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Quebrada del Toro - a cactophiles dream by Mats Winberg

For any cactophile, Quebrada del Toro in northern Argentina, is a dream. This beautiful valley begins south-west of Salta at an altitude of about 1500 metres and rises all the way up to 4000 metres at San Antonio de los Cobres, a dusty and cold mining village. I have been in Quebrada del Toro twice, and I will give you a short introduction to the many interesting cacti growing in these mountains.


Rebutia pseudodeminuta MN 199 Three red flowered Rebutia are to be found at Campo Quijano at the entrance of the narrow, winding valley. These are Rebutia pseudodeminuta and pseudominuscula and the very variable Rebutia xanthocarpa, the flowers of which may be red, pink or yellow. They all prefer to grow in rich soil, often amongst moist moss. Some are hardly visible under high grass and you have to get down on your hands and knees to find them.

Echinopsis ancistrophora can be found hiding among the outcrops of rock in this area. This species, with its clear white flowers, occurs in many localities in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. The flowers vary in length from 10 cm to almost 25 cm! Three varieties are to be found in the literature reflecting this range: v. hamatacantha, v. kratochviliana and v. polyancistra. Based on observations in the field, I think that, at most, these should be considered as forms of the single species.

The climate in this lower part of the valley is more or less subtropical and the epiphytic Rhipsalis tucumanense grows in the trees. The stem of this species is mostly round and spineless and the small, shiny flowers are cream-white. Rhipsalis tucumanense is easy to grow, even in a rather dry and hot greenhouse. The town Campo Quijano has expanded in recent years and, as a result, some species which were native here can no longer be found. Gymnocalycium marsoneri and Echinopsis silvestrii now seem to be absent.

The flora of the lower part of the valley, other than the Cactaceae, includes Juglans australis, Alnus jorullensis, Erythrina dominguensis, Sambucus peruviana, Echeveria peruviana and Cassia spectabilis.

The tiny village of Chorrillos lies at about 2200 metres but still the humidity remains rather high. The population is only about 50, employed in farming or at the railway station.The famous "Tren de las Nubes" railway, which starts from Salta, passes close to the few houses here on its way to San Antonio de los Cobres.

Rebutia xanthocarpa MN 198 Among the bigger cacti which occur in the vicinity are Trichocereus shaferi and terscheckii. Trichocereus shaferi, looking almost like snowballs with its clear white spines, can be found near the river together with a green, rather weak spined form of Rebutia senilis (MN 221) which has small red flowers. On steep slopes, there are golden spined Cleistocactus hyalacanthus (syn. jujuyensis) growing among large cushions of Bromeliads (Abromeitiella breviflora). If you climb for a couple of hours you will also find plenty of Lobivia haematantha v. chorrillosensis , a taprooted, greyish-green plant with flowers in different reddish and occasionally yellow tones.

In December 1990 I visited this spot and had the opportunity to see hundreds of plants in flower - what a sight! They were everywhere and you had tolook carefully before taking the next step. There was also Rebutia einsteinii v. aureiflora in many different forms with spines varying from white to brown and from short to long. No wonder so many names have been published (Mediolobia albiseta, duursmaiana, nidulans etc. !) So far, I have seen only clear orange flowers on this plant, but reddish forms are also reported.

Rebutia nigricans MN 117I have found two new, interesting forms of Rebutia nigricans at higher altitude in this area. The first has orange-red flowers (MN 117), which, at 4x4 cm, are much larger than the type. The body and spination, however, match those of the type from Escoipe, described as having deep red flowers, about 2 cm broad. The second form has lighter spination and small but beautiful, rich orange flowers which open early in the morning.

I am not a great fan of Opuntia, but at Chorrillos there are two really nice species: the small, variable and creeping Opuntia microdisca with shiny orange- yellow flowers and the fresh green Opuntia verschaffeldtii with a cylindrical stem, long greyish spines and clear red flowers. Both are recommended for growing in a greenhouse as they stay rather compact and manageable. I have some A. verschaffeldtii growing in my collection but they have never flowered. I have the same problem with Austrocylindropuntia vestita; they grow well but never set buds. Maybe it is too dark here in Sweden.

Opuntia microdisca MN 219Some ten kilometres up the road, at about 2500 metres, conditions become dryer and a different flora is found. The hills, in which many Trichocereus pasacana occur, are steep and difficult to climb. Some hard hours by foot takes you to an interesting and beautiful form of Rebutia einsteinii with mostly pectinate, short spines and large yellow flowers. This is an intermediate form of R. einsteinii, gonjianii and aureiflora and is sometimes referred to as R. pseudoeinsteinii n.n.

On the plateau, some dehydrated but very nice, long spined Gymnocalycium spegazzinii can be found growing level with the ground. The compact stem is almost covered by grey spines and some flowers with dirty pinkish-white petals. If you are lucky you might see some Lobivia chrysantha with thin spines growing deep in the cracks. This plant is also known as L. klusacekii or L.staffenii. The orange-red flowering Parodia stuemeri is a real beauty and sometimes found among the Bromeliads here. Parodia nivosa grows nearby, but always at a lower altitude, closer to the road.

Puerta Tastil, Alfarcito and Santa Rosa de Tastil lie at about 3000 metres.This is a very dry area and the nights are cold. Pyrrhocactus umadeave, the "football cactus", grows here, and also the fantastic Parodia faustiana which must surely be a form or variety of P. nivosa growing at lower altitudes in the valley. P. faustiana has stronger and darker central spines and the flowers are red with golden-yellow throats. Lobivia chrysantha and a brown spined Rebutia einsteinii are well hidden among the rocks; both have yellow flowers. The widespread and very variable Opuntia sulphurea grows everywhere, sometimes forming enormous groups. Opuntia microdisca has very nice flowers in orange, red and yellow and is very common as is Maihueniopsis boliviana which forms large cushions of small heads. Maihueniopsis minuta (=T. mandragora) occurs here but it is rare and its tiny size makes it very difficult to find.

Other vegetation in this area includes Prosopis ferox, Cassia crassiramea, Adesmia and Bulnesia spp. Some 30 kilometres south of San Antonio, at 3600 metres, there is a small hamlet called Las Cuevas consisting of only a few houses. In the surrounding mountains I found large Lobivia chrysantha (cushions to 20 cm broad) and some beautiful Rebutia einsteinii with spines from long and black to short and brown. High up at about 3900 metres there are large, brown spined Lobivia formosa reaching almost 30 cm in diameter. The flowers are orange-red, about 4-5 cm broad and hardly seen among all spines at the top of the plant! It is also known as Soehrensia korethroides and is quite common in the Salta province at 4000 metres.

This marks the end of our journey along the Quebrada del Toro, the home of so many fascinating cacti. I returned from the valley with seed from many to introduce them into cultivation and share the enjoyment and the study of these plants with growers around the world.

© SuccSeed/Mats Winberg, 1995-20018. All rights reserved.

Copyright Mats Winberg