Working on Cuban nettles in Berlin herbarium

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A Cuban species of nettle, possibly undescribed. The leaves are about 2 mm across. To the middle right of the picture you can see a small cluster of female flowers about 1/2 mm in length

Funded by the Synthesys project I am studying the Cuban nettle collections of the Berlin-Dahlem Museum. The aim is to finish my account of the nettle family for the Flora of Cuba project that I started five years ago. It might seem odd that Cuba has so many nettle species that I can still be working on it, albeit in a fragmented way, for five years. Also that Berlin should be an important repository of Cuban plants, but there is a reason.

Cuba has an exceptionally rich flora and is especially important for the nettle family, Urticaceae, which is represented by about 70 species in eight genera. Together the Greater Antilles, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, is a centre of species-richness for one group of nettles in particular, the genus Pilea. There are over 150 species of Pilea in the Greater Antilles, 60 of which are native to Cuba. The reason for such high diversity is unknown but may have something to do with the age of the islands, preponderance of limestone substrates or something else that we haven’t thought of yet. It does, however mean that I have been spending a lot of time looking at herbarium spcimens of this genus in the Berlin herbarium.

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Room K10 in the underground, bomb-proof Berlin-Dahlem herbarium. This is where the Cuban collections are stored

The connection between Germany and the the Greater Antilles started with botanist Ignatz Urban, who did a  lot of work documenting the plant diversity of the Greater Antilles. Tragically most of his collections were destroyed in World War Two when the herbarium was bombed. During the Cold War the connection that had established between Berlin and the Caribbean switched to East Germany and the Jena herbarium impulsed by the formidable Johannes Bisse who founded the National Botanic Garden of Cuba. This lead to the foundation of the Flora of Cuba project a collaboration between the many excellent Cuban botanists and their German counterparts, initially in Jena and then from 1993 in Berlin. So that is the reason that I am in Berlin looking at Cuban nettles!

Visitando a sistemas agroforestales Peruanos

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Participantes visitando la finca Marques en La Merced (Chanchamayo) con Juan Santos Cruz

Uno de los elementos más importante de nuestro proyecto es convencer a las comunidades rurales de que los sistemas agroforestales basados en Inga les ayudarán a utilizar sus tierras con mayor intensidad sin necesidad de talar el bosque. Esperamos lograr esto de dos maneras: 1) desarrollar parcelas agroforestales como demostración en una red de comunidades asociadas con el proyecto, y 2) tomar representantes de estas comunidades asociadas para visitar parcelas agroforestales ya productivas. Visitar estas parcelas es una buena manera de dejar que la gente vea por sí misma lo que sus sistemas agroforestales van a lograr en pocos años, y también de facilitar el intercambio de experiencias entre campesinos. Tal vez intercambios entre campesinos tiene más peso/fuerza que hablar con un científico, técnico o una ONG ya que tienen intereses y conocimientos similares/comunes.

Continue reading Visitando a sistemas agroforestales Peruanos

Forest Futures Peru visit

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Participants visiting Marques farm in La Merced (Chanchamayo) with Juan Santos Cruz

One of the most important elements of our Forest Futures project is to get rural communities to believe that Inga-based agroforest systems will help them use their land more intensively without the need for regular land-clearance. We hope to achieve this in two ways: 1) develop demonstration agroforest plots in a network of partner communities, and 2) take representatives of partner communities to see established working systems. Visiting established communities is a powerful way of letting people see for themselves what their agroforests will like in a few years but also, as  importantly,  it facilitates the sharing of experiences, farmer to farmer.  Speaking to somebody from the same profession who is using agroforest is likely more convincing than speaking to a scientist, technician or NGO whose livelihoods are not on the line.

Continue reading Forest Futures Peru visit

Ghost flowers in the nettle family

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A pickled Flower of Boehmeria zollingeriana, 1.2 mm in length viewed under a Zeiss Axioskop microscope. You can clearly see the two stigmas (ling filament like structures) and if you look carefully the two overlapping eggs within the ovary (dark egg-shaped structures)

Nettles are characterised, amongst other things, by having flowers with a single egg in their ovary and a single stigma, the structure which conducts the pollen to its target. Work by developmental biologists almost a century ago suggested that the ancestor of nettles probably had two eggs per ovary after discovering that at a very early stage of development nettle ovaries contain two eggs one of which disappears as the flower develops resulting in the single egged flower which characterises the family. It was therefore a great surprise when plant collections from Costa Rica examined in the 1990s were found to have flowers with two or three eggs and stigmas per ovary. These very unusual plants were described as a new species: Boehmeria burgeriana  by colleagues Melanie Wilmot-Dear and Ib Friis. Continue reading Ghost flowers in the nettle family

Soleirolia, a genus of small but perfectly formed nettles

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Close-up of a flowering stem of Soleirolia soleirolia showing the male (left) and female (right) flowers. The leaves of this tiny creeping herb are about 3 mm across

I first came across this tiny creeping herb in my garden where it had been planted as an ornamental. The bright green leaves, mostly less than 3 mm across form an attractive carpet. Until now I had never been able to spot its flowers despite having checked several times over the last few years. My guess is that this species has a relatively narrow flowering time in spring and the flowers are so tiny that they are only visible with a hand-lens. For several years the genus has intrigued me, not so much because of its small size and creeping habit but because of its distribution and evolutionary relationships.

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Engraving  of a female Soleirolia flower produced by the Anglo-French botanist Hugh Algernon Weddell in the 1850s. Weddell must have had access to microscopes of the very highest quality to produce such a drawing as the flowers that are about 1.5 mm in length

Firstly because Soleirolia consists of a single species that in the wild is only known from the Mediterranean island of Corsica. This is the only genus of nettle I know that is restricted to a single island or to the Mediterranean and I am very keen to try and found out why this could be (the history of the Mediterranean basin is quite a turbulent one). Secondly Soleirolia has traditionally been grouped with the  widespread Parietaria and intriguingly with Gesnouinia,  which also includes a single species but is restricted to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst they look very different as plants their female flowers share many similarities of form.  It might be, therefore, that Soleirolia and Gesnouinia should be viewed  as Parietaria species that have diverged morphologically as a consequence of being isolated on islands, a common phenomenon in evolutionary biology. I am currently testing this possibility using DNA sequence data and could have a better idea in a couple of months.

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Endemic to Cosrica but now an ornamental and escaped weed throughout much of the temperate World Soleirolia soleirolia forms bright green carpets of tiny leaves

 

 

Selección de posibles frutales para cultivar en parcelas agroforestal

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Uno de varios especies de Garcinia, posiblemente macrophylla conocido como Achachairú, aquí en venta en el mercado de Cobija

Ahora que las primeras de nuestras parcelas agroforestales están listos para apoyar la producción de frutales tenemos que ayudar a nuestros comunidades socios a seleccionar las especies / variedades a cultivar. Este es un negocio complicado, ya que tendrá que equilibrar a corto plazo frente a los beneficios a largo plazo con la toma de riesgos con la actualidad de alto valor y cultivos de moda que podría no conservar su demanda o precio en el futuro. Además hemos tenido la suerte de conseguir el apoyo de la fundación innocent para ayudar a nuestras comunidades con la producción de plántulas a través de la construcción de viveros robustos y la oferta de formación experto de Kew y horticultores locales.

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Cedrillo o Spondias mombin, una fruta muy popular en toda América Latina, pero tal-vez  con limitado potencial como cultivo comercial

Nuestra estrategia es hablar con expertos locales, consumidores potenciales y buscar en los mercados locales para identificar a una lista de una docena o más especies potenciales. A continuación vamos a preparar una lista de las ventajas y los riesgos asociados a cada especie, localizar las fuentes de semilla y comenzar a crecer un par de cientos de plántines de cada uno. Una vez que tenemos un “stock” de trabajo de plántines, luego presentaremos cada especie a las comunidades en una reunión comunitaria. Esto nos permitirá ayudar a decidir qué especies les gustaría cultivar en función de sus necesidades y deseos.

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Variedades silvestres de cacao (Theobroma cacao) como éste con provinencia del río Tauhumanu podrían tener potencial si el comercio de Cacao silvestre cosechada aumenta

Siguiente es un listado preliminar de especies debajo consideración:

Scientific name Local name
Malpighia punicifolia Acerola
Annona muricata Sinini
Garcinia macrophylla Achachairu
Theobroma cacao Cacao
Theobroma cacao Cacao silvestre
Eugenia stipitata Arazaboy
Euterpe oleracea Acai
Myrciaria dubia Camu camu
Spondias mombin Cedrillo
Anacardium occidentale Caju
Spondias tuberosa? Cacharana
Paullinia cupana? Guarana
Rollinea mucosa Biriba
Pouteria macrophylla Lucuma
Pouteria lucuma Lúcuma
Theobroma grandiflorum Cupuacu

Selecting potential fruit trees to grow in agroforest

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One of several Garcinia sp, possibly macrophylla known as Achachairu for sale in Cobija market

Now that the first of our agroforest plots are ready to support food and fruit production we need to start helping our community partners select what species / varieties to grow. This is a tricky business as they will need to balance short-term vs long-term benefits with taking risks with currently high value and fashionable crops which might not retain their demand or price in the future. In addition we have been very fortunate to get support from the innocent foundation to help our communities with the production of seedlings through the construction of robust nurseries and the provision of expert training from Kew and local horticulturalists.

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Cedrillo or Spondias mombin, a very popular fruit throughout Latin America but with limited potential as a cash crop

Our strategy is to speak to local experts, potential consumers and look in local markets to identify a long list of a dozen or more species. Next we will prepare a list of the advantages and risks associated with each species, locate sources of seed and start growing a couple of hundred seedlings of each. Once we have a working ‘stock’ of seedlings we will then present each species to the communities at a community meeting. This will enable us to help them decide which species they would like to cultivate based on their needs and desires.

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Wild varieties of Cacao (Theobroma cacao) such as this one from the Tauhumanu River could have potential as trade in wild harvested Cacao increases

Below is the list of species currently under consideration

Scientific name Local name
Malpighia punicifolia Acerola
Annona muricata Sinini
Garcinia macrophylla Achachairu
Theobroma cacao Cacao
Theobroma cacao Cacao silvestre
Eugenia stipitata Arazaboy
Euterpe oleracea Acai
Myrciaria dubia Camu camu
Spondias mombin Cedrillo
Anacardium occidentale Caju
Spondias tuberosa? Cacharana
Paullinia cupana? Guarana
Rollinea mucosa Biriba
Pouteria macrophylla Lucuma
Pouteria lucuma Lúcuma
Theobroma grandiflorum Cupuacu

Planificación de los primeros cultivos

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La parcela agroforestal de Motacusal. Los plantines fueron plantado el 27 de febrero 2014 y ya han crecido en arboles listo para podar. Foto tomado el 18 de marzo 2015. Empuje para ver a Rolman Velarde hablando de la parcela

Apenas un año después de la plantación tenemos dos parcelas agroforestales que ya no necesitan ser limpiado. Han efectivamente  ‘capturados’ sus sitios. Estos sitios son por los comunidades de Palacios y Motacusal. La siguiente etapa es convertir las en sistemas productivas, es decir iniciar a cultivar anuales y frutales en ellos. Mientras que es un proceso sencillo, hay un par de reglas básicas a seguir en función de si se están cultivando cultivos anuales (maíz, arroz, yuca, etc.) o árboles frutales. En ambos casos tenemos que podar los árboles de Inga para liberar el sitio y asegurar que los cultivos reciben suficiente luz.

Cultivos anuales. En el caso de los cultivos anuales es importante: 1) Podar los árboles de Inga, al mismo tiempo quese planta los cultivos anuales. Esto es porque una vez podado hay una ventana de crecimiento de cultivos de seis meses antes de que las ramas crecen de nuevo y una vez más capturan el sitio. 2) Sólamente se puede podar los árboles de Inga una vez que las ramas de callejones vecinos se tocan, en este momento se han desarrollado a un tamaño suficiente, por encima y por debajo del suelo, para apoyar los cultivos. Una vez los árboles de Inga podado es necesario dejar las hojas, ramitas y ramas menores cortado en los callejones agroforestales donde van a servir como mantillo / materia orgánico por el suelo. Las ramas más grandes se pueden tomar como leña.

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Arboles de Inga plantado para apoyar al cultivo de frutales. Igualmente son de un ano de edad y ya estan listo para la plantacion de plantines de frutales

Cultivos de frutales. En el caso de los árboles frutales no necesita podar a los árboles de Inga  hasta que sus copas se tocan, o que están echando sombra excesiva a los frutales. Este último depende de la especie de frutal plantado y deben estar a la discreción del agricultor. Además, no es necesario podar a todos los árboles de Inga al mismo tiempo o eliminar todas las ramas: los árboles pueden ser podado  según la necesidad para generar la sombra óptima para los frutales vecinos. Igual que en el caso de plantas anuales cuando se poda a los árboles de Inga las hojas cortadas, ramitas y ramas menores deben ser dejados en los callejones donde van a servir como mantillo. Las ramas más grandes se pueden tomar como leña. Continue reading Planificación de los primeros cultivos

Planning the planting of our first crops!

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Rolman Velarde in the Motacusal plot, one year after planting. The plot is now ready for crops! Click on the image to see me giving an intoiduction to the plot.

Barely a year after planting we now have two agroforest plots that no longer need weeding and have effectively ‘captured’ their sites. These are Palacios and Motacusal. The next stage is to make these agroforest systems productive, that is to start growing crops in them. Whilst a straightforward process there are a couple of basic rules to follow depending on whether you are cultivating annual crops (maize, rice, yucca etc) or fruit trees. In both cases we need to prune or pollard the Inga trees to release the site and ensure that the crops get enough light.

Annual crops. In the case of annual crops it is important to: 1) pollard the Inga trees at the same time as the annual crops are planted. This is because once pollarded there is a six-month growing window before the branches grow back and once again capture the site. 2) to only pollard Inga trees once the branches of neighboring rows are touching, this is when they  have developed to a sufficient size, above- and below-ground to support crops. Once the Inga trees are pollarded the pruned leaves, twigs and minor branches need to be left in the agroforest alleys where they will serve as a mulch. The larger branches can be taken as fuel wood.

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Rolman Velarde in the fruit tree part of our agroforest plot. The Inga trees at the wider 4 m spacing are growing well despite a slower start.

Fruit crops. In the case of fruit trees the Inga trees do not need to be pollarded until either their crowns are touching, or they are casting excessive shade on the fruit trees. The latter depends on the nature of the fruit tree being planted and should be at the discretion of the farmer. In addition, it is not necessary to pollard all of the trees at the same time or even to remove all of the branches: trees can be pollarded as needed and to the extent necessary to generate the optimum shade for the fruit trees. As in the case of annuals when the Inga trees are pollarded the cut leaves, twigs and minor branches need to be left in the agroforest alleys where they will serve as a mulch. The larger branches can be taken as fuel wood.

Continue reading Planning the planting of our first crops!

A new species of tree from Central America

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Freziera tararae, one of two species we have recently described in the Harvard Papers in Botany

A month ago and together with colleagues at the Harvard Herbarium (Laura Lagomarsino) and the Environmental Services Unit of Heredia Public Services Costa Rica (Quiricó Jimenéz-Madrigal) we published a paper describing two new species of tree in the flowering-plant family, Pentaphylaceae, one of which  Freziera tararae that we had collected during fieldwork funded by the Natural History Museum’s Collections Enhancement Fund in 2012. It always feels like a real and long-lasting contribution to science to describe and publish a new species for science, no matter how often you do it. It is especially rewarding to publish a new species that you have collected yourself, even more so when it is collected in a spectacularly beautiful and species-rich place as the La Amistad World Heritage site in Costa Rica / Panama.

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The main author of the paper, Daniel Santamaria, collecting at 2800 m on the peak of one of the Cerros Tarara in Costa Rica

Freziera tarariae was collected just below the peak of Cerro Tarara on a very cold morning in 2012 after having camped on the top of the peak wearing all of our clothes and huddled next to each other for warmth. The view was spectacular, clouds scudding past below and around us giving way to a bright emerald green horizon of forest as the sun came up and as we clambered down the steep sides of the peak Daniel Santamaría, a very promising young Costa Rican botanist, spotted the tree he had been hoping to find, a new species of Freziera that he had collected a year previously but without flowers.  The tree itself is associated with disturbed high elevation forests in the Talamanca Mountains, one of the most species-rich areas in the World for plants.

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Line drawing of Freziera tararae from the original article in the Harvard Papers in Botany

 

 

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