French Deserts, Naked Buds, Cacti, and Guillotines

[Literature cited or referenced appear at the end of the article.]

You will not find le Desert de Retz in the guidebooks for the American Southwest, for the very good reason that it occurs 12 miles west of Paris, France. Le Desert de Retz was created in 1774 by Francois Henri Racine de Monville, in Saint Jacques de Retz, France, where Monville had his rather fabulous estate. Monsieur Monville was an aristocrat, was said to be strikingly handsome, had a terrific singing voice, composed music, played the flute, and was a delight on the dance floor, where he was occasionally accompanied by Marie Antoinette. Monsieur Monville was not, however, tall. Being 5-ft 8-inches tall was no detriment, and Monville actually played it to his advantage to elude his enemies. But I am getting ahead of the story.

In 2006, I purchased a cactus despite the detraction that it had no label. The curved golden spines were sufficiently attractive to overcome the fact that the species was unknown to me. I deduced from its chinned areoles that the cactus belonged to the genus, Gymnocalycium, which means "naked bud". As the years went by the cactus grew to rather large size, and at long last it flowered, an event that allowed me to identify the cactus with certainty. And what do you know, it was Gymnocalycium monvillei, a name given in honor of the frenchman Francois Henri Racine de Monville. It was another Frenchmen, Charles Antoine Lemaire who named the cactus. No cactus is native to France, however, and Lemaire conjectured that Gymnocalycium monvillei was native to Paraguay. We know today that Monville's cactus is native to Argentina's Provences of Cordoba and San Luis. There it is able to endure cold as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the upheaval of the Revolution swept through France in 1789, Monsieur Monville, an aristocrat, was in dire peril. When the revolutionaries repeatedly scoured his estate to drag Monville to execution, they'd only find his drably dressed gardener, all 5-foot 8-inches of him, and so the great man eluded them. Eventually the revolutionaries did apprehend Monville, but by that time the fury of the revolution had been spent. Instead of being sent to the Guillotine, Monville was sent to prison. By and by, he was freed. When Monville died in 1797, he left a dandy of a cactus to remember him by, Gymnocalycium monvillei. https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/17978442

Literature and References:
Charles Antoine Lemaire, 1838, Cactarum Aliquuot Novarum . . . Horto Monvilliana, page 14
Ronald W. Kenyon, DesertdeRetz.com
Ronald W. Kenyon, 2013, Monville - Forgotten Luminary of the French Enlightenment, page 204

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2024年06月24日 21:04 所貼文

Desert Poems

Amongst Rocks, Dunes, Cliffs, and Canyons,
Poetry breathes in Arid Lands.

Beneath the Sun and Moon and Stars
There is Life, Death, and Drama,
Where the Fittest, the Luckiest, the most Horrid,
and sometimes the Prettiest

No less so
than the Prairie Rose
Desert Forms pleasure
the Eye
and Soul.

[These two poems were presented at the introduction to Splendor in Spines, 5th Edition, 2018, by Michael J. Papay - released without restrictions for copy, translation, and technological conversion.]

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2024年06月24日 19:49 所貼文



Key to Varieties and Subspecies of Agave americana

Howard Scott Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America, 1982, p. 281

Key to Varieties and Subspecies of Agave americana
1a. Spines relatively broad and short, 2-4 cm long; leaves straight, guttered, sometimes valleculate, the margins straight or crenate; rosettes commonly on trunks 3-5 dm long 2
1b. Spines subulate, 3-6 cm long; leaves frequently reflexed and otherwise not as above 3
2a. Rosettes with stems to 6 dm long; leaves glaucous gray, the margin crenate with teeth along the mid-blade on sharply angled mammae; flowers 80-85 mm long var. expansa
2b. Rosettes on shorter stems; leaves glaucous white, the margins nearly straight with close-set non-mammillate teeth; flowers 100 mm long var. oaxacensis

3a. Leaves relatively short, 80-135 cm long, 4 to 6 times longer than wide, plane or guttered, straight to curving, green to glaucous gray; panicles shorter with 15-20 branches; wild ssp. protamericana
3b. Leaves longer than 100-200cm, 6-10 times longer than wide, frequently reflexed, glaucous gray or green variegated; panicles longer with 25-35 branches; cult. 4
4a. Leaves glaucous gray to light green, narrowed above base, some reflexed above the mid-blade var. americana

In the Preface to his great work, Gentry wrote, "Many boundaries between groups are not sharp, as also obtains among many species, because variation in Agave is mostly of a gradual or clinal type; one form or character changes to another by degrees."

So, we must keep an open mind as regards the cut-off points in the key (true of any key for any genus), and use experience to guide us when the key does not exactly work.

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2024年03月15日 19:21 所貼文


Agave pseudosalmiana

To understand Agave "pseudosalmiana" we must first understand Agave salmiana. Not an easy task.

Howard Scott Gentry was the Agave Botanist. He was a young man when he entered the habitat of the agave in order to understand the mysteries of their taxonomy. After decades of field research in what he later affectionately called Agaveland, Howard Scott Gentry emerged an old man, and wrote, "Now, like an agave, I am an old being who must make a show of things after years of rain and light catching." And so he did. He wrote a voluminous, illuminating, sometimes entertaining tome, Agaves of Continental North America, 1982.

In the Preface to his great work, Gentry wrote, "Many boundaries between groups are not sharp, as also obtains among many species, because variation in Agave is mostly of a gradual or clinal type; one form or character changes to another by degrees."

Of the Salmianae Group of Agaves, Howard Scott Gentry wrote, "the Salmianae show a high degree of Agave specialization and phylogenetically can be regarded as among the most advanced or modern. Their great variability, obviously abetted by man, is part of their modern modification, a situation of unpredictable eventuation." The species of the Salmianae Group have been cultivated, selected, and probably hybridized by Native Americans "for hundreds if not thousands of years." Gentry lamented, perhaps with some admiration, that "The number of varieties or forms outstrip the perimeters of this work." It is from amongst these varieties and forms that my notion of Agave pseudosalmiana arose.

Agave salmiana occurs primarily in the pulque region of Mexico, namely the States of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Hildago. The climate is warm, with winters that rarely see cold below -4 C, 25 F. From this central pulque region, selections of Agave salmiana were carried north to Saltillo, of similar climate. Yet in the colder highlands of Saltillo there happened to occur what is now called Agave gentryi, a close relative of Agave salmiana. Also in the region was Agave americana protamericana. With Agave salmiana now present, these three species became familiar in the usual way of agaves. In consequence, the unpredictable eventuation of which Howard Scott Gentry spoke, blossomed. Agave "pseudosalmiana" has traits of all three species, expressed to various degrees amongst the individuals.

Gentry was not alone in his fascination with the agaves. Two plantsmen from Texas took the opportunity of their proximity to Mexico to make forays into Mexico in search of interesting things to grow in their gardens. Lynn Lowry and Logan Calhoun independently made collections of attractive forms of what they understood to be Agave salmiana. However, the winters in Texas are colder than those of Mexico, and only cold hardy selections survived. These were admired by Lynn Lowry and Logan Calhoun, and were shared with friends, and by an by made their way to Juniper Level Botanic Garden, a product of Tony Avent's ambitions that sprouted from his world famous Plant Delights Nursery, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tony Avent collected and sold, and collects and sells, plants from all around the world, with a particular penchant for agaves. T'was thus that I came to know the agaves, and undertook their study and cultivation, with considerable guidance and support from Tony Avent, and one of his employees, Zac Hill.

In order to assuredly identify an agave, you need to know where it originated, and to see and study it in flower. The first item can not always be had from plants in trade. The second item is more crucial, and rarely occurs, for agaves are neither annuals nor biennials nor perennials. Each plant flowers only once in its lifetime, and that may take anything from 8 to 50 years. [They are thus called multiannuals.] By and by, however, selections known as Agave salmiana 'JCRA', Agave salmiana 'Green Goblet, Agave salmiana 'Logan Calhoun', Agave salmiana 'Bellville', and Agave salmiana 'Saltillo' independently came into flower, and yielded themselves to our scrutiny. Eventually it became apparent that these were not in fact Agave salmiana. So in the 5th edition of my self-published book, Splendor in Spines, 2018, I proposed the name Agave pseudosalmiana to encompass Agaves 'Bellville, 'Green Goblet', 'JCRA', 'Logan Calhoun', and 'Saltillo', with due credit given to Tony Avent and Zac Hill for leading the inquiry to try to understand this relationship.

Agave "pseudosalmiana" have these coherent traits:

  • resemblance to Agave salmiana in leaf shape and over-all form (especially when young)
  • leaves greener and glossier than Agave salmiana
  • yellow flower tepals that are cuculate and papillose
  • greater hardiness to cold, -12 C, 10F instead of -4 C, 25 F
  • genetic dominance of leaf traits when hybridized, even against the very dominant Agave victoriae-reginae ; that is to say that the hybrid offspring always look noticeably of Agave salmiana in leaf color and leaf shape

Agave salmiana

Agave "pseudosalmiana"

Known, hand-made hybrids with Agave "pseudosalmiana" as a parent:

Agave salmiana x asperrima https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/197319785

By and by I will try to add casual observations of, and provide links to, each of the agaves named above.

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2024年01月12日 21:52 所貼文


What be ye?

What life form is this?
Upon a rock,
firmly attached,
around the clock.

For half the year,
scorched by sun.
For the other half,
drowned in flood.

Undeterred by heat,
undaunted by cold,
it makes its living,
silent yet bold.

There be not just one,
but many of its kind,
of every color
under the sky.

Friends it has,
around the globe,
from shore to shore,
from pole to pole.

They're atop the trees.
They're on the rocks.
They're on the soil.
Occasionally, they're even on moss.

What life form is this?
What can they be?
Such puzzling,
perplexing, mysterious things.

Why, they're lichens of course.
Not one thing but two.
Fungi with algae.
And they've won the world.

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2024年01月09日 15:49 所貼文


The First Opuntia Cactus

This is the story of the First Opuntia Cactus. It is a curious tale indeed.

With a common name of Indian Fig Cactus, and a scientific name that says the same thing in Latin, Opuntia ficus-indica, you would be justified to think that the First Opuntia Cactus was from India. But you would be wrong.

This incongruous fact is attributable to two men, the first being Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 sailed west, from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean in the hopes of establishing a new route to India. So, the islands that Christopher Columbus discovered on the west side of the Atlantic were called The West Indies. The island of Jamaica is amongst these.

In 1687, nearly two centuries after Columbus caused some islands of the Caribbean to be called The West Indies, the physician and botanist, Hans Sloane visited the West Indian Island of Jamaica. There he observed that in their gardens and yards the citizens grew a cactus for its regular crop of large tasty fruits. Hans Sloane described this cactus in 1707, and gave it the scientific name, wait for it, Opuntia maximima in reference to the large size of the flat ovoid stem sections of the cactus. Opuntia is in reference that the cactus grows sort of like a string of beads, but in a rigid, bushy way, with very large beads/stem sections.

In 1753, Carolus Linnaeus renamed the cactus that Hans Sloane had found, and called it instead, Opuntia ficus-india. Now you know the name of the 2nd person responsible for the seemingly incongruous name, Indian Fig Cactus for a cactus that in fact grows in the Americas on the island of Jamaica, not in India.

It is at this point in a story that I would normally like to suggest that the cactus should be named for the island of Jamaica, where it was found by Hans Sloane. However, M. Patrick Griffith could declare my error for such an assertion, for he proved that Opuntia ficus-indica is neither native to India nor Jamaica. It is instead native to somewhere in central Mexico where it has been cultivated by people for untold centuries. From there it has radiated out as it has been shared amongst families, grown in garden and orchard, and transported for same said reasons, and by and by found a home in Jamaica. And, by and by, it was described as The First Opuntia Cactus.

So, it is true that Jamaica is home to The First Opuntia Cactus, a member of the Opuntiads, the most species-rich group of the Cactus Family. Serendipity is a curious thing. Jamaica is also home to The First Cactus, the history of which is also an interesting tale. The First Cactus was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, and is now named, almost unbelievably, Melocactus caroli-linnaei.


  • Hans Sloane, 1707, A Voyage to the Islands, page 20
  • Carolus Linnaeus, 1753, Species Plantarum, page 468
  • M. Patrick Griffith, 2004, The Origins of an Important Cactus Crop, Opuntia ficus-indica: New Molecular Evidence, American Journal of Botany 91 (11): 1915-1921
  • The First Cactus: https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/mjpapay/87790-the-first-cactus
由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2023年12月28日 21:11 所貼文


The Other First Cactus - the Barbados Gooseberry

Since the beginning of life in so simple a form so long ago, it has tended to diversify. Ancient forms still thrive amongst, around, above, and below their descendants. It is fascinating to trace the heritage of a modern form back in time. Anthropology is interested in the history of human evolution, and botany (amongst many other fascinating facets) is interested in the evolution of the plants. So, let us ask, What was the first cactus? We might imagine that if we trace the family line of a cactus into the distant past that we would eventually arrive at something not very cactus-like. And so it is.

Life's history was not filmed and recorded from the beginning by camera crews and scientists. And so far at least, no cacti have been found in the fossil record. We are therefor left to use what is available in our time to piece together an understanding of the origins of the cacti. We must find our answer amongst the living cacti.

To gaze upon a cactus for the first time is to behold a succulent plant with great spines and no leaves. But not all cacti exactly fit this description, particularly as regards the absence of leaves. In the lowland Neotropics of Southern Mexico, the Caribbean, thence south to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay thrive cacti that do not appear to be cacti at all. They are woody shrubs and trees with leaves. Succulent leaves, mind you. And amongst the leaves along the stem, the sharp and painful spines of cacti. These remarkable plants are in fact cacti. They are the Pereskia, and it is the Pereskia that resemble the presumed ancestral cactus. The resemblance is not just skin deep, as research about the metabolism and water-use of the Pereskia shows them to be true cacti.

In fact, the Pereskia were amongst the first cacti ever discovered. Around 1690, Charles Plumier, Royal Botanist for King Louis XIV, was on assignment in the Caribbean. In 1703, Plumier named the first Pereskia, calling it Pereskea aculeata. Rather remarkably, that is still its name today. It is also called the Barbados Gooseberry. It has pretty flowers that mature into attractive nourishing fruits.

So, although the first cactus ever described was a Melocactus from Jamaica, we may rightly consider the Barbados Gooseberry as the other First Cactus.

References used:

  • Erika Edwards & Michael Donahue, 2006, Pereskia and the Origin of the Cactus Life-Form, The American Naturalist, Volume 167: No. 6
  • Charles Plumier, 1703, Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera, page 35
  • Edward Anderson, 2001, The Cactus Family
    - - - - - - - - - -
    Photos of Barbados Gooseberry: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/166500-Pereskia-aculeata/browse_photos

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2023年12月22日 13:59 所貼文


The First Cactus

[a slightly modified excerpt from my self-published book, Splendor in Spines - Few copies printed. I doubt many remain.]

It is unlikely that the typical Scottish clansman knows that the thistle, the National Flower of Scotland, lent its name to a bizarre plant discovered on a tropical island half a world away. And who would believe that it was Christopher Columbus, on his last voyage across the ocean blue, who brought this curiosity to Europe? Or do the citizens of Germany know that it was their native son who first described and illustrated this remarkable plant from Jamaica, and who coined the now famous word, Cactus? No, probably not. And, do the citizens of Jamaica celebrate their native plant that is the founding species for science of what are arguably the most famous plants in all the world - The Cactus Family? Lamentably, no. How could they? The story is only about to be told.

Exploration of distant and foreign places has always been a risky and dangerous business. Its history is rife with calamity and misfortune. Still, it is easier to be the discoverer of new things if you are the first explorer of foreign regions. And although Christopher Columbus mistakenly insisted that his voyages across the Atlantic west of Spain were to a place already well known, India (thusly the origin of the Isles called the West Indies), his mistake led to the discovery and naming of the first cactus.

It was like this. After sailing west from Spain in 1502, Columbus arrived in the Caribbean with a ship in utter disrepair as a result of termites and storm damage. So, he put ashore in Jamaica. He spent a year there to organize a return to Spain, during which time he was undoubtedly introduced to the native people of Jamaica, and the native flora and fauna. Then as now, exotica was met with fascination, and having failed to find abundant riches in gold and silver, or a new passage to India for that matter, what else was Christopher Columbus to do than fill the coffers for Queen Isabella, who had funded the expedition, with the exotica before him? And so he did. One of the most outlandish botanical curiosities that he brought had a body somewhat like a melon, and was adorned with fierce prickles like a thistle. Not surprisingly, Europeans soon called it a Melon Thistle.

In 1504, after spending a year in Jamaica, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain and brought with him the Melon Thistle. It was a sort of sensation, and was assiduously cultivated, and shared when possible. In 1588, Jacob Theodor Tabernaemontanus, a Prussian doctor and botanist, described and depicted the Jamaican Melon Thistle in his decoratively illustrated, Krauter Buch (Herb Book). With great care, Tabernaemontanus described the plants in his Krauter Buch in Latin, German, and English. For the Melon Thistle, he gave its German name - Melonendistel, its English name - Hedgehog Thistle, and crucially, in Latinized Greek - Echino melocactus. The Greek word for thistle is kaktos, which Tabernaemontanus had translated to Latin as cactus. It was an important moment in botanical history

165 years after Tabernaemontanus, Carl Linnaeus published his Species Plantarum, and renamed Echino melocactus (Hedgehog Melon Thistle) as Cactus melocactus (Melonthistle Thistle), the name of which was somewhat redundant. It became even more redundant when it was renamed Melocactus melocactus (Melonthistle Melonthistle). This awkwardness was sort of fixed in 1991 when the Jamaican Melon Thistle was renamed, brace yourself, Melocactus carol-linnaei, Linnaeus' Melonthistle. One wonders what Dr. Tabernaemontanus would have had to say about that? Or Christopher Columbus? Or the citizens of Jamaica? Why not name the first-ever described cactus for the land from which it came and where it sill resides - Melocactus jamaicensis. It is a song in itself and is wholly appropriate. Yeah, I know. That'll be the day.

According to Doctor Werner Rauh, in the foreword to his book, Kakteen an ihren Standorten, 1979, Melocactus was once called Mutzencactus. The German word, mutzen has a dual use. It can mean the type of woven cap that has a little ball at the top. When donned upon the head, the hat has the appearance of a Melocactus. Mutzen also refers to a small, sweet, melon-shaped pastry, from which the mutzen cap obtained its name.


由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2023年12月18日 15:50 所貼文


Cactus Tears: Friedrich Sellow & Notocactus sellowi

An excerpt from my self-published book, Splendor in Spines. [Few copies were printed, and I expect scarcely any remain.]

First, a short history of the taxonomic origins of the genus Notocactus.
References Cited

  • Link & Otto, 1827, Echinocactus, Negotiations of the Association for promotion of Horticulture in the Royal Prussian States, Volume 3: 420-432 [Link & Otto, 1827, Echinocactus, Verhandlungen des Vereins zur Beförderung des Gartenbaues in den Königlich Preussischen Staaten, 3: 420-342]
  • Karl Moritz Schumann, 1898, Gesamtbeschreibung der Kakteen, page 379.
  • Tony Mace, 1975, Notocactus

NOTOCACTUS: In the early days of cactus taxonomy, few cacti were yet discovered, and precious little was known about them. At the beginning, of course, there were just a few described genera in which to place any newly discovered cactus. Thus, many species were at first placed in the genus Echinocactus - established by Link & Otto in 1827. As more cacti were discovered and more was learned about them , here and there species were gathered into groups. Sometimes the taxonomists proceeded with caution, and created subgenera within Echinocactus for the different groups. Eventually these subgenera were given status as genera in their own right. This was the path for Notocactus, made a subgenus in 1898 by Karl Moritz Schumann, then raised to genus by Albert Vojtec Fric in 1928.

By recent taxonomic treatment the Notocacti are to be placed in the genus Parodia. However, you will find many nurseries still recognize Notocactus, which in fact will save you a good bit of trouble if you are a grower of cacti. For truth be told, the Notocacti are almost embarrassingly easy to grow, whereas the species of Parodia are difficult at best.

The reason the Notocacti are so easy to grow is that they are native to non-arid, temperate regions of southern South America, essentially Rio Grand du Sol, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. The species hardier to cold (10F, -12C) occur in southern Uruguay, and in the Argentine Provinces of Cordoba and San Luis. Tony Mace reported that the Notocacti prefer a soil that is acidic or at most neutral (pH 5 to 7), and occur in places where "the average rainfall is quite high, between 20 and 40 inches per annum, and there is usually only a very short dry season." He continued, the Notocactis "are found growing . . . frequently on well-drained rocky outcrops". I can report that if given at least 4 hours of direct sunlight, a more or less south-facing exposure, and soil that does not hang wet, many Notocati are a lead pipe cinch in USDA Zone 7b or warmer.

Cactus Tears: Freidrich Sellow & Notocactus sellowi
References Cited

  • Kraush, H.D., 2002, Friedrich Sello, ein Messenger Pflansammier aus Postdam, Sandra 17(2):73-76
  • Link & Otto, 1827, Echinocactus sellowi, Negotiations of the Association for promotion of Horticulture in the Royal Prussian States, Volume 3: 425 & Tab. XXII [Link & Otto, 1827, Echinocactus, Verhandlungen des Vereins zur Beförderung des Gartenbaues in den Königlich Preussischen Staaten, 3: page 425 & Tab. XXII]

Many a cactologist has fallen under the spell of Notocactus sellowi. It was in fact Friedrich Sellow, A Prussian from Potsdam, who was this plant's first European discoverer. He collected it whilst exploring the natural history of Southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina from 1814 through 1831. Friedrich Sellow sent his natural history collections back to Prussia (now Germany), where his friends Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link and Christoph Friedrich Otto analyzed them. In 1827, Link & Otto published several new cactus species collected by Sellow, and named the most handsome of the species for him, calling it Echinocactus sellowi. An exemplary illustration of the species was provided in Tab. XXII of the publication, and cannot be confused for any other species of Notocactus.

Friedrich Sellow did not have long to enjoy the distinction of having a cactus bearing his name. Tragically, in October 1831, at age 42, Sellow drowned in Argentina's Rio Dulce. Perils are omnipresent at un-bridged river crossings. Today we are unaware of the countless lives saved by the feats of engineering exemplified worldwide in ancient and modern bridges that span waterways hither thither and yon. All those years ago, Argentina's Santiago del Estero had no bridge over the Rio Dulce for a traveler's safe passage. Misfortune, and a river named for its sweet water, took Sellow's life.

A testament to its attractiveness, Notocactus sellowi has many synonyms given by cactologists who wished to be the author who named it. Synonyms of Notocactus sellowi include: N. corynoides, N. courantii, N. curtinensis, N. erinaceus (where your will errantly find it filed at present), N. leprosorum, N. leucocarpus, N. macroacanthus, N. macrogonus, N. orthacanthus, N. pauciareolatus, N. rubricostatus, N. stegmannii, N. tephracanthus, and N. vorwerkianus. Everyone wanted to stamp a name on this cactus. It, however, belong's to Friedrich Sellow.

NOTE: In the heady days of early discoveries and description of cacti, cactus taxonomy was in a very transient condition. This is evident in the 1827 publication by Link & Otto. To understand what appears to be an error, one must first realize that before there was a genus that Link & Otto named Echinocactus, the species that comprise it were assigned to the genus Melocactus - the first cactus genus ever described [a separate story of which I have written, but not yet shared here]. Thus, when Link & Otto created the illustration for Sellow's cactus, they commissioned it under the name Melocactus sellowi. By the time their publication was ready for print, however, they had created a new genus, Echinocactus, and described Sellow's cactus as Echinocactus sellowi, and referred to the illustration that had the older name, by then a synonym, Melocactus sellowi. You can see it all for yourself here, thanks to Biodiversity Heritage Library:
[Link & Otto, 1827, Echinocactus, Verhandlungen des Vereins zur Beförderung des Gartenbaues in den Königlich Preussischen Staaten, 3: page 425 & Tab. XXII]

由使用者 mjpapay mjpapay2023年12月17日 23:59 所貼文