Drake Passage and Ushuaia, Argentina
The year changed while we were in Antarctica, so this is our first visit to Argentina in 2013! The Drake was good and we have made good speed. At breakfast we can see the coast of South America. A little strange – some snow, no ice and there are trees! Not big trees, not lots of different trees, but trees. How different! Back to reality; still beautiful, but it is like waking up from a good dream that you just want to stay in. Antarctica… hard to describe, like a color or a smell, there are no words big enough, exciting enough.
We arrive in Ushuaia, where we started a long time ago, just after lunch and there is enough time to do an excursion to Tierra del Fuego Park, the park at the end of the world. This is a temperate rainforest, but it grows very slowly. Fire damage to some parts of the forest from 50 years ago have still not recovered, the wood is good, but it is not a renewable resource and there are only five species, three of which are southern beech, related to our beech and oaks, but different.
There are many flowers, now that it is mid-summer, and one conspicuous non-flower, a fruiting body of a fungus. In English we call it Darwin’s fungus or Indian bread. The fungus grows on southern beech trees. The “plant” itself grows within a woody gall, the fruiting body or “mushroom” is bright orange and about the size of a golf ball. Darwin was the first to make a scientific collection of this species, hence the name, but it was know to sailors because it was edible and said to be tasty.
Darwin’s fungus is once again in the news because it harbors a species of yeast that appears to be one of the mysterious parents of the yeast used to make Bavarian lagers! The Bavarian yeast is a sterile hybrid of two yeast species, one known and, up to now, one unknown. The genetic match is as close to perfect as one could expect. The question is, how did this yeast get to Europe hundreds of years ago to provide the cold hardiness that is needed by lager brewing? Yes, just when we think we know everything, it gets more complicated… enough to keep me excited and it does not hurt that Darwin’s fungus is pretty too!