The last thing I would have expected happened as I woke up, at around 6 a.m. There was a strange, yet familiar, noise on the tent – RAIN! in Secret Valley! (S237) It was still raining – well, something between a light rain and heavy drizzle really – at 7:30 when a call of nature forced me to get up. Everything looked very different wet – amazing! I wonder when these hills and plants had last seen rain like this.
The drizzle also dampened our enthusiasm. We packed the wet tents and by 8:15 we were back in the Guanillos Valley (S238) for a second attempt to find Copiapoa laui at the familiar location where we had found it abundantly in 2001 and 2003. Again, Anne and I felt sure that we had the right place, confirmed by the GPS reading. Oxalis gigantea was still in flower but already coming into leaf – usually regarded as an indication that there had been some moisture a few days earlier. After an hour of searching, we finally had to admit that the plants had either gone, or, more likely, had become invisible. Perhaps they had become extremely shrunk and shrivelled after a long period of drought and were still waking up from the drought induced dormancy. I bet that as I write this report, the plants have swollen significantly and are either in bud or in flower. Graham Charles and Roger Ferryman are due to visit this area with members of the CaSS(US), and it will be interesting to hear / read what they found.
Next on the agenda was a drive through the Tigrillo Valley and a visit (S239) to the C. longistaminea that grow between the magnificent rocks, close to the Pacific Ocean. These rocks – a very course granite – have been weathered, probably blasted by sand storms and (some) water over many thousands of years.
From here, we drove back inland, turned north and then west again, with a quick stop to take more pictures of the seemingly endless stand of Copiapoa columna-alba (S240) and back to the coast at Caleta La Madera (S241). It is strange how in the Tigrillo and La Madera Valleys, C. columna-alba are the dominant plants inland, with C. longistaminea as the dominant plant ‘on the beach’. Yet in the Guanillos Valley, C. longistaminea and C. grandiflora are the visually dominant Copiapao and further inland, at Secret Valley, C. columna-alba and C. longistaminea grow side by side. From time to time, both have been regarded as belonging to the Cinerea complex in the genus Copiapoa – with a fibrous root system rather than a thick tap root and (under favourable growing conditions) with a white waxed epidermis. I understand that it is unusual for closely related species to grow together without the occurrence of intermediate forms – natural hybrids. I do not recall having seen any or reading reports from others on this point – providing professional taxonomists with a bit of a head ache.
So far, we were covering the same territory as in 2003, but I was keen to extend the search farther north. Again we drove inland and north, again we met the endless stands of C. columna-alba, (S242), like pavements full of shoppers heading north. Again we turned west (S243), through a valley (Quebrada de Leoncito) still surrounded by C. columna-alba that thinned out as we finally reached the Ocean, through a narrow gorge. At the gorge (S244 & S245) we again found forms of C. longistaminea, but each time that this plant appears along the coast, there seems to be a distinct local form for each Quebrada. Knize had used the name (nomen nudum) Copiapoa tigrillensis for the plants at the mouth of the Quebrada Tigrillo. In ‘Copiapoa in their environment’, Attila Kapitany and Rudolf Schulz mention Copiapoa sp. ‘Cifuncho’, that we visited in 2003 and that I believe to be the most northern form of this species. We’d return to it again later on in the trip (11 October).
The weather had not really cleared up and we decided to head for the Cabañas at Caleta Hueso, our home in 2001 and 2003, just north of Taltal – happy that I had another Quebrada form of C. longistaminea to add to my list. So how many more should I schedule for future trips? Well, the topographical maps indicate:
Caleta de Afuera (the location of ‘sp. Cifuncho’)
as the only named features before reaching Cifuncho. And with that thought in mind, I nodded off.
S244: Are these mainly single headed plants still C. longistaminea,
or C. taltalensis / rupstris or an intermediate?