A Study Visit To Mexico
By Gwenda Kitchener
Following a period of work in the Cacti and Succulent Section of the Tropical Nursery at R.B.G. Kew, I found that I had developed a great interest in these plants. When it came to deciding on a location to visit for the Kew Diploma scholarship, I approached Nigel Taylor (Curator of R.B.G. Kew) for suggestions. He suggested working with Cante, a Mexican conservation organisation which has a botanic garden in the town of San Miguel de Allende. I was invited to visit and carry out some project work there by Charles Glass (the Curator).
Cante is a non-profit making, independent Mexican organisation. Although not directly controlled by the government, it does have recognition from the government agency SEDISOL (the Secretariat for Social Development). Cante is involved in the conservation of the endangered plants of Mexico and has been awarded a generous and fairly comprehensive collecting permit. Cante always tries to involve the participation of local people in any action to be undertaken.
The main threat to the endangered plants of Mexico (in particular cacti) used to come from private and commercial collectors that used to decimate whole species populations. However, due to greater awareness of the need for conservation, the main threat now is due to habitat loss caused by the rapid development of man’s activities. The work that Cante is carrying out is of particular importance as Mexico has a rapidly increasing population, rapid habitat destruction and has been designated an extinction hotspot. There are a high number of endangered species found only in Mexico. Agenda 21 of The Convention of Biological Diversity (agreed at the Rio Conference 1990) has emphasised the importance of non-government organisations as being integral parts of a national response to the rational utilisation of biological diversity.
San Miguel de Allende is a small city, located in the heart of the central high plain (Altiplano) in the state of Guanajuato. It is a beautiful colonial town in a beautiful setting and has become known for its large community of artists, who started coming to the town in the 1940’s. The surrounding rural area nurtures a great diversity of plants and animals and is particularly rich in cacti and succulent flora.
For approximately half of my stay I worked in the nursery and conservatory at the botanic garden. Most of the work involved propagating plants in the collection and reorganising the collection. The Botanic Garden is very wild and beautiful. There is a large ravine running through the centre of it with a natural population of Ferrocactus growing up the cliff face. A large collection of goldenbarrel cactus (rescued from a dam development) is another impressive spectacle.
For the other half of my stay I was invited to join two field expeditions that Charles Glass was organising. The first was to the Sierra Madres mountain range and lasted for 10 days. We met up with another botanist, Alfred Lau, who was accompanied by a Philippino monk and 10 children from his missionary school. We travelled up through the mountains and stayed either with Mexican indians, or camped on dried-up river beds. The area was extremely remote and quiet. We collected a new species of Euphorbia, which the Mexican boys said had hallucinogenic properties. We also collected Tillandsias, orchids and many species of cacti. Many of these plants are as yet undescribed and the whole region has not yet been fully botanically explored.
The second field trip was to the state of San Louis Potosi. We visited a site that Cante had bought in order to protect an extremely rare cactus there. We saw new and undescribed species of Turbinocarpus and Mammillaria, which was particularly exciting. Another high point was seeing a colony of star shaped Asterophytum growing on a rock face. This region was characterised by hillsides covered in Bursera scrub and giant Setnocereus cacti.
Cante is a very unusual organisation as it is a Mexican charity. The people who work there are extremely dedicated to plant conservation and, as a consequence, have a policy of employing and training young and enthusiastic Mexican boys in order to educate and instil an appreciation of their own flora. The visit proved to be a wonderful experience and it was a pleasure working with such knowledgeable, friendly and generous people.