Ruellia capitata

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before….

This is the stuff dreams are made of. The last 24 hrs in Brazil were some of my best on this planet. Nico and I had been driving like maniacs. We had one week remaining and so we punched it out to Mato Grosso to catch the edge of Amazonian botany. Returned via Tocantins and northern Goiás (one long, scary, risky day that we barely survived… but did; ask us in person). We drove late into the night to arrive at the town of Niquelandia, in hopes of searching for Ruellia capitata in the earliest of morning hours prior to driving to Brasilia to catch our afternoon flights.

And that we did – without a moment to waste, we rose at 5am, located the population, and studied hummingbird pollination of its flowers, all before the sun rose.

Ruellia capitata is a highly restricted-endemic species of Niquelandia and immediate surroundings. It is known from fewer than 10 collections, all of them within an area that is probably less than 10 square miles. How is this even possible? In this case, I do not think collector bias is to blame (i.e., the restricted-endemic nature of Ruellia capitata is almost certainly real). One possibility is neoendemism. With each field trip I take, I learn something new and important about how Ruellia species so love metal and cation-rich substrates. I think there is a lot more going on with edaphic specialization in this genus that I previously gave credit to. Another hypothesis to test.

Ruellia capitata is a remarkable species – I do not yet know what it is related to but whatever the sister species, she is a lucky one. One final comment – Ruellia capitata produces the most interesting floral color. Nearly red as in pelargonidin red, but not quite – there is a tinge of something else happening… burgundy-esque. I can’t wait to ask the HPLC for an answer.

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5968 w/ Nico Medina (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp

Ruellia villosa

We found Ruellia villosa in a beautiful stretch of semi-deciduous forest in the vicinity of Piatã, en route to a series of mines. Sometimes, it’s the agencies that we think of as being the most destructive (mines, energy developments, military outposts) that actually preserve the best habitat, and this was certainly the case here.

Ruellia villosa is a small herb to ca. 1m that is decumbent and fond of growing on top of other plants (that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?). It is a bit on the dainty/feeble side, if I may. We found plants scrambling among the steepest slopes, in the rocks and clay, like so many of the others in the genus.

Ruellia villosa is slightly perplexing phylogenetically. It is likely sister to the lowland Amazonian Ruellia glischrocalyx (a species actively avoiding me in the field), and together, there is some evidence that these two may be sister to a large clade that contains both Brazilian and Mexican species of cerrado/savanna habitat (see Tripp & McDade 2014, Aliso).

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5915 w/ Nico Medina, Cíntia Kameyama (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp

Ruellia verbasciformis

I have been putting off writing about Ruellia verbasciformis because the prospects were too overwhelming. The grandeur of this species is too much for me to understand and makes me feel small. What can I say, sometimes this biodiversity business is emotional.

But I will try.

Ruellia verbasciformis is huge, commanding, beautiful bat-pollinated species endemic to Goiás (there might be one or two records from adjacent Mato Grosso?), Brazil. I have known the species for some time through herbaria (thru the evenings, mornings, afternoons….). But seeing it in the cellulose outside of Parque Nacional dos Veadeiros in August 2016 was a life changer.

The flowers of this species are massive. They open at night and light up the sky. All reproductive parts of the plants (namely: inflorescence branches, bracts, calyces) secrete an immense quantity of oils. The population we studied was so oily that we were forced into using wet wipes as we worked with the tissues (spectrometry, sampling) and made meager attempts at capturing the experience with photographs.

Phylogenetically, Ruellia verbasciformis is strongly supported as member of a lineage of shrubs endemic to Brazil that includes R. adenocalyx, R. incomta, R. salviifolius, and R. tomentosa. It is, however, the only species among these to have evolved bat pollination. I do not yet know if is ancestral or derived within this clade, though my expectation is the latter.

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5936 w/ Nico Medina, Cíntia Kameyama (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp

Ruellia trachyphylla

Aside from Ruellia pohlii, Ruellia trachyphylla was, at least at this very moment, my second favorite find in Brazil. Neither species has been placed phylogenetically. In fact, both names have rested motionless in the ancient literature for a century or more. I’m happy to try to give them new life…

But – little we see in nature that is ours. Try as I might to bring the world of Ruellia into the public eye, most will avoid it.

Note the miniscule growth form of this species and, like R. pohlii the lucid quality of its leaf veins. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two were related.

We found Ruellia trachyphylla among open white sands in Parque Nacional Chapada dos Viadeiros. I am grateful to Cíntia for taking us in and around this remarkable place on Earth.

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5930 w/ Nico Medina, Cíntia Kameyama (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp

Ruellia sp. nov. [Tripp et al. 5930]

Maybe it has a name? Maybe you will enlighten me? Maybe it’s a way out. Maybe it’s the Fratellis. Maybe Chunk found the police. Maybe it’s another one of Willy’s booby traps.

Give me a few months to figure it all out.

Only a few plants seen NW of Cavalcante, Brazil. A landscape with some of best diversity of Ruellia in the world.

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5936 w/ Nico Medina, Cíntia Kameyama (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp

Ruellia sp. nov.

This was one of those evenings never to be forgotten, ever.

Late in the afternoon I convinced my traveling companions to park the car and go walking towards the summit of one of my favorite kinds of habitats in the Neotropics: las microondas. As I write, I can see Nico cringing with his perfect Spanish: they are microwaves… they are communication towers. But, he’ll survive.

Across Latin America, roads that go to summits containing microondas towers are generally special – they host lots of fine habitat and few people. A little trick I learned from many Mexican Acanth collections of Tom Daniel.

I had a strange feeling about this one. We had been walking on the road and around the forest for about an hour. I didn’t find “that special something” I was after, and sensed Nico and Cíntia had already turned around for the car. I hadn’t yet reached the summit. But I had a feeling that I should keep going.

Pushed it forward at a near running pace. The habitat changed… something of a lower montane cloud forest, leaves thick, coriaceous. Definitely not Acanth habitat.

Just shy of the summit I laid eyes on it. I let out an audible ohhhh my goddddd then “froze and marveled at the smashing nonchalance of nature”.

It was a new species without any shadow of doubt. I sprinted down the mountain towards Nico and Cíntia. They drove to the top, met me, and we very rapidly processed the collection (spectrometer, tissue sampling, etc.) in the last few moments of daylight.

This species is so beautiful: BIG, DARK PURPLE corollas, with a prominent narrow tube and yellow nectar guides. The leaves and stems are covered by a soft indumentum of PURPLE (that’s right, purple) trichomes. AND to top things off, it is almost certainly in the Ruellia inundata clade – among my favorites!

I should like to name this one Ruellia microondas.

Wild collected, Brazil, Erin Tripp #5908 w/ Nico Medina, Cíntia Kameyama (COLO); Photos by Erin Tripp, Cíntia Kameyama

Ruellia speciosa

Ruellia speciosa is, true to its epithet, a beautiful species. And one of my favorites. I could probably write a short story about this one if commissioned (one can dream)… about watching for hours the hummingbirds fawn over it in a deep fissure on top of a mountain overlooking Ciudad Oaxaca…. about its wonderfully pungent odor…about the population mutants that produce the strangest internal floral accessory structures. Well, best just to read all about it in the (non-commissioned) taxonomic revision of Ruellia section Chiropterophila (Tripp 2010, Systematic Botany). You can also read all about it (soon) in two recent genomic works on the species, one of which is a whole nuclear reference genome. Both: Yongbin Zhuang (most awesome postdoc) & Erin Tripp, in press.

I first (and only ever) saw this species alive, in the field, in the year 2005. I owe a great deal of gratitude to Salvador Acosta for leading me to this population. I have searched and searched for many other populations, based on localities from historical herbarium records, but all such attempts were unsuccessful.

It’s true and sad: Ruellia speciosa is a species that is far less common than it used to be….

Update (Jan 2016): Manuel, Amanda, and I returned to the above locality some 10 years after I first visited it. The population has now been extirpated from housing development. Not all stories have a happy ending.

“What falls away is always. And is near. God bless the ground! I shall walk softly there.”

Wild collected, Mexico, Tripp & Acosta #175 (DUKE); Photo by Erin Tripp