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Keen not to be the person to hold up our departure (or perhaps because we could not sleep due to our own coughing or that of the person with whom we shared rooms), it was not unusual in the hour leading up to breakfast to find cactophiles taking in the morning air and taking some pictures of the hotel where we had stayed that night. As a result, by 7:38 on a bright Spring morning, many of us (eventually most of the party) were exploring the small piece of wasteland opposite the Hosteria del ACA in Anillaco. I took so many digital images that I gave this ‘endangered habitat location’ as Stop number: S420, as it was home to a Gymnocalycium, tentatively identified as G. kieslingii, Opuntia sp. (presumably O. sulphurea) and, right next to the hotel, a meter (3 ft) tall Trichocereus sp., growing as any epiphytic cactus, in the branch axel of a large tree. Although the forecast was for a nice sunny warm day, we learned that only a week ago, there had still been snow covering Anillaco, a reminder that all we see on our trips are snapshots of conditions for around one hour, before moving off to the next location. It’s easy for such experiences to leave a lasting impression and the assumption that conditions we saw are typical and last 365 days per year. Not so!

By 8:45 we had had our breakfast, our luggage was safely on the bus and we had reached the Sierra Copacabana where, at S421, we found Gymnocalycium mucidum, that I still know better by one of its synonyms: G. glaucum. I can’t claim to be a huge fan of the genus. Years ago, I found myself at a table in the bar at ELK helping to breakdown language barriers between some English and German speaking drinkers. We had just seen a presentation by Dutchman Ludwig Bercht that included lots of names of Gymnos and South American location names. ‘Too many species names, most created by you Germans’ I joked with my new drinking partner. ‘But I am Austrian’ he protested. ‘A lot of fuss about a genus that at most contains 6 – 14 species, for which you need to see the seed and fruits before you can tell them apart!’ I continued my attempt of a friendly wind up, using the then newly described G. amerhauseri to make my case. ‘Yes, but easy to grow and some nice flowers.’ he replied. And so we continued to put the world to rights on many other issues, before exchanging names and email details at the end of the evening, when I learned that my new friend was Helmut Amerhauser. Each year at ELK, I know to expect a tap on my shoulder, from a smiling Helmut reminding me: ‘Just a few species, but nice flowers!’         

John Pilbeam’s Gymnocalycium book, now out of print, and not necessarily considered correct by some people (so why not put pen to paper and your neck on the block and publish a ‘more correct’ account?) but at least provides some help in narrowing the choice of names by means of huge series of close up pictures of areoles and spine clusters. But these are of healthy plants in cultivation, in good shape – nice globular plants. But in the field, at the start of Spring, many of the plants we saw were still dehydrated and as flat as pancakes, so plenty of scope for incorrect IDs.

One common feature seems to be that many enjoy growing in the company of a ‘nursery bush’, but are able to survive in the open if that protection should disappear. As a general observation I found that Gymnos growing with such protection (or the more permanent protection of a large boulder) were less dehydrated and more globular, and like plants in my collection, than the flat pancakes found in the more exposed situations.

Variability of plants, from what I assume to be the same species at the same location, is amazing and helped me to understand one reason for the large number of names in the genus.

Some distance on (2:15 hours drive away), at S422, we were looking again for G. glaucum, here accompanied by some very large Echinopsis leucantha, with similar nursery bush behaviour as the Gymnos, Tephrocactus weberi, T. articulatus and Opuntia sulphurea (in flower, and therefore worthy of a mention).

Back on the bus, a few hours later, we were reminded by sign posts that Copiapó and Chañaral were only 486 and 538 km away and I reflected on how much more varied the cactus flora was here on the eastern side of the Andes – perhaps a topic for a future talk, comparing plants from a narrow latitude band, separated by the Andes.

S423 and its worth noting that we had climbed to 2,141 m (7,029 ft) altitude (from 1,064 m or 3,493 ft at S422) and were now finding Cumulopuntia (Maihueniopsis sensu Kiesling) boliviana growing alongside Echinopsis leucantha and Tephrocactus geometricans and at around 2400 m (7,830 ft) at S424 (Denmoza rhodacantha and T. geometricans) and S425 (D. rhodacantha, Lobivia (Soehrensia) formosa and M. boliviana).  I have to warn here that altitude readings from handheld GPS equipment can not be considered to be reliable, particularly if there has been no opportunity to calibrate the receiver at the start of the trip. Once the GPS has reported its latitude and longitude readings (quite quickly) it can take several more minutes when the system averages signals received from more satellites that help to improve the accuracy of altitude readings. As I find the precise altitude readings less important then taking pictures, I tend to switch off the GPS before it has reached that degree of accuracy. So why do I report the altitudes here? Because, as we climb higher, the air becomes thinner and at around these altitudes walking around taking pictures becomes harder, especially as ‘Clifftonaire’s Disease’ affects the body’s ability to get sufficient oxygen into the body.

Although the temperatures became more comfortable, the danger of sunburn is another feature to be aware of. Last year, in Chile, Alain Buffel became quite uncomfortable around San Pedro de Atacama, at similar altitudes. In days to come we would be climbing to almost twice these altitudes, at La Quiaca, so this was good preparation.

As shadows were lengthening, we had one more objective, to find Lobivia bonniae. I had received GPS data for its location from a friend (thanks Brian! I owe you a beer at ELK 2006) but our first attempt (S0426) led up a narrow canyon where we met a dry but highish waterfall that was too difficult for some of the party. Those that conquered the obstacle reported that the canyon just got narrower and seemed to be a dead end. Back to the bus, Guillermo started up his laptop and we consulted Brian’s email to confirm GPS details. We were close, but not close enough. A second attempt, (S0427) a few hundred meters along, brought us in a much wider dry valley and there, on a ridge, alongside T. geometricans and the omni-present E. leucantha, we found a dozen plants of L. bonniae, as shadows lengthened (last picture at 18:50!). Despite the poor light for photography, I also managed to get 2 shots of a Pterocactus. The name P. megliolii was suggested, but this is reported from the province of San Juan, while we were some distance further north, in Catamarca, from where P. tuberosus has been reported. More reading to do. Any suggestions from readers with a passion for these plants are welcome.

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S0427 – Echinopsis (Lobivia) bonniea

These digests are becoming longer each day and I promise to try (but won’t guarantee) to be briefer in future.

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