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Home > Begonian > Volume 71 (January/February 2004)

Continuing to Search for Species Begonias in Veracruz and Adjacent Oaxaca States
by Rekha Morris

On the afternoon of April 311 2003 we began our drive out of Mexico City, taking over two hours to reach its outskirts to the toll road linking Mexico City with Pachuca where we would take highway 85 north to Tamazunchale. Although we had intended to spend the night in Pachuca, approximately 100 km from Mexico City, we arrived there a little before dusk, and decided to keep going as long as there was daylight. By the time we reached Actopan [Hidalgo state] some 35 km north on hwy. 85, night had fallen. Uncertain of finding a hotel anywhere between Actopan and Tamazunchale, a distance of over 200 km on a road which winds its way up and down mountains all the way from just north of Actopan, we decided to spend the night in Actopan. Early next morning we set off for Tamazunchale [San Luis Potosi state].

Our drive north took us first through dry and arid, rock strewn hilly areas of Hidalgo state where all that I saw growing were cacti but cacti such as I have never seen before or since. These were not mere balls or a series of upright forms but had unusual branching forms some like little upright candelabras while others had pendulous branches like miniature weeping willows. Those that were spherical in shape were either enormous in size or proliferated into dozens of smaller spheres mounded together like so many upturned terra cotta pots seen along roadside stalls. It was only later that I was to read that Mexico has one of the largest and most diverse species of cacti in the world.

Quite abruptly cacti gave way to what looked like a temperate region forest comprised of junipers and pines. Unlike rain forests where every inch of ground as well as all the tree trunks are swathed in green, this forested area had little undergrowth. However, the exposed rocks beneath the trees and along the roadside were encrusted with lichen, sedums and other succulents in shades of silver, gray, olive, tan and maroon. Here and there from between crevices small, pink zephyranthes bloomed although it had not rained that day or on previous days perhaps even weeks. This was not a habitat where one encounters begonias but nonetheless it was hauntingly captivating especially to a frustrated rock gardener such as myself.

Gradually the succulents on the rocks began to be accompanied by small ferns growing among patches of moss. id, where the slopes formed long, vertical clefts where moisture could be retained. Between the two protective sides there were larger ferns and an assortment of small trees and shrubs. Although my notes indicated that B. nelumbiifolia had been documented 12 miles south of Tamazunchale, long before this and about 43 km north of Jacala or approximately 50 km south of Tamazunchale, I saw my first B. nelumbiifolia, a small, red veined variety. From that point onwards there were isolated clumps of B. nelumbiifolia, and since my notes indicated that B. karwinskyana had been documented some 60 km north of Jacala, I began to search the hill sides carefully for begonias. Since I had never seen B. karwinskyana illustrated I had to rely on Prof Burt-Utley's description of its light green leaf blades as being "asymmetrically obovate to broadly elliptic, basally deeply cordate with lobes usually overlapping." In addition I kept a strict watch on our odometer, and as we approached the 60 km point north of Jacala, I found myself sitting on the edge of the car seat, head craned out of the window, anxiously wondering if the odd looking B. nelumbifolia I had just seen was not in fact B. karwinskyana.

B. ludicra growing along  waterfall
Above is B. ludicra growing along waterfall, Hwy. 175, Oaxaca and below is B. mariti also Hwy. 175, Oaxaca.
B. mariti

Within a short distance of the indicated area I did find B. karwinskyana growing so far up a steep cliff that I could not reach it to take leaf samples. A little further along the road were a few others growing not in large clumps as I had grown accustomed to seeing begonias such as B. nelumbifolia or B. barkeri, but isolated plants with their leaves pock marked with holes and burned at the edges. There had been a drought in the area so that not only were the few specimens of B. karwinskyana which had managed to retain their foliage not at their best, but B. glandulosa, which I had photographed 2 km south of Tamazunchale in the heart of this pocket of rain forest habitat in San Luis Potosi state the previous December, drooped sadly with most of their foliage half withered. Despite the sparse and despondent samples of B. karwinskyana I encountered, I was able to take a few leaf samples for the herbarium and a small rhizome within reach. The latter has taken root and begun to send up two leaves here in Pendleton, SC. By the time we reached Tamazunchale, mist and twilight enveloped the hills, and the dim lights of habitations sprinkled along distant slopes flickered like glow worms.

The following morning we headed out of Tamazunchale to reach the junction of 120 with hwy. 85 some 30 km north of the city. This road, referred to as the Xilitla road in the footnote which located B. xilitlensis some ten miles along it, winds southwards from its junction with hwy. 85 through picturesque terrain. Although the plants along the cliffs above the road were covered by a fine film of dust, they grew with sufficient vigor to signal the presence of moisture although we could detect nothing but dry air. Five or six km from the junction of hwy 85 1 saw an exposed hill side with patches of light green against the gray of the stone. We had almost driven past this section when I realized that these were patches of B. wallichiana clinging to the steep slope. A few at the edges of the road retained their seed capsules, which I collected. B. wallichiana [often mistaken for B. hirtella] grows in such profusion and often ubiquitously in both Veracruz and Oaxaca that it receives scant attention from begonia lovers. I have learned to respect its presence as invariably there are other begonias to be found near it. And sure enough as I peered upwards into the under brush some thirty feet down hill from where B. wallichiana clung precariously to the steep cliff side, I saw dark green mats which turned out to be the foliage of B. glandulosa. I had not expected to see this species here, and had hoped that these might be B. xilitlensis which according to Prof Burt-Utley's article published in 1984 had last been collected over 35 years previously.

As indicated in her article, the cliffs around here were indeed steep, and B. glandulosagrew way beyond our reach. Michael, my husband, slowly pulled himself up a slightly more gradual incline by clinging to shrubs and small trees within his reach. Some fifteen feet up he managed to collect a couple of small clumps of B. glandulosa, and then spying one with a floral stalk he reached for it only to find the ledge on which he stood collapse under his feet. I heard him slipping and stopped photographing thinking that surely he would either grab hold of a branch or brace his feet against some shrub, but he kept slipping silently. As I ran down hill towards him I saw him sliding down, his body absolutely rigid, one hand holding the small bag of begonias, and uttering neither verbal expletives nor flailing around to grab at whatever is within reach, which is my way of dealing with such situations. Astounded at what I saw I nevertheless thought that since he was heading down feet first he would land on them. Instead just as he reached the edge of the embankment he turned and landed on his lower right hip, and with a sound between a soft grown and a sigh lay still and silent.

B. pustulata
B. pustulata, Hwy. 175, Oaxaca .

I ran up and in my haste dropped one of my cameras so that the roll of film was exposed. As I knelt beside him calling out his name and seeing him continuing to lie inert and unresponsive, I was overcome with shock at having killed him to satisfy my injudicious desire to return with another sampling of B. glandulosa. There was no one within miles of this isolated spot, and all I could do was hysterically repeat his name interspersed with "oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." Before I could collect my wits to do more than this verbal equivalent of ineffectual wringing of hands, he opened his eyes but remained silent. I offered to run up hill to the car to get water, instead he began to sit up and told me that he would try to walk up with me. In obvious pain, he nevertheless managed to stagger up supporting himself against me, and slowly managed to limp his way to the car.

Having determined that he had no bruises or lumps on his skull and neck, I massaged the bruise on his lower right side with a gel containing tea tree oil [a powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungal substance], arnica [to relieve pain] and aloe. Although Michael sat sipping juice it was clear that he was in shock as he did not seem to know where we were. As part of my first aid kit I carried a homeopathic preparation designed to mitigate trauma, and 20 minutes after taking 4 drops of this, I was relieved to see that his awareness of what had transpired was returning to normal. I insisted that he rest in the car for a couple of hours before attempting to drive us back.

While he did this I walked up and down examining the cliffs and continuing to search for begonias between returning to the car check on him. All I found was one nearly withered B. heracleifolia some 100 feet down hill from where we had stopped to photograph B. wallichiana and B. glandulosa, and not far from the hugest hive of killer bees I have ever seen! Thanks to a long program on killer bees I had watched on TV a few months earlier, I registered with mounting horror the antics of a bee buzzing around at first and then deliberately colliding against my head as I walked slowly examining the cliffs. According to this documentary, killer bees have scouts a little distance from the hive, and these warn approaching humans by first buzzing around them and then colliding with their heads. It was at this juncture that I suddenly realized what this bee was trying to communicate. I hastily started to walk away and as I turned to do so my eyes fell on a section of hillside further up from where I was looking for begonias and saw a bee hive nearly 4-6 in length with hundreds of bees clustered around it. As I headed away from the hive, the bee which had been buzzing and bumping against by head disappeared, and with relief and gratitude to those who had documented the habits of killer bees I made my way back to the car.

Hours later as we drove further down hill searching for a place to turn around, I noticed a path winding up between large patches of corn. Except for the cliffs which were extremely steep all the slopes close to the road had been slashed of their original growth and given over to growing corn. As Michael slowly inched the car up this dirt path to turn around, 1 got out and began walking up hill, all the while conscious of this inexorably irrational drive which impelled me to search for begonias despite the terrible accident and my frightening encounter with killer bees. To my relief I located a small patch of some six plants of B. nelumbifolia. Prof. BurtUtley's 1984 article on B. xilitlensis had stated that "recent attempts to recollect B.xilitlensis from this area have been unsuccessful, yielding from section Gireoudia only B. heracleifolia". I had also found B. nelumbiifolia from section Gireoudia not to mention B. glandulosa which had taken such a physical and psychological toll on both of us.

After resting for another day we abandoned the idea of driving southwards on route 105 to locate more B. karwinskyana, and headed back on highway 85 for Puebla and on to Tropical World for much needed rest. A day before we were to fly home Michael heroically drove me south to Oaxaca to look for B. mariti along highway 175. Between light showers and spells of heavy downpours, we slowly drove along this road which winds through mountainous landscapes of breathtaking beauty. Towering tree ferns, gigantic Elephant's Ears [alocacia] larger than those on any elephant extant on earth, numerous bromeliads, gesneriads, syngoniums, philodendrons, peperomias, passifloras, anthuriums and a host of other tropical plants vie for attention. Dripping with moisture the many shades of green glistened with luminous clarity especially when the showers abated temporarily, and sunlight reflected off their rain drenched surfaces. All the many familiar plants commonly encountered as house plants not only grew in great profusion but with an opulence which beggars description. In this sumptuous landscape it was difficult to concentrate only on begonias, yet it was these that I had come to document, so forcing my seeing mind to focus on begonias, I scoured the verdant cliffs as we slowly drove along ridges which seemed to be carved out of onyx, agate and jade with dazzling emerald highlights.

We made one detour off this main road so that I could check out a site where we had located B. sericoneura the previous December to see if they had flowered and set seed. To our delight there were over a dozen clusters of seed pods which I collected slipping and sliding on the wet and muddy hillside as the rain came down in torrents.

Not only did I succeed in locating several large colonies of B. mariti but I also found B. heracleifolia. B. nelurnbifolia, B. glabra, B. pustzdata and B. ludicra. Although the large colony of B. ludicra growing around a small waterfall had foliage which was green on both sides, one short strand at the lower edge of the same waterfall had foliage which was a rich maroon-purple on the reverse. 1 collected samples of this foliage for the herbarium, and a 10" length of stem which had rooted at several nodes. This to my surprise has survived, and, divided in two, now grows in a pot outdoors as well as in a terrarium. Among the several thick stands of B. pustulata I encountered along hwy. 175, there were two isolated small clumps of this species growing where a cliff side took a short right angled jog.

I had been photographing an unusual grouping of a dozen small plants of B. heracleifolia with dark chocolate markings which grew along a near vertical rock surface covered in moss as though they had been artificially anchored there by a zealous rock gardener. As I started uphill towards the car, I noticed a bright green leaf against exposed soil where the rain had created a minor landslide. Looking closer I realized that this was B. pustulata growing quite a distance from the larger colonies I had so far documented. More significantly, the juvenile foliage as well as the reverse side of mature leaves of this B. pustulata were the color of cranberries. Nearby was yet another form with silvery white maculation, the only one of its kind I found there.

Grateful that I was not returning empty handed from this traumatic trip, we returned to Tropical World where I spent the night cleaning, drying and packing the herbarium samples, roots and rhizomes I had collected. Although all the rhizomes I collect are washed repeatedly during the course of each trip, I spend the night before our flight back to the States as I did this one in rechecking every specimen in preparation for their inspection by USDA officials at the Atlanta airport, notorious for confiscating plants at the merest hint of soil still adhering to any of them.

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