Sunday, April 30, 2023

A Mountain Bamboo in Machu Picchu

Note: Due to the rain at the time, I had to resort to phone pics at times, so I apologize in advance for the quality of those images. 

The rain and drizzle could not fully detract from the beauty of Machu Picchu, but it did hinder my ability to take good photographs. The fact that I was also part of a tour and needed to go as fast as the tour guide also affected any botanizing that I might have wanted to do.

Nevertheless, I did manage to see some interesting specimens in the rush to finish the tour, and among the grasses I found I spotted individuals that looked like bamboo.

Lining the path
Some of the bamboo-like individuals carpeted the side of the paths, while others draped over the passing people as they trudged along beneath. All had delicate and slender leaves, and were somewhat vine-like in their general habit. They were overall one of the best looking of the plants in the park, and quite distinct from the surrounding vegetation.

I decided later that they were of the bamboo genus Chusquea of the grass subfamily Bambusoideae, and after further research perhaps the species Chusquea delicatula. Members of the genus Chusquea are sometimes called the South American mountain bamboos, which I'll admit is a really cool common name.

Chusquea delicatula draped above passersby
C. delicatula itself is an Andean bamboo that has very long and thin culms. It is viney, and the nodes sport side branches that form star-like shapes (see pic below). The images of this species that I found on the web seemed to show a rather more delicate looking bamboo, but perhaps the vagaries of living in the wild instead of luxuriating as a somewhat more pampered ornamental makes a difference. Either way, I am always happy to accept corrections to my identifications. 

Nodes with side branches forming star patterns (red arrows)
Chusquea is the most diverse neotropical bamboo genus, and has the widest latitudinal range of any bamboo genus, occurring from 24 degrees North in Mexico to 47 degrees South in Chile. It also has the largest altitudinal range, and can be found from sea level to over 4000 m. Species in this genus are sometimes dominant parts of montane forests and high altitude grasslands. Machu Pichu at 2400 m is seemingly perfect for C. delicatula, and I saw quite a number of these grasses during my tour of the park.

Chusquea delicatula (?)
Unfortunately, the rain and the somewhat rapid pace of the tour meant that I could not really spend much time observing and photographing the specimens. They are beautiful plants, with their arching habit and dark green slender leaves. I hope that the next time I am in that area, I can hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, and thus have a lot more time to devote to what has become one of my favorite bamboo groups.

Part of a bamboo looms over a group of rain-soaked tourists

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Rock Growers of the Sacred Valley in Peru

Using a wide angle lens to photograph Machu Picchu scene

The Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado) area in Peru boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It is dotted with the ancient ruins of Incan structures, their smooth stone walls fitted seamlessly together. Hidden within their intricate puzzle-like geometries lie secret images of animals, including those that this amazing people held sacred,  such as snakes, condors,  and pumas.

I visited this place last week, including the ruins of the world famous Machu Picchu, as well as the ruins of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Saqsaywaman. Remarkably, and especially in the wetter environment of Machu Picchu, the depressions and crevices in the stone walls and boulders held various plants, including some tiny grass species that were wonders to behold.

The genus Ctenium of the subfamily Chloridoideae is one that I have so far seldom encountered in the USA, but I found gorgeous specimens of this grass both in the ruins of Ollantatytambo and in Saqsaywaman.

Ctenium flowerhead in Saqsaywaman
Ctenium inflorescence have a characteristic form, with the spikelets in rows on only one side of the flowerhead. Some flowerheads also twist and curve as they mature, creating attractive botanical structures.

Ctenium growing on mossy soil on rock in Saqsaywaman
In Saqsaywaman, I found a thriving colony of this grass in a single large boulder. The rock had small depressions filled with moss and soil, and in each of these depressions lived one or more individuals, many of whom drooped as they were bursting with bunches of colorful flowerheads.

Ctenium inflorescence in Ollantaytambo
In Machu Picchu, I also found a beautiful tiny species that nestled in the moist crevices of stone walls. I only found these in a localized area in that park, but it was amazing to discover every single one of the individuals as the tour wound its way past that area. The dark green leaves seemed to shyly peek from their rocky cradles, and the spikelets were so tiny (perhaps 1 mm long, not including the long awns) that I had to use full magnification on my macro lens.

Tiny spikelets of unknown sp growing on rock walls in Machu Picchu
The tiny spikelets themselves with their single awns remind me of Muhlenbergia spp. But the overall habit of the plants could not have been more different. Instead of the characteristic thin bladed bunch grass that I have seen as ornamentals and beach residents, these miniscule jewels sported relatively thicker grass blades.

Tiny spikelets of wall growing unknown sp. in Macchu Picchu
The difficulty in taking good photos of the tiny specimens were further exacerbated by on and off rain. It was drizzling occasionally when we were there, and many of the flowerheads of the specimens were decorated in droplets of water. The rain also prevented me from using my camera during parts of the tour. 

Tiny grass sp growing out of crevice in moist rock wall in Machu Picchu
As mentioned in previous posts, the members of the Poaceae are relatively scarce as true epiphytes, probably due to the prevalence of wind pollination in the family. But given even small portions of soil, moss, or other available substrate, it seems that grasses are also fully capable of exploiting these niche habitats.

Using a wide angle lens to view of the ruins of Ollantytambo