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September 16, 2014
 
 
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Mihai Costea

Searching for parasitic plants in Peru

Sep 10/07

Landing in Lima after the big earthquake of August 15, and being completely unaware of it, was a strange experience to say the least. This is how my trip to Peru in search for the parasitic plant species of Cuscuta (dodders) began. The initial surreal feeling continued the next day at the herbarium of the Museo de Historia Natural, when while I was examining flowers under the microscope, the local researchers were evaluating the damage and potential peril coming from the cracks in the building. However, even under these unusual circumstances, I got all the help that I needed from María Isabel La Torre Acuy, and I could study all the collections of Cuscuta in the USM herbarium.

As a newcomer to Peru, the next predictable stop had to be Cusco, the former capital of the Incas. Romanticizing Cusco is a too seductive trap. The history lingers along the narrow, tortuous streets and the huge Inca walls. The Chechua words roll soft on these stone-paved corridors, and the colors seem more vivid. Could it be effect of oxygen depravation on the brain (as Cusco is located at about 3300 m elevation), or of too many coca (Erythroxylum coca) leaves chewed? I don’t know, but many “gringos” (foreigners) seem to fall under its spell. Jim Farfán Vargas from Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco made easier not only the access to the herbarium (CUZ), but he also opened for me a small window into the life of this city and the surroundings. Only a hundred meters from Plaza de Armas, the center of tourist gravity, there is a city of real people that live real lives which seem distant from the nearby vacationers’ marveling. After the brutal Spanish conquest that toppled of the Inca Empire in the early 16 century, the city of Cusco has been subjected to the pressure of a total metamorphosis: religious, linguistic, cultural, architectural, genetic (even a botanical transformation has taken place through the introduction of some alien plants that have changed the local flora!). The Cristo Blanco (a replica of the Cristo Redentor from Rio de Janeiro) looking over the city side by side with the Sacsaywaman ruins, is the proof that the conquest is still taking place. Perhaps some of the Inca spirit is hiding deeper, resisting against the new cosmopolitan conquest and the neoculture invented to satisfy it. Or perhaps this is another romantic image that I invented to escape from the first one.

Another objective of the trip besides studying herbarium specimens was to find living plants necessary for chromosome studies and DNA extraction. None of the South American species of Cuscuta have the chromosome numbers known, and DNA extraction from herbarium specimens has proven problematic. Given the short time available, I had to limit this search to the neighborhoods of Cusco, and again quite predictable for a newcomer to Peru, along the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Jim and his father kindly helped me get to Tipon, a marvel of Inca engineering, and Llama Path from Cusco organized the pleasant trek along the Inca Trail. The diversity of plants encountered was incredible. Please find take a moment and visit the photo gallery. This is an eclectic combination of pictures taken in Peru (Lima, Cusco, Tipon and the Andes). Some images came from my personal musings over shapes and colors, portraits of people and landscapes, some are more serious but equally beautiful photos of plants. This is the heaven (and the hell!) for any botanist! I hope I can go back there sometimes…

Many thanks to María Isabel La Torre Acuy and Rolando Reategui Lozano from Lima, and to Jim Farfán Vargas from Cusco. Finally, but not last thanks to Llama Path and the people who worked really hard to make our trip in the mountains a memorable one: Celso, the guide, Chapulin, the chef, and Sexto, Florencio, Timoteo, Santos and Valvino.

Photo Gallery

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