empty since the early 1980s, towering over the museum gardens. So, let’s see if things really do change!

 

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The Seguro Social tower - ready for a long-delayed makeover!

 

We head to the north on Sunday – passing through the herbaria of Trujillo and Cajamarca to enter data from specimens of endemic species into Solanaceae Source. Then the fieldwork blog will really be about field work at last!

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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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My trip to Peru for Solanum collecting began with a stop in Durham, North Carolina – home of Duke University – where I was invited to talk at the opening of an exhibition about the herbarium.

 

This small but extremely rich university herbarium has great strengths in particular parts of the world, like Costa Rica – and the director, Kathleen Pryer (a fern taxonomist) has very ably convinced the administration that it is a real treasure. I feel very honoured that they have invited me to open the exhibit. University collections like this are really important for teaching and for introducing a whole range of biologists to the importance of museums and what they hold.

 

But before we do that – I got to go out in the incredibly biodiverse North Carolina forest for a walk with a great group of Duke biologists and friends. We dodged poison ivy (a southern speciality) to see some really lovely late spring flora – I left London as spring was just beginning, but here, much further south, early spring is long gone. But a few jewels were still to be seen.

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The spring wildflowers come out before the tree canopy closes over and the light is limited

 

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Trillum catesbyi

 

Trilliums are a North American speciality – this one is named for Mark Catesby, whose book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in the early 1700s brought the wealth of American plants to European eyes. We hold many of the plant specimens Catesby collected in the Natural History Museum – in the historically very important Sloane herbarium that is kept safe on the top floor of the Darwin Centre cocoon.

 

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Hexastylis arifolia

 

The peculiar 'wild gingers' are not gingers at all, but are related to Dutchman’s pipe, in the family Aristolochiaceae. The common name of this species is apparently 'Littlebrownjug' – very apt. The flowers are borne under the leaf litter and the seeds are dispersed by ants. We saw another Hexastylis as well, with smaller flowers - this part of the world is rich in species of the genus.

 

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Arisaema triphylla - Jack-in-the-Pulpit

 

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a common woodland herb in the arum family – the flowers are held inside the spathe, or arched hood. In this North American species plants are either male, with all the flowers having pollen, or female, and all the flowers develop into fruit. So my colleagues said this one – with all female flowers – was a “Jill-in-the-Pulpit”!

 

An individual plant is male when it is young and doesn’t have enough energy to develop fruit, and when it is big enough and can generate enough energy to see fruit development through to seed maturity, switches to being female. Seeds are a big investment for a plant. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a perennial, living through many years, so when its reserves are not enough to support fruit and seed production it produces male flowers only and doesn't lose out in the reproduction stakes.

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For me one of the most exciting plants we saw on the walk was the paw-paw, or Asimina triloba – a real taste of the tropics. Most of the members of this family are to be found in tropical rainforests, this is the only species in this family in North America! The fruits are edible and it is thought that native peoples spread them all over the southeastern USA.

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Asimina triloba - the Paw-Paw, a very tropical looking flower!

 

We didn’t see any nightshades, but that didn’t matter – it was great to see the truly special flora of the southeastern part of the United States. Walking in the forest made me think about what it must have been like for those first plant hunters like Catesby and the Bartrams (Judith Magee of the Museum Library has written a wonderful book about William Bartram) who encountered all these strange and wonderful plants and sent them carefully back to England to be planted in British gardens.

 

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The Duke plant hunters -  Mike Windham, Alec Motten, Job Shaw, Yu-Hsuan Liu, Fay-Wei Li, Layne Huiet, Blanka Shaw, Diane, Paul Manos, Jose Eduardo Meireles (also known as Dudu) and Eddie the dog!

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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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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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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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