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Posts Tagged ‘cacti’

The Cactus Handbook (Der Kakteen Führer), Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)

This book reminds me of the Philip’s Guide to Seashells, because it carries the same important themes: cacti can look very different, but they descend from a single common ancestor and their shape and color are governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables.

But there is one big difference between shells and cacti: the shells are dead and don’t change any more; the cacti are living and do. That means that there can be a startling contrast between the vicious spikes or blistering hairs of a cactus, intended to permanently deter, and its beautiful flowers, intended to periodically attract. Notocactus ottonis, for example, is a ridged ball of tough green flesh set with dozens of spikes; its flowers are a beautiful little fountain of yellow petals. Parodia sanguiniflora has even more spikes and even more beautiful flowers: a spray of scarlet petals around a golden heart of anthers and stigma. If the book was scratch’n’sniff, the contrast would because even sharper, because the flowers often smell attractive too.

All of that is adventitious from the human point of view, because the flowers and scent aren’t intended to attract us. But they do, and so do the strangeness and toughness of cacti, which is why a German author has written a highly detailed guide to plants from South and Central America. Some could probably never be grown in Germany, being far too large and demanding even for a specialist greenhouse; others can be grown anywhere with simple equipment.

And once again, as with any sufficiently detailed book about plants or animals, the scientific names have an appeal of their own: Mitrocereus fulviceps isn’t properly illustrated and perhaps could never live up to its name, which means something like “wax-cap tawny-head”, while the name Gymnocalycium horridospinum combines beauty and threat in the way the plant itself does. Its spines are indeed “horrid”, but beautiful violet-pink flowers sprout between them.

The cone-shells provide a similar contrast between beauty and deadliness, but you don’t actually see the deadliness of a cone-shell. However, you need a specialist vocabulary to describe both cone-shells and cacti properly, and both these books will help you acquire one. Being dilettantish, I haven’t put the effort in, but I know I should do, because it would help me to a deeper and richer appreciation of what I’m looking at.

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Wicked Plants by Amy StewartWicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)

One of the most memorable villains in fiction is Ernst Blofeld, who battles James Bond in various books and films. Blofeld’s most memorable scheme is the garden of death he creates in You Only Live Twice (1964) to exploit the Japanese taste for suicide. As Ian Fleming puts it: Blofeld wants to “slay it with flowers”.

He would have found this book an excellent guide for his gardening. But he couldn’t have hoped to collect everything here, because it covers a world of wickedness and weathers, from monkshood in Scotland to mouse trap trees in Madagascar. The former is metabolically offensive: its alkaloid poison aconite “paralyzes the nerves, lowers the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart” (pg. 2). The latter is mechanically offensive: its seeds are covered in hooked spines and “humans who have been caught in its grip report that attempting to remove the seedpods is like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap” (pg. 218).

The Chinese are famous for their ingenious tortures, but Mother Nature is more ingenious still. After all, she invented the Chinese too. Natural poisons can attack the muscles, the nerves, the skin and the brain. They can cripple you, blind you, kill you and drive you mad. That’s why they’re interesting. Amy Stewart covers every kind of offensive plant, from trees and grasses to cacti and algae, and quotes everyone from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to Hippocrates and Ovid. Whether it’s poisonous or simply a pest, you should find it discussed here: deadly nightshade and tobacco are killers, kudzu and water hyacinth are pests.

But there isn’t actually an entry under “Z”: the book starts with “Aconite” and ends with “Yew”. Which is appropriate, because humanity wouldn’t exist without plants. They enhance our lives in countless ways too. This book turns the leaf and discusses plants that destroy or distress us instead. It’s full of botany, chemistry, history and mean green machines.

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