From the Digest

Bring Them Back Alive

PhotoBy Joe Merkelbach (June 2011)

It is interesting to me that the hot spot of cactus and succulent collection actually seems to be in Europe. The age of exploration was aimed at bringing plants of economic value back to the continent. Spices of high value were a primary reason for the beginnings of exploration. As the ability to bring live plants back for production at home developed, there was an interest among wealthy gardeners in acquiring new and exotic species from all over the globe to one up their competitive neighbors.

The showy flowering shrubs from China and southeast Asia were discovered and brought back to Europe by intrepid exploring botanists on retainer from patrons to support their expeditions. Azaleas, rhododendrons and the camellias of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Linnaean House were all targets of plant exploration for collectors.

Similarly, the exotic-looking, and in many cases spectacularly flowering, cacti and succulents of the New World also attracted collectors’ interest. The economic uses of prickly pears as a source of cochineal dye and as forage were important uses of cacti. Rare and hard-to-find species from exotic locales were targets of plant explorers from several royally sponsored expeditions. Some of the threat to endangered cactus species in the New World continues to come from collectors wanting very rare specimens.

Examples of prized cacti in horticulture are the many forms of hybrid epiphyllums, with their amazing colors that are the product of years of work begun by European hobbyists. These plants are now avidly grown and developed all over the world.

As we well know, the succulents and cacti are so exotic and odd that wide-ranging fascination is a strong motivation to bring them back alive.