Cactus Conundrums: Navigating the Australian Trichocereus Scene
The Trichocereus genus of cacti encompass a wide variety of plants from the Andes mountains of South America, ranging from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south of the continent. Numerous species of these plants in the Trichocereus genus have for millennia held a major cultural significance for their utility in a number of different areas, most importantly in their use for shamanic/religious purposes and healing rituals, with their known usage by the local populations of antiquity going back to at least 8,600 bce and continuing right up until the modern era in the populations of today, in an unbroken continuum of traditional practices.
Today, these plants have spread through the hands of humans all over the world and are becoming increasingly popular, particularly here in Australia where much of the country provides the ideal climate and conditions for them to thrive. This has led to a number of positives and negatives both for the plants themselves and the people who grow them , which is the intention of this article to explore. Firstly I would like to start with the positives as they far outweigh the negative aspects , and are of by far greater importance in the grand scheme of things.
First and foremost of course comes the benefits for the Trichocereus plants themselves. With these magnificent plants being grown in public and private collections all over the world, the chances of them ever becoming extinct now are almost zero, short of an extinction level event effecting the entire globe of course. The popularity of growing Trichocereus cacti has literally exploded over the last decade or so and there are now far more Trichocereus plants than there ever has been in history.
With the ever increasing encroachment of modernity, large scale agriculture, tourism and wild poaching into the various regions of their native Andes mountains, unfortunately certain Trichocereus species face an uncertain future in their native habitat. A number of the originally described Trichocereus species by European botanists like Ritter, Backeberg etc are no longer found in their originally designated habitats today at all. The most notable example of this is Trichocereus scopulicola, which for decades was considered extinct in the wild, although I have been assured by an intrepid explorer that they are still out there in Bolivia, just not where they were originally described. Thankfully the vast majority have been saved from complete extinction through their proliferation around the world with Trichocereus scopulicola in particular being rather common here in Australian collections.
Also importantly, as I have no doubt was the case in antiquity, we can also create through selective breeding, genetic drift and plant adaption to different environments, entirely new forms of Trichocereus that the world has never seen before. This could give us the ability to even increase the current range of climates that these plants can survive and thrive in over time. We can highlight and on-breed certain preferable characteristics, whatever they may be, for whatever purposes one can imagine. With a little patience, skill and imagination, we can create stronger, hardier and even more beautiful plants.
One of the greatest aspects of growing these remarkable plants, is simply their serene beauty. The feeling they well up inside the grower or collector when just admiring their striking nature. To the Trichocereus lover, just sitting amongst a cacti forest that you have created, loved and cared for can be one of the most peaceful, fulfilling and rewarding experiences imaginable. Knowing that you have either grown all these plants from seed and/or cuttings, and nurtured them into becoming a towering achievement in beauty and love, is one the most gratifying and satisfying feelings in the world. This is especially the case when they are in flower, filling your garden with the most beautiful of scents that seems to permeate your entire being.
Of course many people around the world grow these miraculous plants for their healing abilities, not just physically, but perhaps most importantly in this messed up world for our spiritual and mental health, and ability to treat addiction issues. Unfortunately this is of course illegal in Australia, although there are promising signs that this may change in the future and it is legal to be used for these purposes in many parts of the world, especially in their native habitats. One of the truly amazing aspects of growing these plants is that in most cases those who simply grow these plants at first for their healing purposes, usually end up falling madly in love with them and growing far more than they could ever possibly use. Over time their focus almost always changes from their potential use, to their appreciation and love for the plants themselves.
Also, when you grow these plants you will come across a bunch of interesting characters and quite often make a lot of new friends who share your interests. This is very important in our ever increasingly isolated world. One the most rewarding aspects for me is meeting and learning from the older generations who have been growing these cacti for decades. I have travelled hundreds of kilometers to visit some of the most spectacular collections in Australia and this is essential if you really want to know these plants. You will never know what these plants can become if all you’ve ever done is look at pictures posted on the internet, usually of plants in pots. You will learn more in one day spent with an experienced grower, if you actually listen, than you will ever learn in an online forum. Get out there and meet people, trust me, it’s worth every minute.
Now for the negative aspects, which can largely be avoided if you know how. Firstly and perhaps most unfortunately is the ever increasing creep of greed into the Australian and in fact worldwide Trichocereus scene. Where once the Trichocereus growing scene was more focused upon sharing and helping each other, today all too many are just in it for what they can get out of people. Some of the prices I see people asking for their plants is just downright shameful. Now some people will just say that is “the market value” or some other self serving nonsense, usually because they had dreams of making their fortune selling these plants. This is not to say that fair prices shouldn’t be paid for people’s work, but really, some usually dishonest people are just taking the piss and taking advantage of people, especially those new to the scene who do not realize that it never used to be this way.
This greediness has manifested in a number of disturbing ways, not just in overcharging. Such as in the naming of clones just to sell more plants, preying upon the collectors need to “collect them all.” You will also find certain people who have to put their own name or online handle on a plant, which only really serves to inflate their ego. At first in the Australian Trichocereus scene, the naming of clones was to delineate between what was a very limited amount of actual Trichocereus in this country, usually denoting the location or person where they originally came from. When these plants were rare, it served a useful purpose for breeding. But those days have long since passed, today these plants are far from rare and the specific naming of clones should be reserved for plants that are out of the ordinary, that are truly special.
Today it seems as if certain people are naming every single plant they can, which is just absurd. All too often the exact same clone will have multiple different names which could just be ignorance in many cases, but no doubt greed is also playing a role here. People are naming hybrids and even naming what they know are open pollinated hybrids as being pure species, which is obviously just being dishonest.
The other main issues you’re going to encounter in the Australian Trichocereus scene are the online groups and forums, and their associated problems, of which there are many. All too often they are run by wannabe petty tyrants and rip off merchants, who display an obvious nepotism and favoritism towards those that are in their little club so to speak and like to use their illusory “power” to promote a plant they want to sell with false advertising about its “attributes.”Usually these are ineffectual little people without any personal power in real life, and cannot stand anyone that stands up to their pathetic online bullying or calls out their manipulation of the market.
These groups have also bred a lot of jealousy, particularly towards the people who have actually achieved something of note in real life, grown an amazing collection and made a name for themselves through actual hard work and ability. This has led to disgusting and spurious rumors, innuendo and outright slander of people who never did a thing wrong. Just because these ineffectual nobodies cannot stand the fact that some of us achieve, what they only wish they could.
The online groups are also a breeding ground for misinformation, misidentification and outright nonsense, that when repeated for long enough seem to become facts in the minds of those who do not know any better. Quite often you will have people with tiny little collections, who have never even seen a really large mature collection in real life, trying to place themselves as the expert of all things Trichocereus. You can look at all the pictures of plants on the internet all you like, but this will never make someone an expert.
Thankfully, the majority of these negative aspects can be largely avoided, and if you are wise in how you spend your time and money, you can reward the people doing the right things and discourage those who are not with your choices. The power always lies with the consumer, you simply do not have to buy every named clone, you do not have to pay crazy prices and you do not have to partake in the online nonsense. Just because someone is an administrator of an online group, does not mean they actually know what they are talking about and especially avoid the collectors/sellers who have mostly cut off stumps in pots, all they are after is your money.
If you want real trustworthy advice on how to grow these plants, their identification and uses, look for people who have substantial mature collections, who travel far and wide to meet other serious collectors and have been doing this for a long time. There is no substitute for real life experience. The vast majority of the experienced growers will be happy to help you with any questions you may have. Importantly, for the most part, these are the people who will only charge you fair and reasonable prices.
I can tell you from my experience that I have never been happier in growing these plants, than since I left all the online groups and their associated problems. The simple fact is, I just don’t need them at all. I still have a lot of trusted friends who are Trichocereus growers and breeders, both in real life and online that I can talk to about any issues or questions I have. I have more plants than I know what to do with and not one bit of the bullshit the online groups just seem to love wallowing in. I’ll leave all that to those who are interested in it, I have far better things to do with my time, like enjoying, growing and breeding my plants.
Lastly, I would encourage everyone with an interest in these plants to grow them from seed and breed your own plants. If you grow enough seeds of any species, you will get all kinds of weird and wonderful mutants, variegated and distinct forms, for a fraction of the price. Selectively breed your exceptional plants and try to create entirely new and amazing forms. It just takes a little patience, which never hurt anyone to learn. Do the hard work yourself and it will pay off more than you could imagine, not in terms of money, but in terms of knowledge, experience and ultimately, satisfaction.
About the author: Brett Lothian is an Australian Trichocereus enthusiast, writer and researcher. He is a regular contributor and book reviewer for New Dawn magazine. His work has also been published in Sacred Hoop, Indie Shaman and Dragibus magazines. As well as in numerous websites such as Waking Times and Truth Serum News. His work can be found at the Tricho Serious Ethnobotany blog.