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New Year’s Eve in Pichidangui is an event I won’t forget in a hurry! The otherwise empty restaurant was chock a block and we had a great meal – steak, chips, salad, too many Piscos and beer. But many of the guests were Argentinean, they must have been in the queue at the border with us!

At 12:00 there was a good firework display over the bay, the road was closed off and full of partying people, some in fancy dress, all drinking. Of course the weather is ideal for such an event – it really was more like an August Bank Holiday. I was thinking of Angie standing in the cold with her neighbour Margaret drinking a glass of champagne in the close, three hours earlier, when Big Ben had rung in the New Year in the UK.
Despite all the drinking at the restaurant, we opened up a bottle of Malbec from Mendoza to drink in the Cabañas – so slept well, to 9 a.m. this time!

One of Cliff’s favourite bands is Pink Floyd, so as we drove along R5, I asked him what he’d rather do on New Year’s Day: listen to Pink Floyd or go Eriosyce spotting at Fray Jorge. ‘Why don’t we do both?’ he replied with a smile, as a track of Pink Floyd’s LP The Division Bell played on my portable Juke Box through the car’s audio system. And that’s what we did.

Today’s visit was prompted by Juan Carlos Johow asking me what I thought that the Trichocereus was that grew in his garden. I hesitated to suggest E. chiloensis ssp litoralis. He thought that, like the other fog oasis area at Fray Jorge, it might be E. skottsbergii, but I had to admit that I was not very well up on Trichoes and that, try as I might, I could not see more than one Trichocereus there, unless they are cryptic species, i.e. they look the same but are genetically separated by different flowering seasons (not unlike Eriosyce chilensis and E. subgibbosa at Pichidangui). Juan Carlos had a special reason for asking the question, as his grandfather was the person who had described Trichocereus litoralis many years ago.

So today was started by taking some pictures of Trichoes around Pichidangui, just plants growing along the road on the north side of town that leads to R5, recorded as S1145. We then made two stops (S1146 and S1147) along the old track (yes the track we followed in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006, NOT the new track that we were directed to in 2007) to Fray Jorge. 

So what did we think?

  • The Tricho at Pichidangui is different from the one growing at Fray Jorge. The Fray Jorge plant is much taller and robust than the one growing at Pichidangui.

  • We could only see one Trichocereus sp. growing at Fray Jorge, not two, where one is said to be E. chiloensis (ssp. litoralis?) and the other E. skottsbergii

  • There are two ceroids at Fray Jorge, an Echinopsis (Trichocereus) sp. that looks to me to be one of the many different local forms of E. chiloensis and Eulychnia acida. The Eulychnia was heavily in fruit, there were still some flowers open and some plants had fresh young buds.

  • There are man made fences along the track that are made up of the two species mentioned above. When stems are not in bud/ flower / fruit, it is very difficult to differentiate between them.

  • We could only find one Trichocereus sp. along the track. At times we thought that there might be two, one with more ribs and fine, soft spination, the other with fewer ribs and strong spination, but on closer inspection, both types of growth would occur on the same plant.

Other cacti spotted were Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Eriosyce aurata and Eriosyce subgibbosa ssp nigrihorrida. E. nigrihorrida was the only taxon that was not abundant. We’d find individual plants here and there, often hillsides apart, or small isolated clusters growing in a more rocky spot.

The other remarkable thing was that we were finding some (not many) younger specimens of E. aurata. Mature specimens are huge – in 2003 we found some that measured up to 90 cm (3 ft) in height, but no young plants. This is not unusual when the observer is so completely overwhelmed by the giants, that cameras click and only back in the car the point is raised that there were no young(er) plants. Due to their imposing size, plants are often dug up and sold in the larger towns where they are displayed  with pride in as architectural plants, similarly to cultivated Echinocactus grusonii in California and Arizona in the USA. But on closer inspection, these plants, taken from nature, rarely if ever survive the ordeal of transplantation – they take a long time, many years – to croak it. This time, we were less rushed and already had a huge number of images of the large plants from previous visits, so were we noticing and photographing some of the younger plants, ranging in size from 5 to 15 cm in diameter. Where as the huge plants would take special equipment to be dug up and transported, these small plants were of an ideal size to be taken home and grown on in pots on Chilean and Argentinean window sills and patios. Rodents and goats in habitat posed other threats, while the fields immediately beyond the hills that we were walking, showed that agriculture was increasingly encroaching on nature, although there were also a number of failed projects among these, as the conditions are still very arid.

We took away 150 images of the plants looking happy and healthy in nature. It was the first time that I had seen aurata in flower here, but then it was the first time that I had been here in January. A very memorable New Year’s Day!    

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