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(Tropical) Andes: CPD Site SA35

North-western Argentina

Location:  Western Tucumán Province, with southern Salta and eastern Catamarca provinces, between latitudes 25°48'-27°38'S and longitudes 65°28'-66°50'W.
c. 6000 km².
c. 400-5550 m.
Six biogeographic provinces; vegetation types from Amazonian winter-dry rain forest through temperate cloud forest, Andean "páramo" grassland, high-Andean vegetation, and in western rain shadow, dry "prepuna" (spiny shrubland with tree cacti) and "monte" (semi-arid shrubland)
High diversity - close to 2000 species; high endemism, ancient species and habitats, southern extreme of ranges; neotropical and subantarctic elements intermingled with Andean flora; threatened species.
Useful plants: 
Potential genetic resources, e.g. for food crops; timbers, forages, medicinal plants, ornamentals.
Other values: 
Watershed protection, endemic and threatened animal species, archaeological sites, recreation, tourism.
Logging; clearing for agriculture and silviculture; fires; grazing and trampling; erosion; invasion of exotics; commercial collecting of medicinal and aromatic plants, fuelwood and ornamentals; collecting mosses, lichens and humus for gardening; road building; dams; unorganized tourism; potential mining.
Soil and forest conservation laws, but not well enforced; several designated protected areas, but most inadequately or not enforced; proposed National Park for half of region (c. 3000 km²).

Map 70: CPD Site SA35


The Sierra de Anconquija (picture) and Cumbres Calchaquíes are isolated mountain ranges of the Pampean geological formation which extend 300 km along the western edge of Tucumán Province, including areas of Catamarca and a small portion of Salta (triprovincial area - see Map 70). The Precambrian rocks of these mountains were elevated long before the Andes and harbour an older flora. Glaciation acted upon the upper reaches to make breath-taking cirques, crests and peaks, and gently undulating high plateaux above 4000 m. The Sierra de Anconquija has peaks reaching 5550 m and at 3000 m joins to the north with the Cumbres Calchaquíes, which reach 4650 m and include a remarkable plateau at 4250 m. There are 40 or more glacial lakes.

The climate is very diverse. The eastern foothills are subtropical, with abundant summer rains and a winter dry season; annual precipitation is 1000-3000 mm. The eastern temperate mountain slopes (1500-2500 m to 3700 m) have summer mists for at least six months; in winter they occasionally receive thick snow. At higher elevations are typical mountain variability and intensity of sun, rain and snow. On the western slopes, rain shadows cause an arid climate and some dunes, with precipitation as low as 100 mm.

The Anconquija's eastern slopes rise from 500 m to 5550 m in less than 20 km (a world record) - there are spectacular slopes, gorges and waterfalls. High-Andean snowfields, lakes and bogs together with the vegetation ensure adequate regulation of water. Erosion is a permanent risk when the vegetation is degraded. These mountain ranges, together with the connected spurs of the sierras Medina, Nogalito and Santa Ana, constitute a geographical unit of c. 6000 km², nearly half of which is proposed for protection as a National Park. Detailed descriptions are in Domínguez, Halloy and Terán (1978); Halloy, Grau and González (1982); Halloy (1985b); and Halloy, González and Grau (1994). The Anconquija group and its flora are closely associated with the Sierra de Ambato to the south and Sierra de Metán to the north.

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This broadly defined Anconquija region includes six biogeographical provinces in three different dominions (Cabrera 1976). Subtropical forests ("lower yungas") cover the eastern base of the mountains, forming the southernmost exclave of Amazonian elements, which is isolated from Amazonia by drier vegetation. Temperate cloud forests ("upper yungas") occur above 1500-2500 m, then "páramo" grasslands. The high-Andean vegetation occurs between 3700-5100 m, and still higher is the aeolian zone with lichens. On the western side, the high-Andean vegetation gives way to thorny shrubs and candelabra cacti ("prepuna") and lower down to resinous shrubs and dune communities ("monte"). Each biogeographical province includes varied types of vegetation, described below from east to west.

In the Amazonian Dominion are the yungas and páramo provinces:

1. The "lower yungas" (Meyer 1963) has two forest types:

i) Lowland subtropical microphyllous forest on the foothills (300-500 m), with 1000 mm of rain annually. This formation was dominated by Tipuana tipu and Enterolobium contortisiliquum; it has been almost completely eliminated to grow sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) and for housing and industry. Although within the Anconquija region, the proposed park cannot include this formation due to lack of continuity. A portion must be preserved separately and possibly can be connected by corridors.

ii) Subtropical summer-wet forests on the lower slopes (500-1500 m), dominated by evergreens on southern exposures (Phoebe porphyria, Ilex argentina, many Myrtaceae - including the rare Myrcianthes callicoma), and deciduous trees on northern slopes (Parapiptadenia excelsa, Jacaranda mimosifolia) (e.g. Roldán 1991). Rain can be as much as 3000 mm annually. Trees support a profusion of epiphytes (e.g. orchids, bromeliads, ferns including Hymenophyllaceae) and lianas (of more species than in other Amazonian forests - Meyer 1963). There may be 2-3 strata of trees, an understorey of ferns and shrubs including Psychotria carthagenensis, Miconia ioneura, Pteris deflexa and Dryopteris parallelogramma, and a herbaceous layer that includes mosses.

2. The "upper yungas" or temperate cloud forests (1500-2500 m) (Hueck 1954; Vides 1985) are of three main types:

i) Alder forest (Alnus acuminata), which is the most extensive (Bell 1987).

ii) Conifer forest (Podocarpus parlatorei).

iii) "Queñoa" forest (Polylepis australis) these contorted trees with red exfoliating bark and many epiphytes are an eerie sight in the cloud-shrouded mountains. The upper yungas have fewer tree species, but include such near endemics and rarities as Crinodendron tucumanum and Escallonia schreiteri. Epiphytes are still abundant, with mosses and ferns dominant. The undergrowth is quite diverse, having up to 40-50 species per 100 m².

3. The "páramo" (c. 2000-3700 m) is still in the Amazonian Dominion although with substantial differences (Halloy 1985a, 1985c), and includes three main formations:

i) Páramo grassland is most frequent, dominated by tuft grasses (picture) to 1 m high on sandy-loamy slopes. A rich undergrowth of plants covers the ground and prevents erosion.

ii) Mesophytic shrubland to 2 m high on northern exposures, extending as low as 1500 m, and on southern slopes interdigitating with the alder forests. Typical are Baccharis spp., Ophryosporus charrua and Eupatorium spp.

iii) Microphyllous shrubland c. 1 m high occurs above 2500 m on rocky slopes. The shrubs are intermingled with grasses, herbs and cushion plants.

Along mountain streams, marshes and rocky outcrops are galleries of Cortaderia grasses with a great variety of lichens, mosses, ferns, Begonia (picture), Satureja, Urtica, etc.

4. In the Andino-Patagonian Dominion is the high-Andean province, from 3700-4600 m and sparsely to 5100 m (Halloy 1985a). There are again three main types of vegetation:

i) Spiny grassland is the main formation on sloping ground with sandy soils. The dominant Festuca orthophylla grasses often form circular or wave patterns that may be thousands of years old. These grasslands are highly susceptible to fires.

ii) The cryptofruticetum is dominated by woody and herbaceous plants growing flat on the ground, and rosette genera and circular-growing grasses occur. The high diversity of plants reaches 20-27 species per 1 m². This formation is well developed on the high plateau of the Cumbres Calchaquíes; it is highly susceptible to trampling.

iii) Bogs ("ciénagas") (pictures). Around springs and brooks, dense growths of cushion-forming Juncaceae, carpet- forming Cyperaceae and showy flowering plants form peat bogs and meadows, which retain and control water. Most of the bogs are many thousands of years old.

Also present are microphyllous shrub communities, cushion plants (as Azorella compacta) reaching ages of 3000 years or more, rocky outcrops, and lakes - which have five endemic Isoetes spp. (Halloy 1979a).

5. Aeolian zone (to 5500 m); this worldwide biome was named by Swan (1963). Above 4600 m plants become very scarce, with some vascular plants reaching 5100 m. Extremely rare local endemics are Nototriche rohmederi, N. tucumana and Geranium new sp.

The Chaco Dominion (Cabrera 1976) is represented in this region by the prepuna and monte biogeographical provinces:

6. "Prepuna" (Morello 1958). This restricted semi-arid area on the western slopes is characterized by spiny shrubs, columnar cacti (e.g. Trichocereus pasacana) and cliff-dwelling bromeliads. The cushion-forming bromeliad Abromeitiella is almost endemic. In spite of its aridity, the measured diversity of herbs and shrubs is up to 41 species per 100 m² - which can be higher than in eastern lowland forests.

7. "Monte" (Morello 1958). On the foothills to the west, evergreen and non-leafy shrubs dominate. They are related to much greater extensions of this province farther south, as well as to the chaco (CPD Site SA22). Annuals flower briefly and sometimes spectacularly during the rainy summer.

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Many botanists have collected in the region, resulting in a well-known flora (large collections are at the Fundación Miguel Lillo Herbarium, Tucumán), but published information is dispersed. No compendium of the flora has been published, and there is only one 1977 volume in the Flora Ilustrada de la Provincia de Tucumán. Halloy (1985b) estimated that 1700 species of vascular plants (picture) were known within the proposed Anconquija park. Nearly 4% are known to be endemic, but knowledge by life zones suggests that endemism may reach closer to 20%.

Most of the region's diversity relates to the mountains' great age with little modification (a refugium). Repeated isolations and contacts through time have fostered great geographical variety and speciation. Since the two mountain ranges are isolated by a pass at 3000 m, vicariant speciation has occurred in high-Andean groups (e.g. Nototriche, Isoetes and lizards such as Liolaemus). The species-richness for vascular plants amounts to 0.57 species per km (which is for example six times that in the Galápagos Islands and twelve times that in Sri Lanka). Above 4000 m in the Cumbres Cachalquíes, an area of c. 150 km, more than 200 vascular plant species occur, with at least 20% endemism. The diversity of 1.3 species per km is particularly impressive considering its proximity to the altitudinal limit of vascular plants.

The Anconquija region is the southernmost limit for many Amazonian forest elements (e.g. Phoebe porphyria, Tabebuia, Cedrela, Trichomanes). Holarctic elements are frequent in the temperate forest and higher up (e.g. Alnus acuminata, Geranium, Alchemilla), many with several endemic species. Typical endemics of the Andes are strongly represented (e.g. Polylepis, Werneria, Barneoudia, Nototriche), and many groups have several diversified species. Many subantarctic elements are also present (e.g. Asplenium tucumanense, Podocarpus parlatorei, Fuchsia boliviensis, Blechnum magellanicum).

As a very preliminary underestimate, Halloy (1985b) listed possibly five extinct, 100 endangered and 150 rare plant species within the proposed Anconquija National Park.

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Useful plants

At least 96 species of direct potential use occur in the region, including medicinal plants, ornamentals, foods, valuable woods and forages. In addition, there are crop relatives which can help increase crop yield and tolerance in such genera as Fragaria, Solanum, Carica, Juglans and many others. Valuable woods include Tabebuia avellanedae, Juglans australis, Fagara coco and Cedrela lilloi. The exploitation of these timber species has impoverished large tracts of forest. Medicinal plants are numerous, e.g. Satureja parvifolia, Lycopodium saururus (picture), Senecio graveolens and Werneria paposa. In addition to local use, many of these plants are now collected on a commercial scale and sold in large cities.

The Biodiversity programme at Invermay Agricultural Centre in New Zealand, under a bilateral agreement with Argentina's Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), is screening a wide range of plants of the Anconquija region for potential uses of all types - medicinals and aromatics, fruits, nuts, tubers, forages, timbers, ornamentals, etc. (Halloy 1992). Plants collected in the region are being grown, multiplied and their germplasm then evaluated for agronomic potential and product value. Learning to cultivate the promising species may help to save them from unsustainable exploitation.

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Social and environmental values

Tucumán is the most densely populated Argentinian province. The Anconquija region (itself only sparsely populated) has had a lot to do with this, for centuries providing bountiful supplies of natural resources - good soils, wildlife, timber and water - to the surrounding lowlands. Abundant Inca and pre-Inca archaeological remains of major interest show the region's importance well before European colonization (Halloy, González and Grau 1994). Little derived from the ancient cultures continues.

The region is sparsely populated by local people, who either are sedentary or migrate seasonally with their herds of sheep, goats, cattle and occasionally llamas for supplies of fresh forage and fuel (Molinillo 1988). They have a strong attachment to the land and a good knowledge of local medicinal plants. They also grow small amounts of food plants for their own consumption. Much of the local knowledge is being lost through imposition of Western style education and values, migration to the lowlands to work for an income, and compulsory military service. Larger indigenous populations occupy lower valleys, one of which (Amaicha) still functions to a certain degree as an indigenous commune.

The Anconquija region is a major regulator of water, capturing rain for an area with a population of well over 1 million (Halloy 1984a, 1985b). Continuing deforestation and overgrazing already have resulted in large-scale erosion, repeated flooding during summer torrential rains and rapid filling of expensive dams with silt (Halloy, Grau and González 1982; Halloy, González and Grau 1994).

For the majority of the European population below and around Anconquija, the region only exists as a distant range of mountains emerging on ever-more-rare clear days from the sweltering polluted lowland atmosphere. Nonetheless a large number of people make use of the region for recreation, either driving through to small villages in the valleys, where they find some tourist facilities (e.g. Tafí del Valle, Amaicha) or enjoying tramping, fishing, hunting or mountaineering. Tourism is a strong earner for the three provinces surrounding the Anconquija region, and careful management and promotion could substantially enhance its attractiveness. Testimony to the appeal of the region is the name's use for important streets and businesses (but commonly distorted to Aconquija).

The region is within two Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) (picture). The humid evergreen forests and alder forests between 800-2500 m are in the Boliviano-Tucumán Yungas EBA (B57) and the higher areas in the Argentine Prepuna and Puna zone EBA (B37). Nine species of restricted range are in the Yungas EBA, most of which occur in the Anconquija region. The alder forests are especially important for the near-threatened Tucumán parrot (Amazona tucumana) and threatened rufous-throated dipper (Cinclus schulzi). There are habitats of both within the proposed Anconquija National Park.

The Anconquija region is the only area within the Argentine Prepuna and Puna zone EBA that has all five of the restricted-range species in this EBA, including the threatened Tucumán mountain-finch or "chivi andino" (Poospiza baeri), which prefers dense growth along steep-sided ravines bordering streams in the puna. Only six ravines are known to have populations; some are in a reserve at El Infiernillo, which is inside the proposed NP. Grasslands adjacent to this species' habitat are susceptible to fire, which could reach its habitat.

Economic assessment

The economic assets of the region include: (1) genetic resources of crop relatives; (2) genetic diversity of potential new drugs, crops, timbers, forages, ornamentals, etc.; (3) source and regulator of most of the region's water and a strong influence on its soils; (4) source of ecological balance (especially, providing biological control agents); (5) relatively unmodified baseline communities for scientific research, e.g. to determine better management strategies for the whole region; (6) source of incomparable beauty and therefore tourism and recreation; (7) area for expansive open-air activities including education, sports, trekking and mountain climbing; and (8) source for physical and mental health.

The 1985 estimated total one-time cost of establishing the park, including expropriations and infrastructure, was US$2 million, with annual operating costs c. US$100,000 (Halloy 1985b).

Comprehensive economic assessment of ecological services and natural resources is in its infancy, but an attempt was made for the Anconquija (Halloy 1985b; Halloy, González and Grau 1994). The Anconquija region could yield tens of millions of U.S. dollars annually, and its proper management would result in saved expenses of tens to perhaps hundreds of millions (mainly on flood control and repair measures, reduced losses of soil and decreased inputs in pest control and fertilizers). Among the considerations used in the assessment were:

1. The proposed protected area of c. 3000 km² is a major controlling factor for the hydrology of over 100,000 km², which are mostly under intensive cultivation, with over 15% badly eroded.

2. The population living in the proposed protected area is less than a hundred. Their potential influence and importance is mostly unknown to them. The challenge is to maintain their traditions while ensuring that their aspirations for a Western life-style do not jeopardize the natural systems which support them.

3. The areas which the proposed park directly influences include over 1 million people, and the indirect influence of hydrological regulation affects as many as 20 million people. Refugees from flooding in these areas number several thousand almost every year, and sometimes hundreds of thousands.

4. Infrastructure damage in 1981 due to flash flooding because of degraded watersheds was US$13 million for Tucumán alone. Such damage is repeated almost every year, and can amount to billions of dollars (e.g. Paraná in 1983). This does not consider losses of topsoil, crops and human lives, nor diseases. For example, the loss of topsoil in eastern Tucumán from 1972 to 1981 was estimated to cost US$360 million (land reclamation $180 million, organic matter $100 million, nutrients $80 million) (J. Madozo, pers. comm. 1992). Large dams in the area can cost US$60 million (El Cadillal dam) to US$200 million (estimated for the projected Potrero del Clavillo dam). Conserving watershed vegetation would ensure a longer return on the investment.

5. Production was estimated to be tens of millions of dollars annually, considering (i) direct sustained extraction (mainly high-value items for propagation, in small volume and with low impact - e.g. seeds and cuttings); (ii) biological control in adjacent areas; (iii) tourism; and (iv) water use. This did not take into account possible benefits from royalties, e.g. on developing new crops. These benefits would have the bonus of better social distribution.

6. No attempt was made to assess the economic value of beauty, peace, pure air and the conservation of species for their own sakes, to which this park would contribute substantially (i.e. aesthetic and other so-called existence values). A comparison suggested was the cost of having a museum, or the price paid for an artistic masterpiece - each could be tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Logging of valuable woods and deforestation for agriculture and plantations of Pinus have accelerated (under a national credit policy favouring exotics). Nearly 10% of the forests of Tucumán Province were cut down from 1973 to 1982 (Grau 1984). Since an Anconquija park was proposed in 1913, at least 60% of the yungas is probably gone, especially the lower yungas (Vervoorst 1979, 1982). Of c. 100 km² of yungas forest within the proposed park area, 25 km² have been authorized for logging and 1.3 km² for complete deforestation (Halloy 1985b), which is going on. Other areas are logged without explicit authorization (Vides 1984; Halloy 1984b). Road building (Vides 1984), colonization and uncontrolled tourism favour the acceleration.

Overgrazing and trampling by cattle, sheep and goats are widespread in forest understorey and especially grassland and high-Andean vegetation. There is little fencing and no control, and the livestock densities are too high for adequate regeneration. Burning is a widespread problem, mainly within páramo and high-Andean vegetation; in 1980 alone c. 250 km² were burned.

Exotic plant species (e.g. Ligustrum, Cynoglossum, Asparagus, Crataegus) are aggressively invading parts of the region, especially the higher forest and lower páramo zones. Red deer and Axis deer introduced to the region in 1976 are great potential threats (Grau et al. 1982); there current status needs assessment.

Erosion, flooding, silting, mud flows and drought are direct consequences of the loss of vegetation. In the monte, grazing, trampling and fire have seriously affected the waterflow, with disastrous consequences to villages and dams (Halloy, Grau and González 1982; Halloy 1984a; Halloy, González and Grau 1994).

There is strong collecting pressure on some plant species (Cabrera 1977; Sota 1977) for: fuelwood, especially shrubs and cushion plants like Azorella compacta - one of the slowest growing species, which attains more than 3000 years of age; medicinals, especially Werneria paposa, Lycopodium saururus and Senecio graveolens, which are slow-growing and already rare; ornamentals (bulbs of Liliaceae and Iridaceae, Chuquiraga, ferns, orchids, bromeliads, cacti); and construction (Trichocereus pasacana, T. terscheckii) for roofing, doors, fine furniture and souvenirs. Tuft grasses of several species also are used for roofing, but this may be waning with the advent of corrugated metal roofs. Epiphytic mosses, lichens, etc. and forest humus are collected as substrate for plant growers and sold in Tucumán as well as exported to Buenos Aires (Cabrera 1977).

Many rare species are at risk, compounded by slow growth of those at high altitudes. Some are extremely susceptible to one big fire or concentration of cattle, logging, etc. - e.g. Barneoudia balliana, Geranium new sp., Botrychium australe and Myrcianthes callicoma.

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Before European colonization the region was used by Amerindians, who had considerable conservation knowledge. Provincial and federal laws requiring soil conservation and forest protection exist, but have not been adequately enforced. Miguel Lillo and Julio López Mañán first advanced a National Park in 1913, which would have been much larger than what now remains to conserve (Grau et al. 1982). Occasional new proposals for protection have been made, mostly for smaller areas. Five perhaps were accepted as provincial parks, but only two actually exist (Map 70) - Santa Ana (185 km²) to the extreme south and La Florida (29 km²) to the centre-east of Anconquija. Also to the east, a 140-km² area of Lillo's originally planned park is owned by the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán and managed as San Javier Biological Park, and two small scientific reserves are owned by Tucumán Province - Aguas Chiquitas (7.4 km²) and Los Sosa (8.9 km²).

Through the university, San Javier park has a motivated corps, but most of these reserved areas are little more than mapped boundary lines due to lack of infrastructure and funding. The Biodiversity programme at the Invermay Agricultural Centre in New Zealand has over 300 accessions of living plants from north-west Argentina, most of which originated from or occur in the Anconquija region. This collection will help to preserve some rare Anconquija species at least ex situ (Halloy 1992).

The proposed Anconquija National Park (Domínguez, Halloy and Terán 1978; Halloy 1979b, 1985b; Halloy, Grau and González 1982; Halloy, González and Grau 1994) includes c. 3000 km² of the best remaining habitats in the region, all above 3000 m except for a south-eastern area with the Cochuna River that descends to 1150 m. To facilitate efficient protection for the park, there are also suggestions for zoning and a management plan (Halloy 1979c). The diverse Anconquija region would be adequately conserved if the area was well protected and managed, together with the establishment of corridors for gene flow, and other projects including controlled tourism, research and education.

The Anconquija Park Project has been approved by the National House of Representatives (Trámite Parlamentario No. 79, 1984); in 1993 it was presented to the National House of Senators (Halloy, González and Grau 1994). However, it has been resisted by the Province of Tucumán, in which c. 60% of the park would be located. The provinces of Catamarca (which has over a third of the proposed area) and Salta also have to approve for the park to be created in its entirety.

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Map 70. Anconquija Region, Argentina (CPD Site SA35)


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Halloy, S., Grau, A. and González, J.A. (1982). Proyecto del Parque Nacional Anconquija. Informe No. 3. Fundación Miguel Lillo, UNT Fac. Ciencias Nat. and Asociación Tucumana de Andinismo, Tucumán. 14 pp. Mimeographed.

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Roldán, A.I. (1991). Estructura y principios de demografía de la selva montana en el Parque Biológico San Javier (Tucumán - Argentina). Seminario, UNT Fac. Ciencias Nat., Tucumán. 88 pp.

Sota, E.R. de la (1977). The problems of threatened and endangered plant species and plant communities in Argentina. In Prance, G.T. and Elias, T.S. (eds), Extinction is forever. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx. Pp. 240-243.

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Vervoorst, F. (1982). Noroeste. In Vervoorst, F. (ed.), Conservación de la vegetación natural en la República Argentina. Fundación Miguel Lillo, Serie Conserv. Naturaleza 2: 9-24.

Vides, R. (1984). Roban el tesoro de la laguna. Huakaicha Puy (Revista del Grupo de Conservación) No. 1: 5-7.

Vides, R. (1985). Estudio de las taxocenosis de aves del bosque de aliso de Tucumán. Seminario, UNT Fac. Ciencias Nat., Tucumán. 252 pp. Unpublished.


This Data Sheet was written by Dr Stephan Halloy (Invermay Agricultural Centre, Crop and Food Research, Private Bag 50034, Mosgiel, New Zealand).

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