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Archive for March, 2009

Tuesday, 17 March 2009 – Hidalgo del Parral to Guachochi

Eunice had asked if we could drive in the opposite direction to where we would spend the night, so that we could see Agave flexispina, about 30 km south of Hidalgo del Parral on MEX 45. As we have tended to find interesting cacti where ever we have looked for Agave, we raised no objections. As we approached the area where Gentry reported these plants some 50 years ago, things did not look too good. We had developed the art of Agave stalking, and there were no stalks to be seen.

We took a turning to the Presa Santa Rosalia, a water reserve. The scenery was as illustrated in Gentry’s book: open grassland hills, but without the Agave. We went on to the water’s edge of the Presa, (S1350) and a good job too. We just went through the motions of looking for plants when really we felt that there were none to be found and BINGO, a globular cactus. But what was it? I thought for  moment that I was back in Argentina, as this cactus had naked buds and looked very much like a Gymnocalycium. After consulting my colleagues, we narrowed the choice down to Coryphantha or Thelocactus – do Thelocactus have a grove along part of their tubercles? And then the naked buds clinched it: Thelocactus bicolor ssp heterochromus – the form known as ‘var. pottsii’.  And then another cactus: Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?), flat as a pancake. And of course there were the usual selection of Cylindropuntia and Opuntia (one each). But no Agave.

Very pleased with our cactus stop, but disappointed that we had not found the Agave, we drove back and made a brief stop before reaching MEX 45 (S1351) where I thought that I had seen some cacti earlier. The Opuntias here had enormous pads – Alain measured a couple at 40 cm diameter. I heard a crunchy sound underfoot and found that I had stepped on a dead globular cactus with very distinct spines – Echinocactus (Homocephala) texensis. We carried on looking, following the principle that if you find one, there have to be others, but to no avail. Just one more Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?).

Still on the track back to MEX 45 we stopped to let Cliff close a cattle gate behind us. (S1352). As I looked out of the window, I could not believe my eyes. There, underneath the barbed wire fence, stood a small Agave! Agave flexispina! And as others looked for more plants, I spotted another from the car, also under the wire. Alain took a look at the other side of the road and there he found a hillside full of the plants! They were on a gently down ward slope that took them out of our field of vision. Any flower stalks had been cut down, as though in an attempt to conceal the plants. No wonder that we had not seen them on our way to the Reservoir.

Eunice asked if we could drive the few miles farther south to Gentry’s reported location (S1353) where we found a couple of plants right alongside the road. While taking their picture, Eunice shouted: ‘What is this?’ The plant next to Agave flexispina was Echinocereus pectinatus, a large and venerable plant. Again, where there is one ……. And so we found a dozen or so more, all ages, some in bud. And a few specimens of Thelocatus bicolor ssp heterochromus ‘var. pottsii’ and just a couple more Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?).

We found our way back into H.d. Parral and out again, this time on MEX 24 heading west. After a while this road seemed to become MEX 432 before turning into the MEX 23. We had left he flat plains that were characteristic of the south east of H.d. Parral and were back into the Sierra Madre Occidentalis with wonderful scenery. S1354 was a quick stop at km 21, La Piedra, for a couple of large Agave parryi along the side of the road.

S1355 was for scenery shots taken from the car. and S1356 was a ‘leg stretch’ stop where I spotted some Echinocereus pectinatus growing out of the rocks along the side of the road and Fouquieria splendens and Opuntia sp. on the rocks above the road. Alain and Cliff had taken the opposite side of the road and were outside earshot. On their return they reported E. sp. (enneacanthus?), E. pectinatus,  Mammillaria sp. (heyderi?), M. sp. #2 (grusonii?) and T. bicolor ssp heterochromus.

We pulled over again farther along the road (S1357) and found huge Agave parryi. Alain had pulled up on a track that finished at a gate. While we were photographing Agave’s, a car pulled up behind him. We could see some discussion going on, the gate being opened and the other car and ours driving in. We walked over, as there were A. parryi here to be photographed inside the barbed wire fence. The other car was driven by a lady a few years older than we are, plus an elderly gentleman, her father. She invited us to drive along the track to her modest home (her words – and true) where we parked the car and followed her on foot down a track that ended in a mirador with a wonderful view below us into a canyon. We believe that they were members of the local Indian tribe. She (Maria Elena) explained that they had not much money, but that their farm went on for many kilometres – it was probably the size of Luxembourg! In England, few people could afford a house with a view like that and own the land that we could see and beyond. Wealth is a relative thing. She explained that she and her parents had lived here all their lives. There were no cacti here, but some on the other side of the canyon, too far for us to explore in the time before sunset.

Another great day and we arrived tired and satisfied in Guachochi, from where we will drive tomorrow through the Barranca del Cobre – Copper Canyon, to Creel.

Monday, 16 March 2009 – Gomez Palacio to Hidalgo del Parral, Chichuahua

Today we said goodbye to Durango, which had restored our faith in Mexico as a country to see cacti. We moved on to Chihuahua, yet another time zone, so that we gained / lost (which ever way you want to look at it) an hour.

One thing we have found is that Mexico is big, Real BIG! There is a farm in Chihuahua that has an area equivalent to the sum of the area of Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland! I’m sure that they could have squeezed in Luxemburg and Liechtenstein as well if they had tried or knew about those countries as well.

Our first stop of the day was an impromptu leg stretch, still in Durango. If it had been up to me I would have waited a few minutes as the hills seemed to be approaching MEX 49 (this was the ‘Libre’ – free road instead of the quite expensive Cuota = toll road), but general consensus was that coffee drunk at breakfast needed to be set free.  Even this apparently flat uninteresting waste land along the road was a cactus gold mine.  S1347 at km 63 on MEX 49 offered a clumping Coryphantha sp. (C. werdermannii ? tight spination in the dry, so difficult to any tubercle grooves), Cylindropuntia sp (2), Echinocactus horizonthalonius, (looking very similar to Thelocactus bicolor ssp heterochromus or was it?), Echinocereus enneacanthus (it seems that the plants here go by the name ‘variety dubius’ – honest!), Ferocactus hamathacanthus – again, large clumps that would have been impressive if they were less overgrown by grass and weeds, Fouquieria splendens (standard red flowers),  Mammillaria sp. (M. grusonii?), Opuntia sp. (3) and Sclerocactus uncinatus ssp wrightii.

We had earmarked a stop (S1348) known as the Microondas Conejos (the Conejos Microwave tower).  It seems to be a popular place among cactophiles, probably because this had been recorded as a Charlie Glass stop in 1974. We saw all the taxa reported for S1347 plus Agave lechuguilla, A. scabra, Echinomastus unguispinus (since seeing my first Echinomastus in habitat I have been doing a bit of on-line back ground reading and it seems that this taxon has a list of synonys as long as your arm, that include E. durangensis and E. mapimiensis), Mammillaria lasiacantha (again just a single snow white plant) M. pottsii (large clumps) and Thelocactus bicolor. No wonder that this is such a popular location. The views are not bad either! 

Eunice had been keen to go to the Zona del Silencio, a nature reserve that is in the corner of three states: Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. It is a huge reserve and we made it to the visitor’s centre, 7 km from the main road, where we were the only visitors and the live-on-site caretaker had to open up and give us a presentation in fluent Spanish – not a problem for him, a bit of a challenge for us, although I was surprised how much I could understand. Try this for size:

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zona_del_Silencio

The main centre, where meteorites are reported to have fallen, was another good hour’s drive away on average dirt. It was very hot and there was no guarantee of seeing cacti – or at least anything that we could not see here, so one the 3:1 decision rule, we headed back to MEX 49. We had stopped on the way into the reserve, at the visitors centre and again on a track off the main track between the entrance and the centre. As all the plants seen were the same, they are all recorded under one stop number – S1349. We saw: Cylindropuntia sp (kleinei?) Echinocactus horizonthalonius, Echinocereus enneacanthus ssp dubius, (several in flower), Echinomastus unguinispinus, Ferocactus hamatacanthus (really very common here and very large), Fouquieria splendens, Opuntia sp (3), one of which may be Opuntia microdasys ssp rufida or the other way round.

It was time to leave Durango and enter the last state on our Mexican sojourn, Chihuahua. So far we have only seen plain, flat cultivated land and we used the toll road to get here, but tomorrow we’ll have more time – I hope!

Sunday, 15 March 2009 – North west of Gomez Palacio

Wrong! We did not go back to S1342. I should have mentioned though that the Fouquieria splendens at S1342 had white rather than red flowers – something that Ian had told me to look out for after an Alan Phipps talk in Exeter.

But we had such a good time these last two days that we decided to have another night at Gomez Palacio and spent the day driving north, out of the town on MEX 40 until the town of Bermejillo where we turned left (west) on to MEX 30. After a few miles,  was our first stop, S1343, across the road from the Bermejillo cemetery. This was the other Ariocarpus intermediate location that we had in the database, spirits were high when we got to the place. It was fenced off and along Mex 30, a fairly main road, but quiet on a Sunday morning. There was a gently sloping area alongside a fairly steep hillside and Alain, Cliff and I explored both, while Eunice felt uncomfortable about going on to private land and stayed near the car. We all felt that the area was ‘rightish’ for Ariocarpus (limestone rock and gently sloping silt like areas) but that the time was wrong – at home, Arios tend to be dormant until late summer (August – September) and flower in October. Whether the theory was right or not, we failed to find any Arios but did find Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sps. plus Echinocereus sp. #1 (enneacanthus?) and E. sp. #2 (stramineus?), Escobaria sp., Mammillaria sp. (heyderi? or meiacantha?), M. pottsii, Sclerocactus uncinatus and Thelocactus bicolor, so not a bad stop.

S1344 was along MEX 13 at km 13. No fences! We found all the same plants as at S1343, plus Ferocactus hamatacanthus – including a huge specimen made up of a number of heads that measured 170 cm from one end to the other – we have the pictures to prove it! E. enneacanthus (?) was here forming large clumps with some flowers and one of the Opuntia sp. was also flowering in abundance. Were there steroids in the soil here?

We decided to carry on up MEX 30 and were treated to a military security stop – quite intimidating as all soldiers wore facemasks, so that any ‘baddies’ could not recognise them and single them out later, and carried larger than life assault rifles and machine guns. Their commander spoke fairly good English and was keen to re-assure us that there was no problem, just a routine check and asked us if we had experienced any problems in Mexico, plus added that tourists still go to countries like Israel where there is much more violence. We reassured him that we had found Mexico great, friendly and welcoming. Why wouldn’t we? We had not had any bad experiences plus they had the guns!

We drove on to km 50, (S1345) where the hills (Sierra del Rancho Espiritu Santo)more or less met the road. We had become spoilt and found many of the cacti and succulents before – the list is long and those who are interested will get the full plant list once it is ready on my return to the UK.

The last stop of the day (S1346) was a ‘tourist stop’ and why not! A few km east of Mapimi is the Puente Colgante de Ojuela. Rather than me explaining all about it, read for yourself (in Spanish!) and look at the pictures at:

  http://www.torreon.gob.mx/laciudad/turismo/alrededores/ojuela.php

Here we saw Yucca sp #1 & 2 but were distracted by the 318 m long bridge hanging over a 98 m deep canyon, and by young folks (God that sounds nas though I’m getting old), making the return journey by hanging from a pulley attached to a cable across the canyon. We thought about having a go as well, but were happy to see that the queues were far too long.

We had a reasonably early night back, arriving at the hotel before dark.

Saturday 14 March 2009 – South west of Gomez Palacio

I’m starting today’s Diary while waiting to go to breakfast. Choosing where to go today (and what to miss as a result) is a nice but almost stressful experience, particularly when you need to consider the wants and needs of fellow travellers. To solve the issue I have promised myself a return visit, pencilled in on my ‘wish list of places to see (again)’, when it seems a good idea to take at least a month,  based for example in Torreon, and spend a week each on the 4 quarters of the compass. Not sure if it will ever happen, but at least it makes me feel better about the plant stops that we just can not fit in this time.

When we left, after breakfast, we were surprised to find that it had rained during the night, making the dust covered car look a real mess. As we drove out of Gomez Palacio (= GP), we were even more surprised to find that it was raining again! About an hour later, as we approached the turn off the main Mex 40, we were not only surprised but also a bit worried, that it was still raining, but relieved to see bits of blue sky between the clouds.

We had agreed on just 3 locations today: Eunice had requested a stop to see Agave victoriae-reginae (‘A. vicky’) that had been reported from near the lake were we made our last stop yesterday and Alain had requested two stops, very close together, along Mex 34, in the hope that we’d find Echinomastus durangensis and Leuchtenbergia principes.

We had good data for all these stops and very happy with what we had found the previous day in this area, so confident that we’d find plants of interest.

Imagine our surprise when the data for ‘A. vicky’ turned out to be less then 100 m from yesterday’s S1337. Today, after the rain, and now in the morning sun, the plants looked very refreshed. I’m using a new Stop number, S1339, as my stop numbers reflect both location and time (when I remember). We knew that we had to look in different places for ‘Vicky – not in front of our boots, but high on the edges of the rock face, just like A. impressa earlier in Sinaloa. And so, zoom lenses were set on the max zoom range and binoculars were trained on the rock face above us and sure enough, I spotted five impossible to get to plants within five minutes. But with Eunice’s 400 mm zoom lens, on tripod. I was able to fill the frame with each plant. They tended to be silhouetted against the sky, but were clear enough to see. We each went our own way to see if we could find plants closer to our lenses (we did, only some 5 m (15 ft) away.)  So the species list for S1339 is the same as yesterday’s S1337 plus Agave victoriae reginae and also plus Mammillaria pottsii that Cliff found, but I did not.

While looking like a professional photographer, in the road, with my camera on Eunice’s tripod and her 400 mm lens on my camera, an elderly Mexican came along on his bicycle. He got off for a chat, until he discovered that I spoke no English. He turned out to be a ‘Volunteer vigilante’ – a neighbourhood watch man, and suggested politely that our car would be better parked 10 m. along the road. In my best Spenglish (which is becoming more like Spanglish), I explained that we were taking pictures of plants and that my friends – including Eunice with the car keys, were on the hillside. He then started talking about Indians and I started losing the plot (again) until he asked me to follow him, to the base of the cliff where he showed me some petroglyphs, that he said were ‘very old’. Keen to compete with Juan who found petroglyphs in San Ramon. Eunice joined us and agreed to act as decoy for our Mexican friend while I carried on with the photography. As a result we have a set of very interesting plant and other points of interest pictures for this stop.

S1340 was a simple stop because Alain spotted a large clump of Echinocereus sp. in flower. Naming the plant was the tricky bit – I know I have it at home in my collection, but I can’t read the label until April. Echinocerei reported from here include E. enneacanthus, but it is not like the E. enneacanthus that we used to grow at Holly Gate Cactus Nursery by that name, so it’s a case of going back to first principles (checking out original descriptions) to see if that name fits what we saw.

S1341 was a location from the database near Nazas on Mex 34, for Echinomastus durangensis and we were not disappointed, finding large and small specimens and even some plants in flower and a tiny amount of seed, not enough to share I’m afraid. The species list was impressive: Various Agave, Yucca and Opuntia sp – I’ll spare you the details, Coryphantha sp., Echinocereus sp. (the name E. stramineus keeps cropping up, but plants look very similar to E. engelmannii that I have seen in habitat elsewhere, more so than like the E. stramineus that we grow in the UK. The taxon is said to have the largest flowers of any Echinocereus. The ones in my collection certainly do. In habitat we were too early for flowers.

S1342 was another location from the database, just 7 km up the road, this time for Leuchtenbergia principes. The shadows were getting long, so it became more difficult to find cacti but we found one plant at the exact coordinates in the database – usually such coordinates are from the place that the Cactus Explorer parked his car, and you have to use your guile and experience to see where the plants might be.  All the other plants from S1341 were here too. Once we got back at the hotel, we had a nasty sense of deja vu, as it turned out that S1342 should also have shown us Ariocarpus intermedius! Arrrrgggghhhh!

So guess where we are going tomorrow!?

Friday, 13 March 2009 – Durango to Gomez Palacio

Friday the Thirteenth. Another one! Still, the last one turned out OK (was that really a month ago?!)

We set off late. We needed to decide which way we wanted to head home to the US. Where as in Sonora & Sinaloa the obvious choice was limited to one main highway, we now had a number of options open. And while in the previous states it was reasonably easy to select targets for a plant hunt, here we were really spoiled for choice. the list of 1,500 plant names and locations (some no more than the name of a town) was like browsing through a Mexican Cactus Lexicon. Just like kids in a sweetie shop with only a few minutes to decide what they wanted. The time budget is relentless. Because of the late start (due to deciding what was where and what, sadly, could not be fitted in) we decided to head for Gomez Palacio, part of a trio of towns that had merged together (the others were Ciudad Lerdo and Torreon, which is across the border in the State of Coahuila.

Again, to make the best of the time available, we used the (expensive – but empty and reasonable quality) toll road to get to a selected side road from where ‘cactus clusters’ had been reported. After our experiences to date, we had become quite cynical about today’s success rate.

We left the Mex 40 toll road at  Guadelupe Victoria and continued on the free Mex 40, liberally strewn with topes and vibrasiones to keep our speed down and massage my back (which has improved nicely) and made our first stop of the day (S1335) when Eunice spotted a Yucca in flower along the road. It was not long before we had spotted a few Coryphantha sp. growing behind a barbed wire fence – no problem for experienced Cactus Explorers. Eunice in the mean time found more Corys at the ‘legal’ side of the fence than we did behind it. Other plants recorded were Cylindropuntia sp. with bright yellow fruits and very dark body contrasting nicely with each other, Fouquieria splendens, Opuntia ‘santa rita’ (the name everyone understands, pending a look as to what current name is in favour this time) Opuntia robusta (again, needs a check when I get home), Opuntia sp. #1 & 2.

The next stop was just outside Pedriceña, as Eunice had spotted two Agave sp. and no fencing on her side of the car. ‘Just a quick one then’, we grumbled, as we grudgingly went for a ‘stomp about’ to see what else might be here (S1336). BINGO! Sclerocactus uncinatus ssp wrightii, ironically called the Chihuahuan Fishhook cactus, while we were far south in Durango. It is quite impressive how this plant has been moved around by botanists, having been in Ancistrocactus, Echinocactus, Ferocactus and Glandulicactus, probably lined up for a spell in Thelocactus when Cliff gets home.  The area was covered by A. lechuguilla and on the hills (and also a few dotted along the road) was A. scabra. Other very welcome surprises included the species recorded at the previous stop, plus Coryphantha sp. (these looked different from those at the previous stop), Cylindropuntia kleiniai, or was it C. leptocaulis? Echinocereus sp. (probably E. stramineus), a small opuntioid that looked a bit like O. standleyi, Mammillaria laisiacantha fa. and a Yucca sp. Not bad at all, and clearly more than just a quick stop. 

S1337 was again prompted by Eunice spotting some Agave, Yucca and Hechtia (2 different sp.). Ah well, the last stops she had called turned out excellent, so let’s take a look. Ferocactus hamatacanthus! Opuntia sp. #1 and #2 and a plant that could be a Coryphantha sp, Mammillaria sp. or Neoloydia conoidea – no flowers, fruits to give the game away and the plants were dry and not showing off their tubercles to allow us to look for groves etc. Come to thing of it, I would not be surprised if all three genera were here and photographed.    Looking for Agave etc. turned out to be not such a bad thing, as they seemed to like similar habitats to cacti and their spent flower stalks were easy to spot. The plants grew in very photogenic situations on a steep rock face – attractive but tricky to get close to plants.

The last stop was at the Presa Francisco Zarco, a dam and a man-made lake with a very nice view across the lake that made it tempting to wait for sunset, but common sense prevailed and we managed to pull into our Best Western hotel before it was dark.

Let’s hope that today’s great day heralds a change in fortunes.

Cheers

PK

Thursday, 12 March 2009 – Mazatlan to Durango

Let’s start with an update on yesterday’s Diaries, starting with the most exciting bit. It is not often that we take / get the time to review the pictures we took during the day, until the trip is over. Eunice was keen to see how good her pictures of Agave impressa were and zoomed in close on a plant with flower stalk. Imagine her surprise when, growing right next to it, she finds a ceroid with a pseudocephalium! Pilosocereus alensis! Just goes to show, never throw away ‘spare pictures until you have thoroughly checked if they contain anything of interest. Of course the problem is to find the time to make the thorough check. I hastily checked my pictures and yes, I too have the Pilosocereus alensis in the frame!

Correction: I reported for S1328: ‘… an Apocynaceae tree with peculiar fruits that may be Matelea porbifolia. The stem had large thorns on it, just like Ceiba.’ 

Please ignore the sentence. I did see a tree with a stem that almost certainly makes it a Ceiba sp. Ceiba are in the Family Malvaceae. The Matelea reference belongs elsewhere.

Today we headed inland for a journey of some 340 km to Durango. In the process we moved into a different time zone so that we are now 6 hours instead of 7 hours behind the UK.

I have tended to regard Opuntia s.s. in general as a genus of fairly uninteresting plants, They are so promiscuous that it is sometimes difficult to know what is a species and what is a natural hybrid. I refer here to the flat padded plants. Here in Mexico, there seem to be a number of Opuntias that have a quite distinct look about them, so that I’ll have to plough through the large section of hardly touched pages in the New Cactus Lexicon containing the pretty pictures, to see if I can put some names to them. In the mean time, forgive me when I refer to Opuntia sp #1 etc. It is never intended that O. sp. #1 at one stop is the same as O. sp #1 at another stop. The numbers are just for that stop.

All of today’s stops are along Mex 40, the Mazatlan to Durango road. We started with specific stops, as usual, but as time pressed on and we were seeing lots of different Agaves, things became a little blurred, so that some stop numbers refer to a fairly long stretch of road.

And Agave’s are still a mystery to me, so at this stage, they too will be referred to as Agave sp. #1 etc. in the hope that Eunice will provide names in tie to come.

Alain’s pictures and some of mine that come through Angie, should have GPS data embedded in their metadata, so get a browser that allows you to view this info (I use ACDSEE, but Picasa2, a free image browser is excellent and available as a free down load)

So, what did we see? Great scenery as the road climbed from sea level to 2,800 m. and wound its way into the Sierra Madre Occidentalis. The temperature dropped from much too hot to explore, to very comfortable. And plant wise? This was Agave Day!

S1330:  Hylocereus ocamponis, Opuntia sp. #1 & #2, Orchid sp., Tillandsia sp. #1 & #2

S1331:  Agave sp., Opuntia sp.

S1332: We had now hit ‘the mother lode as far as Agave’s & scenery were concerned, so took a few hours to cover very few kilometers but I collected 134 images along the way! They include: Agave schidigera, A. sp. #1, #2, #3 Bromeliad sp. #1, Disocactus schrankii or speciosa?, Echeveria sp., Nolina sp., Opuntia sp. #1, #2 plus a plant that looks remarkably like a Rhipsalis or similar epiphytic cactus, only seen & photographed from a distance. There are no records for true epiphytic cacti in Mexico in my dataset, so more homework when I get home. This stop took us all the way up to the monument at the Espinazo del Diablo, a kind of ridge pass with magnificent views to either side of the road.

S1333 are for images taken from Espinazo del Diablo, 199 km from Durango, as we drove east along Mex 40, before reaching the plain where Durango is located and are of scenery rather than specific plants.

S1334 was a leg stretch as we approached Durango – now on the plain, with an Agave sp.  Opuntia sp. and Yucca sp. (Y. filifera?).

The SatNav system seemed unacquainted with the town of Durango, sending us up one way streets or in circles without knowing where to go. As always, these things happen at the end of the day when every one is tired and problem solving becomes more of a challenge.

Sat in our hotel rooms, I find that we probably passed by some very interesting cacti without having spotted them, so the question becomes: will we see these again later on, or is the only way that we’ll see these cacti this trip a matter of returning a fair distance on MEX40 to do a more detailed search? And do we have the time? And do we have the motivation? For now my eyes are stinging and I badly need some sleep.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 – south of Mazatlan

It started off a bit of a strange, strained day, as it was time to decide how to break the routine of not finding ‘plants of interest’. Part of this was due to me not having the time each day to check what delights we needed to hunt for, partly nobody’s fault, because the land we travelled through had nothing new to offer – we’re just too spoiled.

The end result was that it was late in the day when we were ready to start of expedition for the day. This would take us to Escuinapa de Hidalgo, where Eunice had a location for Agave impressa. You can see a nursery grown example at http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/225443/

After the previous days’ poor findings, we were sceptical of finding anything this time, so she knew that it had to be a good set of data to ‘impress’ us cactophiles. When we re-enacted the ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’  scenario by asking ‘Are you sure that this is the place you want to take us?’ she replied: ‘Can I phone a friend?’ and made what turned out to be 3 phone calls home to California. By the time we received the definitive data, we were already near the turn off for the spot. We knew that we were unlikely to come face to face with the plants as they were reported to grow high up on steep cliff faces and the only way to approach them was from the bottom. The habitat for this plant is said to be very restricted so it would be good to be able to slip in some casual pictures in a UK ‘Other Succulent’ presentation.

Confident with the data, we soon spotted the steep hillsides and Agave growing on them. How close could we get? We followed the GPS instructions, into a Mango orchard, down a farmer’s tracks to an enclosure where two farmers and two ten year old boys were cutting up scrub. They were as cautious as we were when I approached them with Gentry’s Agave book in hand, and in my best Spenglish asked them if they knew this plant, pointing at the picture of A. impressa in the book. ‘Oh yes, up on the hill.’ ‘Could we get near them?’ ‘Oh yes.’ As we parked the car and got ready to go (S1327), it transpired that they wanted to show us the way, cutting a path through the dense  deciduous scrub with machetes while climbing the hills at the bottoms of the sheer rock face in 30 C heat.

First Alain decided that he had gone far enough, followed 10 minutes later by Cliff and another 10 minutes, on a bit of a clearing in the scrub forest, Eunice and I also agreed that this was far enough; dripping in perspiration with warnings of spiders and ticks dropping from the trees. We could clearly see the plants through our zoom lenses and clicked away to get the best shots with reserves including pictures of Juan Luis, his brother Manuel and their sons Samuel and Jose.

It took less time to descend back to the car and we agreed there was time enough to check out another location ‘not far away’ – but everything in Mexico seems to be ‘far away’. We started to see a few interesting plants along the dirt track as we approached the coordinates for our next stop – an Echinocereus sp. , made one brief stop on the way, S1328, as there were more plants of yesterday’s Hylocereus (?) sp. along the road. Brian Bates writes:  ‘So I’m going thru NCL and find Hylocereus ocamponis from COL, JAL, MEX, NAY, SIN That seems to be the only one from Mexico.’  So that is what I’ll call the H. sp. until I learn different. For the record, there was also an Opuntia sp. (boring) and an Apocynaceae tree with peculiar fruits that may be Matelea porbifolia. The stem had large thorns on it, just like Ceiba.

We were still sceptical about finding Echinocereus here and the sun was getting now when we reached our location.(S1329) Turning a bent in the road rock boulders appeared and we were getting more hopeful.

It turned out to be a great spot as we ran around clicking away with the setting sun providing some extra colour to the plants before eventually bad light stopped play. In that time I took pictures of: Agave sp. (same as yesterday? with short flower stalk, too short for an Agave? Is it a bromeliad?), Agave orrithodroma, although with filiferous leaves, resembling A. geminiflora?, Echinocereus subinermis ssp. ochoterenae (I think, the buds look different than those in my collection in the UK), a thin 4 -5 ribbed ceroid that could be Stenocereus martinezii? clumps of orchids growing on rocks and on tree stems and a thin stemmed cactus that at first glance made me think that we had discovered Aporocactus in habitat – now that would be a find! Looking for more likely solutions, I see that Selenicereus vagans and several Peniocereus and Nyctocereus serpentinus all come from this State. Tillandsia were hanging in the trees.

Absolutely tired out, Cliff drove us back to Mazatlan where we arrived at around 20:15 and were off after a quick shower for another sea food binge with Margaritas and beer to wash it down.

Tomorrow we head inland to Durango, with great expectations of better cactus spots.

Tuesday 10 March 2009 – Culiacan to Mazatlan

Alain had studied Pillbeam’s Ferocactus book, Eunice had found Lindsay papers on the internet and between them they suggested another location for Ferocactus schwarzii, near Cofradia. Eunice had asked her SatNav system how to get there and it seemed possible to get to the area, have a look round, hopefully find the plants and drive to Mazatlan, arriving before sunset.

Getting out of Culiacan was the usual problem of a large town with insufficient signage. SatNav has its merits, but here, we often found ourselves on fresh tarmac that the Navigation system did not yet know about, even though it had received the latest updates available via the internet. Once out of the town we stopped to photograph Agaves (S1323), not in natural habitat, but fields of A. tequiliana being cultivated for the production of Mescal as only the drink produced in the state of Jalisco produced under licence from the fermentation of parts of this Agave may legally be called Tequilla – the shots might come in useful for a future talk as it illustrates one of the many uses of cacti and other succulents.

We changed from tarmac to dirt. These tracks were wide enough for one car, with overtaking bays created to deal with the challenge of oncoming traffic. Fortunately these tracks are very quiet and the drivers we have met, very considerate, just like we are. We made a stop at S1324, for an Agave found growing by the side of the road. Soon, others of the same taxon were found. We’re not totally sure of the name, so it remains Agave sp. for now. While we were there, we photographed Opuntia sp.#1 (the boring ‘seen anywhere’ type) and O. sp. #2, (a ‘different’ growing tall, with long pads and bluish fruits and Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum ‘just for the record’. As we were climbing aboard in our car, I think that it was Alain who spotted another ‘different’ cactus. This was a plant with green thin (to 5 cm diameter) stems that was growing leaning on the branches of a beaten up tree. Most of the stems had just three ribs. I’m familiar with Hylocereus as grafting stock used in Europe – and not very long lived in that role as most European growers are not prepared to provide the heat that this plant requires. I have no idea what it looks like in habitat or if it has been reported from these regions, but that would be my guess: Hylocereus sp.

If I had been in Brazil, I would have described the vegetation as Catinga, low deciduous forest. The vegetation is quite dense, with just about every plant equipped with long sharp spines to keep animals (including humans) out.  This had been quite typical for the area east of Mex15. We had been lucky to have spotted Ferocactus pottsii in this dense vegetation a few days ago. Literature seemed to suggest that F. schwarzii would be found on ‘open hills’. We searched for these as well, but no luck. 

A bit farther along, we could see a structure rising from the forest, a dam, which had created a huge man made lake. We drove to the dam (Presa de Sanalona, still S1324) to take some pictures of the lake and to see if, from this vantage point, we could see some ‘open hillsides’. No such luck. When we passed by the dam again later in the day, we saw a group of snow white pelicans on its shore. Mike H., any suggestions to name and rareness?

I believe that S1325 was just a brief comfort break stop with seven ‘just for the record’ pictures of Agave sp., Opuntia sp. (the boring type), Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum and Stenocereus alamosensis.

We had tried all day to get to Cofradia and although I had no hope that we would find F. schwarzii in the village itself, it had become important to me to actually get there before considering how to get to Mazatlan for the night and how many more stops to make. S1326 was at the sign welcoming us to the few houses that are Cofradia and more ‘for the record’ pictures of Agave sp., Hylocereus sp, Opuntia sp #1 (boring type) and O. sp. #2 (yesterday’s ‘very interesting plant with flat growth habit), Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum, as well as of some ‘interesting trees’ with interesting peeling bark that is not a bursera as far as we could tell and other with ‘interesting fruits’. These were obvious signs of frustration, of lack of cacti on a cactoholic. I stopped myself just in time taking some pictures of cow pats ‘because of ‘their interesting patterns’ before the men in white coats came to take me away.

Please send emergency parcels of cacti to be dropped liberally in the road between Mazatlan and Durango!

But seriously, we have learned a great deal about the Mexican States on Sonora and Sinaloa and have been fortunate to have found a number of cacti, some expected, some unexpected and some yet to be identified. We’ve been impressed and ultimately depressed by the amount of corn that is grown in this area – no Mexican should go hungry as long as they do not have a corn allergy.

We still have to agree the detail of what we’ll do tomorrow as I can’t get on the internet in our 4th floor hotel room overlooking the Sea of Cortez, where I just managed to snap the tail end of ‘not another bloody sunset’. I need to check data on Google Earth that can only be checked out once I have a connection – which will happen in the foyer in the morning when I send this message out.

Monday, 9 March 2009 – Navajoa to Culiacan

If yesterday was disappointing, today beat it. We agreed that we were all disappointed with cactus & succulent flora and scenery, that the solution lay inland in the hills and so we agreed to go and look for Ferocactus schwarzii in Bacurito. The distance did not seem too great and, as we speeded down Mex15, decreased as planned. Then we turned off, and although the surface was still good hard top, it seems that in Mexico the ‘hard top kit’ comes with ‘topes’ (sleeping policemen – speed bumps – suspension breakers, call them what you want), often unmarked, at all too frequent intervals. They are of course justified as the road passes through little villages and it is better to have lumps of concrete in the road than the corpses of its inhabitants. The scenery remained flat and uninteresting as we drove along wide canals (had we lost our way and were travelling through Holland?) with the hills apparently afraid of us, because,  like yesterday, as we approached, they retreated.

Just after midday, we pulled away from a crossroad, on tarmac, and heard the familiar thud-thud-thud noise: a puncture. Our first since leaving England on 31 October, so we can’t complain! Of course, we did! In true team spirit we watched and took pictures and video as Cliff changed the tyre. We were of course willing to help at any and every stage of the process, but the road was fairly busy and too many people crowding around would have made the task more stressful and dangerous. Well done, Cliff!

Having learned a lesson in Baja last year, getting the tyre fixed became #1 priority, so we returned towards Mex15 and within minutes had found a llantera where for 50 pesos (just over GBP 3.50) a friendly Mexican had repaired the tyre and checked the pressures all round. By 1 p.m. we were back at the crossroads where we had broken down. Not bad for a habitat pit stop.

Soon afterwards tarmac was replaced by dirt of variable quality.

Today’s stops were just two:

 S1321Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum, Stenocereus alomosensis (?), C. thurberi, Opuntia sp. and one single, battered but old plant of Ferocactus wislizeni. It was so hidden in the scrub that Alain had difficulty finding it again to show me, even though it just grew a meter or so from the track.

S1322 – near Sinaloa de Leyva. This was just a leg stretch & toilet stop, but Alain found an interesting Opuntia. It is not often that you’ll find me using the word ‘interesting’ for an Opuntia, but these plants were growing along the ground with a distinct growth habit, had distinct pads and spination and yellow flowers.

Sunday, 8 March 2009 – Navajoa to San Bernardo and back

Diary addicts amongst you may have spotted that yesterday’s diary was quite brief. and ask themselves ‘Is everything OK?’

Everything is fine, but I found myself dissatisfied with the plant stops we were making. Best I could master for yesterday was a stop list with the plants that we saw – not the usual banter that I hope entertains a bit as well.

Why? I guess I am somewhat disappointed with the cacti & scenery that we are seeing and it’s probably due to inadequate preparation. Had we not been to Baja last year, things might have been different but most of the plants that we have seen up to now have been ‘Baja plants’, nothing new and previously seen in a better, more photogenic settings. Nobody’s fault, but never the less disappointing. I sense a similar feeling among my fellow explorers. The Sonora that we have seen (and I hasten to add that it is only a fraction of this huge State) has been along Mex 15 and to the west, where the Sea of Cortex was a natural border. Yes, the Fero’s on Isla Tiburon  were ‘special’, but to very spoiled people, ‘not really special enough’.

The area that we’ve travelled through has been very flat, heavily cultivated, even if currently left to waste, and industrialised. Most of the time, the roads are bordered by barbed wire fences. Are these aimed at keeping people out, animals in or simply to ‘stake a claim of ownership’? In any event, to us they act as a deterrent, not inviting us to enjoy the flora. In that respect it is not too different from the coastal zone in Peru, south of Lima. There are more cacti here, but they are the same at each place that we stop, or at least – they seem to be the same taxa.

In Peru we found a much more interesting experience was had by travelling inland. As the roads climbed into the Andes, the change of altitude and the resulting changes in climatic zone gave rise to an ever changing flora and spectacular scenery.

So today’s solution was to travel 50 km inland to Alamos and returning to Navajoa to avoid changing hotels. The Database told us that we might see Ferocactus pottsii here as well as some Agave and Pilosocereus alensis. We arrived at the scenic town of Alamos still frustrated. It seemed that as we approached the mountains, they moved away to the left and the right of the road, never allowing us to reach the foothills. After some touristy pics of Alamos, we re-read notes and found that ‘our’ plants actually grew near San Bernardo, some 35 km to the north east of Alamos. Did we have a town map of Alamos? Of course not. Eunice’s SatNav system was programmed to guide us there, but did little more then tell us to ‘stay on the trail’ for 35 km, no matter which way the car was pointing. So back to first principles – find out where the North East was, take any track in that direction and ask any human being if they can help us get there. Several dead ends later ….  ‘Yes, go back the way you have just come and follow the road past three haciendas’ was the helpful answer from an elderly gent sitting by the side of the road.

Just past Alamos, now on dirt, the barbed wire fences relented a little, either being farther away from the track or missing altogether. We stopped (S1313) to take pictures of the Kapok Tree, Ceiba pentandra and also saw Cylindropuntia thurberi (syn. Cylindropuntia alamosensis) in flower, Opuntia sp. and Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum.

Near Los Tanques (S1314) we spotted an Agave , A. angustifolia and Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum was hard to miss again. We did not stop for very long.

On to Technabamba (these names were becoming very reminiscent of place names in Peru and Bolivia!) for S1315:
Agave augustifolia, Ferocactus pottsii (ssp alamosensis is said to come from here – I’ll have to do more reading to learn how it differs from ssp pottsii), Janusia gracilis (Desert Vine), Mammillaria sp #1 (I ought to know this one as it’s short stubby central spine is very distinct, or was it an Escobaria or Coryphantha? – sad when it becomes difficult to determine the genus, let alone the species!), Mammillaria sp #2, Opuntia sp., Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum.

Driving on again, I spotted a strange sight worthy of a quick stop. terrestrial cacti growing epiphytically in a tree! This became S1316 with Stenocereus thurberi and Opuntia sp, as subjects.

We arrived in San Bernardo and drove in the direction of an interesting view of 4 volcanic plugs in the landscape. The track turned out to terminate at the cemetery ( S1317) where we found Agave augustifolia, Cylindropuntia thurberi, Ferocactus pottsii, Mammillaria sp. 1, Opuntia sp., Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum and Stenocereus thurberi.

The journey back to Navajoa became a bit of a race against time, as the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky and the road just did not allow us to do the speeds needed to arrive back at the original forecast time. Bad light made it more difficult to see pot holes and bumps, so that my back is very sore of the pounding it got. We made three more brief stops:

S1318 Agave angustifolia, Ceiba pentandra, Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum

S1319 Ferocactus pottsii, Pachycereus pecten-arboriginum, Stenocereus thurberi

S1320 Ferocactus wislizeni, Stenocereus alamosensis