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Thursday, 7 January – west of Irecê

We ‘enjoyed’ torrential rains and thunderstorms during the night – or at least so I was told; I of course slept. Marlon & John’s room sprang a leak resulting in a big puddle in one corner. As I write these notes, it is pouring down again.

I expect that the snow in the UK will be followed by floods once the snow starts melting.

On the brighter side: Marlon had proposed a day of exploring today, visits to some dozen locations that on Google Earth looked similar to known localities of Melocactus azureus in the area. Fortunately, limestone pavements are reasonably easy to spot on Google Earth and Marlon then meticulously selected locations within  a given radius from the main road, with areas of a reasonable size. There are many more sites farther away and many more smaller areas than Marlon selected, both inside and outside his selected radius. From the evidence today, it is reasonable to expect M. azureus to grow in dense populations at all these locations.

Nigel Taylor and Daniela Zappi in ‘The Cacti of Eastern Brazil’ (2004) writes, regarding the conservation status of M. azureus:

‘Conservation ex situ may be the only viable option unless populations discovered in 2002 can be adequately protected….

… Specifically for Melocactus azureus, whose known habitats are in imminent peril of destruction and hold wild populations that are highly fragmented or numbering only tens of individuals.’

Plants that we had photographed in 1999 in the believe that they were M. azureus, turned out to be the blue form of M. zehntneri.

Today’s report is going to be quite straight forward in terms of reporting plants. We made 11 stops (S1667 to 1677), all new to Marlon and the rest of us, with the exception of S1677, along BA-052. At all stops we found Melocactus azureus, not in their tens, but in their tens of thousands! Great news for the conservation status of this taxon.

What about the other cacti? These were all spotted during the day and are not specific to any particular stop. The special one for me was seeing Stephanocereus leucostele in flower and fruit. As a night flowering plant, the flowers were either opening for tonight or passed over from last night. Others spotted in the area: Tacinga inamoena, T. palmadora and hybrids between them, Cereus jamacaru (is there anywhere in Bahia where it does not grow?), Arrojadoa rhodantha and Pilosocereus gounellei

We had hoped to finish today with another ‘hummer session’ but as we were some distance from asphalt and storms were once again gathering, we thought it best to retreat to one of Marlon’s 2002 discoveries, along BA-052, so that if and when the heavens opened we would not find ourselves in too much of a mudslide. Again, the hummer exercise ended in frustration. Light was not good enough for photography and the hummers thought that it was too dark for flying as well, at least they gave the area I had selected a wide berth. I did experiment with setting up my cam-corder on Cliff’s mini tri-pod and have not yet checked the result, but expect that I have about 45 minutes of a movie of two Melos with four flowers between them, with the soundtrack of traffic passing on the near by BA-052 and the four of us shouting ‘Any luck as yet?’ to each other. That film clip could win an art price for one of the most boring films to date, but could fill the first part of a talk when I get back to the UK, to take us up to the coffee break.

John, who is particularly keen on Melocactus, had a great day, felt excited at being part of a team discovering new things, standing knee deep in his favourite plants and to cap it all, enjoying an hour of his favourite Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons on my ‘cactus trip jukebox’! Life can’t get much better than this.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

The heavens did open up, but not until we were safely back in the hotel.

Wednesday, 6 January – around Irecê

Marlon had given us the morning off, so that we could all catch up with ‘admin’ matters, such as copying GPS data from the metadata of my pictures into Google Earth and into my Stops Database, chatting with Angie and watching England in the snow on Brazilian Breakfast TV.

It was a wonderful sunny morning and between these activities we sat around the swimming pool and watched bikini clad ladies float up an down in the pool, it being too hot for any serious swimming.

Around 13:00 we left for the Melocactus azureus type locality at Jussara, where, from c. 15:00 hours, the flowers would be open and attract hummingbirds to come and feast on the nectar.

So, are you sitting comfortably for the Hummer Show?

Tough!!

As we turned out of the hotel car park we noticed some huge showers build up. Great. Nice dramatic skies again. Instead the skies opened right above our site (S1665) and we stayed in the car for a brief spell hoping that things would ease up. In the mean time, the village kids had recognised ‘Uncle Marlon’ from two previous visits, one with the CSSA Convention trip and one with a party of Americans and French cactophiles, both in 2008. On those occasions they had been given biscuits and had helped Marlon to collect some Melocactus fruits.

Marlon acted as decoy for the kids, allowing the three of us to get on with taking pictures of cacti in the rain. They are not what I had expected but I’m still very pleased with the unusual pictures of Melocacti in water.

It was not a long stop and we decided to try our luck doing some exploring along BA-805, past Pres. Dutra and ended up at Uibai, where we followed a track to the Balneário do Brejo, parked the car (S1666) and continued on foot. Very soon, Marlon had spotted something unusual between the shrubs: Facheiroa ulei, previously only reported from its type locality but here, and a few days ago, at two new areas, suggesting quite a wide distribution range.

Again, clouds threatened and we drove back to the hotel, stopping from time to time for some photos of clouds before we enjoyed a free car wash.

Sometime things don’t work out the way that you had expected, but we still had a great day!

Tuesday, 5 January – Umburanas to Irecê

As we approached Irecê, our home for the next few nights, the sign along BA-052 read ‘Salvador – 480 km’ It was the first time that I realised that these 12 weeks of travel are coming to an end. Today, next week, we’ll arrive back at Heathrow Airport. Angie tells me to expect to step out in 40 cm of snow. Sounds quite nice as a way to cool down from the 30 C we are enjoying here, but I bet that the novelty will wear off quickly!

A quick review of yesterday’s 400 or so pics of Melocacti and hummers was a little disappointing. Plenty were ‘shot’ but sadly none were as razor sharp as I had hoped for. Technique will be adjusted tomorrow when we have another opportunity at the Melocactus azureus type locality. Yesterday there were just too many Melos and too many hummers and the secret is to concentrate on just 3-4 plants close together and let rip with a burst of shots when the hummer comes in. Tomorrow will tell.

Back to today: S1661 was a brief, random stop at a spot that looked to have potential for finding Discocactus. None were found, although I photographed a nice Encholirium spectabilis, Arrojadoa rhodantha and Pilosocereus gounellei.

S1662 was another likely looking Discocactus spot, but again – no joy. Just Cereus jamacaru this time, one plant growing epiphytically in a tree. The lovely picture of four pigs wallowing in mud represents the way we feel: happy as pigs in shit.

S1663 was the main event of the day, Melocactus azureus growing on very dark and weathered limestone rocks. Very photogenic scenery with blue skies and white fluffy clouds making it very easy to take some great images.  Also here, wonderful golden spined P. gounellei, a decumbent form of Arrojadoa rhodantha, that does not have a botanical name of its own yet and probably should not, Tacinga inamoena and T. palmadora, C. jamacaru, and Encholirium spectabilis.

S1664 was a bit sooner than planned – when Marlon saw another limestone outcrop, less than one km. from a planned stop for another Melocactus. Hope that you’re not tired of seeing Melocactus yet – we’re not! This one was M. pachyacanthus ssp viridis – the green form, as the name implies. I finally remembered to write down the name of the narrow leaved Bromeliad with horizontal banding on the leaves. It is Neoglaziovia variegata. Google tells me that it is also known as the caroa bromeliad that once fuelled a sizeable textile industry in Brazil’s Northeast. It produces an excellent fibre and is still used today by local sertao dwellers to make objects for household use, such as ropes, bags and rugs. These days, Agave sisalana is grown to produce sisal for a wider range of products.

Again, the photogenic settings of the Melocactus locations made it easy for the plants to look good, but don’t take my word for it ….

Monday, 4 January – south east of Umburanas

What a great day – again!

Marlon had promised that the worst roads in this area were now behind us, and they were.

We made two brief stops (S1658 and S1659) followed by a nice long one, S1660, where we spent a couple of hours ‘shooting hummers’.

S1658 added another species to my ‘taxon seen in habitat’ list: Pilosocereus tuberculatus.  I’m using the same number for another stop, a km or so along the track, where this plant was growing in the same patch as P. gounellei. Marlon then pointed out a hybrid between the two, suggesting a close affinity between these two otherwise distinct species. While we had seen ripe fruits on both P. gounellei and P. tuberculatus, although the hybrid had flowered, there were no fruits to be seen. Is this hybrid sterile? P. pachycladus grew here as well, as well as Tacinga inamoena, Harrisia adsendence, Pereskia bahiensis and Cereus albicaulus and a single Melocactus glaucesence.

S1659 was a proper population of M. glaucesence. Beautiful plants, bluish epidermis, white cephalium and bright red berries, if you could find them – the others had passed here before me.

S1660 was mind blowing. Marlon guided us through some caatinga forest to a limestone pavement with thousands of Melocactus pachyacanthus, anything from tiny seedlings to massive multi-headed giants. We went through another bit of caatinga to another clearing with even more M. pachyacanthus. This area had fewer Dyckia and so gave an altogether more open impression. Another walk through another bit of caatinga and we were on patch 3 out of four – the hummers started to appear and Cliff and I picked our spots for well over 90 minutes. We never made it to the fourth clearing but I was very pleased with the experience of ‘me and my camera’ vs ‘the hummers and Melos’, irrespective of the ultimate outcome. This is just so much better than getting up, driving to work in the dark, scraping ice off windscreens and doing it all again in reverse order to get home. Thanks Ian, for the timely reminder what life in the UK is like at the moment.

In the words of Rod Stewart: ‘Every picture tells a story, don’t it!’

Sunday, 3 January – north of Umburanas

Despite last night’s spectacular thunderstorms – in the distance – we woke up to clear blue skies. Marlon had thought up three possible excursions for us, all fairly hard work, in terms of bumping along rough roads, varying in degree of difficulty by the distance to be covered on ‘very poor dirt’. Because the weather was good, we decided to go for the hardest of them all, to the location of Discocactus zehntneri var horstiorum. (S1655). These days this taxon is regarded as a synonym of D. zehntneri ssp boomianus from which it differs superficially by being much smaller with finer spination. I recommend ‘The Cacti of Eastern Brazil’ (2004) by Nigel Taylor & Daniela Zappi and the New Cactus Lexicon (2006) for the current thinking about the classification of the zehntneri group. Marlon has explained it to me twice, but without paper handy to write it all down, my memory being unreliable, I will make sure that by the time I do my 2010 presentations, I have his views right.

What ever the taxonomy and classification, this is an interesting location – extremely remote, with Leo last year failing to get Marlon and Gerardus to this site by becoming stuck in a 1 km stretch of soft sand and deciding to turn back without reaching the site. Should be good for a wind up or two during a few bottles of wine in months to come, Leo!

It was indeed not an easy journey, taking us 3 hours to cover 57 km, i.e. an average speed of 19 km.p.hr (12 m.p.h). If you consider that the first 25 km were probably covered at an average of 35-40 km p. hr. then you can imagine that during the last half, we were often at a crawl, but grateful, in the heat, not to be walking.

Why such efforts? You will already have seen our pictures of D. zehntneri (s.n. D. albispinus)  and its ssp. boomianus from previous days in these Diary pages. As a result, we know that this species is not endangered, especially as Marlon tells us that its distribution is much wider than was first imagined. But this form grows on a hill that seems to be composed of extremely high quality iron ore – haematite. The government has invited tenders for mining companies to remove the iron, the mountain and as a result, the habitat of this plant from the planet, so that we felt privileged to have the opportunity to photograph it. Who knows if it will still be there when any of us get the chance to visit again.

S1656 was for the type locality for the recently described Pilosocereus bohlei. Again, this is is an extremely remote location, but as it was only 6 km from the track that we were on to see S1655, it would have been silly to miss out. Marlon tells us that this plant was found by a party lead by Kurt Ingo Horst that included amongst others, Bernhard Bohle (Germany)  and Graham Charles (UK), but that Kurt Ingo  considered the track too rough for his 4×4, so that they made the journey from a near by village on the back of a truck. Compliments again to Cliff who calmly took us two both these locations in our city slicker’s 1.4 cc Chevvy Meriva Joy and got us back safely, all in good time.

The Pilosocereus is interesting because it seems to be made up of ‘spare parts’ from other taxa: the stems of mature plants have a flowering zone that most resembles that of P. gounellei, that it has a swollen base to its trunk that reminded me of the ‘bottle shape’ of Stephanocereus leutzelburgii. The fruits do not dehisce, unlike other Pilosocereus fruit, the stems remain short, to c. 150 cm (4.5 ft) in length, branching from the base and below the soil is a tuberous root! Certainly intriguing, but difficult to photograph as recent rainfall had created an unusual lush landscape with tall grass and shrubs in leaf making it difficult to get a clean shot of the plant.

Also at this location we found numerous Micranthocereus flaviflorus ssp. flaviflorus.

S1657 is for the images of all the other cacti (more or less the same as yesterday’s list) that we saw growing along the road, plus Rhipsalis lindbergiana that was growing in a palm tree, together with Pilosocereus pachycladus also growing epiphytically.

Saturday, 2 January – Petrolina to Umburanas

Today was planned to be just a driving day. We needed to get  to the village of Umburanas, which on most maps has one asphalt road going in before you fall off the edge into nowhere by following one of the three dirt roads going out of town. But it seems that we have internet connectivity and so might be able to keep you posted of our activities during the next few days (we’re provisionally booked in to the night of 5 January).

S1651 was a much needed P break and leg stretch at a rocky outcrop that Marlon spotted near Jacobina. We could see the Pilosocereus p and Cereus jamacaru from the road, but had to stomp along the rocks to find Melocactus ernestii.

We arrived in Umburanas around three – early enough to secure rooms in the only hotel in town, although Marlon has since spotted a Pousada as well, just in case. Plenty of time for a bit of exploring, so we went back out to the crossroads, where the asphalt road came in and selected the dirt road to the west. There is much agriculture going on with Agave sisalana planted in many fields along the road. Just as we decided that this did not look very promising for cacti, the track headed off into the hills, until eventually becoming too rough to continue on in our city slicker’s car, some 30 km along from Umburanas. S1652 is a record of cacti seen and photographed along the track, at the next two stops and on the way back, while S1653 was specifically for Micranthocereus flaviflorus ssp. falviflorus with yellow flower buds confirming its ID.

Similarly, S1654 was specifically for a Facheiroa sp. that requires a bit investigation before it can be given a positive ID. These plants are rarely seen in UK collections, accept of those who specialise in Brazilian ceroids. For five years I was the proud owner of a F. squamosa seedling that was about 15 cm (6") tall when it moved in and about 30 cm (12") when it succumbed to a cold winter while I was enjoying the South American warmth. The plant had been so unremarkable during its stay, that I had trouble remembering what it was when I saw its remains. In habitat we have now seen it several times, when it makes attractive stands of tall thin stems of 3m (9ft) length. F. ulei and F. cephaliomelana form a long, thin pseudocephalium that on mature plants seems to take up the upper third of the stem. This had a pseudocephalium, so we just need to check which of the two it is.

Friday, 1 January 2010 – South west of Petrolina

Happy 2010 everybody!

Marlon is a hard taskmaster, has us up for breakfast one hour earlier than we had grown used to and today got us back after sunset. As a result I’m slipping up on the Diaries. So today is just a short summary that I might fill out in years to come.

But he does manage to squeeze some exciting stops into each day’s itinerary, so we more than forgive him.

We woke up to a wet and dreary looking day.

S1647: Type locality of Discocactus subviridigriseus, (now a synonym of D. bahiensis ssp bahiensis) near Juazeiro’s (official?) municipal rubbish tip.  The gloomy light, threatening skies some how matched the rubbish tip setting well.

After a long drive over very poor roads (they had taken most of the hard top off the road, turning it back into a dirt road, which (surprisingly) was of a better quality than the short bits of tarmac that they had left behind, with pot holes big enough to lose your complete front axel in.) for some 3 hours to arrive at the type (and only reported) locality for Discocactus zehntneri ssp. albispinus. (S1648) Magnificent plants in a magnificent setting with wonderful clouds to heighten the dramatic settings.

S1649 and S1650: Marlon had looked at Google Earth and decided that there were some nearby rock outcrops that looked similar to the D. albispinus location, so we went to explore and found the plants growing here as well. Well done Marlon, two previously unreported locations added to the distribution information! Lots of other cacti photographed as well but full list will have to wait.

In the mean time, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.