(Much of the information in this post is from the article, “Hallan nueva cactácea; ya la venden en UE,” in the November 9, Milenio newspaper, Monterrey edition.)
The Sunday afternoon in 2010 when Mario Valdez Marroquín went on a family outing, he wasn’t expecting to make a discovery that would cause his name to live on long after he’s gone. The tiny cacti he found have been billed by specialists as the most important discovery in Mexico in the last twenty years.
Roughly two centimeters tall, about 0.8 inches, the plants are star-shaped when viewed from above. When blooming, a single nine-petal flower, white in the center changing to bright magenta on the outside, tops off each plant. Valdez, a biologist, at first thought what he’d found was an Aztekium hintonii. He went home and began to research. By the next day, he suspected he’d found a new species. He went to specialists Carlos Velazco Macías, Marco Alvarado Vázquez and Salvador Arias Montes who eventually agreed. A year after that Sunday find, Valdez’s discovery was declared the third species in the Aztekium genus and named Aztekium valdezii.
Valdez and Alvarado Vázquez, a researcher in the Biological Sciences Department at the National Autonomous University of Nuevo León (UANL) in Monterrey wrote up the find and contacted Revista Mexicana de Biodiversidad (Mexican Biodiversity Magazine), edited by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. The article was supposed to have been published in the May, 2013 issue which didn’t happen.
But photos Valdez had sent to the magazine and information from the unpublished article started turning up on the internet. On bulletin boards, users suggested the pictures had been photoshopped and the plant didn’t exist. By mid-summer, a website in the Czech Republic was offering Aztekium valdezii seeds. A November 10 check on eBay showed a seller known as The Botanical Archive out of Naples, Italy offering plants they called Aztekium valdezii ariocarpus and Aztekium valdezzi agave. Neither is an officially recognized species, and the plants look fairly different from a true Aztekium valdezii.
In September, 2013, Xerophilia, a Romanian magazine dedicated to cacti and succulents, featured a legitimate series of Valdez’s photos and interviews with Valdez and his co-researcher Dr. Carlos Velazco Macías of Nuevo León Parks and Wildlife. Valdez, who has kept the exact location of his discovery closely guarded, is perturbed by online photos he didn’t take which purport to show the flowers in their natural habitat. He has good reason to be concerned. When Aztekium hintonii was discovered in 1991, the location was announced. Today, it’s nearly impossible to find a hintonii in its natural habitat.
Valdez and researchers at the UANL are currently working to harvest Aztekium valdezii seeds and create a bank. Once they have enough seeds, they plan to provide them at no charge to collectors who have a desire to preserve the species. When they have enough plants, they will provide those to collectors and professional growers. Valdez won’t reveal the exact location of the natural habitat until he finally believes that enough plants have been grown to satisfy market demand. For now, he tells anyone who will listen that, at this time, taking seeds out of Mexico constitutes a crime.
When the Xerophilia interviewer asked Valdez what he wished for the future, his answer was simple and selfless. “I wish this species to survive out in the wild and serve as an example of how things should be done to conserve the world’s natural resources.”
To see the full Xerophilia article and more of Valdez’s photos, go to: http://xerophilia.ro/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Xerophilia-nr-6.pdf.