We have arrived at Taltal a few days too early, so decide to enter the holy-of-holies to copiapoa fans: The Quebrada San Ramon, on our own. (S054) Travelling north from Taltal on the coast road – Ruta 1 – we first passed a mining operation, immediately followed by a barrier to the entrance of what appeared to be a quarry.
This was the entrance to the Quebrada, or rather the mouth of the canyon, as of course it was water that formed this and other canyons, as it forced its way from the high mountains of the Cordillera de la Costa down to the Pacific Ocean. Looking at the dry landscape today, it is difficult to imagine the torrents that must have forced their way through the sometimes quite narrow gorge.
The feature that impressed me most about the first Copiapoa I encountered here is that it was badly infested by what seemed to be scale. The plant was a C. cinerea form with horn-coloured mainly single spines on each areole.
Before long the more familiar black spined, ‘typical’ C. cinerea form appears, although completely spineless forms were also found. All the plants photographed grow on ledges some 2 m (6 ft) above the valley floor. It seems that fairly recent (??? years) floods have cleared the floor of the valley where only shrubs and annuals survive. At times there are still damp patches with marsh grass growing around it, but thick crusts of salt, left as water evaporated must create a micro environment where few plants can survive.
Later, the white spined form: C. albispina joins in – clumps of these different spined forms grow happily side by side.
Not only do we find specimens with the typical single spine per areole, but also with more numerous spines. It seems only a small step from C. albispina to the finer spined C. krainziana.
Some of the C. cinerea have distinct yellow-orange apical felt and spination – in my mind, ‘the Haseltoniana factor’ in what appears to be a hybrid swarm, trapped in the canyon, of the more distinct forms of members of the Cinerea complex that can be found outside the Quebrada. In this great big melting pot, plants with a combination of various of these features can be found, including plants of C. krainziana with the yellow-spined Haseltonia factor at the apex.
Another group of plants were probably ‘young’ plants of C. tenebrosa – but what age is ‘young’ when plants photographed seven years ago show no sign of growth, even though this seven-year period includes an El Ninjo rain-event. How old are these 15 cm (6 inch) diameter heads? And what age the 1.5 m (5 ft) long stems?
We returned to the cabañas, tired, but happy to find that the first of the other parties had arrived: Benjy Oliver, his sister Natasha and her boyfriend Mark. Benjy was their Copiapoamad representative, but as he does not have a driving licence, he had persuaded the others to be his chauffeur. To avoid boredom, they had soon picked up the art of seed collecting and, during the next few days, impressed us all with their newly acquired skills.
Later that afternoon Rudolf Schulz, Gustavo Valdes, Attila Kapitany and his wife Michelle arrived, so we returned to Club Taltal for a meal and to discuss plans for the following day: a trip to the Quebrada San Ramon !!!