The Poetics of Outer Toughness and Inner Tenderness: Gorgeous 19th-Century Engravings of Cacti
A succulent serenade to the elegant geometry of spiny splendor.
By Maria Popova
Among the oddities of my childhood in communist Bulgaria was my mother’s collection of cacti. Against the chipped grey concrete of our apartment building, these improbable emissaries of another climate from another world stood as spiked sentinels of a fantastical optimism at the portal to another life.
Each winter, we brought the entire ensemble — dozens of them, all kinds of shapes and sizes and species — indoors; each summer, we carefully arranged them back on the tiny balcony overlooking the grey parking lot. My mother even tried her hand at grafting, without much success — but I vividly remember my astonishment at seeing the thick spiny skin open into the softest, most succulent flesh I had ever seen — softer than the inside of the cucumbers from my grandmother’s garden, moister than the vermillion interior of my thumb the time I pressed it into the knife’s blade accidentally flipped upside down.
I loved their geometric elegance, the splendid shock of their rare blossoms, their quiet resilience. I felt a deep affinity with these strange, otherworldly creatures — the child who also had to learn to thrive on being underwatered, the child longing for thick-skinned spiny armor to protect the inner succulence from the intemperate climate and violent dust-storms of its local environment. (Many years later, well into adulthood, I would discover and fall in love with a charming children’s book embracing this very metaphor.)
Imagine, then, my delight at chancing upon the forgotten 1841 gem Illustrations from a Descriptive Iconography of Cacti by the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire (November 1, 1800–June 22, 1871), who spent his entire personal and professional life under the enchantment of cacti, dying in poverty and without renown despite his voluminous publications and the number of genera he named, including the famed Christmas Cactus. (A plant, as it happens, about a hundred million years older than Christ.) His successor at the horticultural journal Lemaire edited for the last seventeen years of his life lamented that “posterity will esteem M. Lemaire more highly than did his contemporaries.” May we so do.
His 1841 classification of cacti features a dozen beautifully colored and detailed engravings of some of the most notable species, which I have restored, digitized, and made available as prints, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on how a rare night-blooming cactus reconciles us to the universe, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s gorgeous illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, published in Lemaire’s era, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s trailblazing illustrated botany of medicinal plants from the previous century.
Published February 12, 2020