First collecting trips of the project.

The forest viewed amid cultivated fields, San José de las Palmas.

            My research project is a floristic study of a protected forest in the community of San José de las Palmas (SJP), some 35 km to the southwest of Guaranda, in Bolívar Province. The forest is located in the western range of the Andes, in a region where practically all of the natural forest has long since been converted to maize fields and pastures. To reach the forest one walks nearly 1/2 mile from the end of the narrow dirt road, up slopes closer to vertical than to 45°, as if in the steep upper deck of a large stadium, but with rows of maize (“choclo”) instead of seats. The fields or pasture sections meet the overgrown shrubs, vines, and clambering bamboo grass, behind which stand the forest trees.

Steep slopes in maize cultivation.

            I was accompanied on my first day out by Dani Vedetoto, a research assistant working with crop field trials at Universidad Estatal de Bolívar (UEB). On my next outing Javier Castillo, an Agriculture/Forestry student in his final year, was my field partner.

            The Agropecuaria (Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine) program provided a vehicle and driver for these day trips. My field supplies included a plant press (two 12×18″ plywood boards and a pair of nylon straps), a stack of newspapers (to press plants in), clippers, notebook, camera, GPS, and plastic bags, plus raingear and some lunch. My object is to collect samples of any vascular plant species in flower or fruit growing in the forest or native to the surrounding areas. Fertile specimens (with flowers or fruits in addition to stems and leaves) are vital for identifying plants to the level of species, so my collecting will focus on fertile specimens. I’ll also collect sterile specimens (branches and leaves) from tree species if an expert (i.e. a forester or community member) can identify the plant in the field.

            The first day out we collected over thirty different species in fertile condition, a good number of “numbers” (but it’s easy when everything is a “new” species to collect). Actually, we make three copies (“duplicates”) of each collection: one stays in the Province of Bolívar, one for deposit in a herbarium in Quito, and a third for identification by taxonomic specialists for each group, if species identification is problematical. Specimens may be brought back in plastic bags and pressed in the evening, but pressing them between sheets of newspaper in the field minutes after they’re cut yields a better specimen. Field notes are written when the specimen in cut or soon after, and are supplemented with digital photos and GPS coordinates.

Dani Vedetoto, UEB, with plant press along trail.

           The fun parts of this work are searching for and finding flowering and fruiting plants, hiking in the fields and forests, and learning the plants as one collects, presses, dries and later completes the identification of each species. I’ll show here a few of the 50+ plants we collected on days 1 and 2, and provide a little story or background information to make it more interesting.

Bomarea:

A Bomarea vine in flower on day 1.

           Bomarea is a genus of some 100 species of twining vines with showy red, orange or yellow flowers. Their leaves are twisted at the petiole (leaf stalk) so that the bottom blade surface faces up (“resupinate”). Their distribution is essentially Andean, extending north to the mountains of Central America and Mexico and south through Chile. About 37 Bomarea species occur in Ecuador. The genus Bomarea belongs to the plant family Alstroemeriaceae, named for Alstroemeria, a showy flower often sold in florists and supermarkets in the US. Two species of Bomarea are common in the SJP area, found climbing on shrubs and trees where they reach sunlight. The underground storage “roots” or tubers of Bomarea are edible.

A Bomarea vine collected on day 2.

Palicourea

A blue-flowered, purple-stalked Palicourea growing the the forest.

           The genus Palicourea includes some 250 species of shrubs and small trees of the neotropics (new world or American tropics), and belongs to the plant family Rubiaceae (the family of coffee, quinine and Gardenia). Palicourea species have showy inflorescences (flower clusters) with both the flower petals and the flower stalks themselves brightly colored in shades of red, yellow, blue and purple. Hummingbirds are attracted to these bright colors, and to the abundant nectar borne in the odorless flowers. The blue-black fruits are bird dispersed. Different species of Palicourea frequently occur in the same localities. Indeed, in our first collecting day we encountered two species within a stone’s throw (had the forest been less dense!).

           For a brief description of the genus Palicourea see the Missouri Botanical Garden project page by Dr. Charlotte Taylor: http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/Research/taylor/palicourea.shtml

A yellow-stalked Palicourea flower cluster (inflorescence) also day 1.

           To see the amazing colors and variety of Palicourea inflorescences see the Field Museum’s on-line collection “Neotropical Live Plant Photos”:

http://fm2.fieldmuseum.org/plantguides/color_images.asp

Persea

Leaves and flower cluster of Persea (the genus of avocado).

           This small tree had large clusters of little yellowish flowers, mostly unopened, at the ends of thick, large-leaved branches. Trying to guess what it might be, I crushed a leaf, and got a spicy smell – a feature of a large “basal clade” or “primitive group” of woody plants including Magnolias, true Laurels, Cinnamons and Anise shrubs. I said “this is something I should be able to identify with a hand lens”, and then used my own myopic but acute close-up vision to examine the flowers. The key to the family was obvious, if near-microscopic: each of the anthers opened by four flaps, as opposed to the typical linear-slit opening of anthers in most flowering plant species.

Closeup of Persea flower with 4-flapped anther openings (tiny!).

           Knowing, (by the spicy leaves and four-valved anthers), that its family was Lauraceae (the family of the Olympian laurel wreaths and the bay-leaf used in cooking), there were only three possible genera (plural of genus) to consider: Ocotea, Nectandra and Persea. I’ll need to compare to actual specimens to be sure, but I believe this is a Persea species (three species occur in the high Andean forests.)  Persea, a genus of some 150 species in the tropics and subtropics of both hemispheres, includes the avocado, Persea americana.

Rubus

           What could be more common-place than the wild blackberry plant? In East Tennessee it is among the commonest wild bramble-y shrubs, bearing a rich feast of berries in the fall, but forming a thorny thicket painful to walk through (and often host to chiggers, a bug that causes itches worse than mosquitoes). The genus Rubus comprises over 250 species, both old and new world, and includes blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries. In Ecuador the blackberry is called “mora”, and it is among the most common flavors of “jugo” (fruit juices) which are served at every meal.

Rubus, or wild blackberry, or “mora silvestre”.

           What’s in a name? In Spanish the color “morado” refers to the dark purple color of blackberries (“mora”). In English, the “morula” is the stage of the early developing animal embryo beginning at 32 cells, when it’s a solid ball of cells. This is after the Latin for mulberry, Morus, which it resembles. The Latin (or botanical) name for the blackberry genus is Rubus, from the Latin word for red, “ruber”.

           Though their fruits look similar, the blackberry is evolutionarily quite distinct and not very closely related to mulberry. Blackberries belong to the Rose family (Rosaceae), which includes roses, apples, pears, plums, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries (among other groups). Mulberry belongs to the Moraceae, which includes, besides mulberries, the figs and osage orange. At another level – floral morphology – the blackberries and mulberries are totally different. The blackberry fruit grows from a single flower (with many pistils, the female parts), whereas the mulberry fruit develops from a cluster of many flowers, with each “bleb” of a mulberry developing from one tiny flower in the cluster. Obviously, both fruit types function similarly: to tempt birds to disperse the tiny seeds contained with the sweet, juicy fruit. Another important job well done by the flowering plants!

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About Tim McDowell

I'm a botanist from East Tennessee State University conducting a Fulbright project in Guaranda, Ecuador.
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