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Seeking nightshades in South America

55 Posts tagged with the travel tag
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Land of the giants

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 15, 2013

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

 

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

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A day of contrasts (again!)

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Fields on the road from Cabanas

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Exodeconus prostratus grew amongst rocks and had very fleshy leaves

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Mollepata – the plaza and church


To get to today’s destination, we had to descend to the Río Tablachaca, and then climb back out of the valley again – 1000 metres in elevation each time. The switchbacks were tremendous.

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Switchbacks down from Mollepata on the top of the hill – you can just see the river at the bottom


Although the area around Mollepata was somewhat humid as we descended into the river valley, the vegetation changed completely to dry arid scrubland with cacti and spiny shrubs. This is the sort of habitat the wild tomatoes love, and sure enough we saw one when we hit about 2500 metres elevation. What was exciting about it was that it was Solanum huaylasense – a species we previously thought only grew in the Callejón de Huaylas in the Department of Ancash. We were in the Department of La Libertad so this is a range extension for this species – another one described by my colleague Iris Peralta.

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Solanum huaylasense – not in the Callejón de Huaylas!


Since this trip is all about gathering data to investigate how range sizes and extinction risk correlate, we were keen to look at just what the altitudinal range of this species was in this particular valley. We found it on the way down – again at the bridge over the river, and then again on the way back up, until about 2500 metres elevation.

 

Above that elevation it was replaced by the wild tomato species we saw yesterday – Solanum habrochaites. It was almost as if they swapped places, the change was so sudden. We didn’t see them together anywhere, but once Solanum huaylasense stopped appearing along the road, the next wild tomato we saw was Solanum habrochaites.

 

The ranges of plant species are highly complex, especially in the Andes, where river valleys can be dry or humid, sometimes differing on either slope. The collections we make this trip, combined with the data we have gathered from herbarium specimens, will allow us to accurately map distributions so we can see how climate and slope affect them.

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This Lycianthes species we found on the way up the river valley has flowers that look just like Solanum, but the calyx lobes are like a brittle stars' arms – what species could this be?


We stopped for lunch – not wanting to risk another Mollepata evening! – in the town of Pallasca, where the church was built in 1650 and still had what looked like original frescoes on the front. Many of the old churches in the mountains of Peru have been destroyed by earthquakes – this one escaped.

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Pallasca – on the plaza


We had to decide in Pallasca which route to take to Cabana – up and over, or down the river and around. Both apparently took longer than we had expected (you’d think we would learn!) – so we chose up and over. It turned out to be up and down and up and down and over, but never mind – we arrived in Cabana in great time. In time, in fact, to join another Mother’s Day celebration, this time with a man dressed as a bull, chased by a small boy dressed as what looked like a pirate and a band with flutes and drums.

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The bull and his entourage danced all over town several times, all the while accompanied by the special music of the Andes – huaynos, repetitive and sung in highpitched voices, I like them, but they can take getting used to!


It was great to get somewhere before dark and to be able to enjoy the town, especially one in the grips of cheerful celebration. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day for real – so we wonder what we will find after all our ups and downs and overs and plants in the next town we end up in. It is always a surprise!

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The long drive….

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 13, 2013

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

 

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

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


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

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


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

 

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

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


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

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

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Field work began in earnest today – we headed from the coast up into the mountains, the destination was Cajamarca, by fast road 6 hours away – but we were taking the road less travelled. We took a tiny dirt track up a dry valley to a village called San Benito; our research in the herbarium in Trujillo told us this would be a good place to look for some special endemics. Wild tomatoes are most diverse in the dry western regions of Peru – so I was hoping to see some of the species I have not yet seen in the wild.

 

It took us a while to find the right road – road signs don’t really seem important in Peru, people generally know where they are going I guess! The area was fantastically dry, with rocky slopes and tall columnar cacti. This is the northern part of the Atacama, the desert created by a combination of the cold ocean current called the Humboldt Current coming from Antarctica and the rain shadow of the Andes to the east.

 

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The tall cactus peeking out from behind the hill is called Neoraimondia; Antonio Raimondi was a famous Peruvian botanist of the late 19th century and really began the exploration of the plant diversity of the country


The first plant we saw (well, the first one we were going to collect!) was a genus I have never seen in the field before – Exodeconus. It is an Atacama endemic, and this species is the only one to grow in northern Peru. Tiina collected a couple of other species last year in the southern part of the Peruvian coast.

 

The plants we saw in this valley were tremendously variable in size, from tiny with only a couple of leaves to large and fleshy and extending to a metre or more. It all depends on water, as is usual in a desert. Desert plants are masters at making do.

 

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Exodeconus maritimus growing in a shady  place under a rock – some leaves on other plants were the size of saucers! The flowers are beautiful, bright white with a deep purple centre


The tomatoes soon began to appear, like Exodeconus growing in slightly wetter microhabitats. The first species we saw was Solanum pennellii – the closest relative of the tomatoes proper. It doesn’t have the pointed anther cone of the rest of the group, so was placed in the genus Solanum, rather than Lycopersicon, as the tomatoes used to be known.

 

We now recognise all of the wild and cultivated tomatoes as members of the genus Solanum, based on the molecular studies done by my colleague David Spooner in the early 1990s. His results showed tomatoes are closely related to potatoes; many characteristics of the plant form also support this evolutionary relationship. So we now group the tomatoes as part of the large genus Solanum, reflecting their ancestry and evolution more accurately.

 

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Solanum pennellii has stubby anthers – here being buzzed by a small bee


All Solanum species are buzz pollinated by bees – the anthers open by tiny pores at the tips and female bees grasp them and set up a resonance inside using their flight muscles, pollen squirts out lands on the bee and she carries it to another flower – if you sit by flowering tomatoes long enough anywhere, bees will come and buzz, the sound is quite audible!

 

Tomatoes proper have a long beak on their anther cone, but there are pores inside – the beak is a shared evolutionarily derived character that tells all tomatoes are closely related to one another.

 

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Solanum arcanum – a northern Peru endemic species only recently described by my colleague Iris Peralta (with whom I was recently collecting in Argentina), has the elongate beak typical of wild tomato relatives. This species began to appear a bit further up the valley towards the mountains

 

The small fruits of wild tomatoes are usually green and hairy, but even from them you can tell the species apart. The sepals of Solanum pimpinellifolium – the progenitor of our cultivated tomato – are strongly turned back, while those of Solanum arcanum (below) are always held flat – easy!

 

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Solanum pimpinellifolium

 

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Solanum arcanum

 

We were elated with our success at finding the wild tomatoes, all in flower, but were becoming disappointed about one special species we were seeking – Solanum talarense, an endemic to the dry coastal valleys of northern Peru and rarely collected.

 

We had almost given up, the road was going up the valley into wetter habitats and higher elevations, but then we saw it – possibly the rattiest plant I have ever seen! Eaten by goats, despite its ferocious prickliness, there it was hanging on in rocks by the roadside.

 

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Solanum talarense amongst the rocks, completely eaten by goats (we think, but it certainly had been munched by something!)

 

Jumping out of the truck I felt prickles in my shoes – only to discover that several 2 cm long thorns had gone right the way through the bottom of my boots; it will be interesting to see how this affects them when we get to wetter places! Solanum talarense was most definitely THE plant of the day, totally weird and wonderful – a plant only a Solanum taxonomist could love.

 

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The 'spines' on the stems and leaves of Solanum talarense are technically prickles, outgrowths of the surface – true spines, like those that went through my boot, are bits of stem. Prickliness does not seem to have deterred the animals eating this plant at all!

 

Ascents from the coast to the Andes in Peru are amazing – in a single day you can go from sea level and a dry desert to 4000 metres elevation and dripping wet cloud forest. This time we went over a pass that was only 3500 metres elevation, to descend again into the dryer valley of Cajamarca (via a couple of other passes – the geography is incredibly complex in northern Peru).

 

DSC_7103_resized.jpgWet cloud forest beckons ahead in the mountains

 

In the village of San Benito, in the cloud forest – in the pouring rain – we found our last wild tomato of the day. Solanum habrochaites used to be called Lycopersicon hirsutum, but when the time came to change its name to put it into Solanum, there already was a Solanum hirsutum (a European species) – so we had to think of another species name for it. The name we chose – habrochaites – means softly hairy in Greek; we thought it described the plant exactly.

 

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The fruits of Solanum habrochaites are covered with long hairs each of which has a small sticky gland on top. These glands exude a substance that gives each wild tomato species its particular smell, and gives us that lovely smell of ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine

 

We reached Cajamarca at about 11 pm, a bit later than planned – maybe we spent too much time collecting in the desert, but none of us thought so! This first day collecting was a great success – lots of other wonderful northern Peru endemics and some real surprises and firsts for me (Leptoglossis schwenckioides, Browallia acutiloba and on and on).

 

Now for a day in the herbarium of the University of Cajamarca and a visit to the wonderful Peruvian botanist Isidoro Sánchez Vega, for whom I named a lovely species of Solanum a couple of years ago. I am hoping we find Solanum sanchez-vegae on this trip – maybe when we leave Cajamarca for points south. Can’t wait.

 


Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on field work in Peru.

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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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Heading north…

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 6, 2013

After a last push in the herbarium and a bit of shopping for containers for Erica to rear flies in (obtained by Maria in the Mercado Central in Lima, where you can quite literally buy anything!), we were ready to go…

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Maria Baden and Tiina Sarkinen with the fruits of an amazing shopping expedition to the Lima Central Market – the plastic containers will be used to rear fly larvae we find in fruits of Solanaceae

 

Leaving Lima at 6am (to beat the traffic) we drove through grey, gloomy fog – typical weather on the coast at this time of the year. The fogs come in off the cold Humboldt current – making it cold and damp, but never truly wet; the unique vegetation of the coast lives entirely off the moisture from these seasonal fogs. Several endemic species of Solanum live in the lomas – or fog forests – but we are a bit too early to catch them. The foggy season has only just started and plants are only just beginning to grow.

 

The coast of Peru always fascinates me – it is such a dry desert, yet people live wherever water presents itself. At intervals between desert sections, the Panamerican Highway on which we drove north crosses small rivers coming from the Andes to the east, and there agriculture flourishes.

 

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Sugar cane is a common sight in the river valleys; increasingly it is being grown under irrigation farther into the desert – surely an unsustainable practice. This is, after all, one of the driest deserts in the world!

 

Once we got further north, the skies cleared, the fog burned off and the sun came out – and on we went! When the Pacific came in view we all got out to have a look, even though the area was completely devoid of plants. The water is clear, blue and cold – we saw fishermen in tiny rowboats fishing what looked dangerously close to rocks just off the coast. This part of the coast is famous for its anchovy fishery – the fish are used for fishmeal, but also end up on pizzas worldwide.

 

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Our rental pickup parked near the coast – it really is a desert!

 

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Maria shooting video footage of the fishermen – the sea was an unreal colour of blue

 

One peculiar vegetation formation that occurs on the desert hills is the 'tillandsial' – patches of small bromeliads, plants related to Spanish moss or airplants, that are the only living things growing. Like all the other native plants of this coast, they get their water entirely from the fogs that come in off the sea. Their leaves are covered with scales that help trap the water from the air. In a way, they are like epiphytes, but on the ground!

 

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Tillandsial near the town of Casma – this species is probably Tillandsia purpurea

 

We didn’t stop for lunch until quite late – between towns in river valleys there is nothing at all. When we did stop we had our usual coffee rating - coffee can be wonderful (10) here, or dire (0)– this rated about a 2, pretty awful, but the Inca Kola sugar canister made up for it. Inca Kola is the local soda pop – fluorescent yellow and sticky, it is said to be flavoured with lemon grass; I don’t believe it!

 

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Tiina with the Inca Kola canister (we had to stop her asking to buy it, it is her favourite sort of enamel kitchenware!)

 

We made it to Trujillo and a wonderful colonial hotel; tomorrow we hit the herbarium on the search for more localities for Peruvian endemic Solanaceae. So – I’m sure we will find them, but the big question is – what will the coffee tomorrow morning be like?

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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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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 another day  identifying all the unidentified Solanaceae in both the herbarium of the Instituto and the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, we went in search of Solanum juncalense, a species we had been looking for on previous field trips in the Mendoza area.

 

I had accumulated much locality information for this solanum in the herbaria – we have very few collections of this species in the Museum’s collections, so my work in the collections here in Mendoza has really helped my understanding of its distribution and variation. One of the localities was in the department of Tunuyán, up the valley from where Claudio’s parents had a farm. We had intended to spend the day there anyway, so went in search of Solanum juncalense – the last chance to find it!

 

Today was the first Sunday of a long holiday, and everyone was out with tents camping or barbeques having a Sunday asado in the countryside. We headed up the valley, on a road that crossed several streams – a bit worrying, as it had rained every day and the arroyos grow quickly and become impassable. We carried on past a guardia post where we had to leave our names to a confluence of two valleys – one of the localities I had found in the herbarium yesterday.

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The valley is called Cajón de los Arenales, and is the jumping off place for the ascent of the mountain at its head

 

And there it was….  at the side of the road, right where we parked the car was Solanum juncalense in full flower. The botany gods were smiling on us for sure…..  everywhere else we had been looking for this we had looked in vain, but there it was!

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Solanum juncalense is a member of the Morelloid clade Tiina and I are currently working on, and an endemic to this part of Argentina and adjacent Chile (although I think the one Chilean collection is actually from the Argentine side of the border!). It is a relative of Solanum sinuatiexcisum, which we collected high up in the northern Andes of Argentina last year

 

Solanum juncalense is a member of a species complex that I thought I understood before I saw the material here in Argentine herbaria. Previous taxonomic treatments distinguished the species by length of hairs (tiny to extremely tiny!!) and colour of flowers; I thought I had found another difference when I was in Córdoba, but looking at the many herbarium sheets of these plants in Mendoza I am now thinking this is all a cline – variation from north to south that is continuous, and not several species at all!

 

In addition, these plants we found sometimes had white flowers and sometimes purple (more commonly purple…  but both colours were there!). So maybe I am more confused now than I was before, but maybe not, at least now I know what to look for….. If I am right and this is all just continuous variation, then the correct name will be Solanum echegarayi, published a few years before Solanum juncalense.

 

The size of the plant had also been important in previous treatments, and plants were described as annuals. But how wrong….  these plants all grow from deep underground rhizomes (underground stems) and shoots grow up from buds along the stem to reach the surface, a bit like a potato grows from the eyes on the tuber. One of the rhizomes we dug up was about 1 centimetre in diameter and very corky. The snow is very deep in this area in winter and the plants die back to survive from Another example of why field work is so important – these sorts of characteristics are just not apparent from herbarium specimens, and are often not noted down on labels.

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Several different 'plants' of Solanum juncalense are sprouting from this rhizome – if a collector just pulled at the above-ground stem it would seem it was an annual plant!

 

I would have liked to dig some more and see if all the plants in one area were connected, but we needed to get back before the arroyo began to flood (we could see it raining up higher). In addition all the plants we found were growing in the loose soil of ant nests; the ants were not at all happy with us disturbing them and they both bit and stung. Apologies to my hymenopterist colleagues for not collecting them, all I could think of was to get them off me!

 

What a find though for my last day in Argentina – this time. This is an amazingly diverse and fascinating country, with many endemic species and genera of Solanaceae. I have great colleagues here in Argentina – Gloria and Franco in Córdoba and Iris in Mendoza – so I am sure I will be back….. but this has been a wonderful field trip, topped off by a great find and some new discoveries about the plant!

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Iris Peralta and her husband Claudio Galmarini in Cajón de los Arenales

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Fishing streams in Valle Hermosa

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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