Earlier this year, the British Cactus & Succulent Society’s Journal contained a review by Paul Hoxey of Copiapoa humilis and its many wide spread locations, where small differences with plants at the Paposo type locality had created a series of taxa, some of which Paul recognised as subspecies.(BCSJ 22(1):29-42). He had added a new one, Copiapoa humilis ssp australis – the most southern form, from a hill top south of Huasco. I was highly sceptical. Plants from the Humilis group are generally regarded as not coming down this far south and the Huasco river is regarded to be the northern border of the Coquimbana group, with C. fiedleriana the common form around Huasco.
Rudolf Schulz, Ingrid Schaub and Ricardo Keim had carried out some searches in the area earlier in 2004, without positive success, although, as a ‘negative success’, they had narrowed down the number of hill tops that still required exploration, to a manageable number.
We decided to start at our usual stop (2001/S024 and 2003/S118), this time S308. Here too, we were amazed at the amount of greenery and wild flowers, especially as previous visits had been to soot covered scenery and plants. It was easy to spot the first Eriosyce napina as they were pumped up and either in flower or with recent flower remains (but no ripe fruits yet). As we started to take their pictures it soon became clear that there were so many napina that it was difficult not to stand on a few while taking pictures of the others. Copiapoa fiedleriana was also looking a lot happier than on previous occasions when the plants had looked so dry that it had been difficult to identify the genus, let alone the species to which these plants belong. The patch that had been in contact with Euphorbia latex on previous days started to itch again – a sure sign that there were more of these plants to be found, confirmed by E. thinophila weeping with latex next to the napina that we had just photographed.
But the real reason that I had come back to Huasco was to look for Copiapoa humilis ssp australis, We decided that if this plant exists, it had to be reasonably near by and that we could discount hill tops already checked out by Rudolf, Ingrid and Ricardo during the summer. Looking at the maps on my laptop left one candidate, for which I took an approximate GPS reading. We drove up a track away from the coast and with the aid of Bart’s and my GPS readings identified the hill that for most of the morning had been shrouded in clouds. At this spot (S309) the ground was carpeted with a white to light purplish lily that has tentatively IDed as Zephyra elegans. A wonderful excuse for some marvellous pictures, while the cloud over the hill slowly lifted.
The clouds actually made sense – C. humilis likes to grow in high altitude fog zones. We found a suitable place to park (S310), so that our ascend would be as short as possible. Bart and I were the only cactophiles mad enough to have a go. I was amazed at the speed with which Bart disappeared up the hill. I remembered previous climbs and the need to pace oneself, plus my scepticism acted as a powerful break. If C. humilis did grow on this hill, there would be no need to go all the way to the top, but at Bart’s speed, there was little chance of his spotting any growing at lower levels, or of my keeping up with him. I followed at a more leisurely pace.
There seemed to be a smallish plateau at around 300 m. altitude. I decided to take some scenic pictures, to at least prove to Paul H. that we’d been on ‘his’ hill and to make a thorough search (hands & knees) of this area, but only found more typical C. fiedleriana. I felt sure that Paul H. and his companions (Clark Brunt, Jonas Luethy and Simon Mentha) could tell these from humilis. I carried on, up the hill, more sceptical than ever. Another ‘wrong hill’? Or was Paul’s diagnosis incorrect? I was shaken out of my thoughts, as a snake (only the second that I had encountered on the three trips) dashed past me. It seemed as shocked as I was. I was comforted by the belief (true or not) that there are no poisonous snakes native to the north of Chile, but there is nothing like a face to face confrontation to start questioning your believes. And poisonous or not, I’d rather avoid a bite. The last time I had encountered a very similar looking snake had been on level ground, near the entrance to Fray Jorge N.P. The one today had found me clambering up a fairly steep hillside with lots of lose rocks and the shock of our encounter had made me slip some metres back down the hillside, so I was actually ‘face to face’ with my reptile friend, although some distance apart. We looked at each other, as though to size each other up. I managed to take its picture, but Snakey had quickly moved out of sight by the time I had found a better, more stable position to take further pictures. The encounter had left me quite exhausted and, added to my scepticism, was enough to dissuade me from continuing to the top.
There was no need, as the sound of small rocks rolling down the hill announced Bart’s descend, long before I caught sight of him. Leo, Rudolf: I think you have another candidate to compete with for the official title of ‘Copiapoathon Mountain Goat’!
Bart amazed me by confirming that he had indeed found Copiapoa humilis growing at the top of the hill. He had taken several pictures, but we’ll have to wait for the slides to be developed and duplicated / scanned before knowing exactly what Bart found, but some heads that had become dislodged by his climbing activities had come down the hill as evidence and were duly digitalised so that Alain can include them in his daily images.
This population, by far the most southern of any previously known humilis locality, appears to indicate that once upon a time humilis was a widely distributed taxon, but that, as the climate became drier, is currently only to be found at a number of quite widely distributed remnant populations. So how many of these are there left to be discovered? Surely enough to warrant further visits to Chile. And the prospect of speculating when and where during dark winter evenings back in Europe with a few bottles of Pisco Sour and Cabernet Sauvignon is another thing to look forward to.
Satisfied to place another ‘tick’ on my initial wish list for the trip, we had lunch and drove to Freirina for some sightseeing and another 2003 stop (S117), at Maitencillo, where alongside C. coquimbana and / or C. fiedleriana (these plants still looked very dry) we found Eriosyce napina ssp lembckei (S311). The rate at which Maitencillo was expanding and the agricultural development that seems to accompany this are worthy of praise, while I fear for the future of the cacti at this locality. So how far did it extend? We drove some 5 km along the track, sign posted for Ojo de Agua and found many more plants in much healthier condition (S312), and confirmed these observations again some 5 km further on (S313), before returning to Huasco and our farewell meal with Bart & Marijke. Time for our return to Europe was approaching.