The Sancayo Cactus of Southern Peru
By Scott O’Bar
Shortly after arriving to Lima, Peru this January, I decided to take a trip down to southern Peru, to the province of Arequipa, in search of the exotic “lemon” cactus, locally known as Sancayo (Corryocactus brevistylus). I wanted to locate the plant in its native habitat in order to observe its growing conditions, photograph the plant and to assess its production potential. Reports from horticulturists in coastal California suggest that this plant might achieve success as a more drought and cold-tolerant substitute for acidic citrus fruit cultivation.
Prior to travelling to Arequipa, I knew little about this species’ native habitat other than that it was native to high altitudes of the Andes mountain range in southern Peru and northern Chile. To aid my search, I tracked down one scientific article entitled, “Patrones de distribución de las comunidades de cactáceas en las vertientes occidentales de los Andes Peruanos.”
The article was co-authored by a Peruvian botanist from Arequipa named Eliana Linares Perea, a self-proclaimed “phytogeographer.” I thought if anyone would be able to steer me in the right direction it would be her.
Having had no success the day before attempting to contact her via her published email address, I chartered a taxi to take me to the mentioned street address. When I arrived I told her I was visiting from California and was on the trip in order to photograph the cactus in its native habitat. I left her a copy of my book and we agreed to meet again at her house the following day.
Sure enough she knew exactly where to find the cactus, and was able to illustrate a multitude of locations on a local map of the province of Arequipa. It turns out that I wouldn’t even have to take a week long donkey trip with a Sherpa across deserted, nose-bleed, high-altitude landscapes to find the species. Eliana simply pointed out that the cactus grows just a few kilometers from the outskirts of Arequipa.
So, the following day I took a taxi along the highway, going a few kilometers past the small town of Yura. The cacti were located all along the highway as soon as we reached about 2800 meters above sea level. At the other end of the spectrum, their upper limit, according to Eliana, is roughly 3500 meters above sea level.
According to her article, the plant grows in sites that receive anywhere from about 170mm to 500mm of average annual rainfall. This rain falls mostly during the summer months of December to March, and the rest of the year is usually completely dry unless there is a freak El Niño storm event.
Fruiting occurs for a few months towards the end of the dry season, and usually finishes in early December. This year, however, there were fruits well into January, due to the excessive rainfall amounts received the previous year. Fruits were plentiful in the markets of Arequipa and in the mountains. No flowers were observed, so it seems it was the tail end of the fruiting season.
The cactus itself is a slow grower with fat stems that are covered in very long spines. It grows on slopes in very rocky soil. The fruits are covered in smaller spines that are easily brushed off when the fruits are ripe. The fruits will fall off the cactus when they are ready and stay fresh for a long time, but should be collected from the ground before they turn yellow, as this is a sign that they are overripe.
The taste is indeed quite citric, and would make a suitable lemon-lime flavored beverage. The fruits are somewhat mucilaginous, however, so it clearly would not have the exact same application as lemons or limes. The fruits are said to be quite healthy and medicinal, but I have yet to investigate any of the myriad of claims.