Vamos a la playa

We decided to go to the coast today. The last two days we collected many S. chilense samples and even though this species is probably the most interesting to me, this is an exploratory trip. So, exploring the coast for either S. chilense or S. peruvianum would make sense to do. One extra day would not have suddenly made our S chilense collection from the mountains complete and the coastal habitats are very interesting. I will just have to come back for exhaustive S. chilense sampling. So after breakfast we got in the car, set for a one hour ride to some probable sites. There is only one recorded sighting for S. peruvianum on the coast near Tacna and no S. chilense, so it was going to be a gamble.

The first part of the road was a weird mix of desert, olive trees and the odd irrigated field with corn. All of this dotted with rubbish and waste. We’ve seen a lot of roadside litter the past weeks, but mostly it was relatively confined to the urban area’s. Today it stretched the full 40 km to the coast. We didn’t expect to see many tomatoes here, but to our big surprise we found one nice plant next to a dry river full of rubbish. This was probably the worst smelling site we visited. I think I stepped on a full diaper when trying to reach the plant, but I’ll spare you the details and only show the picture of the nice side.

After this we continued our way to the coast and once there drove for another 25 kilometers north. This is where the mountains reached the coastline, so the habitat would be perfect. This was also the place of the single recorded sighting done in the 1980s. The coastline is very rugged and made for some beautiful views. S. peruvianum seems to like it too, because in total we found at least half a dozen plants not far from the road.

To finish our day we went down in the next coastal valley and there we found some pretty interesting sites as well. We found wild tomatoes growing in some very different environments, all close to farm land. Some were still on relatively dry soil, but others grew in grassy fields. Very different from what we had seen before. All around us there were plantations. Mainly chili pepper. Phytopthora infestans doesn’t infect chili, but there is a close relative, Phytophthora capsici that does. The chili fields looked pretty clean though. They were obviously sprayed, but I still found a few leaves with infection symptoms. It would be interesting to see if these samples match the spots we found on our wild tomato growing right next to the field.

We were back in Tacna in time for a late lunch and spent the afternoon processing our samples again in the hotel room. This was the last day of collecting. This trip we really tried to reach the maximum number of sites, so we could collect only a few samples per site, because the traveling between sites takes very long. However, in total we have still samples of over 160 different plants, covering 5 species from 45 different locations. Definitely not a bad score. So to celebrate we were headed for one of the better restaurants in Tacna, where they served us some excellent Alpaca meat. After that we went for one last drink. The name of the bar where we ended up, clearly signals that for me it is time to go back home.

The south

After a fairly relaxing day in beautiful Arequipa, we went further southwards today. In this area we will be able to find three species. The most dominant one will be S. chilense, but we could also encounter S Peruvianum and S. Corneriomullerrii. The general area is extremely, and that means extremely dry. But There are a lot of valley were rivers flow all year round or in certain seasons. Besides that, the area experiences a lot of very heavy fog. We experienced such fog already on our first trip from Lima. This fog is so dense that in the car you will have to turn on your windscreen wipers. It looks like you drive through a light drizzle. This of course creates perfect infection conditions. For the next week, we got a different car. Driving will probably a bit more comfortable, but we don’t have the nice working space in the back anymore.

From Arequipa we drove to the coast. Not far outside the city we started to see the first plants. Unfortunately, we were right in morning traffic and driving on a main road (connecting the Peruvian coast with Brasil), so we had to skip a lot of samples, because we just could not stop. We knew we would get some others later and on next trips we can definitely find a way to collect here as well. When the road got a bit quieter, unfortunately, the landscape also got flatter and more importantly, it got drier, so the frequency of plants along the road decreased from one every several hundered meters to basically none for about 50 km. But as soon as the hills came back and there were signs of riverbeds, the first plants reappeared. It is incredible to see how these plants look so healthy in such dry regions. But, like I said before. Mist is a thing here and they really capture the humidity. The warning signs for the “Zona Neblina” were everywhere and we saw several net installations that are used to capture water from the air to drink or for agriculture.

From this point, I think we saw well over a thousand plants scattered along the roads. Sometimes single individuals, sometimes large groups of plants. Very interesting to see. The dry landscape was sometimes interrupted by some very lush fields and even grazing cows, but this was of course only very close to the rivers. Overall, the landscape was rugged and beautiful. Some tomatoes seemed to look completely healthy, not a single brown lesion, whereas others had some sign of infection. In many cases, there was also considerable drought stress, so some leaves would start to turn brown. Unfortunately, this browning can look very similar to infection symptoms, so picking the right plants took a bit longer than we expected. The views made up for it though.

The evening we spent in Moquegua. a quiet medium sized town in a fairly green valley. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to see a lot of the town, because during the day, we did not manage to find a space to process the samples, so I had to set up a hotel room lab. Then again processing infected wild tomato samples is strangely gratifying.

The valley of pennellii

The day started of pretty nice again. Ok, the hotel didn’t serve breakfast, but one block away we found a bakery like shop that served us a decent empenada and had some very upbeat music just loud enough that it wouldn’t make sense to talk to each other. This, of course made for a very happy the start of the day. After breakfast we left Huaral with a minor detour, but this led us to the first surprise of the day. Urban wild tomatoes! A nice S. pimpinellifolium was growing next to a pile of rubbish well within the city and a second one could be found in a field, behind a pretty decent barbed-wire fence.

Today was supposed to be a shorter day. From Huaral to Lima are 90 km. When you take the Panamerican highway, this can be done in under 2 hours, even with dense traffic. We took the B-road, the 108. Google tells you that when you follow this road, it will take you three hours. However, Google is pretty much completely off when it comes to dirt tracks. We learned this the past few days so, we do our own calculations. On average, I can drive about 25 – 30 km/h on the track. This includes the occasional stop to look for the plants. So the we add a few hours of actual sampling and you can calculate that no more than 6 hours after leaving we’d be in Lima. Today’s road was slightly different. First of all it was very impressive, sometimes green and agriculture all around, then dry and pretty dusty, but above all it pot holed like no other. So badly, that I regularly had to use the lowest of the low gears to just get over the road. Below a picture of a good section.

After seeing this mixed landscape for a while and encountering the odd S. pimpinellifolium and S. pennellii the landscape change again. Everything became even dryer and dustier. A total moon landscape right ahead of us. So we feared, looking at the distance to go, that the next 5 hours would be tomato free. This turned out to be completely false. After a few km, we came closer to the dried up river beds and suddenly the S. pennellii popped up all over the place. I think that I am not exaggerating if I say that on some locations you could see plants  every 20 meters for hundreds of meters. Truly amazing.

After 25 km, the road went up in the mountains again, but the tomato intensity did not decrease. The species changed to S. peruvianum and all along the road there were hundred of plants On the way down on the other side, the gradually made way to S. pennellii again, just like on the other side. Hundreds of plants, all in a place dry as the moon. Interestingly, if you put your hand in between the leaves of the plant to sample the lower parts, you can feel humitity on your skin. Between the leaves of the tomatoes is a true humid microenvironment!
Today is probably the day with the most spotted plants, which came to me totally unexpected. However, since it also came with as many pot holes, we finally arrived in Lima at a bit past 16:00. Both Philippe and I are not CIP employees, so we would have needed a special permit to work after 17:00. This left not much time to fully prepare the samples, so we decided quickly prep everything for overnight storage and tomorrow we will join the CIP technicians with the sample preps. I am really looking forward to this, because upon my arrival, they told me that they isolated some P infestans spores from the 1st sample, collected on the 1st day. Let’s see if we can get more!


New heights

Today we planned to leave the hotel early again. And, we did. We left 30 minutes later than the plan was due to issues with my bank card, but overall, it was fine. 6:30 am, we were on the road.

Traffic in Lima didn’t slow us down as much as other yesterday. By 9:00 we had left the city and we had a break for a proper breakfast in a town of which I cannot remember the name. Shortly after this town the landscape changed dramatically, from dry Lima-suburban-slums, we suddenly found ourselves in a lush and agriculture rich area. No wild tomatoes though. So, we drove on. The road followed the river up into the mountains and by the time we reached 800 m altitude, the first wild tomatoes appeared, S. pimpinellifulium again. Today we were totally professional and all efficient, so we picked the plants, but did not process the samples immediately. We would collect a few sites and do all in batches. We found a very good site with dozens of S. pennellii in a bend in the road, going several hundred meters up. Here we collected additional samples and processed the previous ones as well. Not far from this site, we also found nice, but lonely S. peruvianum just on the side of the road.

After this plant we drove for quite a while. The occasional S. pennellii plant popped up, but we wanted to sample from a big population, so we could pick the best looking symptoms. I was just about to give up on finding one and wanted to suggest sampling a couple of these lonely plants next to the road, when Philippe yelled “Stop, stop, go back, go back”. I must have been looking tired or stupid, because he repeated himself a few more times. This, however, was a good thing, because after I reversed the car for a few hundred meters Philippe pointed me at the absolutely stunning site that I just overlooked. At least 50 plants growing in a dry river bed.

With plenty of S. pennellii in the pocket now, we were ready to drive into S. habrochaites country. The altitude meter told us we were passing 2000m, the area became greener and yes, there they were. Sometimes individually and sometimes in larger populations. We stopped at a site where we also found S. peruvianum and a third species which I think to be S corneliomulleri. I found very few P. infestans like symptoms on the S habrochaites. I expected this, because in the lab S. habrochaites is more resistant P. infestans than the other species we tested. Interestingly, there were some beautiful concentric rings with a yellow halo on quite a few leaves, so Alternria spp are probably doing fine on the plant. Next time, we should expand the collection permit. When I was about to head back, I suddenly heard some exciting scream behind me. Philippe had found a plant that showed some very clear and strong wilting symptoms. The hypothesis for this trip was that  the bacteria would be mostly asymptomatic in these species, so seeing this is quite exciting. However, we’ll have to wait till we’re back in the lab to know whether it is really bacterial wilt.

Early afternoon, we reached Canta. Our preferred hotel was closed, so we had to look for something else. We also still had to prep the samples of the second half of the morning morning. We did this in a hotel recommended by others, but we soon realised that there was no decent wifi connection and the beds were covered in dust. Motivated scientist as we are, that could have been OK, if only had we printed or at all prepared our route for tomorrow, so after sample prep in the dining room of the hotel and after having eaten our lunch there, we decided to move to another hotel.

The new hotel was only a few hundred meters away and looked much better. By the time we had checked in and settled down it turned out to be almost 15:00. Because our morning had been pretty successful and we both noticed some tiredness from the previous days, we decided to call it a day. This meant we finally had time to catch up with email and other work and also to just have a bit of a rest. For dinner we found a very typical Peruvian place, so we ordered Deep fried Guinnea Pig and a Pisco Sour at 2892 m above sea level. To not upset the readers of this blog, none of us took a picture of our meal, which wasn’t that tasty, by the way. Tomorrow we’re going “off road” to find more S habrochaites. I’m looking forward to it.



Cars, cars, tomatoes and cars

Today started with a slightly different speed than yesterday. We had to drop yesterdays samples off at the lab to be cleaned up and we wanted to get some paperwork sorted to avoid issues with the police like yesterday. When we dropped our samples off, we ran into Tiina Sarkinen and Jean Ristaino who were about to leave for sampling themselves. Luckily we had a few minutes to exchange ideas. After this, we were meeting with Albert Salas, the CIP expert in wild tomatoes. He went trough our itinerary and made a few suggestions. Turns out that the plan that I made before, was quite OK. After the meeting we had to wait for the paperwork to be finished and we could be on our way.

The differences between driving in Lima at 6 in the morning or just after 10:15 are tremendous. There was so much traffic all around us, that at some moments I feared we would never leave the city. Luckily then some moments later, parts of the road appeared completely empty, which the Limenas took as a clue to see how fast their cars could go, until they realised they wanted to go elsewhere to swirl and turn without notice. We’ve found ourselves stuck between traffic with different route preferences more often than not and in the end it took us almost 3 hours to leave Lima. On the way we were stopped again by the police. I will spare you the details, but it took a lot more than some nodding and smiling this time to be able to drive on again…

Then at just past 13:00 we reached our first site and it was a beauty! We stopped because I spotted a lonely Solanum peruvianum plant and it turned out that he was surrounded by tiny S. pimpinellifolium plants and a third wild tomato that I could not determine. So, at one site we got three species. It would be very interesting to sample all plants and see how the pathogens on all of them compare, but in this particular project there is no time for that. In order to reach other sites and other species, we have to limit the number of samples we take per site. So, after collecting wilted plant parts and a selection of brown lesions from about 5 plants, we drove on and just after 14:00 we had a nice lunch in the nearest village.

The afternoon we drove further into the mountains. On our way we saw a lot of nice and not so nice S. peruvianum plants. Many of them growing high on very steep slopes. I nearly sprained my ankle when the piece of rock that I trusted to hold me on my way down broke off and I slipped down a dew meters. Maybe rock climbing and wild tomatoes should be limited to areas with good solid rock. We drove for a good 2 hours with quite a lot of stops to collect S. peruvianum specimens until we realised that we would also have to go back to Lima. So then, we turned around.

The way back started of nicely. We found a good spot to prepare the samples and were done doing that rather quickly. Also the first hour of the drive back went way smoother than we planned. But then Lima traffic hell broke upon us again. I can’t really find the words to describe what it is to drive in Lima, but i like to think that reversing the Middle ring in Munich while blindfolded is a similar experience. You’re barely moving and have no clue what goes on around you. After four near hits, one truck hit the side of our car.  Luckily nothing major, but both Philipe (who had been swearing and yelling of amazement by the drivers surrounding us) and me (who had been swearing and yelling of anger at the drivers surrounding us) decided that this was another good reason to change our plan. Tomorrow we are not going to do a round trip. We drive out further a field, to spend the night there and come back via a different route the day after. So, tomorrow we’ll sleep in a village of 2000 inhabitants at 2837 m altitude. I’m sure the traffic will be lighter.