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The Sancayo Cactus of Southern Peru (Corryocactus brevistylus)

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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.”

“Distribution patterns of cactus communities in the occidental slopes of the Peruvian Andes”

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.


Posing with Eliana Linares Perea in Her Study

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.


Holding Sankayo Fruits From the Market in Arequipa


Limited by the Minimum Temperature of -7 Centigrade to about 3500 Meters Above Sea Level


A Great Year for Fruit


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Agroforestry: The Future of Food Production

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Agroforestry: The Future of Food Production

by Scott O’Bar

After last summer’s severe drought many Americans are looking for ways to continue producing food, while decreasing their dependence on irrigation – A noble goal in light of the fact that 70% of worldwide freshwater usage is irrigation(1). Our North American food supply has grown increasingly dependent on a well-coordinated, interdependent, highly energy-intensive system of production and distribution that exhausts more natural resources than it replenishes. The system on which this food supply depends is fragile and could easily be disrupted by the next major disaster, or, over the long term, a changing climate. The most glaring risk we currently face, however, is desertification: the long-term loss of vegetation and subsequent loss of soil, which, according to the United Nations, has already affected 70% of the earth’s drylands(2).

Agroforestry is the integration of trees with productive farming. Last year, many smallscale Midwestern farmers reported poor yields and, in some cases, a complete lack of yields due to the severe drought(3). If they had grown their crops using an agroforestry framework, then they could have prevented some of those losses.

Looking at the conventionally farmed land, it is easy to assess the problem. In most cases, there is no biologically rich topsoil. Leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements results in more direct evaporation of water before plants have a chance to utilize it. Unprotected soil may also be sterilized through exposure to UV radiation, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides applied to the crops year after year. Such chemicals do not favor the soil microbiology necessary for recycling plant nutrients. Unprotected, dehydrated and relatively sterile soil is more prone to erosion from wind and water. “Farms” that depend on an endless input of synthetic chemicals, could be described more accurately as deserts that support crops via an artificial life support system.

It is said that when a conventional farmer switches over to organic farming there is about a five to seven year lull before the farmer can see an increase in their productivity. This is not to say that the farmer lacks the skills necessary to manage an organic farm during those first few years, just that the soil in these initial years is not suitable for supporting healthy plants without the addition of synthetic fertilizers.

Sustainability is not enough, since that implies that we’re sustaining a relatively weak state of affairs. What about the severely degraded land? We need systems that simultaneously heal the land while producing food. Ecological restoration does a good job of healing the land and restoring it to its previous state, but it does not address the food requirements of a growing population nor does it take into consideration that a changing climate might not support the plants or even ecosystems of yesteryear. Experimenting with alternative crops grown in a manner that mimics ecological restoration, helps create a diverse food production system, and a safety net, should unforeseen changes affect our ability to grow more traditional crops. A regenerative agroforest is a form of biomimicry, which addresses not only reforestation, but also food production and water security with one holistic approach.

Reforestation, in general, has some distinct benefits on the macro level. Forests help re-humidify the atmosphere, and provide condensation nuclei, which increases rainfall. Forests help create more rainfall, which helps create more forests, which helps create more rainfall, and on and on. Many tree species are deep-rooted, which allows them to accumulate nutrients from subsoils that remain out of the reach of small, annual crops. The water that trees transpire creates a humid microclimate that reduces the evaporative stress on more tender, herbaceous plants; something that is very helpful during periods of drought. Also, when trees mine nutrients from subsoils, those nutrients accumulate in the leaves, flowers and fruits of the trees, and when these plant parts drop to the ground, they passively mulch the soil, helping to trap moisture, and they eventually create a layer of nutrient-dense topsoil that is well within the reach of the root zone of delicate, annual crop plants.

In the Midwest a sensible regenerative agroforest might include a canopy of Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). Black Locust produces excellent timber, and is often used for untreated fence posts that last for 100 years in the ground. Honey Locust produces sweet, edible pods that are best consumed while they are still green. Underneath those trees we could plant shrubs of Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora), which produces bright-red, sweet berries. As an herbaceous layer we could plant the American Groundnut (Apios americana), which produces edible beans and edible roots. All these species are nitrogen-fixing, and contribute to a net gain of soil nitrogen, thus increasing the productivity of the land over time.

By allowing a forest with these species to continue for a few years, we could then go in and plant more traditional fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. At this point the new, productive trees that we plant will have an entire forest of nitrogen-fixing support species to help nurse them into production by providing dappled shade, a humid microclimate and amended soil.

Barring a few wild cards like covert weather modification, regenerative agroforestry can help address the issue of desertification caused by our current food production system.

In summary a regenerative agroforest has the following advantages:

  • A diversity of yields. Different crops at different times of the year instead of being inundated with one crop all at once.
  • Helps enhance soil fertility.
  • Helps restore balance to the hydrologic cycle.
  • Symbiotic relationships between plants. Plants help each other grow.
  • More stable against pest outbreaks. The diversity of plants confuses pests and fragments their populations. More habitat for predators.
  • Perennial yields. A properly designed system can last into the indefinite future, with little human intervention, much like a natural ecosystem. Requires little input once established.
  • Independence from fossil-fuel based fertilizers and sprays.




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Mexico Plagued by Sabrita GMO Junk Food Scourge

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Mexico Plagued by Sabrita GMO Junk Food Scourge

By Scott O’Bar

sabritasnackOn my recent trip to a small village in central Mexico in the state of Guanajuato I witnessed the reality of the local food situation. Prior to traveling I had expectations that I would be able to walk into a market and find a variety of traditional, yet obscure, natural plant food products. I expected to find Pitaya cactus fruits, I expected to encounter mountains of sweet Guamúchil pods, cottage industries of Chilacayote marmalade, nutritious packages of Mesquite flour, and any number of other useful plant surprises.

What surprised me most, however, was that I didn’t encounter any such products. I did, however, encounter another sort of variety: A variety of carefully concocted potions all blended together seamlessly into hundreds of different products all based around the same general building blocks of nutritional morbidity: salt, sugar and fat… plus a rainbow of other dubious chemical preservatives and artificial flavors.

I found myself surrounded by a myriad of stores with shelves full of such products as Pingüinos, Submarinos and Sabritas. Such stores are known locally as “Tiendas de Abarrotes” and are basically a smaller version of 7/11. In the village of about 900 people where I was planning an experimental farm project I counted ten tiendas de abarrotes (convenience stores); basically one on every block. So, no matter which neighborhood you found yourself in, you could rest assured that your Sabrita cravings could be satiated without having to burn too many calories to get there. The Sabrita-slinging tiendas de abarrotes stores outnumbered the fresh fruit and vegetable stores at a rate of about ten to one.

Thanks to NAFTA (The North American Fat Trade Agreement) big ag businesses have carte blanche to grow, process and package copious quantities of junk food and traffic them along both sides of the Mexico/USA border, clogging both highways and arteries in the process.

The village where I stayed in Guanajuato is situated in the hills at the edge of the Bajío ecoregion, a high-altitude, fertile plateau that was once a vast Mesquite woodland, which has now been almost entirely converted into monocultures of corn and sorghum for export.

While riding on buses throughout the Bajío, I passed by billboards proclaiming the latest GMO corn patent number alongside the exclamation “Más cosecho!” (Greater harvest!). Similar enthusiastic billboards were common and reflected the changing times, the abandonment of tradition, and the gleeful acceptance of a grand scam.

The local farmers have now adopted the use of herbicide sprays in their own fields, a practice which started popping up less than 10 years ago. Daily, I watched as young farmers rode their burros down into the fields while wearing spray backpacks full of herbicides.

The local farmers all plant their fields with the traditional “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash. There are also various small-scale fruit orchards (huertas) that have replaced the native vegetation along the creek. Mango season was in full swing during my trip. The huertas are mostly comprised of Mangos, Loquats, Guavas and Limes. The huertas and the three sisters agriculture are the two saving graces of the local population’s health.

There is virtually no culture of homescale intensive vegetable gardening of the sort that is now becoming popular in the US, and the majority of the plants grown in the state go towards feeding livestock. Thus, at every meal there is always at least one animal product. The people eat lots of eggs, chicken, beef, and pork all served with plenty of fattening vegetable oil. There is also a heavy addiction to colas, and the tiendas de abarrotes are not going bankrupt anytime soon.

The diet has helped Mexico become the world’s number one most obese nation. Diabetes is on the rise, as are other weight-related diseases, and the streetside pharmacies are making a fortune selling prescription drugs over the counter. I counted nine pharmacies in one block in the nearest small city.

The Mexican women are generally more obese than the men – probably due to their more sedentary lifestyle, and the younger people seem to be falling into the trap of the Sabrita diet more than the older people. Indeed, among the younger people, I was the weird one for preferring to snack on raw carrots and tomatoes instead of candy and chips. “Que eres!? Un conejo?” (What are you?! A rabbit?), I was asked mockingly a couple times. On a number of different occasions I heard the phrase, “El agua me hace daño” (Water harms me), mentioned by some heavy cola addicts.

The education level is not the highest in rural Mexico. I met a lot of people who stopped going to school after they graduated from secundaria (junior high). Most parents cannot afford to have their kids travel to the nearest small city to attend preparatoria (high school), so the kids just end up doing whatever work they can find. Basic nutrition class should be compulsory education for every student in primaria (elementary school) in order to stop the people from thinking that colas are a better alternative to water and that eating carrots will turn you into a rodent.

I met one woman in her late forties who was actually single, had never been married, had no kids, and was still in great shape. For Mexico, the odds of finding someone like her were probably close to one in one million. We talked about the obesity in Mexico, and I mentioned my standby meme: demasiadas Sabritas (too many Sabritas). We joked around for a while about the local culture, because neither of us fit the stereotype.

Yet, all joking aside, the reality of the situation affected me deeply. On the sixth day of my trip I remember feeling especially anxious and culture shocked. I looked at my surroundings: at the broken retaining walls, the streets with crater-sized potholes, the 15-year old mamitas with babies in their arms, the obesity at every turn. It all depressed me. I felt sad and angry. Tears began to form in my eyes, and I could no longer fight the feelings. I wanted to help out so badly. To make a difference…no matter how small.

I entered a few local shops to share my observations, and talked with people about my concerns. No one became angry in the slightest. They all knew perfectly well what I was talking about, and they could all empathize with me. With tears in my eyes, I poured my heart out to them, telling them why I was in their village and what I wanted to do. I felt so accepted. I ended up making some great friends that day.

On my last day in the village I went to the tienda de abarrotes where my new friend, Manuel, works. With my camera in hand, I started snapping photographs of the colorful product displays in the store. He looked at me and noticed the twinkle in my eye. I began to laugh hysterically at the ridiculousness of what I was photographing. Then Manuel joined in and started laughing as well. He too had grasped the absurdity of it all.

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Scott’s Blog Post Excerpts

Mexico Plagued by Sabrita GMO Junk Food Scourge

On my recent trip to a small village in central Mexico in the state of Guanajuato I witnessed the reality of the local food situation. Prior to traveling I had expectations that I would be able to walk into a market and find a variety of traditional, yet obscure, natural plant food products.
Read more…

Agroforestry: The Future of Food Production

Reprinted from Farm Wars website: After last summer’s severe drought many Americans are looking for ways to continue producing food, while decreasing their dependence on irrigation - A noble goal in light of the fact that 70% of worldwide freshwater usage is irrigation.
Read more…

Interview On Garden Gossip

Recorded Interview with Scott on KZSB-AM Radio’s Garden Gossip Program
Listen here…

How To Cook Apple Cactus Stems

In this video, Scott Shows How To Prepare And Cook Apple Cactus Stems.
Watch here…

Apple Cactus Fruit Set

This is the fruit I got.
Read more…

The Sancayo Cactus of Southern Peru

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).
Read more

© Scott O'Bar • Alternative Crops For Drylands • 2018