by Mats Winberg
After two unforgettable
days in the hot and dry Cruz del Eje, it felt like paradise when I arrived
at Capilla del Monte. This little town in the north-western part of the province
of Cordoba in Argentina, at an altitude of 914 metres, is famous for its medicinal
water, cliffs and spectacular views. Cruz del Eje had been flat, but here,
on the eastern side of Capilla del Monte, stands the impressive Cerro Uritorco.
I still had two days to spend before I had to return to Buenos Aires and,
after six strenuous weeks of climbing in search of Lobivias in the provinces
of Salta and Jujuy, I longed for one or two days of rest. After all, this
was supposed to be a holiday!
took my rucksack and started to walk along the streets. An old man showed
me the way to a hotel called "La Roma". It was quite expensive,
but it looked very comfortable and quiet. I paid the manageress, put the
rucksack in my room and set out to explore the small town. I soon got tired
of being stared at by noisy Argentinean tourists so I decided to investigate
some outcrops a kilometre west of the town.
The grass was high, almost two feet, so at first it
seemed impossible for cacti to grow here. But I did not have to take many
steps before I saw my first plants: beautiful specimens of Gymnocalycium
mostii 'valnicekianum' (MN 73) growing in the mossy cracks and
cavities in the cliffs. I found hundreds of them, and each one different
from its neighbours! Some had strong spines others weak, curly, straight,
long or short ones and in all different combinations. The colour of the
spines varied from brownish to grey but those near the apex were mostly
reddish-brown. I found a couple of really nice clustering plants with 5-6
heads which I had to photograph. While doing so, I suddenly discovered some
smaller, heavily spined plants in the moss beside the Gymnocalyciums. My
first thought was that it could be Lobivia aurea, but when examining it
a bit closer I realised that it must be a Notocactus submammulosus
(MN 74). They were so hard to find in the moss that I stepped on
several plants, hearing the crunching of crushed spines under my boots!
With their dark greenish-brown bodies and flat almost paper-like spines,
they merged perfectly into the surrounding vegetation of dried grass and
moss. The Notocacti were full of dry fruits and I could collect lots of
seed. Gymnocalycium valnicekianum did not have so many fruits, but a few
dry ones, with fresh seeds, were found among the strong spines. I now have
some nice specimens in my greenhouse, raised from this seed and they flower
freely every year. The Gymno has white-pink petals and the Noto has yellow
petals, the flowers of both species having a reddish throat.
In the flatter
areas, tiny Gymnocalycium capillaense grew close to the ground, forming
nice clusters with flat, greyish-green bodies. They were real beauties,
and it was a pity I was not able to see them in flower in the habitat. The
seeds I collected gave me a couple of free flowering plants with white-pink
petals and red throats
was getting really hot now and I would have to hurry back to town if I wanted
to get something to eat before the restaurants closed for siesta.
a good, nights rest, I got up at 7.30 and had my breakfast. I packed my
little bag with a water bottle filled with Coca Cola and some apples. The
streets were still wet after rain during the night. There were heavy clouds
covering the sky which could mean more rain if I was unlucky. But I did
not find the prospect too worrying, the high mountain to the east of town
looked just too inviting for me to delay my explorations.
minutes later I was at the foot of some huge, green hills, but this was
not Cerro Uritorco, which was situated a couple of kilometres to the north-east.
First I had to penetrate these bushy hills which was not a very easy task.
There were fences everywhere and I was not too keen on climbing over them.
I still remembered encounters with a slobbering, barking dog in Amaicha
del Valle and the mad turkey in Volcan. But that is another story !
soon as I had found a way around the fences, I discovered small plants among
the stones. They were growing under low bushes, on the still moist ground,
with fresh green heads, straight, sharp ribs and rather short spines. The
central spine was most often short but some were over 3 cm long. It was
Lobivia aurea, a species which is widely distributed in these parts.
Some plants had ripe fruits and I collected them under my field number MN
76. Plants raised from seed in my greenhouse give 10 cm long, hairy flowers
with clear yellow petals. Near this population I also found more plants
of Gymnocalycium capillaense intermingled with Gymnocalycium quehlianum.
I saw these
three species at regular intervals at the foot of the hills. As I went higher
up, they all disappeared and no cacti could be found because of the dense
vegetation. This was surely not the fastest and best way to Cerro Uritorco
... I was now at 1100 metres, the spiny bushes scratched me all over and
the three foot high grass made it difficult to climb. At 1150 metres I saw
some outcrops - could there be cacti there? Yes, among the grass and in
cracks I found large Gymnocalycium mostii (MN 77). They had numerous
strong, grey spines and very beautiful, impressive bodies, 15 cm broad and
some as high as 20 cm! I could find this species from 1150 to 1400 metres
with different spination, some very strong, others weaker. I collected some
fruits which had not been blown away by the now stronger and stronger wind.
The clouds got darker and soon I felt the first wet drops on my cheeks so
I huddled up under a small tree and waited.
Thirty minutes later the rain was not so hard so I
stumbled on among the bushes. The foot of Cerro Uritorco was now only five
hundred metres away, and I hurried on down the far side of the hills over
which I had been clambering. On the way down I almost stepped on some small,
Gymnocalycium quehlianum. The description that Schickendantz gave
of v. rolfianum fits these plants well, but I guess it is only a form of
a variable and widespread species. The plants grow more or less level with
the ground and are sometimes very hard to find with their brown bodies and
short greyish spines. A few remaining seeds were collected from a dry fruit.
I have three nice plants from this seed which produce cream-white flowers
with wine-red throats every year (MN 78).
I also found large Trichocereus clumped together in groups,
with rather short, yellowish spines and long reddish buds. Later on I came
across another population of the same plant in flower, on the other side
of Capilla del Monte. The 10 cm broad flowers were white with red sepals.
A wonderful sight ... and scent ! It was probably T. lamprochlorus (MN
the last hundred metres down to the little stream at the foot of Cerro Uritorco
I nearly stumbled into a wasps nest. It had been built in a bush and was
as big as a football. One more step and I would have been fighting with
thousands of furious wasps !
was quite hot now. A winding path took me higher and higher and I found
Gymnocalycium quehlianum and Lobivia aurea in several places.
At 1100 metres G. mostii was in bloom. Unfortunately, the flower
was closed, but by splitting it I could see it had white petals and a delicate
pink throat. This plant had weaker spines than those I found earlier, on
the other hills.
climbed higher and it began to get much colder. The wind blew harder and
I started to shiver, my thin jacket was not much protection. The slopes
were covered with grass and small, creeping bushes, and I could not find
anything interesting among them. Should I go back? Was the search worth
this discomfort? A running nose, cold fingers and freezing ears ? But it
was too tempting, I bent forward and struggled on against the cold wind.
1500 metres I suddenly saw a gigantic, spiny plant among the dried grass.
For a moment I forgot the harsh climate. Beautiful, yellow-spined Gymnocalycium
multiflorum with a diameter of nearly 20 cm! The light green, broad
and rather flat body had about 17 ribs with narrow furrows, whitish, oblong
areoles and curved, yellow radial spines. I looked for fruits but it seemed
that the wind had taken them all. It was a pity I could not collect any
material of this lovely species.
fingers were red and stiff. Snuffling, I crawled on all fours further up
the windswept slopes, trying to persevere for few minutes more. As I was
thinking of returning to Capilla del Monte, my eyes opened wide. Once more
I forgot the persistent wind and stared at the small plants in front of
me. Yes, here they were, growing deep into the rich soil, among tufts of
grass. Tiny bodies, no more than 15-20 mm broad and with short appressed
spines. It was Gymnocalycium andreae (MN 80). I had to be careful
to avoid crushing them under my big boots. They were hard to locate; only
10-20 mm was visible above the ground and under the surface the plant hid
a 3-5 cm long taproot. With cold, shaky hands I took some photos. If I only
had seen them in full flower - what a sight it would have been! Later on,
in cultivation, these plants have shown variable flower colour; from sulphur-yellow
to almost white. The body is larger than in the natural habitat, reaching
35 mm in diameter. It is very free flowering, but only one plant gives me
fruits after pollination.
looked up to the summit of Cerro Uritorco. There was about a kilometre still
to go, but I was chilled through to the bone and more importantly - I wanted
to return while it was still light. Stumbling down the narrow path in the
dark would be too dangerous.
I finally reached Hotel Roma in the centre of Capilla del Monte, I had been
climbing for ten hours. As I collapsed in my bed that night I promised myself
that I would take it easy the following day which would be my last before
returning to Buenos Aires and the plane back to Sweden ...
Also published in Gymnos Heft 9, 1988 (by
permission from D. Metzing).