Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Surprise..But a New Species?

One of the great things about exploring for plants in habitat is that every hillside and every ravine might hold the next surprise. That surprise can be anything from simply a beautifully grown plant in just the right spot, a plant growing well out of its known range, or my favoritea new species! It is hard to ignore the draw of this romantic notion.  Just like as a kid dreaming of being an archaeologist and discovering new dinosaurs or being Indiana Jones exploring a long lost temple, exploring the wilds for new plants is a huge adrenaline rush.  But just like archaeology, it involves a lot of long, much less romantic work and doesn't always allow for a clear cut 'Eureka!' moment.

After finding a plant that you think might be a new taxon (a new species) it is generally a long process to confirm it. Much more research is needed to compare to all known relatives, look at the population distributions, and check with botanists to check if they recognize the plant. This is why good notes and good (and many) pictures are crucial. Initial observations can be inflated in the excitement, forgotten, or distorted by time. It also makes it easier to discuss the plant with others around the world.

This plant is a good example.  We were exploring a small road (meaning: slow, bumpy, long, winding, and not sure exactly where and when we would find a highway again) on the way to an interesting rock formation that we knew had spectacular plants.  Unfortunately this one took us higher in elevation and into less than favorable terrain for the type of plants we were looking for. Just as we started descending a little bit I could see a patch of rocks peeking out of the deciduous forest above a stream.  It looked just steep enough and tough enough to be hiding some Hechtias!  The binoculars were not nearly strong enough to even show if there were some Hechtias tucked in those rocks.  So off for a hike!

Fortunately there was a small driveway for some fields where we could park out of the way. After we passed the fields we scrambled down along a river.  It was such a calm area, perfect for a small cross and streamers hanging above the small river.  It was getting more rocky and a little more steep.  Definitely closer to the type of area where the Hechtias like to grow.  We crossed the river just above a cascade.  As it was the dry season, the water was low and started at the top through a single sluice.  Being in a forest it was hard to get a good angle of the cascade, but the bottom levels had a reasonable view (above, right).    

Once we scrambled down past the cascade we were within sight of the exposed rocks.  The problem was that they were up above where we were now.  At least from this point we could see up that there were indeed Hechtias growing around the rocks.  No way to tell what they were without going on up!  

Even though it was steep it was surprisingly not difficultor maybe I am learning how to climb these steep, loose, dry, and thorny slopes!  The reward was finding some interesting plants.  They looked to have similar leaves to plants we had seen in other parts of the region, but the old inflorescences looked different.  Like many Hechtias, they were tucked in between and around rocks.  It is both dry for most plants, but also likely to harbor moisture underneath and between the rocks.  Hechtia roots like to run deep, so they likely find a somewhat more reliable source of water to sustain them during the dry seasons.

In the picture above, this old female inflorescence shows that the flowers were tightly clustered.  Not what was expected!  Like most species, the leaves were variable in color and pattern.  The plant to the right had a large amount of red on the leaves whereas most in the population were predominantly green with just a few red spots.

A red Agave growing with Hechtias
Because of the general conformation of the plants and where they were found, at the time I made the assumption that they were a terminal blooming species.  This is a case of being fatigued and not very careful.  Looking back at pictures I was able to realize that these were lateral blooming plants and are clearly closely affiliated with the species Hechtia glomerata.  There were individual rosettes that had two or three inflorescences coming from them, meaning that even without seeing the point of origin they had to be lateral.  Hechtia glomerata is a very widespread and extremely variable species, so as I look into whether this is a new species I need to first compare it to H. glomerata.  Unless I get a chance to revisit this remote location so I will have to hope my seedlings hurry along and bloom.  I will be lucky to have mature plants in around five years, so clearly this will be a long term project!  So it may be long in the future before I can have the hope of exclaiming, 'Eureka!'.