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Archive for October 11, 2005

Tuesday 11 October 2005 – Cruz del Eje to Chilecito

International airports and long distance flights are like global petri dishes; bacteria and viruses compete for dominance, only the strong survive …. and find hapless travellers on their way to holiday destinations.

And so it was that breakfast on day two of our cactus adventure was accompanied by various coughs, splutters and sniffs. Cliff Thompson actually admitted that he was afraid that he might have picked up a good old British Autumn (= Fall) cold, as we travelled to the airport a few days earlier. `Good job that we`re going to South American Spring to escape this autumn misery!` we agreed. Wrong! As the air-conditioning system on the bus made sure that we all received our fair share, one by one we fell victim of what was jokingly referred to as `Clifftonaires disease`: sore throat and wheezy lungs followed by an irritating tickle cough that still follows me round and has infected Angie and her son Peter since my return. Sorry!

Some were hit harder than others, ran high temperatures and fell victim to probable secondary infections, affecting the distance that they could comfortably move away from the nearest toilet. Various medications and treatments were recommended from different corners of the planet, all with little effect. Eventually we became so concerned about one member of the group, Chris, that we persuaded him to go and see a doctor. On his return he complained bitterly about the huge injection needle that had been used on his backside and the tablets that he had been prescribed, but the next day he had greatly recovered and appeared to have shaken off most of the symptoms, while others still spluttered and coughed and persevered, in fear of The Needle.

However, today we were still blissfully unaware of what was install health wise and by 9:50 were at our first stop of the day: S409, where we could add Cleistocactus baumannii, Echinopsis leucantha and Stetsonia coryne to our already impressive list of cactus genera and species seen on day 1, and become re-acquainted with Echinopsis (Trichocereus) candicans and Opuntia sulphurea. I also recorded seeing Jatropha excisa, not because I found it a beautiful plant, but because I had a deep respect for members of the genus since walking into shrubs of Jatropha urens in Brazil in 1999, while I was dressed in shorts and sandals. I could not see the hairs that in Brazil had caused me such intense pain, but still made sure that I kept a wide birth of this member of the Euphorbiaceae that was just coming into leaf.

The Tricho was in flower, the usual large white often nocturnal flower that is typical for the genus, but quite large for a smaller than average Tricho plant. The Cleistocactus was also in flower, but it was quite a small diminutive flower that had been got at by various nibbling animals. Stetsonia coryne is often seen for sale in European nurseries as small 15 cm (6 inch) tall, dark green stems with prominent white felted areoles and, for its size, impressive long black and brown spines. I have grown it in my collection, but it was usually passed on at bring & buy sales or branch raffles as it got bigger. And big it gets! Huge tree like plants to 8 m (25 ft) tall, with many branches, towering over the low Acacia scrub. Impressive? Yes! Pretty? No. The Cleistocactus also looked better in cultivation than here, in the wild, sprawling through other vegetation.

Echinopsis leucantha occasionally showed that it had the potential of being a nice plant when I managed to find one or two nice, unmarked stems, much larger than plants that I usually associate with the name Echinopsis in European cultivation. I`m sure that this is one reason why there has been such resistance to the lumping of genera of mainly tall or large plants like Soehrensia and Trichocereus into Echinopsis, which has the image of being small globular plants in cultivation. Kiesling lists an impressive 19 names as synonyms, so for those collecting `names`, an impressive addition to boost the numbers!

The other impressive find here and at many other locations were the stones, here very dark, but glistening with mica. Ian, Rob and Cliff with some considerable geological knowledge between them mumbled impressive names of the rock types and geological formations. Sorry guys, it went over my head as I was trying to keep up with photographing the plants and images that tell this story, but feel free to write in with your geological notes, I`m sure that there will be interested readers on these lists.

At S410 we were able to add Cereus forbesii and Gymnocalycium bodenbenderianum to our species list. Can I make an appeal to taxonomists to use short names that roll easily off the average tongue and have a fighting chance of fitting on to plant labels? Trichocereus candicans here made an impressive attempt to qualify for the name of `Creeping Devil`, crawling over the sandy soil and only lifting the stem apex to lift the flower buds skyward. Tillandsia look particularly great when they grow on ceroids!

S411 was our lunch stop at Aguas de Ramon. Guillermo, Diego and the drivers would quickly set out the picnic tables and seats and bring out the French bread sticks, cold meat cuts and cheese slices, bottles of cola, lemonade, water etc. all presented on the table cloths that Guillermo`s wife, Sylvia, had insisted should be used. In the mean time we`d disappear into the field and here found much the same plants as at S410, but with the addition of our first Tephrocactus – T. articulatus. I already had a soft spot for these plants, as they are often among the first plants in a hobby collection, as soon as individuals start going to cactus club meetings. Most hobbyists will have grown this plant into a large clump and, if lucky, might have flowered it, only to see it disintegrate into a pile of individual joints when it is moved a few inches to get another plant out. Here the plants had managed an impressive 8 spineless globular joints on top of each other, severely dehydrated, looking like a tower of old, wrinkled circus artists, about to collapse.

The Opuntia here included O. quimilo, with red flowers and very long (c 12 cm or 5 inches) spines. There were a few Trichos in flower, but the flowers were way past their best (at 12:30) and Gymnocalycium bodenbenderianum demonstrated how you can escape the occasional fire by keeping yourself very flat to the ground.

By 2 p.m. we found ourselves at my stop S412 – The Salt Flats. The main impressions from my images and notes is that we were confronted with a thick, almost impenetrable mesquite scrub and that Ian reported that the temperature had soared to an amazing 41C. We spread out in an attempt to find another form of G. bodenbenderianum (known amongst splitters as Gymnocalycium riojense ssp paucispinum var. platygonum) and another popular cactus in European collections: Setiechinopsis mirabilis. The Gymno was found, as was E. leucantha, Stetsonia coryne and T. articulatus. The Setiechinopsis will remain an unknown for me in habitat.

We reached S413 around 6 p.m. when Ian`s thermometer indicated a temperature of 31C in the shade! And yet, I did not feel desperately uncomfortable in the dry heat with a slight breeze. Gymnocalycium hossei and G. saglionis grew alongside G. bodenbenderianum (syn. G. riojense) and persuaded me to take a closer look at John Pilbeam`s Gymnocalycium book when I find time at home, to tell me which is which in the pictures I took. Some of the Gymnos obliged with flowers. There were some paper like spines on the Tephrocactus articulatus, justifying the synonym Opuntia papyracantha.

We made two more stops, S414 and S415 (Los Colorados) with much the same cacti in different settings, but with for me the highlight of the day at s415: Pyrrhocactus bulbocalyx. At 19:00 hours, the sun was low in the sky, throwing long shadows and giving the red hills an extra red touch. These Argentinean Eriosyce are quite a challenge to grow in Europe, at least in the UK.

It was dark when we reached our hotel in Chileceto and it we settled down to our routine of shower, down loading digital images, wine tasting and dinner. It`s a hard life, but someone has to do it!

Tomorrow we have a picnic in the Famatina Valley and travel on to Anillaco.