This is a tiny part of the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere near the town of Coxcatlán, Puebla. Many huge columnar cardón cactus are visible through the trees and shrubs. An all but unmarked entrance to this section of the biosphere is approximately five kilometers from Coxcatlán. The dirt road into the biosphere is in relatively good shape during this part of the year when it rains very little. The greenery and hills looked at first like any other part of rural Mexico, but what I saw and learned here excited me enormously.
As we wound slowly along the dirt road, we saw a roadrunner skitter across our path and into the undergrowth; even our old-hand guide to the reserve was excited! He said it was really unusual to get to see this elusive bird. I'd previously seen two or three of them near Albuquerque, but never in Mexico. The roadrunner ran across the road so fast that his legs truly looked like they were spinning in circles, just like the famous cartoon. He was far too quick for me to take his picture from the car; thank you Joe Schelling for the use of this wonderful image.
The bottlebrush-shaped flower of the senegalia greggii (uña de gato, or cat's claw acacia) bush. The plant is said to be medicinal. While walking a short, sandy, uphill trail, I slipped, fell on my posterior, and an insect stung me there several times, and quite painfully.
Leaves, branches, and cat-claw shaped thorns of the uña de gato tree. One of the men in our party cut two thin, 3" long pieces of a green branch of uña de gato and told me to put one little stick behind each ear, the way you'd put a pencil behind your ear, to take away the pain of the stings. I followed instructions and little by little the pain diminished. Would it have lessened anyway? Probably, but I've learned to say 'yes' to most possibilities in Mexico. I never want to miss anything!
Meet the cardón cactus (Pachycereus pringlei), which grows prolifically in the Tehuacán biosphere. It is the tallest cactus species in the world and an enormous specimen such as this one can weigh as much as 25 tons. The cardón bears a delicious fruit. Woodpeckers drill into its columns to make their nests and small animals also invade them for shelter. This particular columnar giant in its prime of life is approximately 20 meters (nearly 70 feet) tall. Its rate of growth? Just a smidge over two centimeters per year. Its age? You do the math. Clue: its lifespan is measured in hundreds of years.
This common ornamental--you might even have one growing in your garden--is lantana. It's so widespread that most of us don't know that it is native to Mexico, particularly to semi-arid and tropical regions. It grows wild in the biosphere. Between its orange and yellow flowers, the varied greens of bushes and trees, and the white and pink flowers of the uña de gato, the underbrush glows like the colors on an artist's palette.
The tall pochote tree, native to Mexico and sacred to the Maya, looks as if it is wearing an exotic armor of fearsome thorns, but in reality they are merely protuberances similar in texture to cork. I noticed that one of our companions, a guide to the biosphere, had hitched himself partway up the trunk and was breaking some of them off the tree; just before I asked him to take one or two for me, he slid down and put five of them into my hand. How lovely that he read my mind!
Another of our guide companions explained that the pochote is host to a kind of worm called cuetla, which is about ten centimeters (four inches) long and relatively thick through the body. The cuetlas are harvested, roasted or fried, and eaten; they are allegedly quite tasty and are thought of as a delicacy. The bulbous roots of the tree store substantial water; the roots can be dug up and chewed to quench thirst.
The five pochote spines, with some other tiliches (tchotchkes, stuff) on the top shelf of a miniature trastero (literally, dish cupboard) in my kitchen. The tallest one, far left, measures about two inches high.
The pods of the pochote, about six to eight inches long, are filled with a very light, cottony, fibrous material that can be used to stuff pillows. The pochote fibers, known in English as kapok, were at one time used to stuff life vests.
Mica, a silicate mineral found everywhere in the world, is abundant in the biosphere. Our small group noticed light glinting from what we thought were numerous but ordinary stones on the sandy paths. Our guides immediately told us that the 'stones' were mica. They seemed almost magical, reflecting the strong light of the summer sun. Photo courtesy Google Images.
Readers, you know that Mexico Cooks! ordinarily follows a path that leads to something of culinary interest. Going to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán biosphere reserve was no exception. Be sure to come back next week, when you'll read about why we were so intent upon this particular destination. Trust me when I tell you that this was one of the most exciting days I've ever spent in Mexico. Don't miss it!
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