Astrophytum asterias (2006)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (May 2006)

Its origin is lost in the black reaches of time. Small and rare, the Astrophytum cacti known as asterias evolved and survived in the great Chihuahuan Desert.

In 1843, a small asterias was exported to Europe. The little plant was grey-green. Hard, compressed and spherically shaped, it had no spines. Covering the body was an almost starlike pattern, an illusion made by its large white areoles. Small white flecks filled in its green background.

The cactus did not survive long. It was preserved and kept in a botanical garden in Munich, Germany. Its discovery site was lost and forgotten in time.

As fate would have it, the small cactus species was rediscovered. Shrunken and dry, the cactus was occasionally seen in the states of Tamaulipas or Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Later, it was found thriving near the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, growing among the leafy ocotillos and low-growing limoncillos, whose flowers filled the desert air with fragrance. The cactus would make its presence known after a spring rain.

In the wild, A. asterias is almost extinct. It’s hard to choose a villain. Habitat loss to be sure, and of course there is always greed.

Little A. asterias was never as hardy as its robust brothers A. ornatum and A. myriostigam, and not nearly as showy as A. capricorne. If it is seen at all, it is usually grafted or some sort of hybrid cultivar. The future does not seem reassuring for the slow-growing and fragile asterias.

Still, somewhere in a desolate place, where everything is scarce, an Astrophytum asterias grows. The sun is strong, the droughts are longer, and the small cactus shrinks down into the ground and waits for a better future.