Sunday, May 14, 2017

Visiting Argentina--Corrientes in the Northeast

along the Parana River, Corrientes Argentina
Along the Parana River, Corrientes Argentina
My slides remind me of past adventures. Beginning in the late 1980s I collaborated with Guillermo Norrmann of the Universidad del Nordeste in Corrientes, Argentina. We were working on related grasses (Andropogon) from North and South America, and made good use of the similarities and differences. One consequence of this collaboration was that I visited northern Argentina several times.

Argentina stretches from 21o 48'  S, approimately the same distance from the Equator as Cancun, Mexico, to 55o3' S, as far south as Ketchikan in southern Alaska is north.
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
southernmost Argentina
South America has many similarities to North America. A range of tall mountains lies north-south across the continent, about 2/3 of the way west, for example, and, at the big-picture level, the vegetation is strikingly similar as it changes from tropical to subtropical, to temperate and then (ant)arctic.

jacaranda in flower, Buenos Aires
Jacaranda in flower, Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is at about the latitude of Atlanta 
Three differences stand out. First, North America goes much farther toward the poles than South America. The tip of Argentina is as far south as South America goes: in contrast, look at all the land in North America north of Ketchican, Alaska. Second, South America is narrower (and in total smaller) than North America, so there is no baking-in-summer, frigid-in-winter mid-continental  heartland even though temperatures shift similarly as you go toward the equator. Finally, South America grades gently from temperate climates to subtropical and then tropical regions. In North America that procession is interrupted by the Caribbean Sea. Miami is just barely subtropical and directly south of it is mostly ocean.  On the west, in Mexico, there is some moist subtropics, but most places are dry to the point of being desert. Similarities, with differences to surprise you, are always great fun.

Corrientes, Argentina
northeastern Argentina
My introduction to South America was to northern Argentina. The provinces of Corrientes and Misiones have climates that barely exist in North America. If the Caribbean wasn't mostly water, the comparable climates would be there, on the Equator side from Miami.

The northeastern Arrgentine provinces are hot in summer, slightly less hot in winter. Southern Corrientes Province has occasional frosts, but I was in the  north where frosts are virtually unknown. It was rainy! Corrientes translates as "runnings" meaning streams. Much of the province is or was marshy. It is mostly grassland. Some of that is due to humans cutting the original forest to run cattle or grow crops, but many areas flooded too often or had particulary poor soils and never supported forests.
Corrientes Province, Argentina
Corrientes, Argentina
The rivers of northern Argentina are very big. The Mississippi-Missouri is the 4th longest river in the world, according to Wikipedia, but the Paraná-Rio de la Plata which runs beside Corrientes is 8th. When ranked by discharge, the number of cubic meters of water per second, the Rio de la Plata is 8th, the Paraná 12th and the Mississippi 15th. I lived 60 miles from the Missouri River, so I suppose I took it for granted. But I didn't expect the Paraná. Suddenly we were on the bank of a river so broad the far bank was barely visible. The Paraná drains southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina, emptying into the short but massive Rio de la Plata at Buenos Aires. 

The Paraná River at Corrientes
Looking across Parana River at Corrientes
The bridge across the Paraná River to Resistencia, at Corrientes
The climate was like nothing I knew. I recognized some of the international ornamentals, palms and oleander, agave and citrus, but as soon as I looked at native plants, mostly I was at a loss. It wasn't the tropics where I knew some plants and, as I said, there's no climate like it in the United States. And also, I was focused on the comparison of Andropogon grasses of North and South America and didn't spend much time just looking. 

But I remember some grand plants. Quebracho was pointed out to me. (photos). Quebracho trees were an important source of tannins for a wide variety of uses, but especially for tanning leather. Europeans freed cattle in Argentina shortly after discovering it and for a very long time cattle hides for a big international market were the major export from Buenos Aires. Tanning leather follows readily from this industry. Quebracho, though, is not one tree: the name is used for several. The area just to the west of Corrientes--across the Paraná on the bridge above--was a major source of quebracho, in particular red quebracho, so likely I was shown red quebracho (Schinopsis lorentzii). 
yerba mate, Ilex paraguariensis
Plantation of mate, Ilex paraguariensis
Another wonderful tree was mate (say "ma tay", not "may t"). I had read about mate, the national drink of Argentina. I spent my first couple days looking for it on restaurant menus--but it wasn't there. Then we went on a field trip to see the grasses and when we stopped for a morning break, there was mate. The leaves were carefully added to a gourd bowl (called a mate) and hot water from a themos added. The gourd was passed, each person drinking it dry, handing it back to preparer who added more water and passed it on. There were lots of little customs, for example, as soon as you said "no thanks" to more, it ceased to be offered. 

Mate, more formally yerba mate, is a tea from the leaves of a local holly, Ilex paraguariensis (holly family, Aquifoliaceae). Ilex is a big, worldwide genus, but I think only Ilex paraguariensis is a tea. Mate has a reasonable amount of caffeine, but the Argentine botanists I was with drank lots of coffee as well as mate. As the scientific name indicates (-iensis is an ending meaning "of"), mate is native to the area of northern Argentina, Paraguay and adjacent southern Brazil. I didn't think to ask, but the customs for mate drinking must come from the Indians of the region, particularly the Guaraní who were the chief group in the area. My colleague Guillermo Normann is of German ancestry but when he came to the U.S. to work with me, he carefully brought his thermos and a supply of mate, guessing (correctly) that he could not find it in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early '90s. 

Mate and its customs appear to have been absorbed by European settlers in northern Argentina and then spread across the country. Europeans moved into North America just as they did in South America, and adopted the crops of native peoples such as corn, beans, squash and tobacco, but I can't think of preparation methods or customs that were transferred at the same time. Consequently it makes me sad to see mate for sale in Colorado stores as just another tea: the customs have been left behind, though no doubt international sales are good for the growers. 

South American Andropogon species
In North America we call them bluestems, even though
they are rarely blue, in South America the common
name translates as redstem
I started this post out with the word "adventure". It is not that I was stranded on a remote roadside in northwestern Argentina or encountered a deadly snake (although Guillermo Norrmann explained "I don't believe in snakes. If I did, I wouldn't do this."). There is, however, plenty of adventure in discovering a region about which you know next to nothing. I saw wild rheas grazing in the fields the way elk do in Colorado and deer elsewhere in the U.S. (like this: link tho I was never that close). The church by my hotel in Corrientes was finished in 1600: European settlement in my part of Colorado goes back to 1837 but that settlement no longer exists. There's a major fishing industry in the Paraná which put food fishes on the restaurant menus, but I recognized none of the names, in Spanish or English. I had no idea all those differences existed. Wonderful!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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