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The Cycad Newsletter

Article of Interest from a Previous Issue


Another Day, Another Dioon

By Jeff Chemnick

(This article originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of The Cycad Newsletter)

Mexico in August? Only mad dogs and cycadologists would dare to go on a field trip to Oaxaca and Veracruz at that time of the year. But since the International Cycad Conference was set for Miami in August, the departure date for our post-CYCAD99 tour of southern Mexico wasn't optional. After all, cycad luminaries from around the world had traveled thousands of miles to convene in Florida, and this was a unique opportunity to fly across the Gulf and visit Mexico. For these cycadophiles from Australia and Africa, their willingness to brave the expected heat and rain was richly rewarded with beautiful weather and surprisingly mild temperatures considering the time of year. Eight of us, plus our gear, loaded rather comfortably into a brand new Dodge that still had that "new car" odor when we left.

We visited 16 cycad species at a number of localities in a variety of habitats. Some of the stops were even for plants other than cycads, such as those in the beautiful high desert and in epiphyte-laden trees in cloud forest. To retrace the route; we flew from Miami to Veracruz and headed up to Xalapa. Along the way, we saw a dense stand of Dioon edule growing in sand dunes right on the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the plants were growing in full sun, others under the shade of a red-skinned Bursera. Thousands of crowns in all with a rich green color and slightly keeled leaves covered the top of the dunes. The next stop was the Palma Sola locality. This Dioon edule is much like the sand dune plant. Just west of this Dioon is a dense stand of Ceratozamia that apparently is colonizing the road cut above which it is growing. It is difficult to attribute these plants to any described species, but they are known in the trade as Ceratozamia "Palma Sola" and are characterized by large, stiff upright leaves and prominent spines. Onward we drove to Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, for the night.

Up early the next day and off to see Ceratozamia morettii. Unfortunately, a small landslide prevented us from driving down to the locality, and so we walked the last three km to the population; 800 feet down and, unfortunately, back up again. The forest was luxuriant and full of entertainment for the botanically-diverse group. After observing the cliff-dwelling C. morettii, we drove to the type locality of Ceratozamia mexicana and traversed a hill with numerous specimens of this elegant, narrow leafed cycad whose name is much better known than the actual plant!

The afternoon was spent touring the National Botanic Garden in Xalapa with Andrew Vovides. He gave us an excellent tour of the grounds and the greenhouses. We were able to compare nearly all the described Mexican cycads as well as ob-serve a number of new species currently under investigation. We headed south from Xalapa in the late afternoon with enough time to stop at El Rio Pescado to admire the immense clusters of Dioon edule clinging to the cliff faces along the paved road. We spent the night in Fortin de las Flores, long famous as a stopover for pre-CITES Tillandsia and orchid collectors.

The next morning we were en route to Cordoba and a cliff-dwelling Ceratozamia found in nearby forest at the base of the mountains. Cliff-dwelling species are a bit of a frustration because you just can't quite get close enough to the plants without the constant threat of falling off the locality to an unpleasant consequence. With short, extremely coriacious, pendant leaves, inermous petiole, and small, smooth brown stem, this plant is not attribu-table to any existing species and, fortunately, is currently in the process of being named. We left the Ceratozamia and headed south into the state of Oaxaca, which is the center of highest plant diversity in Mexico.

Our first stop was in the high desert transected by a new toll road. Much of Mexico is now connected by a series of privately constructed and administered super highway toll roads that pro-vide freeway-like travel between major cities. Be-cause the old, free roads wind tirelessly through mountains and come abruptly to a grind at every urban center they traverse, travel on them will try one's patience to extremes. But the recent completion of Mexico's pay roads provides much more rapid access throughout, because the tolls were constructed through large tracts of undisturbed, uninhabited regions of the country where villages and farms do not exist. And so exciting areas of largely pristine habitat are now accessible along the toll roads. Pre-eminent among them is the high desert of Oaxaca.

We made several stops along an elevational transect; hiking among towering cactus, Bursera, Plumeria, Beaucarnia, Fouquieria, Dasyleurion, and all manner of cactus, orchids, Agave, Hechtia, and Tillandsia. The evening's accommodation was in Teotitlan. Dinner was the usual-cold beer, hot tortillas, piquant salsa, and a very tasty array of Mexican dishes. Courage ran high within the group, as most participants were willing to try each and every new specialty we encountered. Whatever gastrointestinal discomfort might have joined us, it was not of sufficient severity as to dampen anyone's enjoyment or participation in the hikes and habitat. Each restaurant we stopped into on the trip seemed to feature an item of Mexican food that, for most all of the participants, was new to the palette. And while some found the chiles a little piquant and the tortillas and beans slightly redundant, we enjoyed working our way through the convention of Mexico's cuisine.

The next morning, we visited the type locality of Dioon califanoi. Though I have been to this locality a number of times, I inadvertently drove right on by because the vegetation at that time of the year is so verdant and the plants are not easily seen. The lush green vegetation of the desert during the wet season made our drive through the nearby biosphere reserve an unforgettable visual experience. It is remarkable that the dry, brown scrub in the dry season gives rise to such lush, bright green vegetation in the wet season. Before the trip, I had been concerned about inclement weather, but fortunately we hit a string of exceptional days; occasional pre-dawn rains and beautiful, clear skies most of the morning followed by the relief of high cloud cover in the afternoon.

For botanists, especially those who have never been to Mexico before, a drive through the biosphere reserve is a trip to a floral wonderland. Immense blue candelabrum cactus, agaves armed with shark's teeth, towering red cliffs and distant mountains crowding for space on the horizon. We stopped for lunch before setting off to see Dioon purpusii. Today the featured meal was chiles rellenos and rice washed down with beer and coke. The one-hour drive to the trailhead offered some breathtaking views. I know they were breathtaking because the I could hear some of the passengers taking a deep breath as we rounded the corner on some particularly steep, attention-riveting drop-off to the river far below.

We visited a locality that was discovered just this year and features a large stand of mature cycads. It is a dominant component of the ridge vegetation and some of the stems were in excess of 5 meters. These Dioon purpusii are more robust than plants from the type locality and seem to be actively recruiting new members into the population. In May when we found the cycads, a pair of Military Macaws flew noisily up and down the drainage. Nearly extirpated throughout Mexico, it was a wonderful experience to find such huge parrots alive and well in this remote canyon, especially because the current field guide reports them as "extinct in Oaxaca." Such are the opportunities in the seldom-traveled mountains of Mexico.

We left the biosphere reserve and headed to the city of Oaxaca, stopping briefly en route to survey a another stand of Dioon purpusii growing along the highway. We arrived that night in Oaxaca (capital of the state of the same name), checked into the Hotel El Paris, had a tasty chicken mole (strange but flavorful Oaxacan sauce of chiles, chocolate, and sesame seeds), and polished off our meal with the pride of Oaxaca-mezcal. Mezcal is the Oaxacan version of tequila and, as any proud citizen of the region will tell you, a much superior beverage!

The next day was the most ambitious of the tour. We headed south, crossing the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean to see the Pacific Ceratozamia sp., Zamia paucijuga, and D. holmgrenii. The Ceratozamia population has been nearly wiped out by coffee plantations, and the Dioon holmgrenii locality is now almost completely extirpated except for a small stand of some 50 mature plants on private property. Fortunately, the brothers that own the land are aware of the uniqueness of their cycads and are working to protect the population from further degradation.

It was a long drive back to Oaxaca but we ar-rived just in time to pick up our laundry at the hotel and head for the famed Zocalo (town square) for dinner and some souvenir shopping. I have found that even case-hardened cycadophiles can't resist the dazzling array of hand-crafted goodies and intricate weavings offered for sale in all manner of venues-town squares, restaurants, hotels, and even stop signs and speed bumps.

From Oaxaca, we headed north across the isthmus on one of the most spectacular roads in all of Mexico. From the central valley, we drove through oak-pine, fir, cloud, and thorn forests and peaked at a flower-festooned meadow at nearly 9000 feet elevation. The road then dropped through the largest remaining tropical cloud forest in the country and wound down through montane rain forest, endless tree ferns, and epiphyte-laden tropical hardwoods. Downward the road wound, eventually to the type locality of Ceratozamia whitelockiana, where we enjoyed a visit with a local family that has helped with our field work. We had the opportunity to see the inside of a typical rural household and view the interesting devices used for domestic processing of sugar cane, coffee, and corn. We photographed their pet paca, a giant rodent with large spots, and said "Adios!" After examining Ceratozamia whitelockiana in habitat, we stopped in Valle Nacional for lunch and made a few mezcal purchases.

We descended to 300 feet near Tuxtepec and hiked up a limestone hill to examine Dioon spinulosum en situ. The largest of the Mexican cycads, these great plants really do look like palm trees at first glance. Also growing among the dioons are giant Dioscorea macrostachys, which look like huge turtles with vines growing out the back. Another feature plant of the area is an immense Anthurium found in large numbers in the understory.

That night we decided to play "hotel roulette" and drive onward toward the next day's destination to save time in the morning. We gambled that we would find accommodation in one or another of the small towns along the way. Concern started to mount when the only hotel in our first choice town was filled, but, fortunately, there was enough room at the inn in the other town and happily we retired to the whir of ceiling fans. We awoke to the calls of countless roosters in the early dawn and assembled at the local restaurant for the breakfast we had pre-arranged the night before to accommodate our "earlier than opening time" schedule. The entire family-run operation must have been up for some considerable time preparing our feast, which featured egg-in-chile soup, Mexican eggs, eggs and ham, rice, potatoes, an array of Mexican sweet rolls, and of course, tortillas and beans.

After breakfast, some souvenir purchases, and gumbo limbo epiphyte inspections, we headed up into the mountains for our final day of cycad ecotouring. By now everyone was used to the fact that southern Mexico is one of the most mountainous areas on earth, and nearly all the indigenous cycads are growing in those mountains! And, of course, Dioon rzedowskii is no exception. The population is one of the most impressive of all Mexican cycads. The huge limestone cliffs are dripping with thousands of dioons, some with stems up to 4 meters. The descent to view the plants is steep but offers a number of interesting and beautiful orchids, begoniads, pepperomiads, aroids, gesneriads, and cactus along the way. Zamialoddigesii is common. We finished our three-genus day with Ceratozamia robusta, which grows nearby in limestone outcroppings. Sadly, the plants are nearly gone; surviving only in deep pockets in the rocks, surrounded by farms and second growth.

We returned to town for cold drinks and were astonished by the dress of the local women. Nearly everyone wore colorful, hand-embroidered dresses with remarkably ornate detail. A few of our group expressed an interest in their garb and soon we were at the center of an impromptu marketplace, selecting more souvenirs. Sadly, it was time to head back to Veracruz. The return was swift and direct on toll roads. We checked into a nice hotel and had a deluxe farewell dinner with service that could only best be described as "unhurried." That night the rains, which had so generously withheld while we were touring, decided to make up for lost time. The lightning and thunder were invigorating: the downpour was cool and refreshing.

It was a wonderful week of plant and habitat exploration. However, the real secret to a satisfying experience in the field is the participants. They were very knowledgeable, botanically-inclined people. But even more importantly to the success of the trip, they were enthusiastic, patient, friendly, and a real pleasure to have as travel companions. They were as cheerful during the long drives as they were at the end, when I determined that we had come in under budget and passed out rebates accordingly. And so it is with great anticipation that I am looking forward to the next Mexican Cycad Ecotour, in March of 2000.


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This page was updated on Tuesday, 10 June 2008.