At 8:30 a.m. we’d had breakfast, bought provisions for a lunch time snack and were topping up the cars with fuel at the Copec station, some 20 km west of Copiapó, on Ruta 5. We carried on driving towards Caldera, while I offered to drop Alain any where he wanted, to dig in the ‘sand dunes near Copiapó’, the only details we had for finding a plant on his wish list: Euphorbia copiapina. Alain reminded me of the Adidas poster we had seen near the petrol station: ‘Impossible is Nothing’.
Ricardo Keim had provided us with some suggestions for C. megarhiza and C. echinoides locations on a track off the Pan Americana, sign-posted for Barranquillas. This would take us through the flat and almost featureless ‘flood plain’ that is the mouth of the Rio Copiapó. The term ‘flood plain’ seems somewhat inappropriate for a river that usually contains no more than a trickle of water, but I guess that during it’s long history, things have not always been this dry. As we drove along this area on Ruta 5 the previous day, we had noticed another patch of ‘purple haze’, but nothing could have prepared us for the sight that unfolded before us. This is why Hendrix must have written ‘Purple Haze’ and must have inspired Prince to write ‘Purple Rain’ – mile after mile of (primarily) purple Calandrinia longiscapa. Each flower is no more than a couple of centimetres in diameter, they are relatively widely spaced on the desert floor and in addition to purple, they also come in yellow, white and red to name but a few colours. But it is the unbelievable number of these small plants that create the overwhelming spectacle (S294).
As I lay flat on the desert to get a good picture just over the top of the flowers, my hand started itching and stinging – a typical allergy reaction. The reason soon became obvious, as the plant I had rested my hand on was bleeding white latex. I know that I am very sensitive to Euphorbia latex, but never thought to turn it to my advantage as a detector for Euphorbia copiapina. I shouted to Alain and Bart to share my exciting discovery, but already found them in the traditional posture for looking at small plants in the desert: head down and rear end pointing at the sky. They too had found the plants. And so we had succeeded in one of the goals to find this rare and much sought after Euphorbia. It soon became clear that the only reason that it is regarded as rare, is that it is invisible unless the right conditions for the desert to spring into flower present themselves. When visible, they are as numerous as any weed, with plants at least every meter (c. 3 ft) apart. Plants were in flower and in (unfortunately still unripe) fruit.
Words really won’t do this spectacle justice, so Alain’s picture site will have to fill in. It was not easy to drive on, as each turn seemed to present a different angle on the flowers, bringing out new hues and colours, so the stop number actually refers to frequent stops along several km. of track. You also have to imagine Alain chasing some of the millions of attractive beetles through the desert with his digital camera, taking short bursts of video, and to hear the bird song that had replaced the usual deadly hush. Those who know me will recognise how unusual it is for me to spend so many words on non-cactus matters. So things could only get better when we approached the hills mentioned by Ricardo, also covered in flowers, but now joined by an Eriosyce sp. (help Ricardo, which one?) on one of the hills (S295) and C. megarhiza (var. borealis) on the neighbouring hill (S296) that Bart decided to explore instead.
All good things come to an end, and so the huge areas of the flowering desert became more like the usual scenery, although still with a lot more signs of recent rain and resulting flowering then I had seen before. S297 was a ‘leg stretch’ to see if there were any cacti at all – we only found some recently flowered Trichocereus – and S298 was prompted by the sight of some large clumps of Copiapoa echinoides that were full of fruit. This also revealed some much smaller and spinier C. echinata, but without signs of buds and flowering. Similarly, lots of C. echinoides further on at S299.
And so we approached the km 22 marker on the track from Totoral to Ruta 5 (S300). Another Dutch friend, Evert Smienk, had been here in 2002 and reported seeing plants that he thought were ‘different’ and perhaps worthy of describing. He had been very kind in giving me a number of seedlings raised from seed collected from these plants. I showed these seedlings to Benjy Oliver, for me the best person to put a reliable ID to young Copiapoa seedlings. He did not hesitate and declared ‘definitely echinoides‘. I promised Evert to try to see these particular plants in habitat but at first it seemed that I would have to file a disappointing report, as there was no sign of cacti at the km 22 marker, but plenty of tracks of diggers etc. However, a little further up the road, Anne had noticed some shrubs and a nice Eulychnia. As we walked over we found clumps of C. echinoides, including the very individual shaped plant of which Evert had sent me a picture and which had been the mother to his seedlings. I’d have to explain at this stage that I regard C. echinoides as a broad species that includes such names as C. dura and C. cuprea.
S296: C. megarhiza (var borealis) amidst the Purple Haze of Calandrinia