travelog 117

Agave manantlanicola

The formula goes like this: Agave attenuata x Agave chazaroi = Agave manantlanicola. We're talking about one of the most recently described agave species native to the Sierra de Manantlán, as can be gathered by the name of the plant. The Sierra Manantlán is a large and protected area of 140'000 hectares (1'135'000 acres), the Reserva de la Biósfera Sierra de Manantlán, which was founded in 1987. The founding of the biosphere goes back to the discovery of "teocintle", Zea diploperennis, in the general area. The corn we're all familiar with is called Zea mays in Latin and is the only cultivated "grass" of the Zea family. The protected area goes from Autláan de Navarro, Jalisco, in the west almost all the way to the city of Colima with altitude differences of 400 to 2'860 m (1300-9400 ft). By the way, Autlán de Navarro is the birthplace of Carlos Augusto Alves Santana, the founder and guitar player of the famous rock band Santana. The coauthor of the description of Agave manantlanicola is also a Santana, a very common last name in Autlán. We had checked the GPS positions mentioned in the first description on Google Earth just to find out that there were no roads or dirt roads to be seen anywhere really close to the positions. That's when we got in contact with Ramón Cuevas, one of the authors. We got a prompt and positive response and a date was set for our visit. Originally Antonio Vazquez, the author of Agave temacapulinensis, and one of his students should have accompanied us but Antonio had to cancel at the last minute because of repair work on his car.

From Guadalajara, Jalisco, we drove to Cocula and on to Juchitlán where we paid a visit to Graptopetalum superbum. Over a mowed corn field we stumbled to the edge of the small canyon and soon started to smell the river which transports all the black water from Juchitlán into the valley. It was really hot and still and this made the stench even more unbearable. The Graptopetalum was really beautiful which made up for the stink. The light purple colored rosettes looked still well fed and covered the cliffs together with Mammillaria scrippsiana and several tillandsia species. Then we went on to Unión de Tula and finally reached Autlán de Navarro where we found a room at a small hotel in the center of town. Then we went to the university to find Ramón to arrange our field trip the next day. Ramón presented us to his friend Oscar who would be responsible for the next day's picnic. Then we got a short tour through the university's botanical department and the well air-conditioned herbarium where the herbarium specimens that needed to be processed were stacked all the way to the ceiling. We agreed on meeting very early the next morning since we would have to drive about four hours on very bad dirt roads to get to the plants and of course it would be another four hours to return.

It was pretty difficult to find a nice restaurant in the center of town at night. For lack of something better we finally sat down at a hamburger place where we enjoyed a cold beer. We had huge hamburgers with all the trimmings, including French fries, and they were not that bad.

It was still dark the next morning when we got hot coffee at a nearby OXXO, a 24/7 gas station shop. At seven sharp we stood at the meeting place in front of the university. There were already several students waiting in the same place. Ramón appeared on time but no sign of his friend. More and more students were turning up, all waiting for their professor. Finally Oscar appeared with various bags and a small cooler. Now the discussion started of how the more or less 12 students would be able to get on and into the professor's small pickup truck and up the mountain. With his long beard and the smoking pipe in his mouth (it was 7:30AM by now) he could well have passed for a Swiss Alm-Uncle out of the Heidi novel. He was obviously notoriously famous for his chaotic organisation and finally half of the students jumped up onto our pickup and we left the university. After only a few miles on a paved road the dirt started. We were going up, up, and up some more. In one of the many curves we said goodbye to the students and finally reached the scientific station La Joya where we passed the first locked gate. We stopped briefly to get the keys for the other gates and loaded a chain saw and shovels in case we'd encounter trees or landslides blocking the road. Ramón told us about a recent visit in August when they really had to saw up a tree that was blocking the road to continue on. Now the dirt road became wet and slippery and it would have been impossible to drive on without the four-wheel drive. We were glad to be on the road with Ramón's pickup truck and didn't have to push our truck up this mountain.

We drove through a fairytale forest where every single tree was covered with tillandsias, orchids, leafy cacti, peperomias, fern, and moss. Our first stop was for a light purple flowering Dahlia tenuicaulis, a tree-like dahlia species native to Mexico's cloud forests that can reach a height of four to five meters (13-16 ft). In muddy puddles of the road we were able to take pictures of a succulent plant, Crassula viridis (formerly Tillaea). Then we reached the next locked gate. At a small crossroads it was breakfast time. Ramón and Oscar had brought fresh bread rolls and we were now all making our own tasty sandwiches. Oscar's wife had thought of everything and even packed small jars of mayonnaise and mustard and a can of hot pickled chiles. Strengthened, we rumbled further up the mountain. Flowers were blooming everywhere and it was amazingly green up here. Oscar is a forest ranger who works for the local fire brigade, stationed on watchtowers on the highest peaks of the Sierra Manantlán during the fire season. The firefighters live in cabins to be ready all the time in case of an emergency. Oscar is the man in charge of controlling the firebreaks that are cleared to contain forest fires. These firebreaks are often existing dirt roads but the men also clear new firebreaks which later function as primitive roads. We were now driving on one of these primitive roads. Agave manantlanicola had been discovered when Oscar had been driving along one of these firebreaks because he had wanted to show Ramón a new flower he had never seen before up here. At the same time he had also wanted to check on other firebreaks. Ramón accompanied him and at some cliffs they had found a dead agave. The same day they had checked out some other cliffs and had found a large population of the new agave species.

Today we stopped in the middle of the fairytale forest at an almost completely overgrown dirt road which was only visible if you knew the area very well. From Autlán at 920 m (3000 ft) we had climbed up 1880 m (6200 ft) to 2800 m (9200 ft) in just a few hours. We then had to hike up a little bit, then go down on the other side. The view at the moment was limited to gray walls of fog and we were pretty astonished when we stood at a precipice all of a sudden. Here was also the first Agave manantlanicola with its beautiful bluish-gray leaves and the black corneous leaf margin. Large specimens were hanging in the cliffs below but it was impossible to get closer. Everything up here was well fed, fat, and green. Sedum aff. greggii was hiding in thick cushions of moss, adorned with thousands of yellow flowers. We were climbing around and delighted by all the beautiful agaves. From time to time sunny patches opened up between wafts of mist, uncovering pinnacles and cliffs. With a little luck Ramón found an Echeveria species native to these high mountains, related to E. novogaliciana judging by its appearance. Unfortunately we had too little time to explore because we had to calculate the approximately four hours we had needed to get up here again for our return trip. Back at the truck Ramón quickly stuffed his treasures between newspaper and into the herbarium press. Then we were on our way again. At a lovely clearing with a splashing creek it was time for a late and quick lunch. The guys prepared a tuna salad with crackers which tasted delicious to everybody. In the race against darkness we now drove down the mountain at breakneck speeds. At the La Joya scientific station we delivered the tools and keys. At the same time we also admired the huge variety of flowering orchids that the people living at the station were cultivating in the trees. In the last gloom of day we went steeply down the mountain but soon complete darkness caught up with us and the ground in front of us was difficult to see. The two of us on the backseats were shaken thoroughly a few times. Finally we reached the paved road and were back at the hotel around nine at night.

This night Martin felt like eating "something light", as he put it, when we passed a coffee shop with sweet baked goods. Next door we sat down first at another hamburger place to have a cold beer. Then we returned to the coffee shop where we each allowed ourselves two pieces of pastries. As Martin had said, "something light", and of course it was a tasty finale to a wonderful day.

November 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen