Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Blooming Billbergia pallidiflora...An Elusive Prey

Billbergia pallidiflora fruiting in Jalisco
Billbergias are part of the bromeliad family, the plants that I take great joy in growing and studying in habitat. The species tend to have fairly plain looking leaves that are usually arranged in a tall, tubular vase shape.  But when they bloom, it is usually worth the wait.  Billbergia pallidiflora is one of the two species of Billbergia found in Mexico.  It is quite widespread from the furthest southern states of Mexico up the Pacific coast and even into Sinaloa, the second to last state before getting to the US.  I have seen plants in several of those states many times.  Even some which were fruiting a couple of times.  But I had not been able to time the trip to see one in bloom.

Typically that wouldn't bother me all too much, but I was very curious about the plant's name--pallidiflora.  It means pale flowered.  Most Billbergias have quite bright and showy flowers, so what would the look like?  Unfortunately there are not very decent quality pictures that I could find in my internet searches, so I guess it was up to me to find a blooming specimen.  The ones I have growing from seed are going to take too long to bloom with my impatience!

Billbergia pallidiflora fruit
in Chiapas in March
The odd part was that I had seen fruiting individuals at different times of year in the different parts of the country.  That makes it hard trying to plan a chance to see one in bloom!  I may be impatient and want to see the flowers, but I certainly wasn't going to plan a trip just for that.  So I had to rely on persistence and luck.

Billbergia pallidiflora is a well camouflaged plant that likes to grow somewhat high up in the trees.  They seem to grow mostly in the crotches of oak trees and range from green to a dark purple with light banding.  With eagle eyes, you can sometimes spot them from the highways when driving from Puerto Vallarta up the mountains of Cabo Corrientes to the town of El Tuito.  It takes a while to be able to develop that pattern recognition.  I still find new plants on hikes I have done numerous times.

Back to the story at hand.  I had been keeping an eye out for a blooming Billbergia for a couple of years.  I knew where plenty of plants were growing and was only missing the knowledge of when they were doing their thing.  It was necessary to explore at different times of year...and I never miss an excuse to travel to Mexico!

This time I was able to go to Puerto Vallarta in early June—just before the start of the rainy season. It had already rained a few times and the plants were starting to show signs of fresh growth.  I wanted to hike to the top of a mountain that I have long eyed from a distance.  Several times I had explored around the base, but I didn't know the best route up and I was only willing to be so adventurous when hiking alone.  So asking around I found a friend of a friend whose uncle lived at the base of the mountain and would be able to take me to the top.

In my backpack I was carrying a couple of liters of water, but it was hot. The beginning of the hike was not too steep, but exposed to the sun.  Whew! I forgot how soft I was for living in coastal California! But I was doing a fair job rationing my water. We kept climbing and entered the forest.  This is where a guide is necessary. There are some grazing cattle on the mountain, so there is a network of criss-crossing paths that are easy to lose your bearings. And when climbing ridges and crossing ravines you have to rely on a different sense of directions.

Pitahaya, or dragon fruit, with the
large flower buds almost open.
Once we gained enough elevation to get into a more open oak forest, we found a ridge to climb. It honestly didn't look all that steep. But the combination of being somewhat out of shape and living at sea level meant that any elevation gain was adding up fast! Once the pines and a larger species of oak started appearing, so did the interesting epiphytes.  

Of course the type of plants growing in an are not only depends on the elevation but also the exposure. On the ridges and faces looking toward the ocean there was a nice pleasant breeze that made the day pleasant. But down in the ravines and other places where the wind was blocked it was hot, sticky, and very humid. Most of the Tillandsias and orchids preferred the ridges. Philodendrons and even an epiphytic cacus, the pitahaya (left with flowers preparing to open), liked the more humid pockets. The understory brush is also significantly thicker in the ravines. And naturally, all of the vines and shrubs that are the easiest to grab to help keep your balance are covered with thorns and spines. Gloves are a good idea even if it is hot.

An orchid growing on a boulder.
After one last steep ravine we finally made it to a nice, fairly open ridge. I could see the top of the mountain.  WAY up there.  It was at this point that I realized that my guide didn't bring any water!  So there went a good portion of my water that I lugged that far up the mountain already.  The orchids were getting more numerous, but no Billbergias yet.  This was a different approach to the mountain, so I had not seen this side yet.  However, the vegetation was getting much more promising.  On the ridge we were getting a nice breeze and I was seeing some familiar plants.  One of which is most likely a new species of Nolinarelated to the Beaucarnias (pony tail palms) and Agaves. We decided to have lunch on some rocks that had agaves and orchids growing on them.  

A Billbergia clump with
flowers just about to emerge
on the right hand plant.
Not much more than a dozen steps away from our lunch spot I found the first clump of Billbergia pallidiflora! And it was just days away from flowering!! The inflorescence was just starting to emerge from the leaves. It looked like I had finally gotten lucky with my timing and caught the bloom season just in time.

We kept hiking up for maybe another half an hour. Unfortunately I was now out of water.  It was getting even warmer. And the summit was still a tough climb.  I decided that I need to save the little bit of energy left in my jelly-like legs to make it back down the mountain. Plus at that point I had just found a Billbergia in the absolute peak of blooming, a colony of the new species of Nolina, an epiphytic agave (not too common), and a Tillandsia that is a natural hybrid between two species.  I think I can count it as a successful hike—even if the summit still eludes me.  There will still be more opportunities to make my way to the summit to discover what lives on those rocks.