travelog 98

The Quest for Echeveria tobarensis

Many known botanists and Crassulaceae enthusiasts have tried their luck looking for Echeveria tobarensis. Myron Kimnach, for example, visited Tovar twice, both times unsuccessfully. Jeronimo Reyes, with Christian Brachet, have searched for this mysterious species without succes as well. Since 1960 there have been numerous attempts to try and rediscover this elusive species that was found in 1908 by Palmer in a box canyon near Tobar, today's Tovar, in the Mexican state of Durango. Of course curiosity and a certain ambition also caught up with us and we tried in vain to find Echeveria tobarensis in 2001 and 2003.

Edward Palmer (18291911), a British self-taught botanist, collected in his lifetime more than 100'000 plant specimens and on his various expeditions discovered close to 1000 new species. About 200 species and one genus (Palmerella) were named after him, among them Sedum palmeri, Echeveria palmeri (today a synonym of Echeveria subrigida), Dudleya palmeri and Agave palmeri, to name just a few. He did not only work as a botanist but also as a zoologist and archaeologist. In Mexico, Palmer travelled extensively through the states of Durango, San Luis Potosi, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. Unfortunately with most of his specimens, the accompanying information about place and date of the collection was missing. In a letter, Palmer gives account of how he found a new Echeveria, writing "Echeveria: Four plants from holes in sides of box canon near Tobar. There was no soil, the plants had slight roots to hold to rocks, one had a flower stem with flowers of a dark red, this broke from the plant, and in the effort to secure it I slipped, fell, and received several contusions and a sprained wrist, left hand, and had to be carried by man-power out of the canon, then put on a horse to ride to Tobar". This plant was described by Rose as Urbinia lurida in 1911. Berger renamed the species in 1930 into Echeveria tobarensis whose basionym is Urbinia lurida. Of this mysterious species there's only one herbarium sheet left at the US National Herbarium where one can see the inflorescence and two damaged leaves.

The place called Tobar by Palmer is now called Tovar. This is likely because Mexicans write a 'b' as a 'v' or vice versa, giving them the same pronunciation. At some time the spelling of Tobar changed to Tovar. And Echeveria tobarensis, named after the mines at Tobar, would today likely be named Echeveria tovarensis.

In April of 2001 we tried our luck for the first time. Everybody in Tepehuanes knew how to get to Tovar, the abandoned mines. A family lived in an old stone house not far from the mine worker's settlement that resembled a ghost town. Otherwise there was absolutely nothing out here. We explored the surroundings, in particular the cliffs along the river flowing through a wide open canyon below Tovar. The most beautiful thing that we could find were large colonies of huge, light green and perfectly round Agave parryi ssp. parryi. We spent one entire day hiking upstream and deep into the canyon, passing abandoned small ranches with crumbling adobe buildings. The vegetation looked promising. The oak trees were covered with pink flowering Tillandsias, but in the cliffs that we examined we could not find a trace of an Echeveria. Far into the canyon I sprained my ankle jumping from one rock to the next. Our excursion had come toan abrupt end. Unfortunately we were not back in here with a group of people and horses as Palmer in 1908. For the hike back Martin now buckled two backpacks and gave me his hiking stick. Slowly I hobbled back to the Unimog with two hiking sticks as crutches. When we finally got there I had a very swollen and blue ankle. Long hikes were definitely not on the list anymore for the next few weeks! The next day Martin met the family and asked for the plant we were looking for. Of course they knew it and there were hundreds of them growing close to the house, they said. They promptly led Martin to a beautiful flower, a red flowering Penstemon species, that had absolutely nothing to do with an Echeveria.

We started the second attempt two years later, in January of 2003. The mines were still abandoned. The same family still lived in the old stone house and they remembered us very well, or more likely it was the Unimog. It was bitterly cold in January and the canyon lay in the shade of the mountains for a good part of the day. We kept well away of the scene of the accident of 2001. Further up into the canyon we found Sedum glabrum. The Tillandsias were flowering again. Soon we reached a small pond with vertical cliffs on both sides. In the spur of the moment we took off our jeans and waded through the ice cold water. On the other side we were able to hike a little further until we reached another, larger and deeper pond where there was absolutely no getting through anymore. At best it would be possible to swim through the pond in the summer when the water is extremely low or bring an inflatable boat, but it was certainly impossible to cross the icy water in January. Sedum glabrum was still thriving in the cliffs and we also found Villadia aperta, but there was no trace of an Echeveria. Pretty disappointed we turned around and slowly hiked back to the truck.

We made our third attempt in December of 2010. This time we reached the mines at Tovar from the back. The dirt road was recently graded and looked well travelled. Passing the next curve we also saw why. The mine was open again and people were working! We decided to try another dirt road and reached Rancho Los Sauces. The cattle farmer gave us permission to drive on along a narrow, almost unused dirt road. We got to an abandoned settlement with adobe houses, a perfect camping place. The next day we started early and followed the old track to the top of a pass. Soon we discovered Echeveria paniculata, a very common species. At least it was an Echeveria, although the wrong one. But it gave rise to hope. From the top of the pass we had a good overview and trained our sight on the target canyon. Over yellow meadows and through sparsely wooded forests we hiked to a small creek where we found Sedum glabrum. The creek flowed into a river which we followed towards the cliffs and canyon. Our agreement was that we would hike past a couple more bends of the river and then decide if it was worth hiking on. But it didn't come to that. A large rock with moss attracted our attention and, lo and behold, on top of it was an Echeveria growing! The plant had absolutely nothing to do with an E. paniculata, it simply had to be Echeveria tobarensis! Looking a little closer we discovered many more and smaller plants in the moss and protected between a spiny Echinocereus. We were not 100% certain if we had really made it back into the same canyon that we hiked through on our last two attempts but after we decided to hike on and reached a small pond between two vertical cliffs, it dawned on us that we had in fact ended up in the exact same place as in 2001 and 2003. Again we crossed the ice cold river and reached the end point of the hike of 2003 where we turned around again. Although we now knew how the mysterious plant looked like, we were unable to spot a single plant in the vertical cliffs above the blocking pond. It might well have been because the plants had adapted incredibly well to the color of the surrounding rock and the lichens covering it and were very hard to see. Only close to our mossy rock were we able to find one more small plant on the other side of the river. It would probably be best to come back when the plants are flowering and to spend a couple of days climbing around in the small canyons.

Back at the truck we celebrated our success with Tequila. We were too lazy to collect firewood for a campfire. For a long time we sat under the clear starry night sky until the winter's cold drove us into our sleeping bags and under four woolen blankets. The next morning the windows were frozen and it took forever until the first rays of the sun had finally climbed over the mountain ridges to warm our bones. The farmer at Los Sauces asked later if we had seen any deer, foxes, or other wildlife. He sent us to the forestry office in Tepehuanes where they supposedly wanted to see our permits from the UNAM. When we got there it turned out that it was our farmer who had grown suspicious and suspected us to be hidden hunters and thus went to the forestry office. The people at the office were extremely delighted about our visit, did not want to see any permits, and offered us all the help we could need. Soon it turned out that they knew almost less of the areas around Tepehuanes than we did because all the places we described to them were in forbidden zones where they did not dare to go anymore because they supposedly were too dangerous. And we had thought that the climate in Topia was ideal for growing marijuana even in winter and that up here at more than 2000 m (6560 ft) it was too cold for such plantations but obviously we were wrong.

Since we were already in the "dangerous" mountains of Durango and nothing bad had happened to us so far, we decided to try our luck some more and drove on north into the mountainous border region of the Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon, where the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Sonora meet. In our next travelog we will tell you about our adventures in these incredibly beautiful canyons.

December 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen