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Seeking nightshades in South America

28 Posts tagged with the mountains tag
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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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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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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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On the road again!!

Posted by Sandy Knapp Jan 12, 2013

After almost a year in the herbarium and lab, I am ready for the wide-open spaces of field work again! This year I go (without Tiina, who is getting organised for another Peruvian adventure and for her new job in Edinburgh) to Argentina again to collect nightshades with my colleagues from Cordoba - Gloria Barboza and Franco Chiarini. This year we go south to Argentine Patagonia - in search of the rare and endemic nightshade genera Combera and Pantacantha, both of which only occur in the region. We have received funding both from the Museum and from the Argentine National Science Foundation's Pedersen Fund for collecting, so its a real joint effort.  I'll also visit another colleague in Mendoza - Iris Peralta, who worked at the Museum in 2001 on the tomato monograph with me. It will be great to see everyone again, and to find some new and exciting plants!

 

Franco has mapped out some collecting localities - and sent me the route all mapped out in Google Earth - its an epic journey - each day is ina different colour - a real road trip in the making! We will go down the coast and back to Cordoba through the Andes.......

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The tiny white typing is the localities for collecting particular plants - I have never seem many of these Patagonian endemics in the flesh before, so going to places where others have seen them is a good start. I'm sure we will find new populations and see new things though - we always do. I am in the Museum this weekend getting all the bags and envelopes together for collecting - Patagonia is a long way from anywhere and we don't want to run out of supplies for sampling.

 

When I looked at the distribution of Solanum collections in the Solanaceae Source database we have been building up over the last few years Patagonia is a real hole - so any Solanum we collect will be a great addition; they are not as common in southern Argentina as in Peru or northern Argentina, but they must be there....  I am sure of it!!

 

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See the hole just above this place? All that database entry is really starting to pay off now - we can see where we need to either collect more, or add georeference points to our database......

 

The Patagonian endemics are small scrubby plants - I am especially looking forward to seeing the bizarre Petunia patagonica in the wild - I am sure it is not a Petunia, but am not quite sure what genus it belongs to really - seeing it in the wild and collecting some leaves for molecular analysis will help us to place it in the nightshade family tree, so watch this space!

 

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Here is Petunia patagonica growing in the Apline House at Kew - its a sticky little shrublet about the size of a basketball - the flowers are about 1 cm long and very oddly patterned - can't wait to see it in its native habitat!!

 

I leave for Cordoba on Wednesday - so its all a bit of a rush to get ready to go, but the permits to collect are all sorted, even for the national parks. This is the most important aspect of getting ready for a field trip - and sometimes the most difficult. I'm lucky to have such great colleagues in Argentina who help with all the necessities of this part of the work.

 

Next post - from Argentina!!

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18th March – Amazonia here we come!

 

We are just recovering from yesterday night – we were driving along the Carretera Interoceanica thinking there will be plenty of places to stay. Darkness here comes at six, and by the time it was 7 pm we were desperate to find a nice place for the night. Unfortunately the route we are taking is not touristy at all. So there we were, without a place to stay and all options we could find looked dim. So dim it seemed the hostals we saw had front wall and an open back to them. Andrew came up with a new saying – always check your hostel has walls…

 

The local police in Ocongate told us that the best place in town was 5 km away along the main road. We took his advice, and found the amazing “Parador del Ausangate”. They had everything! The place is most immaculate, the owners most welcoming, and we really enjoyed our night.

 

The views in the morning were breath taking. Parador del Ausangate is next to Cordillera del Ausangate, a popular destination for hicking and mountain climbing. The highest peak is Nevado Ausangate at 6384 m. All peaks are covered in snow, making the scenery fantastic.

 

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Once on the road again, we were heading to Amazonia. First we had to drive through the pass at 4780 m. As usual, puna vegetation means finding Salpichroas. A few kilometers after the pass we found a beautiful specimen of Salpichroa glandulosa. Paul had to get his boots wet to collect it along the stream. I kept dry and took pictures

 

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The road descended to Amazonian lowlands quickly. Before we knew it we were at 500 m elevation. The houses changed shape: now everything was build from wood, whilst in the puna houses are made of clay and straw. We took some side roads in order to explore the forest, and bumbed into a small hydroelectric dam and its keeper señor Juan Cruz. Juan is a keen entymologist, and new everything about the local insect fauna. He had recently found something he had never seen in his 55 years he has lived in the area. It was big, with a large horne with stiff hairs all along it. If any insect experts can identify this, names are welcome, we are fascinated!

 

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Juan told us that these insects, and particular rare butterflies sell for up to 400 soles. That is a large sum of money here. Some collectors even come to him regularly to see what he has got, and offer to buy anything of their interest. On his small farm around the dam Juan had some interesting plants too. Solanum sessiliflorum, locally known as cocona, was growing next to his fire hut, a species native to Peru and much cultivated for its delicious fruits that can be used for jams, juice and preserves. It’s related to the other cultivated species, Solanum quitoense, known as naranjilla, commonly eaten in Ecuador.

 

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We enjoyed some juicy sugar cane stem with Juan and offered bisquits in return which we had bought earlier. We made some nice collections around the dam, but as time was ticking we had to return to the main road. Two of the most interesting collections of the day were things we didn’t quite know. Before Sandy left we promised to her to post any pictures of things we can’t name, so here they are, hopefully something exciting! First, Solanum tree with unusually large calyx:

 

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And another one, this time a tree species of Solanum from the Geminata clade:

 

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Where did we stay the night this time? Well that is another story in itself, read on tomorrow to find out!

 

 

19th March – Rare finds

 

The night brought us trouble again. There was nowhere to stay in most towns we passed, or at least there were no hostels with both front AND back walls . So we kept driving until 8 pm. It was dark and we were desperate. Originally we had planned to stay in Puerto Inambari, a city where the Carretera Interoceanica meets another large road connecting the Amazonian lowlands to Puno and Juliaca near the Bolivian border. We assumed Puerto Inambari would be a bustling town ready to receive passing by passengers. We blinked and Puerto Inambari was gone… Another 17 km further down the road was another town, same case, there was nothing. We decided to continue on the road until the provincial capital San Gapán. Provincial capitals often have more accommodation available, and our hopes were high. Another 64 km later we arrived to San Gapán and stopped at first hotel we saw!

 

We woke up slightly later to recover from last nights errors. The lesson we are quickly learning is that never assume there are places to stay, unless you are heading to tourist areas like the Sacred valley in Cusco.

 

Today’s route included an exciting climb. The road from San Gapán to Juliaca and Puno crosses the eastern cordillera. Once you are up in 3500 m elevation, the uplands begin and seem never to stop until you get to the coast another 1000 km away. These uplands are not homogeneous though: the best ever microhabitat in the high elevation are the sand dune habitats near 4000 m.


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We passed one of these dunes, just like beach sand, and stopped to see if Solanum chamaesarachidium would be there – and it was!!! This species is a minute Solanum species, the whole plant is barely the size of a thumb. What a specialised niche it has as well: sand dunes at 4000 m elevation are not common!

 

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Today’s unidentified Solanum was one that Sandy knows like the back of her hands – species from the Geminata clade. We didn’t know what it was, but will use Sandy’s key to identify it once back in Lima.

 

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Other species we found included the weedy but wonderful Solanum chenopodioides.

 

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Many people confuse it with Solanum americanum, but Solanum chenopodioides has larger calyx lobes, corolla with black eye, larger anthers, generally fewer flowers per inflorescence, pedicels that become strongly reflexed in fruit, and dull black coloured fruits. Here is Solanum americanum for comparison – it takes careful looking but the differences are there!

 

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Last but not least comes the most challenging collection of the day. Andrew and Paul had to use some robe, seceteurs, and clever thinking to get this one! Solanum grandiflorum grows up to 6 m high, but what makes it tricky is that it lacks low lying branches – flowering shoots especially are all in the crown of the tree. Collecting big trees is defenetely much more time consuming…

 

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We are only a few days into our latest tour, but have made it already to Macusani. Macusani is a big provincial capital, and we had no trouble finding a nice place to stay. But internet is still difficult to come across. There are places but full of youngsters playing video games online!

 

 

20th March – Through the highlands

 

Today was all about making the miles, and getting to Sandia. We are heading to the southeast corner of the department of Puno to visit some type localities of names for which types got destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War. It was a long day, with highland scenery.

 

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We were driving on top of the mountains all day – this was my clever plan to avoid dangerous mountains roads, ascending and descending all the time with plenty of curves that turn your belly around. The strategy worked, and we made the distance. Sleeping well tonight in Sandia. Hoping tomorrow to find a cash machine as we are running out of cash. Or will we have to succumb to washing dishes after dinner???!!

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Setting the scene...

Posted by Tiina Feb 2, 2012

We all like eating tomatoes and potatoes - what could be better than chips with ketchup ! But did you know tomatoes and potatoes are extremely closely related? Although a red juicy tomato looks totally different to a pale yellow potato, the two plants share much of their DNA.

 

Potato and tomato belong to a group of plants known as Solanaceae - the nightshade family. In actual fact, they are so closely related they belong to the same genus within Solanaceae, known as Solanum. Tomato is called Solanum lycopersicum L. in scientific latin, whilst potato is known as Solanum tuberosum L.

 

 

Other well known species in the group include the bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplants, petunias, and tobacco - yes, incredibly this strongly flavoured plant is related to commonly eaten yummy things! South Americans might know more fruits from the family, such as naranjilla (Solanum quitoense Lam.), or tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea Sendt.) used for making preserves and juice. If you visit Mexico and indulge in local food culture, you come across another species from the family, tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica Lam.) which is used to prepare salsa for buritos, tacos and tortillas.

 

Below is a lovely phylogeny of the nighshades which illustrates how the species are related within the family. It's based on a small set of DNA data. It is still not complete as it only includes roughly 30% of all the species in the family. Our aim is to add more species as our research progresses. What you can see is that eggplant, tomato, potato and pepino are really closely related, and tobacco is the furthest relative of them all. Solanaceae_large_phylogeny_SMALL_for_blog.jpg

 

 

The nightshades were known to be a group of closely related plants before anybody even knew they are related based on their DNA. This is because all species in the group share a set of morphological characters. Some of these are very obvious such as flowers which are generally stellate, with five corolla lobes, and five stamens. The most clear character that unites the family is seeds. Seeds are small – think of tomato seeds! – flattened, kidney-shaped, and have puzzle-piece shaped cells if looked under a microscope. Most of seeds in the nightshade family have curled embryos. If you are curious, try looking at dried tomato seeds closely! You will see the impression of the curled embryo on the seed quite easily.

 

 

Other characters of the nightshade family are more hidden. For example, all nightshades have internal phloem which means that sugars produced in leaves via photosynthesis are transported down to roots inside the water transport system known as xylem. Most plants have an opposite type transport system where sugars are transported outside the waterpipe system.

 

 

Anyways, why all this ramble? Well, the thing is that we are about to go hunting for nightshades in the Andes! There are an estimated 4,500 species of nightshades in the world, and large number of these is found in the Andes. These are wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes and such likes, some weirder than other, some with tubers, whilst other climb trees! There are still species remaining to be described, waiting in the forests and mountain sides for discovery. We will be travelling in the northern part of Argentina and in Peru over the next coming 3 months – our aim is to collect as many species of Solanaceae on our way. This time we are targeting the particularly poorly known species of the Morelloid clade in the genus Solanum, a set of roughly 60 species.

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