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In exactly one month time I should be on my way to Heathrow to escape British Winter before the clocks switch to Winter Time. This time, my escape is to the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar, with the airport some 18 degrees south of the Equator.

‘But there are no cacti in Madagascar’, I hear you say. Well, there are, but none are endemic, with the usual culprits finding the conditions to their liking, thus continueing the non-endemic theme started by Cylindropuntia tunicata in Chile in 2015. In the absence of natural enemies and encouraged to spread by the now declining goat population was causing a real pest here. I expect Cylindropuntia to be again amongst the most successful invaders, but also expect Harrisia and, from ‘the other succulents’, Agave, to be among the aliens. All were brought here by humans, but found the conditions so favourable that they escaped into nature and started to compete with the natural flora.

The main image of Madagascar in my mind is the cover image of Werner Rauh’s first book on the Flora of Madagascar, of the giant pachycaul trees, Adansonia grandieri, standing guard along the Avenue of the Baobabs. It is a ‘must see’ place to visit.

the giant pachycaul trees, Adansonia grandieri, standing guard along the Avenue of the Baobabs.

… the giant pachycaul trees, Adansonia grandieri, standing guard along the Avenue of the Baobabs.

But the Baobabs are not the only ‘fat stemmed trees’ on the island. There are members of the Family Apocynaceae (Adenium and Pachypodium) and Euphorbiaceae to name but a few, that all possess these fat stems. I have come across them on my travels, in Australia, South Africa, Namibia and in Mexico, to the point that I thought that I could do a presentation on the subject, but not before having seen the Madagascan giants.

‘But you know nothing abouty these plants!’ I hear you say. Again, correct, but my library and the internet provide just about all the information I need and I have actually grown (and killed) a number of Pachycauls since my visit to South Africa and Namibia in 2012 and we are being guided by French botanist, Christophe Quenel, recommended to us by BCSS CactusWorld editor Al Laius, who has travelled with him before. Just as knowledgeable (?) as I am, is my UK fellow traveller John Childs, who is also looking forward to pointing his camera at the Pachycauls, while we both also hope that lemurs and chamelions will cross our lenses.

As usual, I plan to write up my reports of what we see on a daily basis for publication in the Cactus Trip Diaries Blog. It is likely that internet facilities to send out these epistles on a daily basis may be difficult to find, so that I expect them to be released in batches when ever wifi is available. And I don’t expect these to be ‘broadband’, just a thin fragile wire, so that images may have to wait until we arrive back in the UK in mid November. The images and movie clips will be sorted and arranged to become a digital presentation and I have already accepted many invitations from BCSS Branches to show What I saw Last Winter in 2017.

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I hope you’ll join us next month!

Phew! Home safe, sound and tired at 18:00 hrs.

Empty suitcases to have my washing lined up to run the washing machine as soon as the sun hits the solar panels (if it is sunny enough). All pottery, wrapped in my laundry, got through as the six pieces that I bought!

Prepare to do list for tomorrow:

  • Check car battery (it was flat, after three weeks of no action; I should have disconnected the battery before flying out)
  • If needed, call Green Flag insurance for a home visit to get the car started. (It was needed and they arrived 15 minutes after my call!)
  • Check fuel for the car (144 miles left!)
  • Make doctor’s appointment to have toe checked out. As is often the case after walking in the desert, my toe nail (right foot this time) had come off on Friday and was still weeping, so, as all diabetics know, I need to get it checked out! Done.
  • Post the ‘arrived home’ missive for this trip. (Doing it now!)
  • Catch up on missing missives from the trip.
  • Start planning for next trips:
    • To Holland to pick up my sales plants for the coming season from Aad Vijverberg
    • Ferry bookings for trips to Cologne (Angie’s Mum) for June and September
    • To Madagascar once UK clocks turn to Winter time
    • Check clocks all around the house to see which ones I need to turn to Summer Time this coming Sunday. Hooray! Good excuse for a drink on Saturday night to celebrate! Bottle of Malbec added to shopping list.

It’s good to be home again!

 

 

Today’s date had been in my Diary for a long time: we fly home around 22:00 hrs tonight.

Usually the day of the flight is just a ‘hanging around waiting’ day, but not short before starting the trip, a solution was provided in early January by Marquita, the programme organiser for the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society who asked if I could give a presentation today. Expecting an evening presentation, I regretted that I would be in flight. After a flurry of emails across the pond we were set: the presentation would be on Saturday morning at 10:00!

After a few hickups with this new presentation about our 2015 trip to Chile, after three reboots, Kita and Eunice managed to fix the problem: run the 1080i rather than the 4k version of the presentation! Thank you ladies for resolving the cause!

In the meantime I had started a long winded introduction of Friedrich Ritter, the most active of cactus explorers in South America who had described new taxa from most countries in South America, where he had settled in Grazino, near Olmue. He bought a piece of land from Pablo Weisser’s father where he built his house. Pablo was a botanist at the time and started collecting seed of South American and western Argentina as assitant to Hans Lembcke. Many of the seeds they collected were sold to Frau Hilda Winter, Ritter’s sister, in Germany and offered for sale through her catalogue as Ritter / FR numbers. After a falling out between Hans and Hilda, Hans and Pablo sold their seeds to the then newly started nursery and catalogue of the Karlheinz Uhlig nursery.  For the full story, please refer to the  Diary pages of 24th October 2015 onwards.

The time moved on to noon, time for a brief chat with members, then six hour before we needed to do battle with Dollar Rent a Car about the insurance they charged us for our Mexican Insurance for the US$ 48 per day of our 18 Day stay in Baja after which ww could check in for our flight. What shall we do?

Eunice suggested a visit to the Orange County Show and Sales where many people that I enjoyed meeting last year during a mini tour of US C&S Societies in California and Nevada would be present. And so we drove across LA to Orange County where I met Jim Hannah who had been to four of these presentation last year, in the car park. Many more friends were found inside the hall. The balance was light (in number) on the Show, in a small side hall, but heavy on the sales of both plants and pots. Could I squeeze a few more pots in? You bet! And so six more pots were squeezed into my cases with Angie also joining in with spending the last of our dollars. They all went in and came out again without any damage in Amesbury, UK.

The chat at Dollar Rent a Car was unsatisfactory and will be followed up with checking out my rights with my credit card company once we get home. My next trip to Baja will be a flight from London via Mexico City to La Paz where we watched a very efficient looking crew at Hertz seemed to provide a very satisfacory service during the 45 minutes that we observed them at work, while waiting for Eunice to arrive.

And so the time flew by before we boarded the Airbus A-380 and I slept most of the way to England, but not before Angie received a text message from son Peter asking if we had missed our flight. No?! Why? Peter had spotted that we’d fly on 19th March and should arrive at around 15:45, but had not spotted that was due to happen the next day! Better than the other way when my pick up from LAX was expecting me the day after arrival!

In a way, the purchase of an extra suitcase at Walmart was the sign that the trip was nearly over and that our minds were becoming focussed on ‘going home’ issues. Today we would do the initial re-pack and visit Steve Hammer for our usual visit for interesting chat, even if we were unable to buy a single plant and without a cactus in sight.

The difference this time was that we’d say ‘Cheerio, see you back in Blighty, old boy!’ to Jonathan, who may have been a Ferocactus Fan since the early 1980s and a Copiapoa Nut since 2013, but whose real passion was for Lithops and so was keen to take more 3D videos while staying with Steven.

Today’s plant of special interest was a member of the Mesembryanthemaceae / Aizoaceae that, if I understood correctly, had not been observed in flower since the days of Linnaeus. Here, in Steve’s shade house was one of the less spectacular plants in the Family (if not THE least spectacular) but it was in bud, ready to open over the next few days. Don’t miss it in 3D, Jonathan to see if it has any redeeming features. I rely on you to tell me its name as although Steve mentioned it a few times, it was on my deaf side, so didn’t even enter one ear and out on the other side – it just never got to the ‘received’ area.

But there were the usual beauties on display that had ‘not for sale/ not affordable’ written all over them; Haworthias of the Elephant’s tooth type that looked as thought they needed ironing or looked a little pale and pots full of Lithops seedlings with all the seeds from just one fruit but incredibly variable, nicely demonstrating the concept of diversity encountered in a single species concept and so frustrating automated species name generators and botanists alike. I lit the touch paper for discussion by suggesting ‘a genus with just two taxa then? Yellow flowers or white flowers?’  It’s been a long standing joke between Jonathan and myself; I’m sure that Steven had heard it before!

We arrived at our Motel 6 in Westminster, CA where we had stayed on our first night in the US and again took Eunice, this time accompanied by her daughter Lachelle, to the Napels Prime Rib Company, where the Blue Cadillac Margaritas and the huge steaks went down a treat.

Back at the Motel, Angie again tried to improve on our previous packing effort. Not bad, but was this carrier bag and its comment coming along as well? Better have another go first thing in the morning!

The approaching end to this trip follows the pattern of its predecessors: find a convenient Motel 6, visit friends, admire collections and visit a shopping mall to get those last minute essentials – in this case an additional suitcase (carry on luggage size) for my new boots and to hold the rucksack etc.

But first, in the ‘visit to friends’ category we met up again with Juergen Menzel at his home, to see the latest cactus novelties and to see the progress of plants photographed on previous occasions. Many plants are outside in the yard where nature takes care of the watering. There is a shade house to protect the smaller plants from the intense sun and heat. After 45 minutes in there It was just too hot for me so I escaped to cool down and to admit that I had failed to find the new Mam that I knew was hiding there somewhere. Once my body temperature was back to approaching ‘normal’, Juergen took me back in and allowed me to photograph his two plants that came from Europe.

It certainly is a very attractive and unusual plant that should be available at ELK next year, no doubt at a steep price.

I sat in the shade under a tree, mesmerised by the large group of Stenocereus eruca, the creeping devil, that started as two 1 m long stems some 15 years ago. These are facts that can not be found along plants in nature.

Juergen concentrated on showing Jonathan the mature Ferocacti planted around the garden – we need not have travelled all around Baja for 18 days – they were all here! But plants in habitat have an additional charm that is difficult to capture even in the best of gardens.

Thank you, Juergen!

Some people say that the native cacti of California are boring, with about half a dozen taxa occurring in nature, but when you drive around the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, less than an hour’s drive from LA and San Diego with a wide range of comfortable hotels and a baffling choice of eateries and where Brits and semi Anglicized Dutchmen can make ourselves understood without too many linguistic skills (except that last night a ‘small pie’ turned out to be a huge pizza, large enough to feed a family of four!).

After doing battle with our waist line at Perry’s Cafe, 0.1 mile from the El Cajon Motel 6, me met up with Juergen Menzel and Eunice Thompson for a drive along I-8 to Ocotillo, where we headed north (south would have taken us back to Mexico), past a farm of wind turbines in full swing. It was not very long before Eunice, driving the lead car, pulled over as she and Angie had spotted a huge clump of Echinocereus engelmannii in full flower. Awesome! as they say in California.

And only a few meters away another impressive group of flowering cacti: Opuntia basilaris, and yellowish flored Cylindropuntia sp. (C. wolffii?). After two weeks plus and thoroughly confused by Ferocactus hunting in Baja, we were now thouroughly confused by the variability seen in Ferocactus cylindraceus. Juergen still prefers the name F. acanthodes but at least we can agree that the plants are identical, just a matter of a taxonomic nicety as to which name to use.  This plant has a huge distribution area. Last year I saw it in Nevada, near Las Vegas and this year F. cylindraceus subspecies tortulispinus was recorded by us in Baja. subsp. tortulispinus was also present here in Anza Borrego, or at least many plants of F. cylindraceus with tortulous spines. ‘But they don’t here’ I hear a choir of experts sing out. ‘We don’t read books so well and were never taught geography’ I hear the choir of Feros respond! Well, they would if they give a damn – it seems that Homo sapiens is the only species that does.

There were also plants that would have passed as Ferocacus rectispinus at any fancydress parade, but you’ve guessed it – they don’t grow here either. Their impressive spines were flatter than the ones observed in the Sierra San Francisco.

Would it not be great if we based names on a plant’s physical characters rather than where it grows in nature? We can always write a paper to extend their known distribution! A lot more research into the different soil types where these plants grow may reveal a possible course for the twisted spines. There were some nice, predominantly white spined F. cylindraceus plants near the Box Canyon stop where over one hyundred years ago the Pony Express and Wells Fargo Stage coaches would speed past.

Mammillaria dioica and its superficial look-alike Mammillaria tetrancistra, the former in flower, the latter with typical huge red fruits containing the typical large seeds.   At the Cactus Loop Juergen had marked the spot where a huge crested Mammillaria dioica caused us to queue and for cameras to click again. Along the Cactus Trail, Eunice found a Mammillaria ‘ten trancistors’ with a dozen or so huge fruits.

Time was pressing and we could not possibly finish the day without a visit to the Julian Apple Pie shop in San Ysabel. The range of fruit pies had been extended to include Cherry and Loganberry, as well as the old favourite of Apple and Peach. Very tempting to get one slice of each.  This stop has become such a tradition since 2008, that Angie and I decided to spend some more dollars on Julian Pie Shop (JPS) souvenirs, Angie on a fleece with logo and I a baseball cap with logo. Time to pose for pictures. As by now we had eaten our pies, I needed to buy another slice. Needs must!

 

After yesterday’s missive I received a timely word of warning from David Whitely suggesting that my brand new cowboy boots might be as complicated to get across the border into the USA as if we had tried to bring a collection of Ferocactus taxa home; both Pythons and cacti are after all CITES Appendix II. It is easy to be very aware of regulations applying to cacti while at the same time falling foul of buying a personal souvenir to relive childhood memories of wild west books and movies!   What to do?

It is usually best to play things straight and so, after a 90 minute drive we reached the border which at the Tijuana – San Ysidro on Tuesdays around midday has 11 lanes open and an average crossing time of 60 minutes (http://traffic.calit2.net/border/border-wait-times.php?type=passenger&sub=standard&port=250401)

As we arrived the ID check point the officer asked if we had anything to declare. I explained that I’d like advice on a pair of leather cowboy boots bought in Ensenada. We joined some 50 cars and waited a further 45 minutes to be seen. I explained yesterday’s purchase, where I had been advised that the boots were legal to take into the USA and was given a note, in Spanish that stated that the product was made in accordance to rules approved by CITES. I therefore believed that it was OK to bring the boots in. The very polite and helpful officer could not decide if the skins were real or imitation and took them away for inspection by a reptile expert. It took another 15 minutes or so for him to return to say that the expert could not be a 100% certain that they were real python leather or imitation but if I had only bought the one pair for personal use and had sought official advice I was granted permission to import the boots into California.

Doing the right thing seems to have paid off, but it is a good reminder that CITES rules apply to many things, not just habitat cactus material.

No pictures taken today although Angie and Jonathan snapped away merrily while we progressed in the queue to the border.