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Between grasses and bamboos

The first book about the São Paulo Phanerogamous Flora brings together information on almost 500 species of native and imported gramineous plants

G. J. SHEPHERD ArchiveChusquea oligophylla: frequent flowersG. J. SHEPHERD Archive

For those who believe that grass is all the same and can spring up in any place, here is a piece of bad news: there are 458 types of gramineous plants just in the State of São Paulo, equivalent to 38% of the known varieties in the country and to 5% of those identified on the planet. The good news is that these almost 500 species are described in the first book of Phanerogamous Flora in the State of São Paulo, the inaugural work of a collection of 17 volumes that give a new dimension to São Paulo biodiversity, by bringing together information provided by close to 300 botanists about the plants that represent 80% of the flora of the State.

The first edition, which will be officially published by Editora Hucitec on the 26th of September at as cost of R$ 50.00, is entirely dedicated to the Poaceae family, the popular gramineous plants. We are speaking of a taxonomic catalogue of almost 300 pages, with identification keys, descriptions, illustrations, comments and the geographical distribution of the 458 species, though in the book, because of a revision failure, they add up to 475. “People are accustomed to believing that there are not so many types of grass in São Paulo”, recognizes Maria das Graças Lapa Wanderley, of the Botanical Institute of the Environmental Secretary of the State, one of the coordinators of the thematic project of Phanerogamous Flora, which visited to herbariums and collected 20,000 plants.

The gramineous family is the third largest of the 180 into which phanerogamous plants are divided, species which have evident reproductive organs (flowers). Only orchids, with more than 700 species (close to 10% of the flora), and the composites, with more than 600 species, make up a more numerous family. Before the publication of the first volume, to check the similarities and the differences of each species or variety of plant was extremely complex. As happens with any other vegetal family, the information on the Poaceae was dispersed in dozens of reference works. “Now one need only look in the one book”, says the Scottish botanist George John Shepherd, of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), another coordinator of the Flora project, whose data will fill the Biota-FAPESP program, whichis mapping all of the biodiversity (fauna and flora) of the State.

Native and foreign
Of the 458 gramineous species catalogued in the State, 403 are native plants, typical of the Brazilian flora, and 55 have their origin outside of the country. Having adapted themselves to the climate and to the soil here, these foreign samples are today growing spontaneously, independent of whether or not they are being cultivated, sometimes alongside native species. As they have almost genuinely incorporated themselves into the biodiversity, they were included in the work. “When he collects a grassy plant at the side of the road, a layman doesn’t know whether it is native or not”, explains Hilda Maria Longhi-Wagner, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), a specialist in Poaceae and the organizer of the first Flora project volume.

For example, the guinea grass (Panicum maximum), often found at the side of highways, is an African plant. The botanist from Southern Brazil coordinated and played a part in the team of 21 people who produced the texts printed in the work. Composed of hundreds of varieties of grass and bamboo, the universe of the Poaceae is richer than any layman might think. Behind the scientific names, indecipherable for the common citizen, at times are hidden plants well known to the general public. When grown, some species are sources of foodstuffs, such as the sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), oatmeal (Avena sativa) and broomcorn (Sorghum bicolor). Others of spontaneous growth, give origin to types of very popular creepers. This is the case with sape grass (Imperata brasilienses) and of molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora).

There are other species which for their beauty become ornamental such as English grass, also known as lawn grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum), very common in parks and squares as well as the pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), a species originating from Argentina. During the work of the Flora research, which began seven years ago, the researchers gathered together information on 7,500 vegetable species, distributed among 1,500 genders and 180 families. Preliminary data points to the discovery of 44 new species of phanerogamous plants. (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 50). Through an editorial decision, the project coordinators decided not to include in the first book of the collection six new species of grasses that were identified during field collection. Not at least with this status. “When we cite these species up until now unknown, we give only its genre without mentioning its species”, explains Maria das Graças. These types of recently discovered grasses will be described in scientific articles in the botanical magazines of Brazil and abroad.

Besides the species as yet not described, the Poaceae family reserved other surprises for the researchers. There were mapped at least six types of gramineous plants endemic to the State, that is, found only here. A good part of these species, typical of São Paulo, are concentrated in the Atlantic Rainforest, where the biological richness is immense. Among the endemic species, the highlight falls upon a group of woody bamboos unregistered in any other State of Brazil, (Merostachys caucaiana, Merostachys scandens, Chusquea erecta, Chusquea sellowii and Chusquea pulchella). Some of these bamboos such as C. sellowii, are difficult to identify as they flower only every 32 years.

Rescued species
Even when they didn’t encounter new types or endemic types of Poaceae, the researchers brought home good news. They identified for the first time in São Paulo some species of gramineous plants whose geographical distribution appeared to have been restricted the southern States of the country, with a sub-tropical and temperate climate. With the work of the research of Phanerogameous Flora the botanists realized that the São Paulo territory is the northernmost limit in the country for the incidence of these species of Poaceae .

It was exactly this that happened with the two species that belong to the genre Stipa (Stipa sellowiana and Stipa setigera). Until they were collected in high fields of the Mantiqueira Hills, both had been described in scientific literature as being present only in the States of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and in Parana. “This type of information is very important”, comments Hilda. As it is a state with a transition type of climate, neither very warm nor very cold, São Paulo has the distinction of being the northern limit for some species of temperate environments and the southern frontier of varieties typical of warm zones.

Another type of knowledge acquired through the field work of the Flora project: some species of grasses that the botanists had judged to be practically extinct in the State were re-discovered in São PauloNature . The story of Ctenium cirrhosum, a very beautiful and ornamental species, serves to illustrate this line of contribution to the project. Normally found in areas of Cerrado (wooded savanna) in Mato Grosso, Goiás and Minas Gerais, the C. cirrhosum stayed 48 years without being found in São Paulo. The first example of this species was rediscovered in rocky fields in the State in 1959. The second, only in 1997, during one of the nearly 200 field expeditions for collecting specie samples undertaken by the participants of the Flora project. If the researchers had waited two more years to accomplish such a feat, this form of grassy plant would have been considered to have been extinct. For botanists, a species uncollected in its habitat for 50 years is classified as extinct.

In the other Brazilian States there is no news of any publication as comprehensive and updated as the first volume of the São Paulo Flora project, which, by the end of the year, should launch its second volume, covering various dicotyledonous families, plants whose seeds are sectioned into two parts, such as the bean – and beginning in 2002 three volumes per year are expected to come out. The only exception is the State of Santa Catarina, which, within the fascicles of the series Illustrated Flora has already focused on the gramineous family. “The São Paulo model could serve as the seed for the production of a national flora containing those of other States”, says Hilda.

Chosen to coordinate the volume on gramineous plants, the botanist from Southern Brazil recalls the difficulties that she had to conclude the work within the stipulated time. “It was complicated dealing with so many collaborators and to have to look after the problems of uniformity and editing of the texts”, says the researcher from UFRGS. Living in the city of Porto Alegre, Hilda communicated above all via e-mail with the two dozen authors who drafted out the texts of the first volume. She especially remembers one Easter holiday, when she remained at home while the rest of her family went to the beach.

The effort was well justified: she took the opportunity to get in touch, via e-mail, with the American Lynn Clark, of the State University of Iowa in the United States, one of the top world specialists on a sub-family of Poaceae, the Bambusoideae. Hilda had some doubts about the format that should be adopted in the book for this type of bamboo, a little different from the other gramineous plants. “At the end of the holiday, the ‘skeleton’ of the Bambusoideae was ready, and I had a few more gray hairs”, comments the botanist jokingly. If he still were around with his colleagues, professor Hermógenes de Freitas Leitão Filho, the first coordinator of Phanerogamous Flora who passed away in 1996, would be proud of the work of the team.

The Project
Phanerogamous Flora of the State of São Paulo (nº 95/04215-1); Modality Thematic project; Coordinator Professor Maria das Graças Lapa Wanderley – Botany Institute; Investment R$ 510,427.84