Monday, August 18, 2008

Eastern Cactus Conference Mop-up

Ernst van Jaarsveld and the gang judge the Gasteria class (Ernst, literally, wrote the book on the genus).

First off, I have to thank everyone at the Cactus and Succulent Society of Massachusetts for organizing such a superb convention. They really outdid themselves, and I think everyone who attended had a wonderful time. There was one scheduling SNAFU that I noticed, but it seemed to be strictly the hotel's fault, and in any case all the affected events were accommodated the next day, with a pizza lunch thrown in to compensate for the delay.

The quality of plants at the show was outstanding, as was the quality of the plants for sale from the vendors. Somehow, my pot of Burger's Onions (pictured in the header of this blog) managed to take best in division for the succulents other than cacti, which was gratifying. The CSSM club table offered a wide selection of mesembs and haworthias, in perfect shape after being shipped in from the Sphaeroid Institute in California. The banquet was, well, hotel banquet food, but the company was excellent. The auction, which ran until nearly midnight after the banquet, was pretty spirited for a recession year, and it was nice to see some of the more obscure succulents, like Conophytum, inspire bidding wars.

For me, at least, it is the lectures that really make the convention. I missed out on a couple of talks because of conflicts: I regret not seeing Dennis Cathcart's presentation on succulent bromeliads, a subject on which I could use a refresher course, and I hear that Jerry Barad gave a fascinating talk on the early history of the New York Cactus and Succulent Society. I did catch and enjoy Fred Kattermann's talk about Chilean cacti, and two presentations by Panayoti Kelaidis about cold hardy succulents, one dealing with the cultivation of native plants in the arid Southwest, and the other a travelogue of Panayoti's botanical explorations at high altitude in Southern Africa. Mark Dimmitt's slide show about Northern Mexico included some spectacular photography, as well as a lot of solid information about the ecology of the various drought-adapted vegetation types in that part of the world.

Steve Hammer gave two talks. The first, "Snow White and the Seven Hundred Dwarfs," was an overview of the more compact mesembs, including a number of small--in terms of number of species and plant size--genera like Psammophora (which has sticky leaves that catch a protective coating of sand) that usually don't get much love from growers. At his second talk, Steve spoke about hybrid Haworthia, the economics of horticultural fads, and what he thinks of as the futility of keeping track of the pedigree of cultivars. All the while he passed around examples from his haw collection, many of which could no doubt finance a mortgage payment if sacrificed to EBay. As far as I know, all the plants made it back to lectern by the end of the talk, without a leaf missing. Steve's talks are rather similar to his writing: wide ranging but coherent, with a literary quality that is sometimes nearly Twainian, and peppered with allusions to everything from the King James Bible to Brittney Spears.

The most fascinating presentations of the weekend, for me at least, came from Ernst van Jaarsveld, curator of the conservatory at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, who was flown in from South Africa by a coalition of American cactus clubs; he was off to Denver after the Eastern Convention. Other speakers may have been more eloquent--Ernst's first language is Afrikaans--or had prettier photos or fancier PowerPoint presentations, but at Ernst's talks, more than the others, I felt that I was learning about things in the natural world that I wasn't aware of before, and in fact hadn't remotely suspected. There is, for example, a succulent grass that grows around Alexander Bay at the border between South Africa and Namibia. Dregeochloa pumila looks like a Peperomia or some such poking out of the sand, but it's in the same family as your lawn. I hardly would have believed it before seeing the images. And no, Dregeochloa is not in cultivation, though Kirstenbosch is trying to acquire material. Also riveting for me was Ernst's accounts of a trip to Dolphin Head in Namibia to see Jensenobotrya lossowiana, Jensen's Grape, at one of its two known localities. I had known the basics of the Jensenobotrya story before, but it was something else entirely to hear a first hand account of its nearly inaccessible habitat on a spire of rock jutting into the icy South Atlantic, surrounded to the east by a sea of shifting dunes, and to see new images of individual plants, seemingly unchanged from their appearance in black and white photographs from 30 years ago. Fortunately for those who couldn't attend the convention, Ernst has written about Jensenobotrya online, at

My own talks, one on Conophytum and one on why the names of plants sometimes change in response to new information from modern evolutionary biology, seemed to go over reasonably well. A solid majority of the audience had their eyes propped open whenever I checked, anyway.

Steve Hammer, with a very expensive lump of vegetable matter.

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