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Cerro Uritorco by Mats Winberg
A
fter 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!

 

I 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

It 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.

After 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.

Twenty 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 !

As 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.

Gymnocalycium MN 77I 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.

Gymnocalycium quehlianum MN 78Thirty 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).

Trichocereus lamprochlorus MN 79 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 79).

Taking 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 !

It 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.

I 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.

At 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.

My 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.

I 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.

When 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).

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Copyright Mats Winberg
2018-05-27