travelog 55

In Search for Plants - Pachyphytum caesium

Everything's in the first description of Pachyphytum caesium. We don't give away secrets that could be understood as a contribution to the stripping of plant localities. The mentioned places can be easily found on a more or less precise Mexico map. They're even reachable with a normal car. The only thing left is to actually find the plants!

Nothing easier than that, we think. After all, it was very easy to find Echeveria cante which grows in the Sierra Chapultepec. Information like "Sierra Chapultepec" is not extremely precise because this chain of mountains stretches for a few miles. It has to be much easier with an information like "just north of, about 2 kilometres north of Presa de los Serna in a canyon sunken below the plain". Sounds good, but wide of the mark!

We take a short cut from Tabasco (Zacatecas). In Mexican that's called a "brecha" (trail). It's a lousy dirt road that leads over a 2300m (7000') pass into Aguascalientes. The view is spectacular! Leafless Ipomoea are adorned with big white flowers, myrtillocacti and pachycereus grow on the steep slopes, burseras are planted as fence-posts, and in between there are lots of "odds and ends"-plants, the stuff that we're interested in. Here it's a Villadia painteri that we discover in shady rocks between moss and ferns.

Presa de los Serna is a little place. Next to the church there's really a road leading northwards out of the village. We see and explore some interesting cliffs within 2 kilometres but we can't find the canyon that is sunken into the plain. We drive on and find more interesting rocks but no real canyon. The policemen who think we're very suspiciously chugging along the road, tell us that we should try our luck in the canyon right at the entrance to the village. A farmer who lives on the edge of a vertical cliff above a little reservoir, shows us some tillandsias, but nothing new. He has never seen a red echeveria that should grow together with the pachyphytum in the above-mentioned canyon around here. That sounds very suspicious to us because the local farmers normally know a lot about the native flora and fauna! On another hike to some shady cliffs where we even find a little bit of brackish water in some pools, we find nothing more than tillandsias, mammillarias, and further, mostly terribly scratchy vegetation. All the farmers we ask have never seen a red echeveria around here. Pictures from a book don't help either. At last we're refered to a Mexican who knows the area like the back of his hand.

He's probably hunting birds because when we ask in the village for Señor Rogelio Vargas, everybody asks us if we're collecting birds. But even our Señor Vargas has never seen such a plant and believes that his area is too dry for these plants. We should try our luck more to the east, he tells us. Desperate as we are, we look over the information "north of town" and search in the small canyon on the southern entrance of the village for our plants. It smells familiar and sure enough the sewage of the village pours over the cliffs as a little waterfall. We were already very lucky in other places with such canyons rich in water. But our plants didn't stray into this area either. Judging from the smell we can hardly blame them for that! Now we start having some doubts about the information which is at the same time also the type locality, sacred for botanists. Besides, we know that Charles Glass, a well-known name for succulent enthusiasts, visited this same place five times in search of the pachyphytum and was never able to find the above-mentioned canyon. Mysterious, this whole thing!

At least there's other information about a place that is only about 25 miles northeast of where we are. From Calvillo we drive into a mountainous region with deep canyons and wide plains. A dirt

road leads up the mountain behind Milpillas and first of all we discover an exceptionally beautiful form of Agave filifera ssp. schidigera. Big plants with wide and prettily marked leaves and short, white hairs - the first plant of this species that comes close to the plate of Lemaire in the first description. It turns out that also the second information is not very clear because the canyon "Agua Zarca" extends over many miles and is somewhere north of what is written in the first description. Here the people look askance at us and thaw only a little bit after we speak Spanish to them. They probably don't like strangers and they especially don't like Americans which they always first consider us. All the gates for little roads leading to interesting canyons are neatly locked (for sure that wasn't the case in the past - modern times!).

Finally we find an access that leads us to the Montoro Ranch. And there we even meet a friendly descendant of the Montoros who invites us to camp wherever we like it. On little trails we drive

through at least five gates until we come close to a side canyon and park besides a gnarled oak tree. On a short exploratory stroll along the mostly vertically dropping cliffs we discover many

interesting plants. Amongst them the Pachyphytum caesium. The plants have a purple coloration and are easily spotted in the greyish cliffs. With a little bit of climbing on cattle trails we reach the areas below the cliffs where the plants grow within reach. They even are blooming right now!

But also the other vegetation is very interesting: there's an Echeveria paniculata which has a new inflorescence with red flowers. Very strange for a species that normally has yellow flowers. There are more crassulaceae: Sedum moranense and Villadia painteri, both hidden in moss and ferns in shady places. Also pretty cacti like Mammillaria petterssonii and a Stenocactus sp. that is hardly visible between the yellow tufts of grass with its tousled "hair". Ferocactus histrix and an Echinocereus sp. grow in the cliffs. Oak trees and juniper give shade, but also Agave filifera ssp. schidigera and a Manfreda sp. thrive here. Again and again we have spectacular views far into the different canyons where the vegetation already looks more tropical. All attempts to climb down deep into the canyon end at various cliffs or slippery debris. Martin tries at being a mountain goat but he has to give up his efforts to reach the bottom of the canyon because of thick (and scratchy) undergrowth and steep terrain.

An ice-cold wind blows in the morning. With temperatures near the freezing-point that's no real invitation for a little hike. It astonishes us again and again that the stonecrops (echeveria, pachyphytum, sedum, etc.) can stand such icy conditions. Now we know too why this entire chain of mountains is called the "Sierra Fría" (the cold mountains)! On another morning hike (wrapped up warmly, of course) we discover very close to our vehicle many of "our" plants. It's hard work to take pictures of them with our numb fingers. Then we leave for the warm lowlands. After all, we found one of the plants we were looking for! The only thing left is to solve the enigma of the mysterious type locality near Presa de los Serna!

January 2003

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen