Ben Dan Torre and the Symbolism of the Spine by Cacti

Mammillaries dotted with flowers in all the bright colors of a neon pop sock holder at C &A, circa 1983; the old man’s cactus, Cephalocereus senilis, surpasses ZZ Top by the sheer luxuriance of its hairstyle; The huge branched Saguaro cactus in the shape of a tree from the Sonoran Desert, used as visual shorthand for “the Wild West” in every cowboy movie.

Cacti have fascinated me since childhood. I was lucky enough to go to a lower floor that had a large greenhouse with a veranda on a sunny wall of the building, and it was full of not very well maintained but venerable cacti, some of which were big enough to hit the glass with their spiky fingers. I would try to spend as much time as possible there, and I think the director must have taken back my love of plants, because my friend and I were allowed to give up math classes to water the spider plants. at the library (that wouldn’t happen today, would it?!)

At home, I built my own cactus collection and picked up withered specimens at Jumble Sales and Woolworths. The thrill of the flowering of the first-a giant white trumpet like the horn of a gramophone that appeared one day and disappeared the next – was addictive.

Over the past five years, it has been satisfying to see something I love grow from a niche interest to an omnipresent presence in all trendy style cafes and magazines. “Ah, you’ve finally figured it out – it’s about time too,” I say to myself in a blessed way. But this is an unfair representation of the lasting symbolic power of the cactus: people loved and adored these plants even before recorded human history, and will continue to do so as the current fashion fades.

The sculptor Ben Russell is also a bit of a cactus lover. His current cactus exhibition at the Hignell Gallery in Mayfair, London, shows how diverse, complex and seductive the shapes that cacti can create are. His alabaster, Onyx and Portland limestone sculptures are wonderfully tactile: fortunately, the first thing the gallery assistant told me during my visit was that I could touch them.

The sculptures have been placed between real plants provided by the indoor plant supplier Conservatory Archives, offering a fascinating contrast between the real and the constructed, Art and nature (and some damn beautiful indoor plants)…). I was lucky enough to lead a discussion with Russell and gallery owner Abby Hignell, during which we discussed the ever-changing relationship between art and nature and explored the lasting appeal of the cactus. (I even wore one of my cactus shirts!) The show closes after this weekend (the last day is July 3rd). So if you’re around, please check it out.

Increasingly inspired by the cactus as a cultural icon as a result of the exhibition, I was delighted and intrigued when a review copy of Dr Dan Torre’s new book cactus (, reaction Books) landed on my desk. This book is not a traditional gardening book: there are no tips on watering or repotting. Instead, Torre explores the cultural and social history of cacti, ancient images of cacti found in Peru, dating back to 1300 BC – to the present day – genetically modified cacti that grow “human hair”. I was particularly intrigued by the cactus “living fences” common in Mexico and South America, mainly organpipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) and Pachycereus species-including the “cactus curtain” along the border of the US base at Guantanamo Bay in the 1960s.

My children were particularly intrigued to learn that there was an episode of one of their favorite shows, Doctor Who, which featured a cactus-like alien named Meglos. I think we all anthropomorphize our plants from time to time, but the “evil cactus” Trope is interesting: maybe something that anyone who has knocked against an Opuntia plant and spent hours picking the tiny thorns can sympathize with.

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