I forgot to mention that yesterday we spotted clouds building up over the mountains and that during the drive home we actually had rain. Just a few drops but with incredibly threatening skies creating some very photogenic scenery. Back in the hotel it poured down, so that this morning, Ruby (our name for our current rent a car) was almost clean. Close inspection indicated that the cement like dust that we had picked up in recent weeks and that was still present in nooks and crannies had set as cement, creating wonderful screechy effects when we opened and closed windows.
We thought that this was going to be a really easy day. The cactus data imported to Google Earth suggested that south of Matehuala we only needed to step out of the car to trip over Ariocarpus retusus / bravoanus / hintonii etc, together with a range of Turbinicarpi.
We asked our waiter over breakfast if the weather was going to clear up – it was still quite overcast. ‘I hope not, that was the first rain we had for six months! We need a lot more!’ It cleared up, great for our cameras, but it helped to explain why we struggled to find just a dozen or so Ariocarpus at only one of the five stops made today. And it was at the very moment that I suggested that we call it a day and go and get drunk at the hotel, that I found the first of these plants – tiny, only slightly larger than my thumbnail.
Sign posts indicate that the Mexicans regard this area as their altiplano – a high plain between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west. So far, I had always associated Ariocarpus with rocky lime stone hills, with the exception of A. kotschoubeyanus that we found last year on flats that during the rainy season turn briefly into marsh land.
Here, the SatNav took us to villages with flat scrubby terrain, divided into agricultural parcels, some freshly ploughed, others waiting to be prepared while still others were left to nature to do its thing. Ruby with its US (New Mexico!) plates and Eunice and I blended in with the natives like Eskimos in the desert! At one stop, the same car passed by several times, curious to see what was going on. At another, Eunice actually found one tiny A. bravoanus ssp. hintoni, but then felt threatened by three kids in their late teens who had followed her up the hill. Looking at John Miller’s Living Rocks of Mexico website, they visited this area in the autumn of 2000, now 11 years ago. All plants they saw were in flower and the scenery shots show a lush green landscape. Great, but the way we saw it today is probably the way that the plants look most of the time.
The successful stop was S2297. The SatNav took us to within 750 m of the reported coordinates of the Ariocarpus. Then the track ran out and we continued on foot. The terrain really did not seem conducive to Ariocarpus growing here. The sun was back out in force and the temperature was certainly not conducive to long hikes. Mad dogs and Englishmen …..
One cactus that we encountered more often than we wanted was the stick cholla (is it still Cylindropuntia leptocaulis here?) that insisted on stapling my trousers to my legs when ever I saw it. Even if I thought that I’d be kind and take some ‘for the record’ pictures, I’d back into one of its cousins behind me.
When we reached the coordinates there was not a cactus within 20 yards, certainly not an Ariocarpus. So we switched to instinct and experience. Another 200 m. on the flat terrain gently dropped away giving us a good view of Hwy 57 in the distance. A slight breeze picked up, as is often the case around hillsides. I could hear Juan say: ‘Here is where Thelocephala might grow.’ and I could imagine the Camanchaca crawling up the hill. Of course there was no Ocean near by. There was a narrow band of a slate like stone that had been pushed up vertically – a bit like the Yava cryptacarpa habitat, also a good few hundred km away from an Ocean. I took a picture of a shrivelled up Thelocactus sp. and suggested that we had given it our best shot, when I noticed the Ario – much smaller than I expected and of course with measuring implements safely in the car, so my finger had to do. We looked at this ledge in quite some detail for the next 30 minutes or so and found some 12 tiny plants in total. This ledge extended for quite a distance, we could see a huge white cross on a hill that was the suggested location for an earlier stop, some 20 km away, and I would not be surprised if the plants would occur continuous for all that distance. At the cross Eunice had found one plant before feeling uncomfortable with the attentions from Mexican lads.
Another set of coordinates would now seem to be underneath the foundations of a nice bungalow. That’s progress.
Throughout the day and at all stops (S2293 to S2297) we also saw many large Ferocactus pilosus, in bud or early flower, Echinocactus platyacanthus, Cylindropuntia tunicata, Opuntia sp. Agave lechuguilla, Opuntia and Cylindropuntia sp (several of each) and very dry clumps of what could either be a Thelocactus or Echinocereus – too dry to give a positive ID plus some plants of what I’ve been calling Ferocactus hamatacanthus, but when I saw some in flower, I’m inclined to call them Sclerocactus (Glandulicactus) uncinatus. We saw a total of four large clumps of Mammillaria in excellent shape – could be M. compressa or one of its look-a-likes. In the villages, Pachycereus marginatus was the standard fencing and it was in flower as a bonus!
Tomorrow it’s time to move on, with so many locations on Google Earth still tempting us to stay. As Arnie said: ‘I’ll be back!’