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MEETING REPORT: February Meeting Report

By Sabine Prather.

In spite of the day’s rain, many members came to hear January’s speaker, Jeff Chemnick, discuss “Treasures of the Sierra Madres: An Armchair Tour of Mexico’s Greatest Botanical Hits.” Anyone who was not able to attend missed a beautiful and powerful presentation.

Jeff Chemnick, January’s speaker, grew up in San Diego and actually attended Temple Beth Israel (he found an old photo of himself on the wall on the way to the bathroom!). Since 1981, he has lived in Santa Barbara where his nursery, Aloes-in-Wonderland, features nearly five acres of blooming aloes and cycads. He is currently working on a book on Mexican cycads and regularly leads botanical and ornithological trips to Oaxaca and Chiapas. The evening’s presentation centered on photos of these trips.

Jeff began with photos illustrating the attractive hotels used by the tours he leads, the comfortable air-conditioned vans used for travel, the many delicious meals provided, the spectacular ruins and diverse art of the region, the beautiful clothes worn by villagers in these remote locations, and the traditional festivals tour-goers can witness, such as Day of the Dead. The landscape of the Sierra Madres includes remote villages in the hills in Chiapas, an 18,700-foot volcano, desert, seacoast, tropical cloud forests, and even a beach with thousands of leatherback turtles.

Jeff showed us examples of the many animals that can be seen in the area, including butterflies, tarantulas, crocodiles, birds, and small mammals. Larger mammals are rare, as they tend to be hunted. Tour groups have visited Las Pozas, a surrealistic group of structures created by Edward James, more than 2,000 feet above sea level in a subtropical rainforest in the mountains of Mexico. Las Pozas contains more than 80 acres of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering surrealist concrete sculptures. Another amazing spot to visit is the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, a protected natural area located in southeastern Mexico. On July 2, 2018, the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jeff describe some of the many plant families that can be found growing in the Sierra Madres, beginning with cycads including Dioon merolae, Dioon argentium, and Dioon edule. The cacti there range from less than 3 inches around to over ten feet tall. Peyote is common in the area. There are also mammillaria, ariocarpus, plecyphora, and echinocereus. Many varieties of echeveria are prevalent, with one growing in the cloud forest. There are also blooming salvias, dahlias up to 15 feet tall, and many different types of morning glories. Some of the yuccas grow twenty feet tall. The beaucarnea have thick trunks that can be as much as15 feet around. Orchids are beautiful, but hard to see, as they mostly grow up in trees. Hechtia are bromeliads with spidery leaves that get "measles" (beautiful spots) when it gets hot. Large populations of agave are prevalent; they often interbreed. Some of them are gigantic, some grow on cliff sides, and one has tufts like hair. There are also giant Mexican sycamores, much larger than any sycamore found in the United States. Jeff concluded with one last plant, a wild-growing yam (Dioscorea composita), an extract of which was an important ingredient in early birth control pills.

On Jeff's next tour, July 5-16, 2019, he will take visitors to see cactus and succulent hot spots in Oaxaca and Puebla. If you would like to come, contact Jeff.

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