travelog 69

Mexican Flower Miracles

What is normally a search with as many eyes as possible and on all fours, can be as easy as pie if you're there at exactly the right time and in the right place. To see ariocarpus in flower was always one of our dreams and this year our wish finally came true. We were together with our friends Nesa and Fredy Heschel, whom you surely still remember from earlier travel reports. Together we traveled through the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and San Luis Potosi. Another friend, Jean-Marc Chalet, a not-so-unknown fellow in the circle of cactus friends, was so kind as to give us some localities. Others we knew from earlier visits. In the end Jean-Marc couldn't resist the urge to get out into the field again and accompanied us for several days.

Our first stop is of course near Huizache, a big highway intersection extremely well-known to cactus enthuiasts. The improvised roadside stalls alongside the highway are still there and working, although various people and organizations did fight for their removal. As soon as we approach one of the cobbled together wooden tables with piles of cacti, rare and common ones, children come running. Dried rattlesnakes hang on a pole, a hawk-like bird sweats in the burning sun, even the fur of a lynx is for sale. A short distance away, the family seems to live in a primitive shack that consists of not much more than corrugated iron, pieces of cloth and cardboard. As soon as they realize that Nesa and Fredy only want to take pictures and film, the adults angrily come running and we quickly take to our heels. Shortly after that we pass some signs along the road, a novelty here, that let us know that the purchase of illegally collected plants (and animals) is a criminal offence and is punishable by imprisonment and large fines. Another Mexican absurdity, we think, to punish the purchase but not to ban the sale! But we're here because of Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus which we find without any problems. This cactus normally grows drawn back into the soil and for that reason is almost invisible without flowers. Now the dry sandy plains are covered with pink flowers! We see plants where we never before suspected they grew, let alone searched for them. Soon all four of us are on our knees and we have to be disciplined enough to take pictures only of the most beautiful specimens.

In Tula we meet with Jean-Marc. He tells us many stories about flowering ariocarpus he has seen. Tula is well-known by ariocarpus enthusiasts for Ariocarpus agavoides. Another species that is almost impossible to find without flowers because it's perfectly adapted to its surroundings by color and form. Jean-Marc seems to know exactly which hill we have to climb. But he too is surprised by the plants he finds thanks to their dark purple flowers in places where he never suspected any of them. We're too early for the flowers to be fully open. That's why we first climb further up to search successfully for Turbinicarpus ysabelae, this one unfortunately without flowers. Then you can hear ah's and oh's from every corner and behind every bush. Each one thinks that he has found the most beautiful Ariocarpus agavoides. This, of course, has to be marveled at and photographed by the rest of the group. Of most of the plants we can only see the bright dark pink flower which is fully open around noon. The plant body itself, which, as its name suggests, looks like an agave, is drawn back into the ground. We have to force Nesa and Fredy back into the car otherwise they would spend the entire day in this place. We remind them of the fact that today we want to see another ariocarpus in flower. This convinces them quickly. In Jaumave we turn onto a small dirt road and soon get to a locality of Obregonia denegrii that grows together with Ariocarpus retusus ssp. trigonus. The former is not in bloom and of the latter we only find a few plants with either not-open-yet or already closed flowers. But Jean-Marc knows another locality and there we have luck again and find many big plants with up to seven flowers each. Jean-Marc leaves us to prepare a late lunch at the Balneario Los Nogales while we crawl on all fours with camera and tripod. At the Balneario Jean-Marc greets us with a set table. With a drink of lemonade, ice cubes and tequila, we toast today's flower success. Then Jean-Marc fries scrambled eggs on a small stove and we enjoy these with fresh bread and a tuna-avocado mixture. The place is very beautiful with a rushing river next to us and vertical cliffs behind us. Nearby we can see the confluence of two rivers that disappear into a deep canyon. This is a place that we have to explore further on our next visit. Another project for the future that has to be added to our list that grows longer and longer every day.

This is where we part company for a while. Jean-Marc doesn't share our particular interest in crassulaceae. They are only some herbaceous plants to which he normally doesn't pay any attention. We drive along the old road towards Ciudad Victoria and park on the pass. It's time to shoulder the backpacks and the camera equipment and to slip away into the undergrowth. The vegetation here is very dense and many things prick or burn. An example is the "Mala Mujer", the "bad woman", with its beautiful white flowers. Its hairy leaves and branches cause rashes with extremely bad itching and this even through the thickest jeans. Soon we stumble over the first Dioon aff. edule, a common cycad in Mexico. It is often dug up in large quantities to be sold along the roadside. Then we reach the first rock that is covered with a white flowering sedum. In the meantime Nesa and Fredy aren't sitting around doing nothing and find an echeveria for us. They are enthusiastic about the yellow flowering Ferocactus echidne var. victoriensis. Finally we get to vertical cliffs where we actually find the Pachyphytum werdermannii, the main reason why we came here. But not only the flora is very interesting. We also take pictures of various colorful spiders and a walking stick with green shimmering legs, trying in vain to be invisible on a young agave plant. Slowly we drive back towards Jaumave and see many more interesting plants in shady and sometimes very humid cliffs along the road. The highlight though, at least for Nesa and Fredy, is another population of Ariocarpus retusus ssp. trigonus. In the afternoon we arrive at the perfect time to find many plants adorned with big yellow flowers.

Next we drive to Miquihuana and further towards Dr. Arroyo. At a very nice spot above a small valley where we can see red glowing Ferocactus pilosus that the Heschel's can't resist, we stop for a picnic. Fresh bread, cheese, avocado, cucumber, and hot chiles taste wonderful out here. While Nesa and Fredy run after their ferocacti, we find Echeveria unguiculata on the hillside. We had heard that this species occurs here but we didn't think we would find it so easily. Now we drive west through small dusty villages, always followed by thick gray thunder-clouds. Their rain never catches up with us. Soon we reach the asphalt again and turn north. Slowly we get into higher and more humid areas where the old oak trees are covered with Tillandsia usneoides. Then we reach the inconspicuous turn-off to Aramberii. The landscape becomes more spectacular. The road winds through narrow valleys and in the distance it seems as if it would be squeezed somewhere between the rocks.

In Aramberri we meet with Jean-Marc again who had found more ariocarpus in the meantime. Aramberri is a small village with a Pemex gas station that is closed so you have to buy gasoline and diesel from huge drums along the roadside, of course for a higher price than normal. From here we drive south towards Zaragoza. Jean-Marc wants to show us Turbinicarpus zaragosae in nearby gypsum hills. We leave him and Nesa and Fredy search for the extremely inconspicuous plants while we start looking for an echeveria that should grow at exactly this place. Soon we find the Echeveria cuspidata var. zaragozae. Without wanting to bore you with too many details, we have to tell you that there's another variety, Echeveria cuspidata var. gemmula, that was described from half a mile away. Of course we want to see that one too. We are not too surprised when we also find this other population and confirm that the two varieties are absolutely identical! Small wonder when the two varieties grow at the same place in the same soil. Someone mixed something up with the localities. In the meanwhile our three friends have made a find and we can move to the next place. Jean-Marc wants to show us yet another population of Ariocarpus retusus north of Aramberri that earlier was also named ssp. confusus. Instead of yellow flowers, the plants have pink flowers, though we find one single specimen with almost white flowers! On top of the hill we see the most plants and their flowers are fully opened in the midday sun. Of course we crawl around like crazy again and take much too many pictures of too many plants. Again we almost have to drag the others to the car because we want to visit two other localities.

Now we drive again towards Dr. Arroyo. On the way we stop somewhere according to Jean-Marc's instructions. As soon as we get out of the car we see a pink flower carpet. Here too, Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus is in full bloom. It seems as if thousands of plants flower at the same time; a spectacular show that is better seen with one's own eyes than reproduced later in a photograph. Now we're in a little bit of a hurry because Jean-Marc has yet another locality up his sleeve for us that we have to reach before sunset. We pass Dr. Arroyo and soon after take a little dirt road for a short while and park at a low hill where we climb around. Again and again we find holes, places where earlier visitors have dup up plants. We find Pelecyphora strobiliformis in vast quantities. The Ariocarpus retusus, though, makes only rare appearances. Finally we give up and stumble over a single plant with pale pink flowers not 15 feet from the parking spot.

Now everybody's hungry and quickly we drive to Matehuala where we order "cabrito", the local specialty. Pieces of lamb are served on a small table barbecue together with roasted onions and chiles. All this is accompanied by a well-deserved cold beer.

For the next day we have planned to visit only one more locality, that of Ariocarpus bravoanus south of Huizache. We had looked for this plant on earlier visits when it was without flowers and had a hard time finding it. We have also heard that the locality recently had been completely robbed of plants. If there are still some plants left they should be visible with flowers and that's why we give it a try. Ten eyes search for three hours and find exactly three plants. They all have pink flowers and that's the only reason we were able to find them. It really seems that some people have been very busy digging up all the other plants. We are unable to find specimens in places we remember very well, and it looks as if we all have to wait for some seeds to germinate and hopefully develop into adult plants again.

Now we part ways again. Jean-Marc drives back to Guadalajara and Nesa and Fredy fly to Venezuela where they will visit with their daughter. We have had an extremely successful trip and the incredible luck to be at the right place at the right time! Understandably we have written about the localities here very vaguely because we don't want to contribute to the further extinction of populations. Sadly, it is the case that plant "lovers" from far away countries greedily diminish the populations at their natural localities instead of buying plants grown from seed at home. But the blame for the slow eradication of these interesting plants can't be pinned entirely on foreigners. Some Mexicans have discovered the value of this natural treasure and since they don't have a concept of tomorrow yet, they unscrupulously dig up every single plant they can get a hold of. That seems to be the sad future, and not only of the ariocarpus!

December 2005

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen