Landscape with Copiapoa

This website has been created as a take-off in my interest for the genus Copiapoa combined with my travels in the northern part of Chile in 2003 and 2006. The pages in this site do not describe my accurate travelling-routes, but describes the plants the way I met them from north to south. In 2006 I travelled alone, but in 2003 I travelled some of the time with the Copiapoathon-group from England.

Thank you to my wife Annette Søndergaard Gregersen for supporting me with the English text.

Finn Larsen

August 2007
Introduction to Copiapoa
Copiapoa is a genus in the family Cactaceae. These species only grow in the northern part of Chile, along the coastline to the Atacama desert. The species in the genus Copiapoa have developed to manage or survive in a special ecological niche and have probably developed simultaneously, as the climate in the northern part of Chile increasingly became more and more dry.
In other cacti-habitats you will often find related species  which belongs to other genera, but in no north Chile you don't find such species related to Copiapoa, because they are already extinct, accordingly to the increasingly rougher climate.

Copiapoa is  a clear defined genus with good characteristics, and therefore you are hardly in doubt when you are standing close to a Copiapoa.
The inner part of the Atacama desert  is absolutely dry without rain or downpour and the desert is absolutely lifeless. One may presume that the Copiapoas earlier have been more widely distributed with even further species than known today.
Today wel only find the remains of the Copiapoas close to the Pacific coast where there is still some humidity in the regularly daily fog (camanchaca), but very seldom a drop of rain.
Collectors and scientists have often been wondering how the plants were able to obtain the necessary amount of water to survive in the tough habitat. You might have some experience with some theories claiming that the Copiapoas are able to obtain humidity even through the spines and the epidermis. Of course this is only pure imagination - if you have seen the plants in their habitat, you will be convinced that this cannot be correct, according to the lack of spines on several healthy plants with an epidermis looking almost like the skin of an elephant.
On the other hand you will learn that the soil often gets humid or even wet on the surface from the heavy daily fog that comes in from the Pacific. The fog (camanchaca) takes shape on the ocean according to the cold Humboldt-current, which comes all the way from the Antarctic to flow up along the coast of north Chile. The fog frequently blows in and covers the coast,  sometimes as deep as 20 kilometres from the coastline.  

The roots of the Copiapoas are well adapted to this kind of climate. First off all they have a strong taproot to keep them to the ground. Secondly some of the species have developed very effective sucking roots which will grow close to the surface and cover a large area. The roots are able to absorb the necessary amount of water from the humid surface of the soil but in very dry seasons only just enough to survive. The same situation is known from the Welwitchia mirabilis in Namibia. One of oldest plants is fenced in, in order to protect the surface roots from stamping tourist-soles. Maybe the surface roots of Copiapoa columna-alba are that fragile too - a matter one should think of when walking around among the plants in the wild.

In areas where you may find Copiapoas you might find other cacti like
species of e.g. Eriosyce, Eulychnia, Trichocereus and Opuntia and other plants like Euphorbia lactiflua, Oxalis gigantea and different species of Bromelia and Tillandsia.

In the course of time many people have been studying the Copiapoas to bring some order in the number of species in the genus. The first plants which presumably were Copiapoas were collected in the 1820'ties of Thomas Bridges, who worked in the mine-industry in Chile for more than 20 years. More plants were found in the following years and some good finds were done by R.A. Philippi, a German botanist who in 1853-54 explored the same area where we find Copiapoas today. All the globular cacti were in these days described as Echinocactus until Britton and Rose suggested the establishment of the genus Copiapoa in their work " The Cactaceae" (volume 3) in 1922, with Copiapoa marginata as the type species. The genus Copiapoa included 6 species at that time.

Best known is probably Friedrich Ritter who travelled in the northern part of Chile during the 1950'ties. He  described a lot of new good species, but unfortunately also some more doubtful ones. Ritter published his work "Kakteen in Südamerika" in 1979-81.
In 1980 the Chilean botanist Adriana Hoffmann suggested that the genus Copiapoa was reduced to 18 species and 27 varieties.
Fred Kattermann spoke for, in the CSSA-conference in Tuczon, Arizona in 1995, to reduce the number of  actual species in Copiapoa to 12, and his final revision of the genus Copiapoa is expected  with some   tension these years.

Nature will not always fit into the "boxes" created by man and there will probably in the years to come still be some disagreement according to the numbers of true species in the genus Copiapoa. The names which at present are most valid  you may find in "The New Cactus Lexicon" (March 2006) by David Hunt etc.

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