Plants are not Objects: A Spiky Photo Essay

The Desert garden at Huntington Botanical Garden is mecca for lovers of the spiky, the succulent, the sculptural. It’s home to one of the largest collection of succulent plants in the world, and a place I could happily spend weeks exploring. Daniel Shipp and I visited last year and were entirely blow away by the scale and diversity of the collection.

Cactus are incredible creatures. They’re cool too, apparently, popping up in hipster shopfronts the world over, and peppered throughout millions of Instagram posts. Perhaps because they look quite static – they don’t have leaves that move or droop and they’re incredibly slow growing – I occasionally find myself reminding people that they’re not objects. Depending on mood, a foot stamp is sometimes added for emphasis.

The statement is typically provoked by someone telling me that their cactus has just died. I ask them where it was living and they say ‘oh my bedroom/living room/bathroom’. I shake my head with sympathy and a little sadness, and then launch into my talk about seeing plants not only as decoration, but as a fellow living creature with needs (and maybe even desires), like us.

My little talk goes something like this:

Cacti are amazing. There are around 2000 different species within the Cactaceae plant family. All, except for one species, Rhipsalis baccifera (which grows in Africa and Sri Lanka), are native to the Americas.

Cacti have some incredibly neat plant adaptations to enable them to survive in some of the hottest and driest environments on earth. Their spines, for example, are actually highly modified leaves. Plants lose water via transpiration from their leaves, so by reducing the surface area of their leaves by turning them into spines, they reduce water loss. The spines also protect a cacti’s swollen trunk (a superbly designed in-built water storage system) from thirsty predators.

We all know that most (there’s no such thing as a blanket rule with plants) cacti love the desert. We all know that the desert is very sunny and very dry. We all know that plants are living creatures who grow best in the conditions they’re used to. Therefore, cacti don’t really like being indoors, they don’t really like humidity, and they’re teetotallers. Don’t force them to drink. Don’t force them to live in darkness. Respect them as a fellow living creature.

One third of all cactus species are facing extinction.

You read it right – Cacti is one of the most threatened taxonomic groups, more so than mammals and birds, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The dominant drivers of extinction, according to a report published in Nature Plants, are “the unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections, smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture.”

Zooming in on the illegal harvesting of plants from the wild for private collections and gardens, it’s easy to see how damaging the objectification of plants can be. Sure, killing a cactus by trying to grow it in your bathroom isn’t a big deal, but driving a species to extinction is a huge one.

According to an article in the Guardian earlier this year, cacti are being stolen from public lands in the south west of the US in increasing numbers: “From soaring saguaros to tiny, rare species favored as indoor house plants, the booming global demand for cacti is driving a shadowy, underground trade that’s difficult to police. Moreover, experts say, such trends risk destroying sensitive species forever.”

Cacti are slow growers. Many species take decades to reach maturity. This is a beautiful thing if you see a plant as a life, but problematic if there’s dollars attached.

It’s a curious thing, collecting plants. We’re all drawn, I think, to beauty and exclusivity. I love to grow plants I haven’t seen before – I love to see what they do, what they like. There’s a line somewhere, though, between love and objectification, and sometimes it can get a little bit hazy.

Know where your cacti come from (the desert). Know what they like and dislike (lots of sun, not much water). Know that they’re beautiful, and know too, that beauty resides not only in rarity but in ubiquity. It’s just a matter of seeing.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens are located in San Marino, California, and are open every day from 10-5.