Confessions of a cactus and succulent nerd

I recently returned from a five-day convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, held in Tempe, Arizona. That’s right, I’m a cactus and succulent nerd. For the past forty years I’ve been growing and collecting cactus and succulents, and some of the very first plants I acquired are still alive and in my collection.

In Tempe, 350 of us listened to talks and lectures by botanists and growers from all over the world. Gideon Smith, a Mandela University professor from South Africa, entertained us with stories and photos about the unique plants and history of that part of the world; Ernesto Sandoval spoke about his favorite cactus species in Brazil; Rob Wallace, PhD, gave a talk entitled “The sexual habits of cactus.” You get the picture; Botanical Latin was the language of the day and we nerds reveled in it.

Like most conventions, there was a banquet dinner (rubber chicken, of course), lots of “thank you’s” to volunteers and various awards given. An auction was held, and priceless specimens of rare plants were bought at ridiculously high prices, all for a good cause, of course. And there were the plant vendors, who had set up tables covered with cactus and succulents, all for sale to us cactus and succulent nerds. We snatched ’em up.

Everyone there was a collector, some as hobbyists like me, and others as professionals. The plant collector, given the number of plant species in the world, generally must focus on a particular family of plants, like aloes or agaves, for example. Whatever the focus, however, the care of living things, often for a lifetime, breeds an appreciation of nature overall, and its remarkable, stunning diversity.

That diversity, and appreciation of it, permeates the soul of plant collectors. Growing and collecting plants is not merely the simple fulfillment of desire; taking on the responsibility for preserving life runs deeper than that. In his work, the late, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan identified what he termed “jouissance,” a pleasure so attractive and compelling it’s almost “sexual” in nature; accordingly, we plant lovers sometime refer to ourselves as Hortisexual.

Gazing at my collection as the late afternoon sun highlights the myriad forms and colors of my plants, I sometimes fall into a powerful reverie, almost trance-like in its character. The shapes, spots and textures all together manifest what the Sufi’s call the experience of “unity through multiplicity” or what the Buddhist Heart Sutra designates as the samadhi of “profound illumination,” which elucidated by Tibetan teachers means “perception of the profound in the enumeration of phenomena.”

In this way all of life, including humanity, can be appreciated as nature’s great display; the diversity and speciation of living things unites us in a seamless web of interconnectedness, the Hindu “Jewel net of Indra.” The individual particularities of each plant and each person are the jewel-like expression of a unifying life-force now billions of years old: exuberant, resilient, creative, colorful, energetic and irrepressible.

On a tour of the Desert Botanical Garden, we learned that cactus are the fifth most threatened living species on the planet. It’s city sprawl and development that’s the main reason for it, whether in Brazil, South Africa or Arizona. This fact was not lost on us cactus and succulent nerds, those who appreciate the unique forms and varied character of these botanical wonders.

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