Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Saxifragas of Madeira

White daughters of black lava

I obsessed walked looking for the ancestral fern Asplenium anceps by volcanic mountains of Madeira. I had traveled specifically to see it and to photograph it. I had left only two days to find it and I did not resign to return to Majorca with the empty hands, that is to say, without so longed for photos of this primitive plant, progenitor of a whole saga of hybrid ferns whose descendants populate rocks of the Serra de Tramuntana of Majorca. With my renting car circulating slowly around the zoomings and twisted highways of the center of Madeira I directed towards the locality of Curral das Freiras.

Flowers of the endemic Saxifraga pickeringii directed towards the light like small satellite dishes. I recommend to extend the photos with a double click to see better the details. 

Since we make all the fans to the botany when we circulated around ways and highways, I went with the right eye watching the rocky plants of the roadside ditch  and the rocky slopes and with the left eye pending of the circulation. In Madeira people circulate at a high speed and several conductors already had drawn me attention with the horn to go slowly. Not to obstruct the circulation as much I stopped the car each several kilometers and on foot crossed a good stretch of highway, a roadside ditch in the going and the other roadside ditch in the return.

In case you don´t know it, the roadside ditches of the highways have an impressive biodiversity, they are readily accessible and they contain an ample sample of plants of the forests and fields by which they pass. The slopes of Madeira mountains usually have a great slope and to accede to them is often impossible without a scaling equipment. For that reason the highways and the typical levadas that canalize the water of mountains towards the terraces of the cultures and the populations are so practical for the botanists.

In one of my shutdowns, already a little navigated as much scanning with the view the rocky slopes that bordered the highway, suddenly I saw a small plant two meters of height whose white flowers seemed luminous lanterns in the dark of the laurisilva forest by which the highway passed. It was a Saxifraga pickeringii, a rare Madeira endemism that seen close it moves us by the beauty of its flowers and their fleshy leaves. 

Saxifraga pickeringii on a rocky wall with the roots anchored in a crack stuffed of decomposed mosses and lichens. This endemism grows in the high fresh and humid mountain and supports temperatures that do not lower of 5ºC. Difference of the Saxifraga maderensis, also endemic, by its fleshy small leaves and the stems of the inflorescences that in conditions of much light or direct sun acquire an intense red color by their wealth in antocians. The old leaves also become red before curing. The petals of the flowers are short, wide and more rounded than in the Saxifraga maderensis.

Leafy Saxifraga pickeringii in the rocky slope of a volcanic mountain oriented towards the northwest. Its identification is easy by the rounded petals of the flowers and the fleshy leaves.

Habitat of the Saxifraga pickeringii. Extending the photo with a double click are better seen the details. 

Gorgeous and luminous flowers of Saxifraga pickeringii with its rounded petals of an immaculate target that shines with own light. The anthers of stamens have a beautiful red-orange color.

Fleshy leaves of Saxifraga pickeringii with the red stems of the inflorescences and the old leaves also red.

This day, the antepenultimate one of my trip to Madeira, I did not find my either longed for Asplenium anceps fern, but to find small saxifraga cheered me the morning and my happiness was still greater when in the return way I had to suddenly stop the car in the roadside ditch because I finished seeing another endemism, the hybrid small fern Ceterach lolegnamense, a botanical allohexaploid rarity with three complete genomes in the nucleus of its cells. Luckily on the following day finally I could see the botanical treasure that I had taken to Madeira. At the top of Monte Poiso, to 2,000 msnm, I found finally a numerous population of the macaronesian Asplenium anceps, grandfather of our Asplenium azomanes and great-grandfather of the Asplenium x tubalense that populate the walls of the terraces of  Soller Valley in Majorca. 

The other endemic saxifraga of Madeira, Saxifraga maderensis, I found the last day of my trip in the magnificent Botanical Garden of Funchal. The units that I saw don´t were cultivated. They grew of natural way between the beautiful exotic plants of the garden. They were tiny plants, but the luminous beauty of its white small flowers attracted the glance towards them as if small magnets it was. 

Tiny Saxifraga maderensis surrounded by other wild plants in a very shady zone of the Botanical Garden of Funchal. I had to make the photo with flash. 

Same previous Saxifraga maderensis seen more close. Its small flowers have the petals more narrow and extended than the Saxifraga pickeringii.

Young Saxifraga maderensis with its small leaves of an alive clear green color that they are different from the Saxifraga pickeringii by not being fleshy.

 Flowers of Saxifraga maderensis of narrow and extended petals. Like in the other saxifraga, the anthers of stamens have an alive red-orange color.

And finally, so that the two species can be distinguished easily, in this combined image the differences in the flowers can be seen.

In the small neighboring island of Porto Santo grows the endemic Saxifraga portosanctana, but I do not have its photographies. I will have to return a day to Madeira in the middle of May to visit the Island of Porto Santo in an escape with the ferry. I hope to have luck and to find this rare endemism to be able to share it with you. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Menorcan Vincetoxicum with pink flowers

A new species? A hybrid?

The conservative of the Soller Botanical Garden told me its history. A fan to the botany of Menorca does found about ten years ago in a precipice of the island a Vincetoxicum very different from the two habitual species, the one of black flowers and the one of white flowers. This one had the flowers of an alive pink color with the target-yellowish center. Suspecting that he had found a small treasure, he gathered seeds and he sent them to the botanical garden, where they came to seed them in the section of native plants of the Balearic Islands. 

Flower of Menorcan Vincetoxicum photographed at the end of April. It seems a small starfish that shines with own light. Truth that is pretty?. As it can see the ants are very sweet-toothed of its nectar and they act like true pollinator. 

The seeds germinated and after several years of growth they gave its first flowers. Genetically speaking the plant does not seem hybrid then in theory its flowers would have to be completely pink, halfway between the almost black dark garnet of the Vincetoxicum nigrum and the slightly yellowish target of the Vincetoxicum hirundinaria.

Intrigued by knowing more on this Asclepiadaceae I tried to find information exceeds it and I did not find anything. I looked for species of pink flowers in Europe and the Mediterranean basin and I did not have luck either. Between the photographies on Vincetoxicum that shows the Google finder is no similar one. 

 Combined image with the three flowers of Vincetoxicum.

I contacted with a professor of botany of the University of the Balearic Islands, I spoke to him of this plant and I sent him a few photos, but he did not say me nothing because he did not know its existence. I asked him what names could put to it to insert the photos in my website and he suggested me provisionally called Vincetoxicum. hirundinaria var.balearicum. If finally it turns out to be a new species its name could be Vincetoxicum minoricensis, like the famous Lysimachia minoricensis already extinct in the nature. When it advances and the study of the genome becomes easier and cheap, perhaps then there are surprises. The genes do not lie.

In the vast scientific work even without finishing on the Iberian Flora two species in Spanish territory, both presents in the Island of Menorca are only mentioned: Vincetoxicum nigrum and Vincetoxicum hirundinaria.

New buds of Menorcan Vincetoxicum in April. 

Three years ago an eminent French scientist, René Sforza, contacted with me by email. He is very interested in seeing plants of Vincetoxicum nigrum of Majorca, because he was making a study of the plagues that affect this plant in order to find a natural enemy that it serves for the biological control against the Vincetoxicum nigrum introduced and feral in Canada and north of USA, where this Mediterranean plant has proliferated as much that it has become an uncontrollable plague. Don't mention it they have served chemical products, because it turns out to be resistant to them. 

 Flowers of Menorcan Vincetoxicum in May.

Days later Professor René Sforza came to Majorca and I showed him several dozens of plants of Vincetoxicum nigrum that grow in mountains of Serra de Tramuntana. From each of them he kept a few leaves in separated envelopes to calmly study them once from return to France. He is coverall interested to find some pathogenic fungus or virus for the Vincetoxicum.

I spoke him of the Vincetoxicum of pink flowers and we went to see it in the botanical Garden. It said to me that it knew tens Mediterranean and American species of Vincetoxicum, but those pink flowers were not known for him. He suggested that perhaps it was a hybrid, but that stops to assure its identity made lack a genetic study. 

 Fruit of Menorcan Vincetoxicum still immature.

Every spring undergoes the ruthless parasitization of thousands of aphids of the Aphis nerii species.

 Luckily the aphids respects the flowers and the Vincetoxicum can reproduce.

Although logically the aphids debilitates the plant sucking the sap, this one is so vigorous that supports perfectly the parasitization without apparent damages.

Therefore this peculiar asclepiadaceae continues being a stranger for science, nobody is interested in it and still remains without studying. One does not know if it is a species, a subspecies, a variety or a hybrid. Luckily its survival is assured thanks to the Soller Botanical Garden that takes care of it and keeps its seeds in the Germplasm Bank, one richest in species of the Mediterranean.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mandragora autumnalis: beautiful and dangerous

Mandragora autumnalis is a small plant of autumnal flowering belonging to Solanaceae family. It is very rich in atropinic alkaloids like the atropine and the scopolamine that make it very toxic and dangerous. These alkaloids used separately in low doses are well known by the modern medicine, but in the antiquity it was not possible to separate them and their poisonous effects were added, getting to cause the death to that consumed its leaves, fruits or roots. In the days of Pliny the Elder, about 2,000 years ago, in the military campaign of Rome against the Germans, the surgeons gave to chew a piece of mandrake root to the wounded to stun them before operating to them or amputating a member to them, since it has a strong anesthetic effect. In the Middle Age it was one of the more  used plants in witchcraft by its hallucinogenic effects. It was one of the basic components of the ointment with which the sorceresses greased their genitals in aquelarres, securing therefore a strong aphrodisiac and delirious effect, into believing that they flying and copulated with Satan.

Gorgeous flowers of mandrake at the beginning of autumn. Its alive color blue-violet shines with own light. I recommend to extend the image with a double click to appreciate better the details. 

 Leaves of Mandragora autumnalis in March. The plant loses the leaves in summer, remaining in aestivation until the first rains of the autumn. Their lanceolate leaves form a basal rosette. They are rough with the edge slightly waved. The stem is short and appears by one long and heavy root that gets to penetrate until a meter in the ground. Indeed the tendency by the root to be divided in two bifurcations in the form of two legs gives to the uprooted plant an anthropomorphic aspect  that in the antiquity increased its magical character.

Same previous mandrake in full bloom in October. The flowers are hermaphrodite and its corolla usually is off-white with bluish, pink or violet color more or less intense. 

The beauty and the purity of the flowers are extraordinary. Their reproductive organs are formed by five stamens, two of them more lengths than the other three, with anthers of a beautiful pink color and off-white pollen and a length pistile with the ovary in their base and in their end the bilobed or trilobed stigma of a smooth yellowish color. I recommend to extend the image with a double click.

Pink flower of mandrake in the middle of October. The abundant trichomes that cover the underside of petals are seen very well .
Detail of the five stamens and the pistil of the previous flower.

Lateral vision of a flower of Mandragora autumnalis. The chalice is turbinated with five sepals welded in a tube in its basal part and prolonged in five lobes longer than the tube. Corolla is campanulate with five lobes in the form of petals welded in its base. 

Fruits in different stages of maturation. At the outset they have an intense dark green color and as they are maturing they are acquiring a beautiful orange color.

 Immature fruit in November. The five lobes of the chalice are bordered by long trichomes.

Mature fruits of Mandragora autumnalis in November. One of them is partially eaten by the slimy and snails that are immune to the atropinic alkaloids. 

Detail of Mandragora autumnalis seeds.

The seeds of mandrake to germinate must surpass two obstacles:

The first obstacle receives the name of external lethargy and is caused by the impermeability of cuticle that covers the seeds that prevent the entrance of the humidity and the hydration of the embryo. It is surpassed with the stratification of seeds in the soil during many months, sometimes up to three years, by the action of the fungi and bacteria of the ground that scarify the cuticle and break their impermeability. Of artificial way the external lethargy of fast form can be surpassed putting under the seeds the action of an acid like the sulfuric or a base like the lye during several minutes. Its corrosive action scarify the cuticle and facilitates the later hydration of the embryo. Of slower and more natural form the same is obtained simply stratifying the seeds in vegetal substrate during several months.

The second obstacle is the internal lethargy of the embryo of the seed that remains "asleep" and it only wakes up after supporting several months of intense cold during the winter. Of artificial way the internal lethargy can be surpassed keeping the seeds in humid vegetal substrate within a container closed inside the refrigerator during several months. 

Surpassed both lethargies, as much in the nature as of artificial way, the seeds germinate in the following autumn or in spring, although sometimes they can take up to three years. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Aristolochia bianorii: miniature beauty

Aristolochia bianorii is one of the most beautiful endemic to Mallorca and Menorca. It likes to live among rocks and limestone, both in coastal areas and in the mountains. It is often found growing in rock crevices where its roots go deep in search of moisture retained at the bottom of the crack. Slightly branched stems up to 50 inches usually grow prostrate and scattered, but if they find a small bush not hesitate to climb over its branches. Blooms during the winter and spring. It belongs to Aristolochiaceae family and its genome contains 6 pairs of chromosomes (2n = 12)

Its leaves like little hearts rarely exceed 2.5 cm in length. They are ovate-oblong, cordate at the base, petiolate and glabrous. I recommend to extend the photos to see better the details.

In this image we see very well the detail of the leaves. Its curious flowers, photographed in June, are zygomorphic with a single plane of symmetry and are called perigone. They have form of yellowish tube crossed longitudinally by lines brown-dwelled with the end widened and returned downwards like a small hood. At the edge of the opening of the flower and inside there are abundant trichomes.

Flowers about 2 inches long are solitary, axillary, stalked and gynanders, ie, are hermaphrodites with both male and female sexual organs welded together. At the bottom of the tube is widened androecium with six stamens inside which surround the pistil to which are welded and just below the stem there is a thickening called the gynoecium that contains the ovary is divided into six compartments. The flower image was photographed in April.

Fruits of Aristolochia bianorii in capsule form with six shells. The photo was taken in late June.

Detail fruit, umbilicated in the center, with the six shells that contain the seeds. Compared with the fingertips is best seen its diminutive size.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Blechnum spicant: born to win

Blechnum spicant ssp. spicant is perhaps without exaggerating one of the most rustic, adaptable and resistant ferns of Blechnaceae family. It is able to live as much to total sun as in darkest on the penumbrae, as much in permanently humid zones with the roots flooded throughout the year like in parched grounds that only receive the humidity of the dew contributed in the horizontal rain. Its adaptability even allows to support the polar cold of the south of Iceland. Nevertheless, where better one feels, it is in the pleasant subtropical climate of the Macaronesia. It prefers to grow like rupicolous on vertical walls with its oriented sterile fronds towards the light.  

Numerous copies of Blechnum spicant growing in a vertical wall in a clear of a forest of laurisilva near the city of Funchal of the Island of Madeira. In the part superior are seen some vertical fertile fronds in contrast to the sterile fronds that have a horizontal habit. I recommend to extend the photos with a double click to appreciate better the details.

Vigorous sterile fronds of Blechnum spicant photographed in the Caldeira do Faial of the Archipelago of the Azores. In the part superior of the image are seen some leaves of feral allochthonous Hydrangea macrophylla, vulgarly Hortensia call.

Under the leafy treetops of the trees of laurisilva of the Vueltas de Taganana in the heat of Rural Park of Anaga of the Tenerife Island in an atmosphere of intense shadow grows these specimens of Blechnum spicant. The photography was taken with flash in the middle of the month of May.

Blechnum spicant has an ample distribution. Besides the Macaronesia, with the exception of the Cape Verde Islands, also it lives in Europe, Iceland, north of Africa, Smaller Asia and the Caucasus. 

It displays two varieties: the Blechnum spicant subsp. spicant var. spicant has very different the fertile and sterile fronds, turgid with pinnae separated and the other pendular with pinnae very together, whereas the Blechnum spicant subsp. spicant var. homophyllum has all the turgid fronds with little differences between fertile and sterile. Pinnae of the fertile fronds, in addition, is less separated than in the variety spicant.  

The variety spicant is most abundant and more widely distributed, whereas the variety homophyllum is much more little and it only lives in Galicia and Portugal.

Sterile fronds photographed in the Island of Faial of Azores Archipelago, appearing in the heat of month of May with the increase of the temperatures of the spring.

Beam of a sterile frond with pinnae without petiole inserted directly in rachis. In the fertile fronds pinnae are petiolate. The fronds of the Blechnum spicant are very coriaceous and scraping to the tact. They seem of plastic. The lamina is oblong-lanceolate wider in its central part.

Underside of a sterile fronde with a very prominent rachis. Pinnae have slightly oblique parallel veins to each side of the central nerve that seem immature sori.

Blechnum spicant subsp. spicant var. spicant in May at the time of its maximum splendor with the vigorous turgid fertile fronds and the rosette of horizontal sterile fronds in the lower. Its beauty can be appreciated better extending the photo, that was taken in May in the Natural Park of Madeira.

Fertile fronds of the previous fern close-up views. It calls the attention the intense red blood color of the petiole and rachis. Unlike the sterile fronds, the fertile ones have pinnae very separated and petilate.

Detail of the petiole and rachis of the fertile fronds with its beautiful red color. The sterile fronds have a much more short petiole of green color.

Beam of a fertile frond of Blechnum spicant subsp. spicant var. spicant. It is appraised the stamp of the sori that are in its underside and the denticular edge of pinnae.

Underside of the previous frond with the sori initiating the maturation. The sporangia like black small balls are seen under indusium on the verge of initiating the dispersion of spores.

Sori slightly more mature than those of the previous photo. They are distributed in two very together parallel rows following the central nerve of pinna. Each sorus is covered by a white indusium good developed. Frequently the sori are confluent forming continuous cenosori. The spiculated edge of pinnae with small denticles is appraised. The detail of the insertion of pinnae in rachis with a small petiole is also seen. In Doodia caudata , another very similar Blechnaceae, pinnae of the fertile fronds does not have petiole and they are inserted directly in rachis with an ample base of insertion. (To see the article of Doodia caudata)