John Wood on annual fieldwork in Boliva

Tue August 15th, 2017

I always enjoy fieldwork, particularly when you get into remote areas. The wildness, the smells, the sounds of birds and insects, the hospitality of people who live far from civilization all make it a life-enhancing experience.

John Wood, having recently returned from his annual visit to Bolivia, gives us some insight into his time in the field.

I recently came back from my annual visit to Bolivia. These visits always have a botanical purpose and in recent years, have always been Ipomoea related. This year I was there for four weeks, of which nearly half was spent in the field.

I always enjoy fieldwork, particularly when you get into remote areas. The wildness, the smells, the sounds of birds and insects, the hospitality of people who live far from civilization all make it a life-enhancing experience. Every trip is different and this year saw us collecting on horses in the seasonally flooded pampas near the Pantanal, which stay green long into the dry season.

I didn’t expect to find anything really new so the focus was on re-finding some of the rarer, recently described species and filling in gaps in our knowledge. How exactly do the plants grow? How big are the populations? What are the roots like? How are the seeds? It’s surprising how little information we have about many of the species.

Heading into the dry Andean valleys was rewarding. Here it is winter and everything is dry and leafless but it doesn’t mean you won’t find any Ipomoeas in flower. One such is the red-flowered Ipomoea exserta which is pollinated by hummingbirds and which we described as new two years ago. What I was really looking for was the little-known Ipomoea juliaguttiereziae, which I had never seen. We found plants in bud in one known locality and this showed that young plants produced numerous woody shoots about two metres high.  A day later, we came across scattered plants in flower in a quite new location. Here it grew as a liana climbing to at least six metres and completely leafless when flowering, the flowers emerging with the slender branch tips. It seems that once one of the young stems has found a tree to climb, it grows stouter and longer, while the shoots die off.  It is the only near relative of the tree Ipomoeas that grows in Bolivia but molecular studies suggest it is an isolated species.

As always with fieldwork, results were mixed. I failed to re-find three plants I was looking for, particularly a white-flowered relative of the sweet potato, which was a new species when found three years ago. The seeds and roots are still unknown. Better luck next year, perhaps. It was frustrating a final day as I knew exactly where and when to find the plant, but perhaps the rains had come too early or too late this year.

However, disappointment turned to delight as we found two apparently new species right at the end just as we thought the trip was ending on a low note. I hadn’t expected to find anything new as no novelty had turned up since 2014 so finding one on the journey back along the main truck road connecting Santa Cruz with the interior cities of Bolivia was especially surprising. Most Ipomoeas look the same when you drive past so it was chance that we stopped to check out a rather conspicuous roadside Ipomoea. Even a cursory check of its inflorescence and leaves made it almost certain to be new. I await the arrival of the specimens and the results of molecular sequencing but have no real doubts that we ended on a high note, something I was able to share with colleagues and friends in a presentation at the Natural History Museum on my last night in Bolivia.

Ipomoea juliaguttiereziae flowering at branch tips

(from left) John Wood, Andrea, Maira and Fernando about to set off to the flooded pampa 

Collecting in the flooded pampas

Ipomoea exserta, a leafless bird-pollinated species flowering in the dry season

Julia gutierreziae flower in dry season

Friends and colleagues at the Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz

New species side view to show distinctive characters (see cover photo for front view)

Presentation on the last night in Bolivia