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Seeking nightshades in South America

38 Posts tagged with the peru tag
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Crossing the Apurimac

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 16, 2012

from Tiina:

Yesterday’s landslides were scary. This morning we thought we have seen it all, but today we saw something different. We were driving down the valley of Apurimac, when we came across a bit of road next to the river where the cliff side was hanging over us – not under like in most landslides! The river had clearly eaten away rock underneath the hillside during a flood some time ago. Now what was remaining was a whole cliff side loosely hanging on to the mountain, and a road going underneath it. We had to take it, there was no detour. We did not even stop to take a photo – trust me, better that way.

 

Once pass the scary cliff side, we came to a bridge to cross Rio Apurimac. Sandy thought the bridge would make a nice lunch spot, so we stopped to enjoy the scenery, to take photos and to eat a watermelon we had bought earlier. We found Solanum americanum growing at the bridge site just as Sandy had predicted earlier that morning – her philosophy is that every stop brings new discoveries. She is right: whenever we have stopped to take a photo, we have also managed to find good solanums!

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The trouble with this plant at the bridge was that it was growing out of the bridge. In order to get it, Andrew had to lower himself down one of the bollards of the bridge. Luckily we did get a photo of this!

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Later that day we took a side road to Mollepata. This detour was recommended to us by Alberto Salas who is expert on potatoes. We met him before heading to our trip in Lima, and we were following his great recommendations to check out some good side roads. Mollepata turned out to be a great side road. We found a new population of Solanum anomalostemon as well as Solanum physalifolium.

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We left the humming town of Abancay – having first sorted out how to get the plant presses we had managed to forget in Andahuaylas the day before (it always happens at some point!) sent on to Cusco.  Peruvians have a great system for this, called “encomienda” – we sent money by bus company to the hotel keeper in Andahuaylas, then he kindly packed up the presses and sent them by bus to Cusco – all very efficient and easy.

 

As usual in the Andes the day began with a steep climb over a mountain pass – this time in dense fog – but we still managed to see some great plants. We stopped to look back at Abancay in the distance and Paul found a lovely Jaltomata (another genus in the Solanaceae) with densely furry filaments that were deep purple, a beautiful contrast to the pearly white flowers. We are not sure what species it is – but colleagues will let us know once we can send them the specimens!

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As has been the case for a few days on this not-so-well-travelled part of the Andean range, we ran into a bit of road trouble – another huaico had covered the road in at least three metres of mud – but the machines were out there sorting it out. We only had to wait about 20 minutes or so – nothing really in the grand scheme of things!

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Descending into the valley of the Río Apurimac we began to find new and interesting solanums – among them the wonderful species Solanum iltisii – named for the American botanist Hugh Iltis by one of his graduate students. It is a rather large tree with pretty white flowers, but its most peculiar feature is its warty fruits – the “warts” are the bases of hairs that fall off as the fruit matures. I have seen this species in the harbarium – it was great to see it in the flesh!

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As we descended twoards the town of Curahuasi, where we intended to spend the night, we began to look for Solanum anomalostemon, a species I had described with my colleague from the New York Botanical Garden Michael Nee in 2009 from herbarium specimens – I was really keen to see it alive! We called in anomalostemon for its very peculiar (for a solanum) heart-shaped anthers; found nowhere else in the genus. Well, we looked and looked, found lots of other things, so were about to give up – but- decided to have a look along the roadside in the landslips to see if we could find it there.  And – amazingly – there it was! Inconspicously sitting at the base of a landslide…  when he saw it Paul yelled out loud; we thought he had fallen and hurt himself….

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And it is as odd and I expected –what a strange plant. Tiny and flat, but with large (for a solanum) flowers with these most strange-shaped anthers. We fell to speculating as to what pollinated it….

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What a wonderful way to end the day – and just as we got into the car to head into Curahuasi, the snowy peak of Salkantay decided to reveal itself. All was right in the world.

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In Curahuasi the townspeople were celebrating Carnaval still (during Lent it seems to be a continual celebration rather than a time of abstinence – a good idea I think!) with the ceremony of cutting a tree decorated with presents.. same sort of thing we saw in Andahuaylas a few days back.  We agreed – a celebration was in order – for the wierdest solanum ever!!

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The road to Abancay.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 10, 2012

Yesterday’s road probems were tiny compared to today….. sometimes Peruvian roads must be seen to be believed.  Andahuaylas awoke to pouring rain, not a great result for the festival, but loads of people were outside getting organised. Off we set into the cloud, again climbing to more than 4000 m elevation to cross over a pass to get into the valley of Abancay, our next port of call. As I jumped out to take a picture of potatoes being grown at 4200 m, I realised it was actually snowing! Even the llamas looked wet and miserable, but stoic all the same, just like botanists, but we smile more!

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The entire area between Andahuaylas and Abancay, both in the department of Apurimac, is highly populated, and heavily cultivated – every square inch had a field or animals grazing.

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As we came down in elevation the vegetation became drier ( repeat of our experience a few days ago), and we began to find solanums and other exciting Solanaceae. My top plant of the day was Nicotiana tomentosa – a wild tobacco that is a small tree up to 10 cm in diameter! I have seen what has been called this species in Bolivia before, but these plants were very different – I am going to need to re-think the species limits here.

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The torrential rains of the last few days have made collecting difficult, but have made travel even more so….  The road to Abancay had been reported as having several landslides (or huaicos); the heavy rains loosen the soil and the steep slopes the roads are carved into just slip and slide down, sometimes with quite alarming results. Some people who had come from Cuzco to Andahuaylas for the festival had warned us that there were many vehicles stuck. Well, eventually, after passing many places where rocks and mud had fallen across the road we came across a lorry that had got well and truly stuck in deep mud right on a corner. As we got out to check it out, we heard and saw large rocks falling from the cliffs above; they were so big that it took Tiina and I both to move them out of the way – Andy drove by next to the lorry with aplomb (secretly hoping the mud didn’t slide out from under him!).

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The road was partically blocked by many landslides further on down the mountain, but traffic (and there was a lot of it, mostly buses and lorries) passed through, often at quite a clip.

 

The unusually heavy and prolonged rains have also caused the rivers to swell. We came across one “small stream” that had turned into a torrent, for once, the adjective raging fit perfectly – we could see the boulders being taken down the streambed as we watched.it doesn't look like much in the picture, but trust me, it ws amazing!

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Abancay sits up above a low valley with a river we had to cross, and in the dry forest vegetation in the valley we found two more exciting Solanum species. Solanum neorickii is a wild tomato relative with tiny little flowers, it has green fruits that look just like minature green tomatoes – the plants we collected were in full fruit.

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Further down the splendid dry valley we came to the bridge over the Rio Casinchihua – where Tiina found her plant of the day, Solanum physalifolium. This species has a wonderful speckled fruit that is translucent when it is ripe – you can see the brown seeds through the fruit wall. In England we have a species we call Solanum physalifolium, but it is nothing like this little plant. As with the tobacco, we will need to rethink the species boundaries here!

 

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On our way into Abancay we were delayed by various road crews clearing away huge rocks that had fallen onto the (now paved) road…  but as we began to climb up the hill we were surprised by a long queue of vehicles, all stopped for some reason…  Paul jumped out to see what the story was and came back with the news that there was another huaico and that vehicles were only being let through in small batches, and then only some could make it. The road had turned into a rocky river bed… the tractor was fixing it constantly as sets of three or four vehicles went through.

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We had to cross the river twice – the second time was easier and we made a big splash!

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Tomorrow we head up again in order to descend again into the canyon of the Rio Apurimac, said to be even deeper than the Grand Canyon. Here we are seeking the rare and exciting species Solanum anomalostemon, known only from this canyon – with my colleague Michael Nee of the New York Botanical Garden I described this a few years ago, but I have never seen it alive and in its habitat – can’t wait! We can see that it is still raining in the mountains, so we wonder what we will find on the road?

                                                                                          

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Off for the mountains

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 2, 2012

Our vehicle was delivered (a nice 4x4 pickup truck that will be perfect for the mountain roads), we are almost finished in the herbarium - so today we will head south and then up into the Andes. Getting out of Lima is a challenge in itself!

 

It has been raining a lot in the mountains, so who knows what we will find. Peru is famous for what are known locally as huaicos - huge mudslips that block roads; none have been reported though for the road to Ayacucho, so we are hopeful!

 

I am very excited to be going to Ayacucho - when I live in Peru in the 1980s it was the centre of activities for the Shining Path, a violent terrorist group whose activities disrupted all of Peruvian society for years - it was a no-go area in those days. Now, in contrast, Peru is a vibrant buzzing place, and there is a new road from the coast directly to Ayacucho - very little plant collecting has been done in the area recently (although our Peruvian colleagues have of course been there), so we are not sure what we will find, but it is bound to be interesting.

 

We are joined on this leg of the trip by Andrew Matthews, an NHM volunteer and forester, and Paul Gonzales, a student from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, who has just finished his undergraduate degree and is on the way to becoming a top Peruvian botanist - we'll have more about them later. How many solanums will we find in Peru?

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We bade goodbye to our potato breeder friends last night with an amazing dinner at an archeological site called Huaca Pullana (a huaca in Peru is a ruin). Huaca Pullana is a pre-Inca site made entirely of mud; said to be a religious centre, it covers several city blocks right in the middle of Lima.

 

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Today was the beginning of the annual week of celebrations held for the founding of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the NHM in Peru); this year they are celebrating the start of their 94th year. The Museo in Lima is like the NHM in London in that it has collections spanning all living organisms, fossils and minerals.

 

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Today (Saturday) the scientific departments with the collections were open to the public - who came in droves! It was a bit like Science Uncovered Peruvian style, with activities for children, food and lots of buzz.

 

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Pond-dipping is popular the world over!

 

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Pointing the way to the vertebrate zoology section!

 

Visits to the science departments and collections were very popular - our herbarium colleagues made a wonder display of the groups of plants, algae and fungi from Peru, and studentw were on hand to explain it all to the many many people who came through the door.

 

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Miguel and Isabel with the flowering plant displays...

 

Our favourite part though was outside, where a section of the activities beckoned people to discover how to mount a scientific expedition - the area was full of collecting equipment, tents and paraphenalia - students again were on hand to explain how they collected and why it was so important for the conservation of Peruvian biodiversity.

 

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The sign says "DISCOVER HOW TO MAKE A SCIENTIFIC EXPEDITION"

 

The day was great - we spent most of it in the herbarium working on the database - so many interesting specimens, but could hear people having a graet time outside... the entire day was themed around Peruvian biodiversity and how the Museo worked to understand and conserve it - the enthusiasm from both those explaining and those visiting was so inspiring.

 

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A game for children painted on the pavements - the rhea is saying "I am disappearing beacuse of hunting, egg collection, capture of my chicks and destruction of my habitat" - the idea was to compelte the circuit and then fill in some missing boxes - we saw lots of people playing!

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A botanist's life if full of contrasts! Tiina and I have been invted to a conference on the use of crop wild relatives at the International Potato Center in Lima, quite a change from crashing through the underbrush in search of wild solanums! We are discussing how to use the wild relatives of the potato - Solanum tuberosum - to help combat climate change.

 

The attendees are from all over the world and are potato breeders, ethnologists and modellers - quite a group. The discussions have been fascinating, and have really helped us to see how the research we do in the delimitation of species of Solanum can help with problems like the changing climate's effect on crop productivity and pest resistance.

 

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Coffee break at CIP

 

I will give a talk about the diversity of Solanum tomorrow....  should be exciting.

 

The International Potato Center (Centro Internacional de la Papa in Spanish - or CIP) is an incredible place, and really modern research centre in the middle of the cahotic city of Lima (well, outside Lima really, it took us 1/2 hour to get here in a taxis, but the traffic was incredible).

 

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Lima from the air on arrival yesterday!

 

A little aside - the flight from Cordoba to Lima is totally the best ever - meringue mountains aboud - absolutely fantastic!!

 

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After a fantastic couple of weeks here in Argentina tomorrow we head for Peru, and more solanum hunting. We have spent the last few days since returning from the field in the herbarium here in Córdoba - a real treasure trove. We have added some 800 new records to the Solanaceae Source database - some very old specimens, but all new to us! Field work is great for sorting some problems, but the herbarium can bring specimens together in a way so that all the variation is laid out in front of you to see and decide what to do!

 

We have solved a number of knotty problems - realised that some of the species we were confused about were in fact only variants of a single widespread species - Solanum salicifolium - that can grow just about anywhere. Feels good to have sorted that out.

 

Tiina has gone out dancing with the post-docs - Gloria and I are making sure everything is in order for our joint treatments of Solanum for the Flora of Argentina, and generally just catching up. The list of things we will leave to do "next time" just keeps getting longer; it is clear there will another field trip next year, we are hopingn to go to Patagonia. We will be sad to leave this wonderful country and out great friends, but are looking forward to Peru, where we will arrive just in time for the Museo de Historia Natural's birthday party!

 

More solanums await in Peru - first we must sort out the permits for collection in Lima..... I am sure surprises await!

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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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