Northeast Mexico 2015

After almost a month’s teaching to Mexican Weather Service personnel in Mexico City during August, 2015  it was time for Rosario and I to fly back to the US via Monterrey, Mexico.  This was to stop by and visit with members of the Nuevo Leon Cactus&Succulent Society, whose venue was in Monterrey.  We had arranged with the Society’s President, Miguel González Botello, to present a few talks on our succulent plant travels and Miguel had also offered to take us to see some succulent plant habitats around Monterrey.

Miguel met us at the Monterrey airport – small and nice compared with that in Mexico City.  From there it was a short drive to his house, where we were guests for 4 nights.  Miguel has a very nice collection of smaller cacti and seedlings, mostly Astrophytum, Turbinicarpus and many other specialized cacti.  He also has very nice plants in outdoor beds both in front and in his small backyard.

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2  As the crow flies Monterrey is only about 280 miles from San Antonio, Texas.

 

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3 Miguel’s house (middle) and Toyota Hilux

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4 View from Miguel’s roof of his neighborhood

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5  Entrance to Miguel’s greenhouse on his roof

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6  Inside of Miguel’s greenhouse on his roof

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7  Lots of Astrophytums!

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8  And lots of grafted Digitostigma  (Astrophytum) caput-medusae.

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9  Closer view of a Digitostigma

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10  Miguel’s back “patio” full of cacti and succulents.  This is surrounded by high walls.

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11  Closer view of his backyard

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12  The day we arrived we enjoyed a carne asada or BBQ  at a nursery and the cactus club members came.  Here they are preparing the grill – starting with wood to make charcoal.

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13  Closer view of the grill.

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Preparing the delicious roasted tomato salsa. Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

After the BBQ Mike gave a couple of talks about recent trips to the Canary Islands and South Africa.

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Members of the Nuevo Leon Cactus&Succulent Society listening to Mike’s talk.   Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

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14 Miguel next to his front yard full of succulents. You can see Adenium boehmianum in bloom.

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15 Rosario and Miguel

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16  From left to right:  Rosario, Miguel and Miguel’s wife Margarita.  Miguel is preparing salsa.

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17  Rosario prepared dinner that night, a chorizo (chorizo from Spain) omelet.

 


 

Day 1 Excursion

 

The next day Miguel took us for a look at some “nearby” succulent habitats – he had asked what we wanted to see and gave us options but we followed his suggestions.  Other people were invited but unable to come along.  We headed northwest, around the east side of Monterrey, between some mountains and then over an almost imperceptible pass, passing a small town of Mina (“mine” in English).  The town is named after Francisco Xavier Mina.

Day 1 route G Maps

18  Google Maps depiction of our route on the first day of exploration.  Some minor details at the north end are not shown, nor is our jaunt into Huasteca Canyon (just south of Santa Catarina).  Miguel’s house is at the SE corner.  Click on map for larger view.

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19  This is a Google Maps “satellite” view of the same map area above.  Huasteca Canyon is the grayish river course near the bottom.

We first stopped about 5 km north of Mina to walk into the “microphyllous desert scrub”  by the side of the highway.   Here we explored the flat, mostly fine alluvial terrain for the common succulents of the region.  The photos below show some of the succulents we saw in perhaps a 30 min walking around.

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20  Peniocereus greggii scrambling in a  shrub (Koeberlinia spinosa, also known as Christ’s crown.)

 

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21  Opuntia microdasys, also known as Nopal cegador or blinding prickly pear

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22  Ancistrocactus scherii

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23  Coryphantha echinus

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24  Mammillaria heyderi (or close)

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25  A cluster of Coryphantha neglecta?

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26  Opuntia leptocaulis branches

We retraced our steps a short distance and headed towards a site a few km away where Miguel had seen Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus – a plant we had never seen in habitat (not that we had looked intensively for it).   We stopped at a spot on the dirt road where he knew there was one plant.  A very nice example, but only one.   A short distance later we stopped in an area where most succulent hunters would not stop – fine silty material where nothing respectable should live.   After a short walk from his Toyota pickup we spotted the Ariocarpus – an amazing clustering of beautiful plants that we would never have found on our own.   Also in the same location were numerous peyote, Lophophora williamsii.

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27  Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus and Rosario’s size-6 ring  (fairly small ring-16 mm inside diameter) for scale

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28  Miguel and Mike at the Ariocarpus location

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29  It doesn’t look very interesting – does it?

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30  What’s this!   Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus!   Not so easy to spot…

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31  Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus – two on the left and four on the right side of center.  Ignore the three-headed Epithelantha greggii.

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32  Quick – get the tripod and macro lense out (actually, I suppose they are not going to go  anywhere).  This tripod, and its ball-head from the company “Really-Right-Stuff”,  is really great for low-altitude shots.  Very stable.  Of course, it is also really expensive.

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33  I am holding a collapsible diffuser and Miguel is taking a photo.  The diffuser removes the harsh shadows in mid-day sun.

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Us posing for Miguel with our diffuser and tripod combination (diffuser not actually in position for this tripod shot).  Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

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34  Ariocarpus kotchoubeyanus and the ring

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35  Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus – closer view

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36 Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus – this plant is a bit more exposed by erosion of the silty soil

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37  This is the same plant as in the image above – I’ve just rotated the tripod a bit AND I am using the diffuser now.  Compare the shadows.

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38  Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus

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39  Nice cluster of Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus

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40  Can you see the five Ariocarpus?

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41  There were also many peyote (Lophophora williamsii) in the area – they also like mudflats

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42  The diffuser in action.  An Epithelantha pachyrhiza pulchra (isn’t there only one?)  I teased Miguel about this – I figured there were only about two members of the genus, while he kept citing more … and more … and more species!  Miguel mentioned that this population of Epithelantha is interesting because of the habit of “decapitating itself”.  He thinks that this may be due to the fact that the plant lives in an alluvial plain, not as the rest of Epithelantha species.  Most Epithelatha live in rocky habitats.

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43  The Epithelantha pachyrhiza pulchra a close-up with diffuser.  These plants have their tubers partly exposed – Miguel says it is characteristic of the species.

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44  “Sunday in the park”…  this is a cactophiles fantasy – head down, looking for cryptic succulents buried in the ground!  Sort of a “grown-ups” easter egg hunt.  (Some would question the term “grown-up” being applied to people like us!)

After having our fill of Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus, we headed out from the area, but not before making a short stop to see the Ocotillo-covered terrain with many small clusters of a ground-hugging cholla.  Here, in addition to the cholla that was evident from the car, we also found Wilcoxia poselgeri, an Epithelantha and a nice Echinocactus horizonthalonius.

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45  Ocotillo-covered landscape after leaving the Ariocarpus stop

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46  Mike and Wilcoxia poselgeri

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47  Closer view of the Wilcoxia.  They produce spectacular purple flowers.

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48  This small cholla formed mats like some I’d seen in Big Bend, or near Cuatrocienegas.   It may be Corynopuntia aff. bulbispina.

 

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49  Epithelantha greggii ssp. greggii .

 

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50  This is a nice Echinocactus horizonthalonius clump.
  Usually they have only one stem.

 

We returned to Monterrey via a road that goes near the Grutas de Garcia, which we have not visited since 1988.  Miguel told us that it now has a different manner of accessing the caves than the cog railway that we had used.  We did not stop because we wanted to see something of the Huasteca Canyon on the way back.

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51  An old church (not used now) that we stopped at on the way to the town of Garcia.

We did stop at the town of Garcia to have lunch at a small place that Miguel knew before heading for Huasteca Canyon.  We arrived fairly late at the Cañon de Huasteca – a well known spot to see (or search for) Mammillaria plumosa.  We did not see it, but we did not have much time as the sun was setting behind the hills (actually, pretty big mountains by almost anyone’s standards).  However, we did see nice examples of Agave victoriae-reginae, as well as the impressive landscape of vertically-tilted limestone layers.  It was Sunday afternoon and most people in the canyon were not botanizing, of course, but rather playing in the small river passing along the canyon bottom, where it formed many small pools for kids to play in and with the parents grilling or enjoying the escape from the city ambience.

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52  Vertically-tilted limestone strata in Huasteca Canyon.  A paved road now winds through the lower parts of the canyon and it is a popular destination for locals from Monterrey – they can wade and swim in small pools of water in the canyon bottom.

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53  Closer view of the strata

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54  An even closer view – note the palms (Brahea berlandieri).  If you click on the image (and you will get a larger image) you can also see a few Agave victoriae-reginae – as well as much more common Nolina‘s and another Agave.  By the way, these palms are not found in the US.

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55  Another view of the canyon.

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56  We are stepping across the river to get to the other side – for a closer look for plants.

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57  Of course most normal people are with their kids playing in the water and having a picnic.  It was Sunday.

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58  An effort at being “artsy”.  A grayscale version of an otherwise bad image.  Impressive landscapes, with mountains rising to near 9000 ft.

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59  Closer view of Agave victoriae-reginae.  They are favorites in cultivation in the US (at least in greenhouses and warmer climates).

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60  A closer view of A. victoriae-reginae

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61  Another Agave (probably Agave univittata), even more common than A. victoriae-regina in Huasteca Canyon

 

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62  This is an Echinocereus reichenbachii ssp. armatus, endemic to the Huasteca canyon.  This Echinocereus is a different variety from that found in Oklahoma.  The central spines on this one stick out so you can’t pick it up easily.

 

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63  An Echinocereus viereckii huastescensis.

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64  A succulent, Lenophyllum guttatum.

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65  End of the day…ran out of light

 

We made it back to Miguel’s house not too late…  compared with the following day’s adventure – detailed below.


 

DAY 2 EXCURSION

The following day (Monday) we again left the city for the small town of Rayones, reached by first driving along the base of the foothills southeast of Monterrey.  We climbed up into the hills, reaching about 4000 ft, stopping along the way to see a few succulents, including  Sedum palmeri and Dasylirion berlandieri  before descending towards Rayones.

 

Day 2 route G Earth

66  Google Earth map showing our driving route on the second day of exploration.  It got dark when we were near the bottom part of the route – we returned in darkness along the western side of the route.  I should have known better – we should have returned via the route we came.

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67  View of the Piedmont scrub (Matorral submontano subinerme, some species have thorns) as we climb out of the coastal plain towards Rayones.

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68  The forest stature improves and contains oaks  (Quercus rhysophyla and Q. polymorpha) as we climb higher – this is near 4000 ft elevation.

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69  At a stop near 4000 ft I photographed this Blue Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus serrifer cyanogenys)

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70  A nice Sedum palmeri was on the road cut

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71  A closer view of the sedum’s rosette

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72  A Dasylirion berlandieri  with its nice toothed leaf margins

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73  An Agave species – semivariagated?

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74  Even an Opuntia stricta  – that is clearly desiccated, showing the internal veins.  All of these plants were at the same roadside stop at 4000 ft.  A few other cacti present are not shown.

Just before we reached Rayones we stopped and parked at a spot Miguel had visited years earlier to see Ariocarpus scaphirostris.  After a short walk and hopping a barbed wire fence, we climbed up a small hill composed of very small angular gravel from the underlying shale.  Miguel said this area had been monitored by people from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and some of the plants had been marked.  It was amazing to see the plants (after Miguel pointed them out) – they were so cryptic!  This was certainly much different from other Ariocarpus we had seen in the past – and more difficult to find.

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75 Mike crossing a slope of shale gravel that was quite loose and slippery. A small Echinocactus platyacanthus is in the foreground.

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76  Mike looking for Ariocarpus scaphirostris at the site Miguel knew

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77  Taking photos with the tripod required an effort to avoiding sliding down the slope… or crushing plants you could barely see

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78  Once you found the plants they were easy to see – like these…  Yellowish color on the old tubercles in this and the next photo is paint put on by UNAM researchers to help find plants at this locality.

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79  Here is a closer view – you see them now? Again Rosario’s size 6 ring for scale.

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80  OK, for those succulent-challenged individuals here is a “cleaner” specimen.  Now you can see the tubercles standing out from the shale chips.  When in flower the plants are much more obvious (none were at this time of year).

 

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81 Again, this is a habitat that most succulent plant enthusiasts would skip over quickly on the way to more “productive” habitats..

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The two Miguels and Rosario at the site of the Ariocarpus scaphirostris. Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

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82  A “somewhat” desiccated plant

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83  Shading a plant for Miguel to photograph

 

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83b  Test time!  Where are the 5 (at least) Ariocarpus plants in this photo?  Be sure to click on the photo for a larger view.  Four are “easy” – one is a bit obscured.   Click here for the answer.

 

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84  Just think about how many hillsides have never been checked for succulent plants.  You have to be a specialist to even recognize what plants are new, or outside their known range, and there are so many hills in Mexico!  New species are still being found, almost routinely.

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85  Miguel on the slope – checking camera settings

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86  A flowering Echinocactus platyacanthus.  These get very large (more than 8 ft high) in some places in Mexico.  Not here however.

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87  Closer view of the Echinocactus platyacanthus flowers and the surrounding older dry flowers/fruits

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88  These are Echinocereus pentalopus var. leonensis  – an unusual erect growth form.

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89  Closer view of Echinocereus pentalopus var. leonensis

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90  An effort at being artsy – a grayscale version suitably cropped to emphasize the spination.

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91  As is common to most “cactus-hunting” activities we had to hop barbed-wire fences.  This one was easy to separate and crawl through – some well-made fences cannot be crossed easily.  For those unfamiliar with our passion, cactus hunting, or plant hunting in general, refers to exploring to see new plants – not necessarily to collect them.  Here we just took photos.  Botanists might collect to document specimens for future research.

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92  This is a dead, or at least uprooted Ariocarpus that was laying on the ground.  It shows the size of the root compared with the plant.  (We didn’t take it, or any other plants)

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93 Near Rayones. Note the mountains.

We decided to eat in Rayones, since it was after 3 pm and well past lunch time (though not past Mexican lunch time) and our next destination would take considerable walking and we would be too hungry.   Miguel recommended Oyervides, a restaurant he has known for many years.

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94  A shady street in Rayones, where we stopped to eat lunch

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95  This is the restaurant Oyervides in Rayones.

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96  Mike and some (former) close associates – Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

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97  Rosario eating a local dish called asado de puerco or baked pork.  It was delicious.

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98  A closer view of lunch…rice, beans,great pork asado (red) and cortadillo de res.  This pork is cooked very slowly in a clay pot over charcoal.  Two types of chiles or peppers (ancho and cascabel) and lard are key ingredients.  Lard as one of the main ingredients sounds bad but the asado de puerco  was divine!

We had one more stop after lunch.  This was to walk up Metates’s Canyon  where we could find Aztekium ritteri – a species restricted to a few locations in the state of Nuevo Leon.  To get to the canyon was a short drive from Rayones and we crossed a stream – that could get washed out after heavy rains.  We arrived at the head of the canyon and proceeded to walk – about 1 mile upstream along the canyon floor.   There were some interesting Mammillarias  just above high water mark – including Mammillaria candida, Mammillaria picta and Mammillaria pilispina.  Other plants we saw included: Ferocactus pillosus, Ferocactus hamatacanthus, Echinocactus platyacanthus, Echinocereus vierecki and Neolloydea conoidea.  Also visible on the higher slopes was Agave victoriae-reginae.

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99  We didn’t have to cross this river – there was another way – over temporary bridge.  I think these people were washing their jeep and playing in the water.

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100  We shortly reached the canyon entrance, parked and headed up the wash. There was a rough road heading up but Miguel didn’t take it.  (His Hilux didn’t have four-wheel drive.)

 

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101  A view of the wash banks as we proceeded.  Nothing special at this point.

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102  We stop to check out some exposed rock faces…

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103  Miguel photographing a small plant that turns out to be…

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104  Mammillaria candida… a fairly common plant in this part of the Chihuahuan desert.  However, it tends to be found like this – without many heads.

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105  A nice grouping of the semi-succulent plants on the limestone strata – Agave victoriae-reginae, a Hechtia texensis (a bromeliad).    Click on the image for a larger image (as with many of the photos I’m showing you can get a larger image by clicking). There is one small Aztekium plant in this image, but you might not see it.

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106  Us (Mike and Rosario) next to the rock face.  Click to see what is there…  well, I can see them because I know what to look for – but most people won’t see them… there are a handful of Aztekium between us.

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One of the rare pictures where Mike is smiling. Note the Aztekium next to his hand.  Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

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107  Mike trying to photograph the Astekium plants.  A tripod is needed to make multiple photos and use the Helicon focus software later to focus stack the images to get better depth of field.  Miguel is using his cell phone camera – like most explorers he goes with redundant capability.

I believe Miguel saw the first Aztekium (he had been here before).  After a while we saw many of them – but they tended to all be on steep, very difficult to access walls of the canyon.  They were mostly on frail conglomerate or soils that appeared like they could come down at any time.  And apparently they had – Miguel mentioned how a large slab had fallen and the plants had washed away during a recent hurricane-induced flood.

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108  OK, here it is – Aztekium ritteri (with size 6 ring).  Now aren’t you impressed?  This is what excites succulent plant explorers.   How sad – you think.  The Aztekiums are surrounded by Resurrection ferns that become green and unroll after rains.

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109  Notice the scour line – flash floods essentially clean out everything below a certain level in the canyon.  The plants are found only above this line – just where we can’t get to them!

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This photo was taken before hurricane Alex (2010) impacted this population of Aztekium.  Today there are almost no Aztekium to be found within reach.  Photo by Miguel Angel Botello.

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110  Miguel and Rosario in an intense discussion on cactus classification… or some tasty meat dish…

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111  The mountains above us… wonder what is up there?  Anyone up for a hike?

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112  Of course, we can cheat with a telephoto and get a bit closer…

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113  And still closer…  300mm on the mirrorless Olympus is like a 600mm telephoto on a 35 mm full frame camera.   Now we can see Agave victoriae-reginae and some small and fuzzy plants in the middle of the image.  They are Echinocereus viereckii huastesescensi.  The plant on the left of the image is a hybrid or Agave victorie-reginae and Agave lechugilla.

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114  Miguel showing where some Aztekium are

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115  Aztekiums are coating the slope – just out of our reach.  I am shooting up at something like 45˚; these are all above our heads, with no way to get much closer – short of a telephoto lense.

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116  A closer view of Aztekium-covered slope

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117  More Aztekium nearer to us

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118  More Aztekiums – those close to us are naturally the less impressive ones!

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119  Finally, one I can get close to!

We reached the point where the canyon narrowed and where further walking was more difficult.  Plus, we had heard thunder and the canyon was becoming narrow enough to be a real hazard for flash floods.  But mostly, it was getting late and we were far from home, so we started back.

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120  Miguel taking a photo at the end of our hike – where the canyon gets much narrower

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121  Me, wondering something – perhaps looking for plants on the rock walls

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122  A clean picture (without people)… though there was graffiti in places on the rocks.  A water hose runs down the canyon – from where I don’t know.

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123  On our way back down the wash, I look longingly at the slope full of Aztekiums– imagining how I could get up there.  Maybe next time?

On the way out the canyon we stopped to photograph more plants.

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124  Nice Hechtia texensis  (lithophytic bromeliad- in the pineapple family)

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125  Rosario and Miguel with an Agave hybrid (A. victoriae-reginae and A. lechugilla)

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126  This is the problem in this, and many other canyons – most interesting plants are too high up for good composition.  Here I am apparently checking my settings before taking a shot of the Mammillaria seen in the next two images.  Also, a Mammillaria candida, a small white ball,  is above and to my right.

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127  A Mammillaria winterae.

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128  Same as above but profile view.  Which view do you like better?

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129  Thin slate strata tilted vertically.

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130  A Mammillaria picta.

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131  Another view of the same Mammillaria picta or pillispina, just a larger plant

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132  An Echinocereus viereckii huastescensis and Mammillaria winterae (lower) at the edge of the exposed wash bank

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133  Another couple of Aztekiums in a rock crack

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134  Closer view of an Aztekium – pretty sickly plant (at least its appearance)

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135  Agave victoriae-reginae on canyon wall

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136  This I put in for those who haven’t been to the American tropics (or Florida or south Texas).  Tillandsia recurvata is a very common and wide-ranging bromeliad growing on trees, telephone wires etc. all the way to South America.  Small bluish flowers.  “Ball moss” is one common name.

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137  Looking back up the canyon as the light begins to disappear…

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138  OK, my car was there – right?   Note that they are standing on “the road” up the canyon.

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139  Nice scenery as we return to the Hilux.

Heading home a long way via the town of Galeana, we drove on a dirt road for a while.  The road was a bit rough in places but there were nice landscapes and large Yuccas near the road.

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140  The dirt road on the way back.  We have stopped to investigate a gypsum outcrop.

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141  After sunset we stop (on the road since there is almost no traffic on our dirt road to Galeana) to see gypsum (Olvido formation (Jurassic), nicely eroded.  Some unique plants can grow on gypsum (many cannot) so we explore a bit – but don’t find much novel.

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142  There were nice Dasylirion berlandieri at this last stop of the day.

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143  A large species of Yucca filifera.

 

We stopped at a taco stand for a late snack before arriving at Miguel’s home.  We got back to Miguel’s house rather late  –  at around 2 am (to the consternation of his wife we suspect).

On Monday we got up a bit late, and eventually ate again at Pecos Bill’s buffet.   That evening Mike gave another cactus talk (in Spanish) at the normal meeting location of the SCYSNL in the biology building on the campus of the University of Nuevo Leon.  The talk was about our explorations in South America and in the Galapagos.  The audience was larger than any of our talks given in Oklahoma, and there seemed to be real interest from the audience… they put up with several hours of talks!

At the end of the talk Mike and Rosario were presented with a beautiful and novel gift.  A replica of an Astrophytum myriostigma made by Silvino Hernandez, one of the Monterrey cactus club members.  He uses dental wax to make a mold of a real plant – and then paints it.  It is a true work of art.

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The Astrophytum myriostigma “statue” in “daylight” color

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The Astrophytum myriostigma in tungsten light on my desktop “photo studio”

 

We would like to thank Miguel and his wife Margarita for their hospitality during our stay at their house, as well as the members of the Monterrey cactus club for their warm welcome and for the beautiful Astrophytum replica.   This was a short trip, only 4 nights in Monterrey and we had a great time.  Not only that, but we visited nice habitats with a great variety of succulents and beautiful landscapes.

Our thanks to Miguel for providing identification for many of the plants shown on this trip report.