Adventures in Mexico part VII
11th November 2014
Another 7am start and I am missing my breakfasts! We drove past the reservoir southwest of Zimapan heading for the large mountain of Cerro La Laja.
In a trip that had already surpassed expectation, the itinerary on this particular day was one I was really very excited about. Last time in Mexico we had an aborted attempt at reaching the top of Cerro La Laja as both the weather and time were against us. Now we had all day. I wanted to see a population of Agave montana that lives at the top of the mountain. It is possibly my absolute favourite species of Agave and one I have visited several times much further north in Nuevo Leon/Tamaulipas borders - but here it is again a few hundred km further south. And there is also another interesting side story. I have in my garden at home a plant grown from seed collected from Agave montana at the Cerro La Laja site – pictured below - and it is very unusual, nothing like Agave montana. Most probably a hybrid.
I had read on the internet of a purported hybrid between Agave montana and Agave mitis but the person reporting this was refusing steadfastly to share where he had seen it. But there were more clues and joining the dots made me believe that this canyon at the top of Cerro La Laja was home to not only Agave montana but also Agave mitis and the hybrid between the two. The very thing I have in my garden, in fact. I was hoping to complete the circle this day.
Anyway, off we went! We stopped briefly at a good site for Dasylirion longissimum – that is to say the ‘real’ Dasylirion longissium, not Dasylirion quadrangulatum. Which is a whole different story for another time. Here it is at its scruffy best, together with a gorgeous little Agave that I can’t put a name to.
There was an abundance of a nice blue and compact form of Agave striata here, together with some nice Ferocactus hystrix.
Further along the road and I had to stop to take pictures of these magnificent Nolina parviflora. Convenient to compare and contrast with the weeping plants we had seen the day before.
These are such handsome plants – why doesn’t anyone grow them‼
We found our way onto the road leading up to the top and, catching a glimpse of an Agave montana in the distance, we stopped and wandered up a track to see what we could find there – we were around 2950m altitude at this point. And what we found was Agave Heaven. Here one of the most impressive agaves I have ever caught sight of – a stupendously chunky Agave salmiana ssp crassispina with broad, fat, slightly rippled leaves at its absolute peak of maturity. Drop dead gorgeous.
Then, further in, the Agave montana started to appear. Some were clustering, which is something they don’t do at the site further north. Also pleased to see Nolina parviflora right up here at this altitude and, even though it is in shade, it is still growing in character with a stiff-leaved crown.
It was so interesting to see the similarities between the habitat and plant communities here and at the northern site at La Peña, with Nolina parviflora taking the place of Nolina hibernica and Agave salmiana taking the place of Agave gentry. Although off my radar, Mark tells me a lot of the shrubs and herbaceous plants are the exact same species
We found quite a few of the largest plants that had been cut into the heart of the plant then stoppered with a suitably shaped rock. Clearly these mature plants are being used for pulque production (pulque being an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave sap) – this is something that wasn’t evident in the northern population. It would also possibly explain why many plants here are clustering as often interfering with the flowering process of a, usually, solitary species can cause this. Fascinating!
Lots of other nice things caught my eye – this brilliant blue Pellaea sp and Echeveria sp.
After good old mooch around we headed off – we still hadn’t reached Cerro La Laja! On the way we passed this hillside packed with majestic Nolina parviflora and yet another awesome Agave salmiana.
Then we found our marker for parking - a small quarry - and set off on foot over the top of the hill to the canyon the other side – and the agaves! The north side of the canyon was home to a decent sized colony, although it was evident that cutting the plants for pulque here was having a marked effect as there were a significant number of dead mature plants and very little seedling regeneration.
And sure enough, once the mist had cleared sufficiently we could see vast numbers of Agave mitis on the other side of the canyon, clustering in their thousands at the feet of a huge population of Nolina parviflora. Some were extremely glaucous, a far cry from the glossy green plants I have seen growing in shade, and possibly close to the var. albidior, which was found not too far from here. And that beautifully coloured Pellaea was here over this side of the hill, too.
I stumbled about – very carefully, I have terrible vertigo and the terrain was very steep - scanning around the Agave mitis to see if I could see any possible hybrids. And I saw, amongst others, these. Both different from the Agave mitis, the Agave montana and each other but both somehow half way between. The one pictured left has the dense rosette structure of Agave montana and is significantly larger than the nearby Agave mitis. The one pictured right is almost a carbon copy of my plant at home, shown at the top of this page, which I say again was grown from seed collected from Agave montana at this site. Nice when a plan comes together!
More nice ferns, more nice vistas and, back at the top, more nice Agave salmiana…
Our work here done, we headed off downhill and had a very late lunch at a neat, if rustic, comedor at the roadside. They were offering pulque, which none of us had tried before, so we ordered one cup of it between us. I think Neil summed up the taste of it succinctly as being somewhere between cider and sewerage. Mark said he liked it. And it was nice to have a second opinion regarding our dodgy brakes. They were clucked, apparently.
Very nearby was the town of San Joaquin. Whilst researching the trip I found a couple of small references to the archaeological site of Ranas, just north of town, that doesn’t feature in many guide books. It seemed rude not to call in, as we were passing, although the weather was starting to close in with some heavy fog developing. We got there with just 50 minutes left until the gates were locked so we rushed around in the mist and drizzle. Totally atmospheric!
Mark drove heroically in the dark for 2.5hrs back to Zimapan through a colossal rainstorm. We had already ordered our dinner – another local specialty of rabbit in mole sauce which was absolutely welcome and delicious, albeit quite hot and spicy!
What a day!