Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Mexican maple forest that time forgot — and amazed botanists

In the late 1990s, Fernando Aragón Cruz, acting as a guide for bird researchers from the University of Albuquerque, collected a sample of a kind of sugar maple from a remote spot 50 kilometers southeast of Puerto Vallarta.

As few native maples had ever been found in western Mexico, local botanists were surprised. They were even more surprised when they went out to look at the site.  In a hidden-away arroyo called El Refugio, at 1,764 meters altitude, they were amazed to see not just one maple tree but a whole woods full of them, incorporated into an ancient fir-maple-conifer cloud forest, incomparably rich in diverse species of trees and plants.

But the botanists were puzzled: the flora in the forest included species going all the way back to the beginning of the Pliocene era. How, they asked, did this system of ecological sophistication and integration survive for over five million years?

In the first report on this extraordinary site, botanist José Antonio Vázquez stated that in his 20 years of experience in the field, he had never seen a forest “of such richness, structural exuberance and composition, which may have come together just after the melting of the glaciers which covered North America.”

I was lucky enough to visit the maple forest of El Refugio with one of western Mexico’s most famous botanists, Miguel Cházaro. From Guadalajara we drove west three hours to the town of Talpa, to which thousands of pilgrims flock (on foot) to celebrate the feast of St. Joseph each year on March 19.

From Talpa we headed south and eventually found ourselves on top of a narrow ridge 1,632 meters high, where we could look straight down a sheer drop from the windows on either side of the car. A few minutes later, we reached an isolated flat spot a few dozen meters off the road: a perfect place to park and a good spot for camping, with an impressive view of chain after chain of high mountains in the far distance.

Seventy meters downhill, we came to the “trailhead” of the “path” through the ancient forest. I put these words in quotes because in reality it was just what you so often find in Mexico: a barbed wire fence to be squeezed under and a vague semblance of a trail that becomes vaguer with every step you take.

Ah, but the forest we walked into was something wondrous! The maple trees began to appear after only a few minutes, incredibly tall and perfectly straight. These, for some years, were thought to be a subspecies of Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, but in 2017 it was learned that this Jalisco maple is a new species, now designated Acer binzayedii.  It seems it was separated from the lineage of other maples at the beginning of the Pliocene, approximately 5.4 million years ago.

“Coming upon a grove of maple trees is no big deal,” commented Miguel Cházaro, “if you happen to be in Canada or someplace around 40° latitude north, with extremely cold winters. Finding sugar maples in a Jalisco cloud forest is another story.”

Cházaro explained to us that cloud forests are home to the richest flora in Mexico even though they occur in only 2% of the country. This we discovered to be true with every step we took deeper into the woods, which is located in a gently sloping ravine through which a small stream flows.

“That’s a walnut tree over there,” said our guide and next to it is a Guatemalan fir and over there a Podocarpus reichei, a kind of pine tree . . . .” But suddenly the botanist became nearly ecstatic. “Look at this! It’s a tree fern. This is a Cyathea costaricensis, not exactly what you’d expect to be growing among maple trees.”

In fact, it turned out there were at least 11 threatened or endangered species all around us in these woods, along with an extraordinary number of lichens and Spanish moss, which we quickly learned is neither Spanish nor a moss, but an epiphyte, a flowering plant which lives in happy symbiosis with its host.

So what is it like to hike through the Bosque de Maples? Not only are all the trees dripping with lichen and moss; you can also see mushrooms of every color and shape with every step. Then, when you come to a small stream, the trail transforms into a moss-covered fallen log which must be negotiated carefully. It’s like wandering through Jurassic Park. Finding a velociraptor hopping across one of the log bridges would come as no surprise at all!

Just before we turned back, we reached a little clearing. Huge fern trees gracefully spread their fronds all around us. I looked up. Silhouettes of maple and magnolia leaves framed a hole in the canopy above us and through that opening I could see tall pine trees on top of a nearby hillside. This ensemble seemed to summarize this curious place.

A few meters from the path, this jungle is impenetrable. I wonder how many more secrets lie beyond the short, 720-meter trail which allowed us to glimpse this mysterious throwback to prehistoric times.

Cházaro tried his best to explain to us that what made this place unique was its perfect balance. Plants and trees usually found in diverse climates had somehow learned to live together not just harmoniously, but so successfully that this forest had operated as a self-contained, self-sustaining unit since the Pliocene age. What might look like just another woods to most of us was, to him, the botanical equivalent of a symphony orchestra.

Unfortunately, efforts to preserve this unique forest are failing. Only a small, 150-hectare area has been declared a protected area, not enough, say environmentalists, to assure survival of the entire Bosque de Maples.

The greater part of this unique forest is unprotected at the moment and like all the woods in the Talpa area, is threatened by loggers, pot growers, pine-resin extractors, arsonists, wandering cattle, the Federal Electricity Commission and the huge number of pilgrims who swarm the area every March (yes, the last two are formally listed as threats). With enemies like that, the harmonious forest’s extraordinarily long life may soon come to an end.

Acer binzayedii is on the road to extinction,” said University of Guadalajara professor Yalma Vargas, co-discoverer of the forest, in a 2017 Milenio interview. “If the state government doesn’t take urgent steps, we are going to lose this species.”

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.


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