Pereskia (2007)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (June 2007)

Sixty-three million years ago, our world was a place of diversity and change. At this time, the continent of South America had no mountains and was a very exotic land. It had long since broken away from Africa and was drifting slowly toward North America. Central America did not yet exist.

Primitive mammals, birds and strange plants shared the land. Somewhere in the northeastern part of the continent, a plant was evolving.

It, too, had drifted far from its ancestral line. It had left behind its plant ancestors, an ancient line that would eventually produce portulacas. Now this plant was small and shrublike. Its wooden trunk and bright green leaves were nothing new. Even its little flowers were just ordinary, but this plant had areoles and spines. This plant was a cactus.

Today the plants in the genus Pereskia look much like the ancestral cactus. Like coelacanths in modern waters, they can teach us about the past. Although they are quite different from the cacti in most of our collections, these plants are not frozen in time.

There are at least 15 known species and maybe more growing in warm, tropical areas of Central and South America. They range in size from small shrubs to treelike plants over 20 feet tall.

Pereskias are sometimes broken down into two groups: small and large blooming species. Their charming flowers are vaguely reminiscent of the flowers of old-fashioned roses.

Pereskias are not the most popular of cacti, yet the scientific knowledge they offer should not be underestimated or ignored.