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PLANT OF THE MONTH

Along with other articles, columns and club updates, each monthly issue of the Henry Shaw Cactus Digest includes an article or two on members' favorite cactus and succulent species. The articles typically include photos and facts on the plants' natural origins and distribution, growing conditions, common and scientific names, care and cultivation tips, and helpful hints for encouraging flower production.
 
Follow the links below this month's offering(s) to enjoy previous Plants of the Month or click to read a sample of the HSCSS Digest in PDF format.

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August 2018 -- Sinocrassula yunnanensis

By Bob Williams
 
The annual show and sale is complete. It is always a hectic four days, and the plants are amazing, both the display and the sale plants.
 
Even though I say I am at capacity in my house, I always seem to bring a few more plants home from the sale. It seems like I always hear a plant or two calling out, "Buy me, buy me." One called out louder than most this year. A member brought in some seedlings of a crested version of Sinocrassula yunnanensis.
 
These are interesting plants. When talking to the seller, he mentioned that you don't find them for sale much in the United States. That seems like a challenge for an article, so here it is.
 
As the name implies, the genus Sinocrassula is a member of the Crassulaceae family. The Crassulaceae family has a large number of members. Some of the more familiar members are Aeonium, Cotyledon, Crassula, Dudleya, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedum and Tylecodon. The common denominator for these plants is that they have succulent leaves.
 
They are found throughout the world. Many are common houseplants, and many are used in landscaping. In my research, there is no record that these plants are used for food or medicinal purposes. One of the most recognized species of the Crassulaceae family is the jade plant.
 
The name sinocrassula translates to "Chinese crassula" and should give you a clue to where the plants are found: the southeastern region of China and surrounding areas. Its general area includes Bhutan, Nepal, northeast India, Pakistan and China.
 
In 2012, a new species was discovered in northern Vietnam, bringing the total number of species in the genus to eight. The species with the widest distribution is Sinocrassula indica, which is found in most of the regions listed above. The other six species are found in the Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China.
 
Plants in Sinocrassula are sometimes referred to as "mini jade" or "Chinese jade." These nicknames refer more to the leaf structure than the overall plant.
 
The plants grow to a height of 10 inches or so. They do not form a trunk like the common jade plant, but tend to clump and grow in a rosette pattern. These clumps can expand and fill a large area, similar to the growth of a sedum or echeveria. The leaves are relatively small and succulent, and do not grow more than 1 inch out from the rosette. They tend to be rounded on the top of the leaf and flat on the bottom.
 
Sinocrassulas grow on rocky mountainsides in gravel and can be found in cracks in rocks that have good drainage. They can be found at elevations from 700 to 3,700 meters.

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The flowers are large for the size of the plants, which flower in autumn or early winter. The leaves are loosely attached and will root and grow new plants. These plantlets often become "weeds" in nearby pots. In this respect, they resemble kalenchoes.
 
Sinocrassula yunnanensis is native to the Yunnan Province in southwestern China and grows in well-draining, rocky areas from 2,500 to 2,800 meters elevation. It is the best-known species of this genus.
 
These plants like plenty of light and can tolerate full sun, but can grow well in bright, indirect light. S. yunnanensis prefers dry conditions, and it is best to refrain from watering it until the root ball has dried out completely. The plant can then be immersed in water, removed and left until it has completely dried out again. Its succulent leaves will store enough water to survive for a long time.
 
Sinocrassula yunnanensis can be grown outdoors in the rock crevices of a rock garden, but it is not winter-hardy in our area. This is a tough plant that spreads aggressively by dropped leaves, seed, cuttings or division of the rosettes.
 
The plant is monocarpic, so the individual rosettes bloom only once, then die, replaced by nearby clumps. The crested variations can be propagated only by cuttings from the crested parts.
 
Sinocrassulas are not readily available in the United States, but are popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. Listings on eBay show that very few growers in Europe offer the plants for sale.
 
Sources:
Llifle Encyclopedia of Succulents -- http://llifle.com/Encyclopedia/SUCCULENTS/Family/Crassulaceae/19295/Sinocrassula_yunnanensis
Sinocrassula vietnamenis (Crassulaceae), New Species and New Generic Record in the Flora of Vietnam -- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287053621_Sinocrassula_vietnamenis_Crassulaceae_New_Species_and_New_Generic_Record_in_the_Flora_of_Vietnam
The Plant List -- http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl/search?q=sinocrassula
Revolvy -- https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Sinocrassula&item_type=topic
International Crassulaceae Network -- http://www.crassulaceae.ch/de/artikel?akID=322
 

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August 2018 -- Lophophora williamsii

By Pat Mahon
 
A cactus that has been recorded by the ancients and used since 5,700 years ago is now considered one of the most controversial species of plant in cultivation. In today's world, all participants of the United Nations, the entire United States and its territories, along with several other countries around the world, consider the entire genus of Lophophora illegal.
 
This plant of the month, Lophophora williamsii, gets a bad reputation from overly concerned mothers and others involved in the U.S. War on Drugs. Hopefully, some of the negative notions can be quelled in those who cannot differentiate a lophophora from an astrophytum.
 
The name lophophora is derived from the Ancient Greek word lophos, meaning "the crest of a hill" or "helmet," and phoreao, "to carry." The etymology hints at the tufts of hair atop the plant's tubercles. The species name williamsii was given by Charles Lemaire in 1845 to honor Sir C. H. Williams, the British ambassador to the state of Bahia, Mexico.
 
Lophophora williamsii was originally published as Echinocactus williamsii in a catalog without an official species description or illustration. Prince Salm-Dyck, also a botanist, submitted an official description of the new species to validate Lemaire's binomial. However, he also did not provide an illustration.
 
Through many years of taxonomic confusion on how to classify this species, John M. Coulter finally hit the nail on the head in 1894. His proposition of the genus Lophophora has since evaded confusion with placing this species. In nearly 50 years, it was proposed in at least five genera, including Ariocarpus, Mammillaria and Anhalonium, before it finally landed as Lophophora williamsii.
 
To first hit upon the obvious, the ethnobotanical importance of this species is unmatched in the cactus world. L. williamsii is quite renowned to some for its content of mescaline as the natural drug peyote. To others, it is merely a magnificent spineless cactus that has endearing character and hides among other cacti on the greenhouse bench. Fear of the bogeyman stealing this cactus is not why we hide it, but our ironic government, which both protects Lophophora and prohibits it, makes the plant's situation confusing.
 
Undoubtedly, ancient records (some over 2,000 years old) on this species are due in part to the psychotropic nature of the plant, not its pretty flowers. In 2005, a published article reported archaeological specimens of L. williamsii in Texas caves along the Rio Grande. The researchers found the plants had a 2 percent mescaline content, and radiocarbon dated them back to 3780 B.C. -- making L. williamsii the oldest drug plant ever recorded.
 
The main psychoactive alkaloid found in lophophoras is mescaline, and the average "effective" dosage for people is 200 to 400 milligrams. To demonstrate how ridiculous it is to prohibit hobbyist cultivation of this species, a large, mature 3-inch "button" yields only 25 milligrams of mescaline.
 
For an effective dose, one would have to cultivate, at minimum, eight very large plants, which could take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to grow. That does not take into consideration the lessened yield of the alkaloid as a result of cultivation conditions and substrate, and if the cultivar was truly L. williamsii or one of the related species that have little to no mescaline content.
 
Lophophoras can contain several other ethnobotanically significant alkaloids that include pellotine and anhaladine. It is interesting to note that the species of Lophophora that produce little to no mescaline (L. fricii, L. koehresii and L. diffusa) instead carry high amounts of these latter sedative alkaloids, which are not considered controlled substances.
 
All of these isoquinoline alkaloids found in L. williamsii are known as secondary metabolites. To simplify this section of plant physiology, the plant makes small organic molecules for an ecological function, but they are not involved in primary growth, reproduction or development. They are, however, essential to long-term plant function.
 
Secondary metabolite examples could include bitter agents to deter grazing from pests (tannins), protect a plant from heat (terpenoids) or help the plant absorb or reflect sunlight (phenols). L. williamsii is interesting in that the secondary metabolites are not only psychoactive, but demonstrate an outside use. Common secondary metabolite alkaloids include caffeine and many other drugs and medicines.
 
The principal function of mescaline and other alkaloids of L. williamsii is not fully known, but it is likely as a deterrent to grazing by higher animals -- as seen with many examples in the wild with a singular bite mark. Analysis has shown that the alkaloids contained within the cactus are also antibacterial, even shown to have killed penicillin-resistant bacteria. The cactus may have developed antimicrobial properties to defend itself from diseases and pathogens.
 
Piggybacking off the functions of these alkaloids, it is interesting to note that conventional approaches in taxonomy do not always apply to taxa. A proposed method in defining species and arranging the genus Lophophora is by using chemotaxonomy: classifying taxa by chemical structure similarities and deviations. This approach is proposed for several medicinal plant groups and even legumes.
 
The latest from Jaroslav Šnicer, Jaroslav Bohata and Vojtěch Myšák divides the genus Lophophora into two sections: Diffusae and Lophophora. Lophophora (including L. williamsii) has a mescaline content of 15 to 30 percent of the total alkaloids, while Diffusae has a maximum of 1.3 percent mescaline. This is an important approach in removing the illegal status of some lophophoras for cultivation.
 
With a wide distribution throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, Lophophora williamsii has deviated phylogenetically into several subspecies. Two forms of L. williamsii prevail here: northern and southern forms.
 
The northern form, found near Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, is resistant to pests and drought, and displays pink to white flowers of 1- to 2.2-centimeter diameter with pink midstripes. The autogamous northern form is able to pollinate itself with no interaction. It avoids inbreeding depression because it has through time become stable as a homozygous species.
 
The southern form, centered near Huizache, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, develops independent roots for each growth, instead of branching along a tuberous root system. The plants are also unusually heterogamous, producing two different flower types (male and female, or bisexual and female). Flowers differ from those of the northern form by longer styles and small stigma.
 
L. williamsii is found in several locations in Texas along the Mexican border. It is found at lower elevations of 100 meters, commonly distributed along limestone hills, and even at 1,900-meter elevations in the Chihuahuan Desert.
 
L. williamsii can be found in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. The plants are most commonly found growing in association with shrubs, sheltered from the excruciating sun. L. williamsii can be found in partial sun or full sun. Undisturbed, they take on a lifestyle similar to that of Ariocarpus species, in which much of the plant is below the surface.
 
Another noted relationship is with non-vascular plants such as liverworts and mosses, crusts of which may ensure some moisture retention for the cactus. Field notes have reported that ants feed upon the fruits of lophophoras, perhaps a strategy in population distribution.
 
Supposing one were to hypothetically cultivate L. williamsii, there are a few important notes to understand. This is a very slow-growing cactus. Overwatering is possibly the most common reason for death in cultivation. Keep the plants in a coarse substrate that can dry out quickly. They favor water, but do not care for moisture retention. Keep them dry during the winter.
 
Amendments to the substrate such as gypsum and calcium may aid in health and flowering. Partial shade (three to six hours of direct light) is recommended, increasing as desired. Full sun (six hours or more of direct light) is not recommended.
 
Spider mites and mealy bugs are L. williamsii's main pests. These pests are easily addressed, but often hide in crevices and other plants, so it is important to treat all plants in the growing area thoroughly. Plants will bloom freely throughout the year. If a plant is not blooming, it is possible it is not mature.
 
Surely, enough has been covered to convince everybody to go out there and purchase a beautiful Lophophora williamsii. The U.S. government has taken a firm stance on the illegal status of the genus, however, so I must urge resistance to seeking one out. In time, cactus hobbyists and researchers may be able to argue exceptions for cultivating Lophophora.
 
Sources:
Plant Secondary Metabolism -- David S. Seigler
OAKTrust Digital Repository -- http://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/5023
Prehistoric Peyote Use: Alkaloid Analysis and Radiocarbon Dating of Archaeological Specimens of Lophophora From Texas -- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15990261
Entheology.com -- http://entheology.com/research/botany-of-peyote-lophophora-williamsii/
CactiGuide.com CactiForum -- http://www.cactiguide.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3700
A Brief History of Peyote -- https://www.peyote.org
Peyote in the Wilds of Texas -- https://erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote_article4.shtml
Key to the Genus Lophophora -- http://lophophora.blogspot.com/2010/08/key-to-genus-lophophora-sensu-snicer-et.html
 

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