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Mike Partridge

This article relates to days 1 to 3 of the Willy Smith Cactus Tour which I outlined in the article on Rumi Ryan in the March 2009 edition of the Tephrocactus Study Group Journal Vol. 14. No.1. It covers the route from Cordoba to Fiambala, a journey of approximately 500 miles (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. Cordoba to Fiambala. Days 1 to 3.

Day 1 – Cordoba to Chamical

Day 1 started with a ‘crack of dawn’ flight from Buenos Aries and by 0900h or so in the morning we were on Route 38 heading west out of Cordoba. We stopped several times to look at various Gymnocalycium, Trichocereus and Lobivia species before we arrived at  a roadside stop near Serrezuela to look at Stetsonia, Cleistocactus, Echinopsis, Cereus, Trichocereus and Opuntia sulphurea (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2. Near Serrezuela.

I was surprised to discover that very different species grew together in a relatively small area and wandered around in the very spiky undergrowth finding plant after plant hidden amongst the shrubs. Eventually I caught sight of a small spineless cactus lying amongst the leaves and there was my first ‘wild’ Tephrocactus. It was in a fairly desiccated state and showed little sign of life. The plant had no discernable spines (Fig. 3) and I concluded that this was probably T. articulatus ‘inermis’. I took a few photos and set about looking for more.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3. Tephrocactus articulatus 'inermis' near Serrezuela.

Ignoring the comments to the effect that these plants were not worth looking for I wandered off and succeeded in finding a couple of other loose clumps all very similar to the first. Despite the very dry condition of the plants the segments were quite firmly attached to each other unlike the plant I grow under this name which seems to disintegrate towards the end of its dry winter rest. I have pondered this since and now tend towards the conclusion that the propensity of this species to fall apart is not solely due to lack of winter moisture and may be related to other physiological aspects generated by the British winter (cold and high humidity, lack of sunlight and even lack of UV light). Eventually I was dragged away from my search for further specimens and we boarded the bus for the last stop for the day. This was at a site called Monte Negro where we stopped to see a crested Stetsonia which was very impressive. I was just as taken by a much healthier T. articulatus ‘inermis’ growing beside the gate into the scrubby wood containing the Stetsonia. This clump actually showed signs of new growth and was far plumper than the earlier specimens. The whole area looked ‘fresher’ than the previous stop and suggested a recent shower of rain. I was pleased to have encountered a Tephrocactus on day one and looked forward to the next day when the itinerary promised more.

Day 2 Chamical to Chilecito

Day 2 also started early and we were off again along Route 38 heading towards Petunia and the road to Los Colorados. Almost as soon as we left Chamical we began to notice large patches of Tephrocactus lining both sides of the road and after a little cajoling we persuaded Willy to make an unscheduled stop to look more closely at them (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4. Tephrocactus articulatus forms. Near Chamical, Argentina.

Many of these plants looked much like the ‘inermis’ variety from the day before but amongst them were plants much closer to T. articulatus var. articulatus (Fig. 5). They grew in the sandy soil in the margin between the road and the scrubland beyond and seemed to be present in very large numbers. There was no evidence of any seedlings but instead there were quite a few plants which consisted of one or two segments and were obviously the product of recent vegetative reproduction. I could have spent a couple of hours wandering up and down examining the variety of spination on show here but after half an hour or so I was again dragged back on the bus and we headed for Los Colorados.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5. Tephrocactus articulatus form. North of Chamical.

Los Colorados turned out to be a magical location where we saw upwards of fifteen species of cacti in a fairly small area (Fig. 6). The cacti included two species of Tephrocactus (articulatus and alexanderi), Pterocactus kuntzei (tuberosus), Lobivia aurea, Opuntia sulphurea, Trichocereus terscheckii, Gymnocalycium riojense, Gymnocalycium schickendantzii and Echinopsis leucantha.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6. Los Colorados.

The T. articulatus found here were much more heavily spined and to my obvious joy sported seed pods some of which I duly collected. The T. alexanderi looked much like those you would encounter in cultivation and on the whole looked quite healthy. They formed low mats upwards of a foot across but unfortunately none were in flower. Eventually I found some with seed pods and after a struggle (they were very hard and woody) opened one to find it packed with seed. Some of these were also collected.

The Pterocactus kuntzei had recently finished flowering and most plants sported only one or two shoots. These shoots seemed to be this year’s growth and terminated in a spent flower lending credence to what I had read regarding them being essentially deciduous. Willy excavated one so that we could examine the tuber and found it to be about the size of a duck egg. It was growing in what appeared to be pure sand and unfortunately lost its top growth during the process (Figs. 7 and 7a). A day could have been spent here wandering amongst the rocks but we were on a tight schedule so after a couple of hours it was back to the bus and onwards. I think at this stage Willy was beginning to think my tastes somewhat ‘odd’ as we were surrounded by splendid specimens of the other species and I was expressing most interest in the plants he referred to as ‘weeds’.

Fig. 7   Fig. 7a

 Figs 7. & 7a. Pterocactus kuntzei and its later excavated tuber.

After a lunch of empanadas we visited a well known cactus garden at Chirau Mita which contained dozens of very well grown plants – both native and non native- including some impressive Tephrocactus selected by the owner for their fine spination. After eyeing up a very impressive Tephrocactus alexanderi with large segments and white spines and making very impressed noises to the owner I was delighted when he presented me with a segment to take home.

It was then off to the hotel (part of a chain of hotels owned by the Argentinean equivalent of the RAC) for a good meal and some rest.

Day 3 Chilecito to Fiambala

Day 3 started with a visit to the dried up bed of the Rio Capayan. This was a very broad, shallow river bed with what would have been numerous islands had the water been present. The flotsam and jetsam indicated that the islands were covered with water at some period in the year and yet several species of cacti grew on them and on the edges of the river.

Again there were half a dozen of so species of cacti to be seen within a few hundred meters of the road including a great profusion of Tephrocactus articulatus. At this location they sported very wide white papery spines reminiscent of clones I have seen in the UK bearing the name ‘papryacantha’. Again there was no sign of seedlings but a vast number of rooted segments spread along the course of the river. The conclusion drawn was that the water broke the plants up and they rooted and grew where they washed up.

The next stop was at a location called Cerro Negro again to see several species of cacti growing in close proximity to each other. The highlight here was a profusion of Tephrocactus alexanderi most of which had open flowers (Fig. 8). They were in very good condition and as elsewhere seemed to be growing a in a mixture of sand and gravel. There were also several variations on Tephrocactus articulatus to be seen some of which were five or six segments high. Growing with them were Gymnocalycium glaucum, Echinopsis leucantha and Opuntia sulphurea.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8. Tephrocactus alexanderi at Cerro Negro.

The last stop of the day was at La Puntilla where we saw Tephrocactus weberi growing on a granite rock face along with Gymnocalycium catamarcense var. schmidianum, Tephrocactus articulatus (I was by now getting the idea that this was a very common plant indeed) and Lobivia huascha. The T. weberi (Fig. 9) were reassuringly like one of the clones I grow (the long white spined type) and seemed in very good condition.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9. Tephrocactus weberi at La Puntilla.

By now the sun was quite low in the sky and it was time to call it a day. I felt very fortunate to have seen the T. alexanderi in flower and generally to have seen so many of the plants I am interested in growing in habitat. The next day's visit has already been covered in my previous article so when I resume the account we will have crossed the Andes into Chile.

This article was originally published in Tephrocactus Study Group (the 'TSG Journal'), September 2009, Vol. 15, No. 3, pages 32-38. © TSG and Mike Partridge