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Seeking nightshades in South America

55 Posts tagged with the travel tag
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After the excitement of our collections along the road to Quillabamba, we began today with a very prosaic collection  - in the garden of our hotel! They had a species of Tiina’s Morelloid clade growing right in their window (one reason we chose this particular hostal) – Solanum polytrichostylum. It was also growing along the stream, so it is defintely native here. It is great that people (not just us!) like solanums enough to cultivate them for ornament – this one is called “suyttu ccaya” in Quechua.

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We packed all our stuff (including the plants that had arrived via the encomienda from Andahuaylas) and set off up the Sacred Valley, as the valley of the Río Urubamba is called. The valley is the site of many Inca and pre-Inca ruins and settlements – many of these are famous, but many more are not excavated and are just part of everyday life. We decided to look for one of Tiina’s mysteries up a small dirt road out of the town of Urubamba; the collection locality was a bit vague and was from the 1960s so we didn’t really know what we would find.

 

Well, we didn’t find the mystery, but did find one of my favourite species, Solanum maturecalvans, at the end of a logging road. Its waxy white flowers seem not quite real, and the crinkled leaf base gave rise to the name of one of its synonyms – Solanum crotalobasis – the rattlesnake tail base! 

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Synonymy is one of those things that seems like a mistake – naming the same thing twice, but is really good evidence of how science really works. In the case of Solanum maturecalvans the German botanist Georg Bitter named two plants he thought were different Solanum maturecalvans and Solanum crotalobasis – they were from different places, looked a bit different, and he really didn’t have many specimens to compare in the early part of the 20th century.  Now I come along, some decades later, and decide that those two type specimens belong to the same species – therefore one (the later one described) becomes a synonym. Not a mistake, just a re-interpretation of the evidence, along with decades more collecting and specimens to look at.

 

In the same bit of forest we found Solanum maturecalvans we also saw a lovely Jaltomata with blood red nectar – how cool is that!

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Coming out of the mountains down through the town we saw Streptosolen jamesonii growing by the side of the road – it is really native to northern Peru and Ecuador, but we collected it anyway. It is a very interesting plant with a twisted corolla – essentially it has an upside down flower.

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We then headed up the Urubamba valley to the town of Pisac, the site of another massive Inca fortress.

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Here the excavations and restorations are still on-going – it was amazing to see the terracing being restored using ancient techniques, down to mixing the mud used as mortar by foot power!

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We got caught in a torrential rainshower, but afterwards explored the hills behind the town and found the wonderful Salpichroa weberbaueri – named for Augusto Weberbauer, the author of the wonderful book The Vegetable World of the Peruvian Andes, who had collected the type specimen.See an earlier post from Lima for more about him.....

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A bit of culture, a bit of botany – what a great day!

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from Tiina:

Staying at an Inca ruin has been a great experience, and today we made it even more special by heading over the clouds to the Amazonian side of the Andes.

 

Early in the morning we got to the pick-up, ready packed with lunch to drive along the road from Ollantaytambo towards Quillabamba. The road crosses the eastern cordillera at c. 4400 m elevation at Abra de Malaga, and the road then turns down towards the Amazon basin. The Amazon basin side is much more humid than the inter-Andean slopes we have seen thus far, but Paul, Andy and I had never seen these humid montane forests before so we were very keen!

 

Heading off on the road from Ollantaytambo towards the pass we were looking out for Solanum sumacaspi. This is a species of the Geminata clade of Solanum, a tree with remarkably glabrous leaves. Solanum sumacaspi only occurs in the Urumbamba valley, and only few collections of it are known. Luckily we did find it in flower AND fruit, which was fantastic. Sandy has described the species but never seen it in the wild, so this was a moment to cherish!

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Close to Solanum sumacaspi we also found Solanum probolospermum, one of my morelloid solanums. This species is nearly like Solanum pallidum, except that Solanum probolospermum has only simple unicellular hairs, whilst Solanum pallidum has branched hairs. We are yet to find out what the exact limits of these species are – more on that later when we get to see Solanum pallidum itself in Puno hopefully!

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We found more and more Solanum probolospermum when we went up the road. It was great to observe the large variation present in the species in terms of growth form. In some populations, we also observed some fantastic mutations – flowers with six corolla lobes, fasciated corollas, and super-numerous inflorescences. It was all a bit too much for Paul, who started doubting our taxonomic expertise when we said it was the same species. Observing natural variation can be mind boggling at times!

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Once we crossed the pass and started going down the eastern slope of the Andes, the air became more humid and clouds surrounded us. The humidity from the Amazon basin hits the Andean mountains on the eastern slopes, which creates moist montane forest habitats as well as special pre-montane rain forest habitats lower down. This time did not have time to go as low as the pre-montane forests unfortunately. Just as well, as many solanums are found growing in the higher elevation montane forest habitats. First, we found a fantastic species of Morelloid solanums, which we have named as “morel-malaga” for now. This species shows very unusual characters for Morelloids: it has enlarged pedicel apices, calyx with reduced calyx tube and tiny lobes, and most unusually, oval-shaped fruits. We observed this species growing along the eastern side from 3600 to 3450 m elevation, at which point we had to turn around to get home in time. As usual for solanums, this species shows great variation in habit and size, but it clearly likes disturbed microhabitats such as landslides. On our return to herbarium in Lima, we’ll keep our eyes open for this species, as some of the field characters such as pedicel size and fruit shape are not obvious on dried herbarium specimens.

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Second find of the day was Salpichroa didieranum. Generally Salpichroa flowers are c. 1-2 cm long, but this species has long yellow tubular flowers up to 12 cm long! Paul was well pleased, this genus is his favourite!

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Best thing of the day was a bunch of mad cyclists we saw. They passed us when we were collecting our final “morel-malaga” populations in the humid montane forest. It was raining at this point, the moisture was engulfing us in a thick fog, and we could barely see more than 30 meters ahead. First we saw one mad cyclist passing by. He was ecstatic with joy, rolling down the slope, and before we knew it, he had disappeared in the clouds. Second cyclist followed, this time he greeted us with joyful “hello” with a hint of Irish accent. At this point we thought these were just eccentric tourists. But then followed a whole crowed of them – cyclists coming down the hill, some silent some screaming for joy rolling down the hill in rain! What a bunch of mad but happy people, I wish I could do a similar downhill cycling route one day! I bet they just kept rolling down until they got to the Amazon lowlands!

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We decided to have a day off from driving madly across the Peruvian countryside and to explore the amazing ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is a small town with a huge ruin attached that is on the banks of the Río Urubamba.

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It was here that the Inca Manco Capac defeated the Spanish army, only to have them come back in more force later and over-run the fortress – he then retreated to Machu Pichu and beyond….  Today trains run from Cusco to Ollantaytambo to Machu Pichu several times daily (last time I was here it was once a day, starting at the crack of dawn! – how times change).

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Part of the site of Ollantaytambo is a temple to the sun (or so the guidebooks say) hewn of gigantic stones that were transported from across the river and high in the mountains. This temple was never finished, and one can see gigantic stones left along the trail from the quarry across the Urubamba. Like all Inca stonework, you can’t put a piece of paper between these stones – what is amazing about Ollantaytambo is the sheer size of these blocks (see Paul for scale in the picture). How did they do it?

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We climbed high on trails around the entire site, and managed to see some really amazing scenery, take some silly pictures of all of us, and see some interesting plants.

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To collect, we went across the river on an old Inca bridge (recontructed of course) and walked amongst terraced fields of maize and other crops.

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We of course found some solanums – the msot exciting of which was what we called Solanum “pseudoexcisirhombeum” – like our friend from the high puna, but a bit different.  For a start it has smaller flowers….

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Hot off the presses (several days later) – on downloading the original description from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), we find that it matches this Urubamba plant better than the puna plants from Ayacucho – so we will need to figure out what those are now! Being able to look at the literature in the field is truly amazing…

 

Landslides are a fact of life in Peru (as you will have seen from earlier posts!) and the Ollantaytambo area is no exception – this river of mud came down the mountain last October or so (we were told be a resident) at night with a huge whoosh. It hadn’t even been raining apparently, a piece of mountain just fell off. Wow.

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Ollantaytambo of course is more than just ruins, it is also a lovely village, and prides itself on retaining its Inca heritage. It also has some lovely Spanish touches as well, like these bulls on the rooftop for good luck, along with a bottle of champagne for celebration!

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Having a day off from driving was good for all of us – we have recharged our batteries and are ready to go again…  what will tomorrow bring? More solanums we are sure!

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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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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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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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We devoted today to exploring Calilegua National Park, an area that protects some of the rarest forest types in Argentina called the yungas. The forest is wet and mossy, and has big trees of walnuts and podocarpus – and of course, many solanum species. Argentina has a very efficient park system with professional park rangers, our day began with a visit to the ranger’s office to show our permit to collect. Once we were cleared, we set off up the mountain.

 

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One of our big finds for the day (we knew it was there) was Solanum huaylavillense – a very unusual little plant with yellow flowers known only from Argentina and Bolivia. Most Solanum species have white or purple flowers (except of course tomatoes), but this little beauty has translucent yellow flowers about half a centimetre long.

 

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We have had a “vertebrate of the day” ever since the vicuñas – today we had two, the first a toad so well camouflaged it took several minutes to point out to the others, and the second a bright orange and black toad hopping gaily amongst the rocks in a little stream. Can’t wait to figure out what this little chap is called!

 

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The spider was also gently minding its own business crossing the road – Jan Beccaloni I am sure can tell me what it is! We ate lunch to a chorus of parrots - loro alisero (Amazona tucamana - not sure what the name in English is, but here is the scientific one - universal!!); beautiful birds, with red beaks and a little yellow nose tuft.

 

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Our disappointment of the day was not finding Solanum calileguae, a vine endemic to this area. We looked and looked, but it clearly was not in flower or fruit, and amongst all that green would have been impossible to see. Another trip is clearly in order! Actually, it is good every now and then to realise that one never really finds everything every time, collecting is efficient if well-planned, but plants are on their own time schedule and may not flower or fruit at the same time every year. Some are also so rare that even finding them is difficult – it may be that Solanum calilegueae is one of those.

 

Passing through the town of San Francisco, we came upon the celebrations for Carnival – the week of feasts before Lent. Here in the mountains the people were offering gifts to Pachamama (Mother Earth), singing and dancing – and drinking! We were offered chicha (fermented corn drink) and beer, but managed to convince the festive crowd that we had a long drive ahead. All through the Andes there is a subtle and complex mix of Christian and indigenous celebrations; people have kept the things that are important to them.

 

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So tomorrow we head up to the puna again to look for some special high elevation plants (more Solanaceae of course) – it is a little unclear if we can really do this – it involves going up to 4500 m and driving a very long way. Can we make it?

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The past couple of days have been full of discovery - in the herbarium! Cordoba is a great centre for Solanaceae research, the great solanologist (person who studies nightshades - so wonderful they have their own profession) Armando Hunziker worked here until he sadly died in 2001. He was the director of the institute for 52 years, incredible dedication. His portrait hangs behind where I am working - I hope he approves.

 

The cupboards are full of treasures - new records for Argentina for little known species, lots of specimens of species that are endemic to Argentina and of which we have not a single collection in London - this is why working with colleagues in other institutes like ours is so incredibly rewarding. Highlights have been many specimens of Solanum endodenium - which we hope to see in the next week - with dark purple flowers with a green "eye"; a duplicate of a type specimen that I thought had been destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in the 1940s, oh and the list goes on. Tiina is figuring out her very complicated plants over in the next room - we keep popping back and forth to trade ideas and questions.

 

We have been looking at specimens not only for databasing and recording for future work, but more urgently to see where we need to prioritize the trip in order to see as much as possible. We will certainly find surprises though, in the Andes solanums are everywhere, and a beady eye is a must while travelling. Our route will take us to 3000 m elevation and through some fantastic places - can't wait!!

 

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The big snow got me a bit worried about getting out to Argentina to join Tiina Sarkinen, who has been there for a week working in the herbarium with our colleague Gloria Barboza and her students. But it all looks fine - flight is not yet cancelled and so I am on the way! Hard to imagine laeving this snow and ice behind.

 

Packing for a long field trip is always a challenge - what to take, what to leave. My house and office have been piled up with the many items needed for field and herbarium work. Camera, plant press, secateurs (for cutting branches to press as specimens), camera, sunscreen, first aid kit - the list is endless!

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Because our field trips are not only just about going in the forest to collect nightshades, but also about working with our colleagues in institutions like the Natural History Museum in other countries, I need to take all the bits and pieces for that sort of work as well. I have printed out many annotation slips - small identification chits I will place on the specimens in other collections to indicate my identification of these specimens - they will say I identified this specimen as a particular species on a particular date. This is how botanists leave the evidence of their use of hte specimens.

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I have never been to the collections in Cordoba, Argentina before (our first stop), so am really excited to see what I find! I know there are specimens of a species in a group I am currently working with - Solanum mortonii - that I have never seen; we don't have any specimens of this in the NHM collections. Exciting!

 

I am also looking forward to seeing what Tiina has found in her travels so far - in a strange set of coincidences some Chinese colleagues of mine (see the eggplant blog from 2010) are visiting Gloria in Cordoba as well, so we will have a chance to have a truly global conversation about Solanaceae. One of the great things about working on a particular plant family like the nightshades is that colleagues are everywhere and the spirit of working together is very strong.

 

So in an hour I will leave for the airport - next post will really be from the field!

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