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The rain continued to come down during the night (or so I’m told). We were also told that breakfast was from 7:00 a.m. but had to wait until 7:15, the opening time indicated on the Restaurant door. About 90% of the guests were from German coach parties, not famed for their understanding of the word ‘queue’. They were OK waiting outside the door, but once inside, the elbows were out.

Today’s cactus agenda was challenging: just two populations of Melocactus, but both vying for the title of rarest taxon of Melocactus on the planet. Why? Because they are probably remnants of taxa that linked the northern island species such as M. matanzanus and M. guitartii to the southern M. harlowii group. The task was even more challenging due to the weather conditions: stormy, dull and overcast.

The taxa, in order that we were going to tackle them were: Melocactus perezaissoi and Melocactus actinacanthus.

Quoting excerpts from the ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ book for M. perezaissoi:

‘… it is also known in Europe under the name M. gloseri n.n. … is very similar to M. harlowii and is its closest relative … 400 to 600 km away …  grows on a very steep, nearly perpendicular and highly eroded rock wall about 50 m high. … in the central part of the wall … and it is extremely difficult and dangerous to approach the plants. ‘

Gloser visited this locality in 1979 and he reports this population ‘not to be numerous’, estimating about 200 specimens.

We stopped at one outcrop (S1726), where Cliff told us what the geology of the reported locality should look like (get the book and read it up for yourself). 

We stopped at another outcrop (S1727) and ….. Mike’s and Cliff’s binoculars picked out Melocacti. I was happy to take a series of pictures that systematically covered the whole of the cliff face and worry about what to keep and what to delete after close examination back at the hotel. Eunice’s 400 mm lens would have been useful here, but then I don’t want to lug the extra weight of such a lens plus a tripod with me. My 200 mm hand held did OK, proved that the plants were there and allowed us to guess that plant numbers had increased if we assume that for every plant we could see in the pictures, there was another, much smaller seedling that we could not see.

I found a way to the base of the cliff, but thought that I would not get anything better from that angle. Cliff went to take a look and I was glad that I followed eventually. Pictures good enough to include in a talk, not to compete for ‘best picture’ or to prove that the plant had all the features from its original description – details such as spine count, fruit size and colour, let alone details of the seed where not available. Still, an amazing stop against all my expectations.

The second target, M. actinacanthus was even more difficult. The authors of ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ say:

‘[it] is an extremely rare species, probably the rarest Melocactus species all over the world. … The distribution area is no larger than two tennis courts. The closest relative to this relict species is Melocactus matanzanus. … One of us visited the site and found only three adult and four juvenile specimens in May 2006.’

So, a rare species by all accounts. We tried to find ‘the tennis courts’ from the information in the book and although we think we were close, failed to find any plants (at S1728). Yet we were privileged to visit the general area and observe and photograph the sort of conditions and human development that would affect their survival, if indeed the species still survives in nature.

We found a bed for the night at Los Cayanes near Santa Clara. The place is set out in buildings with banana and palm leaf roofs, but their prices showed that they were already into the capitalist phase of Cuban evolution. Fortunately their credit card processing machine was working, as we were running low on cash; Cuban CUCs, Euros and GBP notes for exchange.

Even our partial success on the cactus front was voted a success as we cracked open the Rum and Cokes.

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