Although very few succulents qualify as economically useful plants, their popularity as ornamentals has never been greater. They are well suited to flourish in the typical small amateur glasshouse with its sharp temperature fluctuations and largely unobstructed light, and equally to sunny windowsills indoors where the dry air from central heating is inimical to mesophytes. In an age that seems to rejoice in reaction and the overthrow of conventions, the anarchistic look of a cactus is bound to appeal. Looking at it, one can imagine that its stark geometry, unfussy outlines and prime colour masses somehow harmonize with current fashion in decor, architecture and —dare I say-music and the other arts. Just why some people are "turned on" by succulents and others just as emphatically "turned off' is a subject for another book. But there is no doubt that there are different kinds of addiction: the urge to collect, the love of flowers, the love of the unusual, the rare, the costly, the near extinct or simply of what other people despise and reject — all come into it. And just as there are delights in exploring uncharted fields, so too there are dangers when the trees become too thick for the wood to be seen. Just as there are motorists who spend most of their lives tinkering with the engine, and hi-fi experts who somehow never get round to listening to a symphony, so there are collectors who mistake the means for the end and collect names rather than plants. This is hardly surprising when nurseries compete to offer the longest list, journals pour out descriptions of allegedly new species, and books champion X's classification while decrying those of Y and Z.
In this book I have purposely avoided long lists of species or emphasis on the often fine distinctions between them, preferring rather to stress the higher categories—genera, Tribes, subfamilies and Families— because the bird sees more than the worm, and usually lives longer. The aim has been all along to view succulents (perhaps 3-4 percent of all flowering plants) against the general background of the world flora and of their systematic grouping—a series of parallel lines of evolution from the most diverse and disparate of ancestors. By giving proportional treatment to each of the Families, I have endeavoured to give a balanced outlook, and to avoid the distortions that have abounded since H. Allnutt published his book "The Cactus and other tropical Succulents" in 1877.
A well-stocked cactophile's glasshouse is a phenomenon of our time: an Aladdin's cave crammed with rarities from all over the world. Here, for the first time, plants meet up with each other in serried ranks of little pots—a microcosm of vegetable wonders testifying to man's urge to explore the uttermost corners of the earth and to compress its treasures into a few square metres of his own back garden. If plants could talk, what tales of hardship and endurance some could relate, as could the collectors from days when travel in foreign parts was a lot less comfortable and safe than it is today! Viewed in this light, ownership of a rarity becomes a privilege rather than a right bought for cash. One commonly hears grumbles that this species won't grow, another doesn't flower, and a third fails to set seed. A visit to the habitat would send the grousers back full of wonderment that so many species do, indeed, acclimatize so well. That is the real eye-opener, and few other plants can match their adaptability.
As for the pursuit of the elusive True Species—a myth, anyway—it is best left in the hands of botanists equipped with a library, herbarium, laboratory and facilities for field studies. But this does not mean that the enthusiastic amateur is denied creative outlet if he wants to put his collection to a useful purpose. There are many neglected fields awaiting exploration. Which plants set fertile seed with their own pollen, and which do not? There is still no central bank of information. If wild collected seed is available, he could raise all the seedlings to maturity and investigate variability within the species. Better still, if space allows two or more populations to be raised, much could be learned from studying the degrees of overlap. The propagation of rare and endangered species is a top priority for the conservation-minded: unusual techniques, such as the taking of root cuttings or seedling grafting, are but two avenues for exploration. As Chapter 5 has shown, there is a wide-open field for the introduction of new hybrids, provided you have the strength of will to throw away everything that is not a real improvement.
A succulent collection can be anything from a mixed dozen on a windowsill to a botanical garden in miniature, drawing sightseers and specialists from afar. It can be dabbled in as an amusement for idle moments, or wallowed in so that it takes over your life: a plaything, or a tool for research, whichever you choose. And whether you wallow or play, there is something uniquely satisfying in the contemplation of nature: pass through one door and there are always more waiting to be opened.
Below: Most succulents, like this cactus, seed out the shade ot rocks or other plants in the hot. dry regions where they grow.
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