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On the surface of the earth

Botanists identify in São Paulo 7,239 species of native plants, equivalent to two thirds of Europe's flora

Botanist Luiza Sumiko Kinoshita created extra work for herself five years ago.  As if the lessons and research at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) were not enough, she began to visit, at least once a week, some schools from the city’s elementary schooling network. She would talk with the teachers, help to plan activities in the classroom and would lead the children through the streets, squares, woods and areas of native vegetation.  Her intention was to open their eyes and set free the youngsters’ sensitivity; they had never before noticed that the trees of the avenues were few and of few species, and therefore incapable of attracting birds and several other pollinators and dispersers of seeds. It was on these expeditions that the boys and girls discovered how different are the shapes, sizes, textures and green hues of the leaves – in one of the experiments, with their eyes blindfolded, they had to recognize a tree that they had already seen, just by touching its trunk, sometimes smoother, sometimes more wrinkled.

This experiment, which included visits to the laboratories of Unicamp and the Campinas Agronomy Institute, resulted in the book A botânica no ensino básico – Relatos de uma experiência transformadora [Botany in basic schooling – Reports of a transforming experience], to be launched now in July. With the teachers from Campinas and from three other cities – São Carlos, São Paulo and Santos –, Luiza shared the knowledge accumulated in the course of a monumental project, carried out by a group of 250 botanists: the identification and description of the plants with flowers – the phanerogams – of the state of São Paulo. There are 7,297 native species, according to the most recent estimate, with the errors already excluded (there were plants with up to three scientific names), and adding on the 40 species with their discoveries made up until now.

In the middle of the collection
“In number of species”, says George Shepherd, from Unicamp, “São Paulo houses two thirds of the flora in Europe”. The state that got rich by pulling down almost all the natural vegetation, which today covers only 13.9% of its territory, still reserves surprises like the new species of canela-de-ema [rhea’s shin],  Vellozia obtecta and Vellozia peripherica, which grow in the rocky fields near to the Canastra mountain range, on the border with Minas Gerais. These plants with large violet flowers are amongst the 475 species of the 33 families described in the fourth volume of the collection Flora Fanerogâmica do Estado de São Paulo [Phanerogamic Flora of the State of São Paulo], launched in July. One important explanation: for taxonomists, as the specialists in classifying plants and animals are called, family is a group of genera, which bring together similar species.

“We have now been working for 12 years, and the survey is far from ending”, says, with a mixture of pride and exhaustion, Maria das Graças Lapa Wanderley, a researcher from the São Paulo Botany Institute, who splits the coordination of the project with Shepherd. The publication of the fourth volume merely marks the end of the project supported by FAPESP and the start of the battle for new funding, because the work does not stop: the material for another three volumes is almost ready, with the painstaking descriptions of the plants and illustrations done with India ink. Since the first volume, launched in 2001, about 2,500 pages have been published, describing 139 families, 475 genera, and 1,830 species of the plants with flowers that help to make up more open undergrowth like the Cerrado and the high mountain grasslands, or more dense and impenetrable, like the coastal forest. And the collection has still far to go: with one book a year coming out, it only finishes in 2016, with the 15th volume. The fifth, more tangible, should come out next year with more new species, such as a bromeliad from the Atlantic Rain Forest, in southeastern São Paulo, Quesnelia sp., with violet flowers and a red inflorescence that seems to want to spring up from a base formed by long leaves in the shape of a vase. There is something even rarer – the Randia genus, made up of five new species of bushes and trees, also in the Atlantic Rain Forest, that make up the Rubiaceae family, the same as the coffee tree, which only did not go into the book for being native to Africa, not to Brazil.

The Flora is the first and most comprehensive mapping of the native vegetation of the state of São Paulo – for a complete cataloging, only one far smaller group is missing, the group of plants with no flowers, the survey of which Jefferson Prado, from the Botany Institute, is in charge. It is also a pioneering work for bringing together specialists from eight research institutions: since 1993, specialists from the three state universities – Unicamp, USP and the São Paulo State University (Unesp) – are working together, and from three research institutes – Botanical, Forestry and Agronomic – and from one municipal body – the Parks and Green Areas Department of the São Paulo city hall.  Add to that the contribution from researchers from one institution of the federal government, Embrapa in Jaguariúna, and from collaborators from 15 states and from other countries.

Once the team was formed, novelties began to sprout up – and not always good ones. In the set of historical collections from herbariums like the one at the Botany Institute, the researchers found records of dozens of plants like those that a century ago used to occupy Fazenda Butantan, which originated the institute, and from the top of Caaguaçu hill, where the Paulista avenue was constructed – and they have never been seen again. Obviously, they also put their boots on and pitched into what is left of the São Paulo forests: so far, about 500 collection expeditions have taken place, to start with at the rate of one a week.

Analyzing the 20 thousand samples of branches with leaves, flowers and fruit that they brought back, the Flora team reencountered species that were presumed to be extinct and at least another 50 endemic ones, particularly in the mountain ranges. Shepherd himself headed up a team that climbed the Fina mountain range, which is home to the highest point in São Paulo, the Pedra da Mina, at a height of 2,797 meters. “We spent three nights on he top of the mountain, one of them very uncomfortable: the campsite was flooded after the strong rain”, he tells. They came down wet and exhausted, but with new species, like Cortaderia sp., a grass with an inflorescence 2 meters high.

In Votuporanga, northeastern São Paulo, the botanists came across an Amazonian species of fig tree, Ficus catappifolia. They found new species even in the municipality of São Paulo, like Ocotea curucutuensis, a cinnamon of up to 10 meters in height, besides preciosities from the Metropolitan Region, like a passion flower with light pink petals, Passiflora ischnoclada, which lives only in the town of Salesópolis. The news was not all good: other species of passion flower were no longer found in Campos do Jordão, São Sebastião and Caraguatatuba, where they used to grow before.

Flora is today a generous source of information, which has already inspired a simpler publication, a guide to bromeliads from the Alto da Serra de Paranapiacaba Biological Reserve.  It was also the raw material from which the list of endangered species in the state was updated: the most recent version, from September last year, contains 1,020 species – in the previous list, from six years ago, there were 300. For indicating the geographical distribution of the plants, this survey also lends itself as a guide for more effective environmental conservation policies, capable of protecting the more fragile natural environments and species.

The main objective of this survey is to get to know São Paulo’s biodiversity, but there is another, equally important: the conservation of the natural heritage. With this objective, a team from the Botany Institute itself is expanding the cultivation in a vivarium of rare species from the Atlantic Rain Forest that run the risk of disappearing, for them to be returned later to their native spaces. The devastation is even more intense in the Cerrado, in the west of the state, precisely the region that ought to merit more expeditions, Flora’s coordinators recognize. “It is doubtful whether we will one day get to know the real diversity of the Cerrado in São Paulo”, says Shepherd.

From the scientific point of view, Flora has borne fruit in the form of 20 dissertations for a master’s degree, five doctoral theses and some 30 scientific articles. In practical terms, alternatives may come from it for plants to be cultivated to treat diseases, to provide wood, to leave the food tastier, or simply to decorate the house. This is the case of hemlock, Conium maculatum, a herb that comes from temperate regions that has adapted itself to the tropical climate of the country. Its sap contains the alkaloid coniine, an extremely strong poison that, in therapeutic doses, could be used against tetanus, whooping cough or convulsions. Years ago, cuttings of a herb known as devil’s horns (Ibicella lutea) were taken to Europe and to the United States and cultivated for its fruit to be gathered while still green, which was kept in vinegar and consumed in the form of a preserve.

“Before”, says Maria das Graças, “there was only one survey about the flora of the city of São Paulo, done in 1911 by a Swiss botanist, Alfred Usteri, with some 800 species”. The situation is not much better in the other states: in general, there are only isolated surveys, like those of the Cipó or Grão-Mogol mountain ranges, in Minas, and rare comprehensive studies. Besides São Paulo, another exception is Santa Catarina, with Flora Ilustrada Catarinense, currently coordinated by Ademir Reis, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).  Of this collection, which began to be published in 1965, 183 volumes have now come out, adding up to 13,843 pages with the description of 158 families and 3,690 species. As 63 families are still missing, there are at least ten years of work ahead.

Work of a generation
The most complete inventory of the country’s native plants still is Flora Brasiliensis, a collection of 46 volumes published by the Bavarian, Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, which began to be published in 1840 and only finished 66 years later. The national flora is represented there by means of 3,811 illustrations and of information – in good measure out of date – about 22,767 species of plants, almost half of those existing in the Brazilian territory. This collection also gives an idea of what has now been lost, like the forests with immense trees in the region of Mogi das Cruzes, close to the São Paulo capital.

Flora Fanerogâmica is the contribution from our generation of taxonomists”, says Luiza Kinoshita, who reconciled her visits to the schools with the task of describing the Apocynaceae family, the one the allamanda, a garden vine with big yellow flowers, presented in the fourth volume. She says “our generation”, for considering that the botanists who sign this survey are heirs of the style of work of at least two São Paulo professors who made taxonomy germinate in the country in the last few decades. The first is Aylthon Brandão Joly, a botanist from USP and afterwards from Unicamp with profound knowledge of the São Paulo flora, who died in 1975, at the age of 50.  The other is Hermógenes de Freitas Leitão Filho, the conceiver and the first coordinator of Flora, who died in 1996, 52 years old, during a botanical expedition. It was from then onwards that the coordination of the work stayed with Maria das Graças, who comes from Pernambuco and has been living for 30 years in São Paulo, along with a Scot, George Shepherd, and, also from Pernambuco, Ana Maria Giulietti, who after retiring from USP transferred herself to the State University of Feira de Santana, in Bahia, and today lives in London.

The Project
Phanerogamic Flora of the State of São Paulo Modality Thematic Project Coordinator Hermógenes de Freitas Leitão Filho – Unicamp
Investment R$ 726,190.57 (FAPESP)