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Up and down from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas....

Posted by Sandy Knapp on Mar 9, 2012 12:49:18 AM

Day 1


In the morning Ayacucho turned out to be a very lovely city – full of charm and character. Ayacucho was the site of a famous battle that turned the tide against the Spanish during the liberation of South America, and the central plaza commemorates this with a huge statue of General San Martin – with Bolivar feted as one of the continents liberators.

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The Andes are an active seismic zone, and our hotel had special areas set aside as safe areas, special lights etc. Not sure how effective this all is though, a few years ago a major earthquake devasted the city of Arequipa.

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Ayacucho is famous for handicrafts, and we took a bit of time to check it all out. Paul bought a brilliant taxi made from sheep mandibles as a present for his brother – a Lima taxi driver!

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We left Ayacucho headed for the town of Vilcashuamán, the geographical centre of the Inca empire. The road was wonderful, we went through a very high section of puna vegetation; the puna is a grassland above the treeline, the common grass is ichu (Stipa ichu).

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Amongst rocks we found a plant of the wonderful Solanum excisirhombeum – we had seen this one before, but this time, we found that the flowers below the grass and not expose to the sun were white, rather than purple, like the ones out in the open.

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When we descended out of the puna we came into a huge flat (-ish – the Andes are never completely flat!) fertile plain with fields of potatoes, barley, oats and quinua; this last is a staple Andean crop that has become popular as a health food (it is a member of the Chenopodiaceae, the same as lamb’s lettuce in the UK).

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We collected some new and interesting things along the way, as dusk fell we found Solanum polytrichostylum – a tall spindly thing with large flowers and purplish stems. It was growing alongside some apparently wild tobacco plants – quite a display.

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The rest of the drive to Vilcashuamán was in the dark, pretty hair-raising on twisty Andean dirt roads; once there, we were charged 2 nuevos soles (about 50p) for entrance to the city by a group of children – real business minds there! We arrived almost too late for any food, but found a place to stay where they let us put up the plant dryer – phew! What will it look like in the morning?

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Day 2


Vilcashuamán turned out to be a town built on the ruins of the Incas – the church sits on top of the Temple of the Sun, and a pyramid supposedly used of sacrifices sits right in town. We spent a bit of time looking around, then headed back on the same road we had come on (collecting where we had driven in the dark).

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We sped along on the bits we had collected before, but once on the unknown road again, we began to collect again. We went over a high pass on national route number 3 (a dirt road), where we found another Salpichroa growing amongst rocks (also in a sheep pen!), but no solanums.

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As we were collecting we saw three male china linda (a sort of falconid bird whose English name I can’t remember) chasing one poor female all over the place. Eventually they seem to have left her alone, as we saw her sitting quietly by the side of the road later.

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Descending from the puna into the valley of the Río Pampa (the border of the departments of Ayacucho and Apurimac) we hurtled through vegetation zones, one of which was Solanaceae heaven. Here we found one of our problem children – Solanum probolospermum (the name says it all!) – a woody vine with flashy purple flowers. It looks all the world like Solanum crispum of English gardens, but it belongs to Tiina’s group of Morelloid solanums…. Hmmmm.

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The find of the day, however, was the wild tomato species Solanum chmielewskii – previously only known from three collections from the department of Apurimac! Ours is the first record for the department of Ayacucho and a range extension for the species. Finding out the ranges of species is another reason for collecting, especially in areas that are not well-known. We were all pretty excited!

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We made it down to the Río Pampa as it was getting to be dusk, so another night drive was in order. The river was huge…  such power flowing through the narrow gorge.  Quite impressive.

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Up we went to the town of Chincheros (now in Apurimac) in the dark, hair-raising again, especially as there had been landslides (in Peru called huaicos, from the Quechua word) earlier in the day and the lorries made two-way traffic difficult if not impossible. We made it though, to a lovely town with a great hotel and a well-deserved sleep!

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Day 3


As it was so late in the evening when we were approaching Chincheros yesterday, we spend all day today exploring around the area.  We traced our way back to Rio Pampas, descending along the narrow mountain road collecting plants at every opportunity. The Rio Pampas valley is very diverse, but there are nearly no collections of solanums from this area. The valley crosses a large elevational gradient, and includes low elevation dry forest habitats as well as more moist montane forests higher up. This makes is just the most amazing collection locality!

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The most amazing species we saw today was something we all first thought very common. We are not sure what the name of this species is, or indeed if it is something never described before. Nevertheless, we first thought the plant we saw was just another Solanum americanum. The widespread Solanum americanum, not to be unkind, isn’t the most beautiful plant in the world. It has minute white petals and the tiniest of anthers. The plant we saw today, which we now refer to as “pseudoamericanum”, was a little more exciting than the usual Solanum americanum. It had equally small flowers, white petals and small anthers, but that is where the similarity ends. It has a very large stigma, and in a close up picture the disproportionate size of the stigma becomes evident.

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And here is a picture of Solanum americanum for comparison:

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If you look carefully, you’ll see that “pseudoamericanum” has longer calyx lobes, which are not reflexed in fruit. The fruits of “pseudoamericanum” are green when ripe, whilst in Solanum americanum fruits are shiny black, and calyx lobes are clearly reflexed. Also, “pseudoamericanum” has branched inflorescences with spaces between each pedicels, whilst Solanum americanum has simple inflorescences where flowers all arise from a single point. These differences are fixed within the species. In fact, both species occur in the Rio Pampas valley in the same elevational zone. I can’t wait to get back to Lima to study more material of “pseudoamericanum” in the herbarium. Whilst we were in Lima, I saw other specimens of “pseudoamericanum” but was not sure at the time about differences between it and Solanum americanum. All of the “pseudoamericanum” specimens are from similar habitats from Southern Peru – this fits well with what we saw today. We just need to confirm if this has been described before or not through a good study of some type material.


For lunch we stopped on a side track in a patch of dry forest. Earlier in the week we had bought a cheese in the high mountain village of Castrovirreyna. That was where I got seriously ill with altitude sickness… Having finally got over the bad memories of the serious altitude sickness I had whilst in Castrovirreyna, we opened up the cheese ready to enjoy the local delicacy we had bought. When we bought the cheese, the shop lady told us *with a big smile* that the cheese was made out of llama milk. Andrew and I took this seriously, despite the lady’s big smile. Both of us tasted the cheese with high expectations – after all, this was the first llama cheese we had ever tasted. I noted immediately how wonderful the llama cheese was. Andrew agreed. By this point both Sandy and Paul were looking at us with chuckles, telling us that what we were eating was just a normal cheese made of cow’s milk. What a disappointment! Life will never be the same again…


Whilst having our lunch, we spotted a veritable forest of wild tobacco, Nicotiana glutinosa. Apparently in loves landslides, we found it growing all over the recently eroded road side. The species comes in various colour forms all up and down in the Andes. This population had lovely coral coloured flowers.

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All in all today has been a great day. We have expanded distribution areas for many species, adding important data points for further analyses. We particularly want to use the data we are collecting for modelling species distributions. For this work, adding the data points from today and yesterday will be extremely valuable. Rio Pampa has been a black hole in terms of species distributions, but now finally we have some data!


Day 4


We began our day in the middle of a cloud – it had descended over the mountains at night – so we set off for Andahuaylas in dense fog. The highway is in the process of being paved, not a simple undertaking in these steep mountains.


We ascended over the pass between Chincheros and Andahuaylas, up into the puna again, to about 4100 metres. There we saw some really interesting cultivation – one set of tiny fields at 4100 m elevation had six different Andean crops – potatoes, tarwi (a kind of lupine), ullucu (a tuber related to beetroot, very distantly), faba beans (broad beans, a European import in colonial times, but very much prized) and two crops I had been looking for the whole trip – mashua (tuberous nasturtium with bright orange flowers, Tropaeolum tuberosum) and oca (a tuber bearing oxalis with yellow flowers, Oxalis tuberosa). A real hotspot of cultivated plant diversity!

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We stopped to look for our high elevation friend Solanum excisirhombeum in an amazing spot dense with the high elevation cactus Austrocylindropuntia (what a name!); we didn’t find it, but did find a tiny bulbous adder’s tongue fern, Ophioglossum, that Paul collected; the entire plant is abuot 2 cm tall, a true miniature!

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As we descended into the Andhuaylas valley we began to see solanums again – and the road was now paved. The construction was impresssive, as was the maintenance, these areas are prone to landslides, so constant clearing up is required.

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The new paved road is a boon for the local people, who now have a nice, non-muddy track by which to take their animals to pasture – for divers though it has its hazards!

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We arrived in Andahuaylas in the early afternoon, and decided to spend some time checking out the town. It is the Carnaval festival tomorrow, so the place was buzzing with activity, dancing and traditional music. Each province in Apurimac sends one to many dance/music troupes to compete, the winner goes to the finals in Lima at the end of the month. It was all fantastically colorful and exciting. Sets of people were dancing around a tree laden with gifts like blankets and pots and pans, when it came down (a chop happens every circuit) a mad scramble for the goodies ensues. It has to be seen to be believed.

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Andahuaylas is famous for, among other things, being the birthplace of Jose Maria Arguedas, a Peruvian author who wrote about traditional village life in the Andes. Last year was his centenary. One of his books is entitled Yawar Fiesta – it is about the traditional festival of this part of Peru which involves a fight between a condor and a bull – the condor represents the Andean peoples and the bull the Spanish colonists. The whole thing symbolizes the conflict between the two cultures. A statue on the plaza comemorates the festival (the Solanaceae treelet behind it is Brugmansia, or floripondio, commonly cultivated at these elevations).

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We must leave town tomorrow before 9 am, as the streets will completely shut for the traditional parade – it would be nice to stay, but the solanums of the rest of Apurimac and Cusco beyond beckon.

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