The cultivation of plants brings endless smiles to the fields of the initiated. As a lover of flora, being able to grow plants in your garden or greenhouse is truly a joyous pastime. One in which I proudly devote far too much time. However, for me there is a level above this. That level is being able to travel to far away lands and see the very plants that you cultivate, in their natural habitat. In situ, if you will. You can appreciate the lion in a zoo, but can only admire him in the wilds of Africa. Gardens are zoos for plants.
Over the last few decades I have been very fortunate to be able to travel the globe and see so many amazing plants in there natural element. A place where they have evolved over millions of years to thrive. From seeing Rafflesia keithii in the jungles of Borneo, to hiking in the Andringitra Mountains of Madagascar to find Ravenea glauca, and all stops in between, each has been a dream come true.
As my appreciation for the genus Agave has grown, one plant in that genus has always stood out – Agave albopilosa. It is the most unique Agave in the genus, and it also has one of the most restricted growing ranges. Looking at pictures of it defying gravity by hanging onto a sheer cliff placed it at the top of my list for must-see plants in habitat. After many years of waiting, I finally had an opportunity to make my way to the Huasteca Canyon in Mexico to see this beauty in all its glory.
There is somewhat of a misnomer about the Huasteca Canyon (Cañon de la Huasteca). The reality is that the canyon is just one of many canyons in the much larger Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. The photo below taken from out my airplane window shows some of the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. Even from the air you can see the steep canyon walls and limestone spines that make the area famous. The Cañon de la Huasteca is the canyon to the top in the middle. It is the first canyon you enter coming from Monterrey and occupies about 200 hectares of the park.
Almost immediately after you enter Huasteca Canyon, you see the spectacular rock formations that are found throughout the park and make it so popular for weekend warriors, eco-tourists and rock climbers alike. Some of the peaks in the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park approach 7,000 feet above sea level.
One of the first landmarks you see in Huasteca Canyon is the cliff house that belonged to famed Mexican writer, scientist and humanist Dr. Eduardo Aguirre Pequeño. Sadly, it has been left to fend for itself and vandalism has destroyed most of it.
After you pass the cliff house, it is about a 15 km drive down the paved La Huasteca canyon road until you reach the dam. Once you pass through the dam, it is all dirt roads from there. It is also the point at which there is a drastic drop-off of people and from where you can explore in relative peace.
The farther into Cumbres de Monterrey National Park we drove, the more photogenic it became. All the rock formations and limestone spines found throughout the park are the results of Karstification over millions of years.
After about an hour of driving, we started making stops along the way on our journey to see Agave albopilosa deep in the Cumbres de Monterrey. The plant that stood out the most to me at this point in Huasteca Canyon was Agave victoriae-reginae. Unlike Agave albopilosa, Agave victoriae-reginae was not as picky about where it would grow in the canyons. It could be found everywhere in the park, from the oldest, highest cliffs to the newly cut-out areas of the road.
Another common Agave in the canyons was Agave bracteosa. It had the same growth habit as Agave victoriae-reginae. Below, you see an Agave bracteosa with an old flower growing amongst Hechtia texensis.
Hechtia texensis was growing everywhere as well. I am still to this day picking out Hechtia texensis spines somewhere on my body.
Tillandsia karwinskiana also enjoyed growing right along the limestone walls.
I found Agave lechuguilla too ugly to photograph, so this is the only picture I have of this abundant species in the canyons. The Mammillaria chionocephala behind it was a much more attractive plant.
Mammillaria chionocephala with flowers and fruit.
Echinocereus viereckii ssp. huastescensis is an endemic plant found only in these canyons.
Another endemic plant in the canyons was Echinocereus fitchii var. armatus. What separates this variation from the very common Echinocereus fitchii found growing in Texas it the very long central spine. In some plants, the central spine was 1 inch long.
Keeping with the endemic theme, this Epithelantha unguispina ssp. huastecana can only be found growing in the canyons here as well. Somewhat difficult to spot, I was lucky to see Epithelantha unguispina ssp. huastecana during its flowering season.
During my four jammed-packed cactus-hunting days around Monterrey, I really fell in love with the genus Epithelantha. None of them are large cacti, but they were always very beautiful. The one below is actually good-sized, at just bigger than a golf ball. My wedding ring is used for scale in the second photo.
After spending the first half of the day admiring some of the many plants in Huasteca Canyon, it was time for lunch and to finally get to our main destination. This small community inside the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park would serve as the location where we would hike into the hills and climb up the mountains to see Agave albopilosa in its natural habitat.
My guide for the 4 days I spent around Monterrey was Miguel González Botello. Miguel is the former President of the Nuevo Leon Cactus and Succulent Society and truly is an expert in local succulents. Cacti are his speciality, and Miguel can pretty much take you to see any cactus that grows around Monterrey and the outlying areas. He knows where to find the plants in the wild and his ridiculously keen eye doesn’t miss anything. Here is Miguel at the “restaurant” we ate at before heading into the hills.
A local dwelling close to where Agave albopilosa could be found.
After a great lunch, it was time to climb. The first part of the journey was climbing up a steep scree field. It was literally two steps forward and one step back sliding, as it was very loose. Why not go to the side of the scree field, you ask? Because almost every plant that grows in the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park seems to have spines and wants to poke you. There were no trails here. It was the scree field or bust.
Climbing up the scree field I did find some really nice examples of some common canyon plants. Like this Dasylirion berlandieri.
Tormenting me off to my left the entire way up was the object of my desire – the limestone wall which Agave albopilosa called home.
Once I reached the top of the scree field, I was able to start climbing up the ridge of the limestone spine shown above. At about 50 feet along the ridge, I took this picture. It gives you a better idea about these spines that are found throughout Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. They are more like a shark’s fin poking out of the landscape. As you can see, they are really thin. It is this type of unique geography where you will find Agave albopilosa. Since its first discovery back in 1997 (not described as a species until 2007), Agave albopilosa has been a very desirable plant for collectors. Sadly, most the plants that one could reach easily have long been pulled from the wild. If you wish to see them up close nowadays, you must go through great effort.
Walking along the spine shown above, I was finally able to find about a 2-foot-wide ledge that I hopped down onto. It allowed me to make my way back out onto the cliff to photograph Agave albopilosa. There were a few times I would end up cussing at myself for getting into really stupid situations just to take photos of plants. Had I fallen or had the ledge given way, I could have easily died. Glad my wife doesn’t read my blog.
Once out on the ledge, the view made all the effort well worth it. The wall was lined with Agave albopilosa.
I didn’t have to climb too far out along the ridge to come across my first Agave albopilosa. Being able to touch these plants in habitat was a rare treat. The two photos below are of the same plant. In the first picture, looking to the left, you can see how high up I was.
Agave albopilosa with a Dasylirion berlandieri growing between them.
Agave albopilosa shares the cliffs with Agave bracteosa and Agave victoriae-reginae. Below is a photo looking down the cliff at the top of a group of Agave albopilosa and Agave victoriae-reginae co-habitating together. I wasn’t able climb down any farther to get a picture of the plants from the front.
The species name “albopilosa” is derived from the Latin ‘albus,-a,-um’ meaning white, and ‘pilosus,-a,-um’ meaning hairy. The hairs are found at the base of the terminal spine and are unique in the genus Agave. No other agave can be confused with Agave albopilosa. These tufts of white hair are what gave this agave the common name of the “Hairy-tipped Agave.” Since I hate that common name, I will always just refer to it as Agave albopilosa.
Agave albopilosa can be found growing as a solitary individual or in a small colony of usually 2-3. The leaves of Agave albopilosa are stiff, rough to the touch, yellowish-green, slightly curved and of course have the now famous white tufts of hair.
What is the purpose of these white hairs? No one really knows for sure. Agave albopilosa finds cracks in the limestone to make its home. Some believe that the white hairs help collect water from the fog that frequents the canyons in Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. This would be highly beneficial to a cliff-dwelling species.
Agave hybrid expert Dr. Jorge Armando Verduzco, of the University of Monterrey, believes Agave albopilosa to be an old cross between Agave victoriae-reginae and another agave which may since have disappeared. So the white hairs could have just been some random result from hybridization. Whatever their use, the white hairs, coupled with its gravity-defying growth on sheer cliffs, make this a great plant to photograph in habitat.
On this particular limestone spine, most the Agave albopilosa growing on the northeastern side had Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) growing on top of them. The plants on the other side of the spine (southwest facing) did not.
I was able to get myself to a really nice specimen on the southwest side of the limestone spine. You will notice the sun shining on it and the fact it has no Spanish moss.
I am not a selfie guy. However, I had to make an exception on this trip. With my big noggin for scale, you can see this is an exceptionally large example for this species.
While I never saw any seedling-sized Agave albopilosa, I did find an Agave bracteosa seedling to show you how little these agaves that grow on these limestone canyon walls really need to get established.
Someday that Agave bracteosa above will look likes these below.
Let me share a quick story about Agave bracteosa. While climbing around the walls, and in many spots, smearing against it as I shuffled along, I would bump up against plants. At times I even slipped or fell onto a plant. In those fractions of a second that my mind knew I was about to hit a plant, it would say, “Please be an Agave bracteosa and not an Agave victoriae-reginae.” Most of the time I was lucky, as it ended up being the pain-free Agave bracteosa. However, I still have bruises on my butt and legs to show when I wasn’t so lucky and ended up on top of an Agave victoriae-reginae. Needless to say, I have a new-found appreciation for Agave bracteosa.
It was getting late in the day and we still had a few more stops to make. So while I could have spent much more time at this location, I had to start my trek back to meet with Miguel, who waited for me at the base of the hill. While walking (and sliding) back down the scree field, I took this photo of the landscape across the ravine. It shows how thin the limestone spines (fins) that Agave albopilosa like to grow on can be.
One more photo before we left that part of the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. Here we pose at the base of the scree field and the limestone cliff where all the Agave albopilosa were that I took pictures of. Miguel’s lovely wife Margarita is in the picture as she joined us for the day. Margarita might even be a bigger plant lover than Miguel.
A lot has been written or talked about that Agave albopilosa can only be found growing in the Huasteca Canyon. It has also been stated that it is quite restricted within the canyon and only found growing in a few small populations. These are both false, as it can be found throughout much of the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. You just have to know where to look. During the one day I explored a small portion of Cumbres de Monterrey National Park with Miguel, we were able to spot it in numerous places. My bet is that it can be found growing on many of the thin limestone spines found scattered all throughout the canyons.
Case in point, while driving back into Huasteca Canyon proper, we stopped to visit an easily accessed location where Agave albopilosa could be found. The location was literally just off the side of the main canyon road. Running out of light, it was a quick visit just to see how depleted the cliffs were of Agave albopilosa when poachers can easily get to them.
There wasn’t any chance to reach the few remaining Agave albopilosa found on this limestone spine without climbing gear. You can see a small clump of Agave albopilosa in the bottom, middle third of the photo below. Far out of reach.
The stop wasn’t a total waste, as I was able to check the box on seeing another species I hadn’t seen before in habitat. This time it was Mammillaria prolifera.
Agave victoriae-reginae pushing out a flower stalk at the base of the limestone wall above.
The mountains in Huasteca Canyon appeared to glow at times under the fading sun.
By the time we passed under the dam and got back on the paved road in Huasteca Canyon, the sun had set behind the mountains.
Miguel and Margarita wanted to stop for a quick snack before getting to our final stop of the day. This is a roadside elote stand. Elote is grilled Mexican street corn to which you can add many different toppings, like mayonnaise, cotija cheese, lime juice, salt, chile sauce, butter, and/or sour cream.
Yes, of course I had to try it myself.
When we first came into Huasteca Canyon earlier in the day, I saw a beautiful limestone formation with some palm trees growing on top. I really wanted to photograph the landscape here but by the time we reached it, it was already dusk and hardly any light was available. Luckily Miguel is a terrific photographer and is very skilled with all the functions on a Nikon DLSR camera. He was able to get the most out of my expensive camera and the 2.8 aperture lens to take the photos below. While the pictures below look like they were taken during the day, they were not. If you look closely in the first photo below, about 1/3 of the way in from the left at the top, you see a point in the landscape with two palm trees. In the grainy second photo, you see the same palm trees using my 400 mm lens.
The palm trees in the photo are of Brahea berlandieri. While botanists lumped Brahea berlandieri into Brahea dulcis, there is one observation I would like to make. At no time in the four days driving through the canyons around Monterrey and outlying areas did I ever see Brahea berlandieri growing anywhere other than high on mountain peaks. These palms preferred to live where other palms couldn’t. I tried on numerous occasions to find Brahea berlandieri in soil at the base of the canyons. Every once in awhile we would find a seedling clinging to a cliff wall along a road side, but never adults. I have a feeling the seedlings eventually die and only reach adulthood high atop the limestone peaks. Whereas Brahea dulcis can be found growing all around Mexico and even down into Nicaragua. I am not sure if Brahea berlandieri will ever become a true species again, but until botanists make their way high into the mountain peaks and do more research, I am not so sure these palms in the photos below are the same species as Brahea dulcis. During my next trip to Monterrey in November, I plan on climbing/hiking into the hard-to-reach habitat where these palms grow.
The same peak with the Brahea berlandieri can be seen in this evening photo of the Sunday traffic jam leaving Huasteca Canyon. Thus ends one long, amazing day exploring just a small fraction of the canyons in the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. I would like to thank Miguel for helping me realize a dream in seeing Agave albopilosa in habitat.