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The wild spiny aubergine hunt

13 Posts tagged with the tanzania tag
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We have covered 6,000 km, and found 27 different species of Solanum. Our car suffered 6 punctures! Everyone is very tired. We drove back to Dar es Salaam today to process our collections and get ready to leave Tanzania the day after tomorrow. It will be very strange to be back in London after travelling around Tanzanian for 23 days.

 

 

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Buying a new tyre on the roadside on the way back to Dar.

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Successful day today. We drove inland to Kongwa to look for a potential new species, a strange plant that was collected there in 1975, similar to Solanum cyaneopurpureum but not quite the same.

 

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Kigogo villagers gathered round looking at the specimen picture and discussing where to find the plant. One of them is a local traditional healer and recognised the plant in the picture.

 

 

We could not find anything and we showed a specimen picture to the local Kigogo villagers. One of the villagers was an old traditional healer. He recognised the plant straight away and took us to a remote farm where it was being grown in a maize field, for use as stomach medicine. The women say that this species used to be common in the mountains but now it is rare, and when they find it they take seed and cultivate it.

 

The plant was interesting – most of the stems were just like Solanum cyaneopurpureum, but some basal leaves and inflorescences were exactly like the specimen collected in 1975. I suspect this is a cultivated variant of Solanum cyaneopurpureum: cultivation on rich soil gives it better growing conditions so it can produce more flowers, and the leaves become wider and darker.

 

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Eric and I are looking at the plant while David and the villagers are gathered around watching. It is difficult to concentrate and think when people are gathered all around you watching and shouting, but I am getting used to it!

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We got soaked to the skin and carried on walking through rice fields for many hours. I put my belongings in plastic bags, inside other plastic bags, but the papers and my notebook still got wet. It was a warm and pleasant temperature but everything was totally drenched, and my boots were full of water all day, and we didnt have any food. We were back in Ruvu Forest, making another attempt to find the new Solanum species that may be extinct. We reached the place where it was originally collected in 2001. This turned out to be a dense thicket of spiny lianas climbing over strange-shaped limestone rocks, the only place unsuitable for cultivation and so not cleared for farming. I spent a while climbing inside it looking for the Solanum. It wasnt there, but I found a stinging liana instead, and I now have large red welts all over my arms - would be interesting to know what species it was. We got lost in the mixed mosaic cultivation of rice, maize, and sesame, in spite of walking with several local guides. Our car got stuck in the mud and had to be pushed out by numerous local villagers. I was very relieved when we were back on the tarmac road. All the streams swelled during the day and if we could not get out of there, we would have had to spend the night in the forest and order a tractor to pull us out tomorrow.

 

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Eric and I are soaked to the skin, trying to shelter from the rain in a small farmer’s hut. The roof was leaking and the rain showed no sign of stopping, so we had to carry on going.

 

pic2-rainy-season-road.jpgFinally back on the main road! These roads become completely impassable when the rainy season starts properly, and we were lucky to get out of there without getting seriously stuck.

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Very blurry picture of Eric playing the trumpet with the local band in Morogoro. As soon as he started playing everyone came on the dance floor!

 

Today is our 19th day on the road collecting. We found 25 species of Solanum so far, amazing success! Only four fieldwork days to go. I feel guilty that Frank and David are working with us instead of enjoying the Easter break with their families. Our restaurant in Morogoro had a band playing and they invited Eric to play trumpet with them – he was brilliant!

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Me with Udzungwa National Park rangers. Many of them carry guns as a defence against animals and poachers.

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Preparing to leave after our stay at the Hilton. David is tying the presses to the car roof so the specimens can dry in the sun.

 

I am worried our specimens are not drying fast enough. The plant dryer has been running at nights but this is not good enough to dry everything in the rainy season. All the cardboards and presses we brought are full of specimens, and if they do not dry in the next few days they might start becoming mouldy. Today looked like it might be sunny and David tied the presses to the roof of the car so the air would blow through the holes in the sides of the cardboard, drying out the plants between the cardboard. It was a nice day on the road, stopping every now and again to see what is growing nearby. Frank has done a lot of ethnobotanical work in Tanzania and knows what is safe to eat. We have been trying a few new plant species every day. Most of them are sour or strange-tasting. Today’s Cordia sinensis is my favourite so far, it has a sweet and refreshing taste.

 

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Cordia sinensis is an important food source for the hunter gatherer bushmen living in western Tanzania. We tried the berries and they are really sweet.

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Solanum schumanninaum in the dark shady forest near Lulando has the long purple bristles I have seen on herbarium specimens. Similar plants growing in the sun do not have those bristles. Maybe it is an effect of the sun, but I have only seen a few individuals so it is difficult to judge – possibly they are different species. We have also found the spiny climber Solanum burtt-davyi today, very productive day.

 

I am impressed by the system of local counsel governance here. For every small council area six councillors are elected, and two of them must be female. The female governor of Lulando village helped us organise the trip to find Solanum burtt-davyi. If you are employed by a government organisation in Tanzania, you are automatically entitled to loans from the government, and your workplace pays for holiday tickets back to your local village - for you as well as all your family.

 

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Solanum schumannianum has long purple bristles when it grows under forest canopy, but the individuals we have seen outside forests don’t have any bristles.

 

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Frank pulled down the long liana Solanum burtt-davyi. The hooked prickles stay in your fingers, and the plant uses these prickles to hold on to other vegetation as it climbs.

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The Southern Highlands of Tanzania are much cooler than the rest of the country, with plantations of tea and quinine. Driving through the tea plantations and the tea factories the smell is amazing. In every village there is a “kijueni” – resting place on the main road where the men gather to hang out and chat, while women meet each other inside houses and in back gardens. As we drove past I saw a kijueni underneath a large shady shrub of Solanum thomsonii, the species endemic to the Southern Highlands.

 

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Flowers of quinine, Cinchona grandis, growing in a quinine plantation.

 

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Eric and Frank at the back of the car on the bumpy road.

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The weird Sausage Tree

Posted by mariavorontsova Apr 6, 2010

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Sausage Tree, Kigelia africana. The “sausages” is up to 40 cm long and are eaten by elephants.

 

We have been searching for Solanum schumannianum around the edges of wet forests but could not find it until today. There are numerous collections and I thought it would be common, but we just could not see it. Most Solanum species have a distinctive branching pattern so it is possible to spot them from a distance, but this species appears very similar to a common roadside Vernonia shrub. I did not realise this was a Solanum until I was standing right next to it.

 

The best part of the day was seeing the Sausage Tree, Kigelia africana.  I have never seen it in the wild with fruit and today I saw it for the first time. The fruits hang on inflorescences several metres long looking a bit like sausages suspended on strings. It looks so amazing and bizzare. The Southern Highlands contain many plants native to southern Africa, very different from vegetation in northern Tanzania – the Sausage Tree is part of this southern vegetation type, as well as a few Protea species we saw on the way.

 

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Solanum schumannianum growing under a tree in the Mbeya mountain range. Its leaves look similar to many other species so it is difficult to notice it from the road.

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The endemic Solanum thomsonii differs from the closely related Solanum aculeastrum by its numerous small orange fruits.

 

As soon as we drive out of Mbeya town and turned around a corner, the rare endemic Solanum thomsonii was everywhere, growing all down the road. It often grows mixed together with the closely related Solanum aculeastrum, and there seem to be some plants intermediate between the two species. We spent most of the day observing these and making collections. It is difficult to concentrate because as soon as we start work more and more children come running from all directions! They are friendly and want to talk to us, but after many hours I get tired – do not think I would make a very good school teacher!

 

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Eric preparing specimens of Solanum thomsonii. We usually arrive at a hotel late at night and press the plants we collected after dinner; it is usually dark and we have to work by torchlight.

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Dry savanna. Our car is parked by the side of the road.

 

We drove for almost 15 hours today, from Korogwe in the north to Mbeya in the south. Spectacular landscapes. It was cold and wet, then dry and hot, then gradually colder again as the elevation increased heading south. We almost got seriously stuck between Korogwe and Morogoro because a lorry turned over blocking the road so no vehicle could pass. This is the only tarmac road connecting the north and the centre of Tanzania and so much traffic was building up on both sides of the accident the emergency services could not get through. Local villagers were charging money for letting cars drive around the blockage through their village, and we managed get around and avoid getting stuck.

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The administrative process for obtaining permission to collect plants in Tanzania is complicated. My Research Permit was issued by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) after my Research Proposal was reviewed by a panel of Tanzanian scientists. In each region of the country I bring this permit to the Regional Administrator Secretary (RAS), who then writes a letter of introduction a District Office, a Forest Reserve Office, a Nature Reserve Office, or a Game Reserve Office. I have a folder full of lots of different official letters. This paperwork takes a long time to do but it is a necessary part of the progress – nature protection in Tanzania is well organised and I am pleased to see that people are so serious about protecting natural areas.
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We spent all day searching dry coastal forests and beach thickets in the Pangani area, looking for Solanum usaramense. Everything in the costal forest is spiny, it is dry and hot, and it is difficult to move forward because of all the lianas. The only thing we found was cultivated aubergines (Solanum melongena). Frustrating. We came to Tanzania in March because it is the middle of the long wet season and everything should be in flower. Unfortunately this year the rains are late and everything is dry. I am worried that it is too dry for Solanum usaramense to have any flowers and fruits - if there is nothing except branches and small leaves it is almost impossible to recognise it among all the other vegetation. I wanted to give up and go to wetter upland forest tomorrow, but colleagues persuaded me to try again tomorrow.

 

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Dry coastal forest is spiny: Carissa edulis

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Mostly recovering from yesterday. My legs hurt, my arms hurt, my appetite is coming back.. Because of yesterday’s success we decided to move north earlier, so the day was spent driving up to Tanga. Solanum dasyphyllum is planted by farmers near their houses to keep away the ants in this area – you cant find out this kind of information by looking at specimens in a museum!

 

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Farm where Solanum dasyphyllum is planted to keep away ants. Colleagues Frank Mbago and Eric Tepe are at the front of the picture.



mariavorontsova

mariavorontsova

Member since: Mar 18, 2010

I'm Maria Vorontsova from the Botany Department. Join me as I head to Tanzania and Kenya to hunt for wild spiny aubergines. I'm looking forward to an interesting journey, some interesting company and some interesting finds.

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