Oaxaca, Mexico:  A new 12 x 150 Pinus strobus   Robert Van Pelt
  Mar 02, 2005 05:06 PST 

Yes, another tree for the 12 x 150 club. This may seem strange, but I am reporting this tree from 8,000 feet in a cloud forest in southern Mexico. Known to science as Pinus strobus var. chiapensis, I guess this tree qualifies.

I just spent three weeks in southern Mexico with my friends Bonnie and Chris. Chris is the author of the Gymnosperm database (www.conifers.org), and we spent the bulk of the time trying to sort out 29 species of endemic pines. I also was able to squeeze in some measuring of several giant Taxodiums.

Our tour started and ended in Mexico City and its 23 million inhabitants. I must say I had some apprehension about visiting this place, having heard many a horror story as to crime, police corruption, unbreathable air, etc. Fortunately, at least for my part, I cannot confirm any of these rumors, as we experienced no bad situations. On the contrary, I found the people extremely nice and the food was outstanding. The food and nightlife of Oaxaca was particularly enjoyable, as was Puebla the place of origin of Mole.

Perhaps the most mountainous large country in the world, we achieved several firsts for me. There are roads to the top of the fourth and fifth highest peaks in the country, both volcanos, as well as a high pass between the second and third highest. So, we got our little rental car above 11,000 feet thrice, once over 14,000. Timberline is not as dramatic as I am used to in the western US tussock grasses dominate and the timberline tree (Pinus hartwegii) does not achieve the gnarliness I am used to in Nevada and California.

This is the dry season in southern Mexico, and we did not see a drop of rain during our visit. Most of the vegetation was barren and, despite the high elevation, was very hot, dry, and dusty. The vegetation is typical of other North American high deserts, with plenty of legumes (acacia, prosopis) and cactus. The forests occur higher up still, such as on the giant volcanos. Pinus and Quercus are the most abundant tree species in these forests, with Mexico having about 42 endemic species of Pinus and well over 100 species of Quercus. It was also interesting to see many of our old friends Fraxinus, Alnus, Magnolia, Carpinus virginaiana, Liquidambar styraciflua, Prunus serotina, and Pinus strobus.

The single best day for me was the day we drove north from Oaxaca through dry Pinus Quercus forest. We ascended to a pass where we met with the wet, Gulf side of the mountains. Here we were at 10,000 feet, just short of timberline which consisted of small, stunted Pinus hartwegii and tussock grasses. Two hours later we found ourselves at 300 feet elevation in a lowland tropical rainforest complete with giant strangler figs, tree ferns, and countless bird, tree, and epiphyte species. I was amazed I know of no other road in North America where one can experience such dramatic change in such a short distance. What I found most amazing was that the mid to upper elevations were nearly as moist as the lowlands, yet with tree genera that were familiar to us the US. This is where we measured a Pinus strobus 12 feet by 157 feet. The Quercus species here (many species
of both evergreen and deciduous) are the real epiphyte magnets many a giant tree being completely smothered with bromeliads, orchids, and lianas.

Of course the single most remarkable tree was the giant Taxodium at the mission outside of Oaxaca. I spent about four hours there on two separate visits collecting measurements of this amazing plant. I am not sure spending the day in the tree with Will and his friends (as with the Middleton Oak) would have helped very much, as tapes would have been useless. The crown consisted of nothing even close to round everything would have had to have been measured using some form of calipers. One branch measured six inches in one dimension, yet over 4 feet thick in the other! Although I knew something about the tree from having seen countless photos, I still found the tree far more impressive than expected. The crown was full of massive fusions that occurred where giant, arching branch systems intersected with others.

Located within a few blocks of this tree were six other giant specimens, one of which was 6 meters in diameter. Elsewhere on our journey I measured several others in the 5 6 m diameter range, but none were really in the same class as the Santa Maria del Tule tree. One of these had a spring emerging from its massive root system, filling a giant pool where the local residents were conducting a mass baptism.

We did manage to spend a couple of days on a Pacific beach drinking out of coconuts and eating mangos, but the heat, humidity, and no conifers to study made me happy to get back into the mountains. Overall, the trip was a blast and I would like to schedule more trips down there. At eleven Pesos to a dollar, we were able to enjoy ourselves without being too frugal.