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This is the story of the hunt for Escobaria cubensis.

We know it exists: we have seen pictures of it in habitat (Melocacti in Cuba book) and we have seen plants so labelled in European nurseries and on seed lists.

My usually so useful database and various other sources had just three entries: two going back to 1912 or earlier, all three noting ‘near Holguin‘. The ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ book reports Melocacti around Holguin, some sharing their habitat with Escobaria cubensis. Many pictures show M. holguinensis growing on the ‘lomas’. We are familiar with the term ‘lomas’ from our visits to Argentina, Peru and Chile (e.g. Las Lomitas in the Pan de Azucar), where the term refers to fog oases supporting its unique vegetation. Today we focussed on the one marker to the west of Holguin and things seemed to come together when in our search of the road to San Andres, we saw a sign to Lomas del Cruz. This brought us to the top of an ‘inselberg’ with radiomast / microwave tower (S1712) that doubled up as a ‘mirador’, a tourist viewpoint over the city, where a security guard charged us CUC$ 1 to park – he won’t get rich as we were the only car during our stay of around one hour.  The substrate, serpentine rocks, was right. The vegetation, savannah like grass with short palm trees, was right but between us we saw not one cactus. It did give us a spectacular view 360 degrees round, over the town and surrounding countryside. We could clearly see the Hotel Pernik where we were staying. It clearly showed the San Andres road to follow. This might have been a ‘no cacti seen’ stop, but we were in good spirits as we felt we had seen where to look.

Out on the San Andres road out of town we found a promising looking roadside spot for S1713. We could see the ‘cone’ and the hill where we stopped for S1712, as shown in the photo on page 60 of Melocacti in Cuba, but they were the wrong way round! Could the picture have been ‘flipped’ during the printing of the book? Ironically, the caption to the picture says ‘The tiny Escobaria cubensis is hard to find.’ No kidding! An hour later we were forced to mark this as another ‘no cacti seen’ stop.

We realised that the picture was not exactly taken at this place. We needed to be closer to the two hills. And was the image really flipped during printing or should we be looking at the other side of these two characteristic hills. But that area seemed to be a built up urban area. Then I spotted that the photographer had been in Cuba in 1974-1975 and we know that a lot can change over 35 years. But everything else still seemed to indicate potential cactus country, given what we saw in other pictures and read about accompanying flora.

We took a side track to apparently less cultivated land and explored in a likely looking location (S1714). At least this time we could record finding an Agave, A. anomala, in full flower, but not yet in fruit.

A cyclist stopped out of curiosity. We told him that we were looking for cacti. ‘Not here’ he said, and again mentioned the word ‘lomas’ and pointing to hills in the direction that we had already been and also pointing vaguely towards an area east of Holguin. I showed him the pictures and map in the book, but again language barriers proved too great. Cubans seem to speak in a dialect and at machine gun pace that is beyond our modest language skills.

S1715 and we had taken another side track on the north side of the San Andres road. The track deteriorated near a disused quarry and we explored on foot, no cacti seen – again!

Time to go back, but after we passed the S1712 lomas, we took a look at the silhouette of the hill from the other side. It seems that the picture in the book was not flipped, but was taken in an area that is now built up and part of Holguin. Not knowing what type of lens was used (angle of view) means that we’ll never know for sure where it was taken.

Back at Hotel Pernik, the view of the two hills was remarkably similar to that in the picture. If anything, the photo was taken a little closer, but still in an area now built up.

Does anybody have any information about the continued existence of Escobaria cubensis in habitat?

Tomorrow we take a look for M. holguinensis near La Palma and the Presa Rio Gibara, an area that has four location marked but where the type locality for this species is now submerged at the bottom of a man-made lake that was formed when a dam was built here.

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