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Useful Beauty

People are often attached to animals, lugging around cats, dogs, and the occasional snake and spider. I used to keep owls, walking down the High Road in Chiswick, London, with my Barn Owl or Scops Owl. The latter was a male, whom I named Cuthbert, and he clearly liked females. They stroked him and got physical with him to their heart’s delight, and he purred like a kitten. For most males he had no time, and for me he reserved utter contempt; our relationship was not great.

I might have gone back to the Owl Farm in Essex to find the female of the species, but, as Kipling noted, they are the more vicious of the species, and I needed less vicious. In the local park a benign life form, devoid of any type of viciousness, brought back memories of my growing up in California.

Mesembryanthemum, often called Ice Plant. An example of this hung on for life on Chiswick Common Road in the colder clime of the United Kingdom, a transplant from the British Commonwealth nation of South Africa. For years I went out of my way to see if it was still there. 12 years of checking on it always made me feel upbeat just to view it hanging on, like the last leaf in a story of that title by O. Henry. Only it was real, not painted on.

Rarely has anyone had such a sentimental feeling for a plant. But since, the public has grown quite fond of this and other succulents. Groups of such plants adorn offices around the globe, and I was reminded of my little friend, whom I have not seen for 14 years. Yearnings took hold, and I found myself walking down the palimpsest of memory. Or rather, doing an internet search.

Surprised was I to find the genus Mesembryanthemum has not just this one, but many dozens of species, and that this and other succulents had been in vogue centuries ago. I was not the only person to feel affection and artistic appreciation of this genus. Pierre Joseph Redoute, best known for his 18th century painting of roses, devoted much time and energy to these succulents.

His book, Histoire des Plantes Grasses or Plantarum historium succulentarum published in 32 fascicles between 1799 and 1805 gives more space to this genus than to any other. 60 paintings are devoted to it, alive with the unique foliage and often bright flowers, that sometimes juxtapose a greyish or brownish leaf with their vibrancy.

What struck me about the current craze is that I have yet to behold a single bloom among the many types of plants that are being collected. The last time I did was when a friend of mine in the Bronx showed me his Lithops collection, a neat row of small pots arranged on a tray under grow lights. He had invested with his brother in a succulent business that featured these and cacti. At the same time, someone hit the market with the Pet Rock. My friend lost all his money in that venture, while the Pet Rock inventor was featured on major TV for his product, which never flowered.

The public finally lost interest in silent pets.

And the public is starting to question succulents: do they flower? They are plants, and yes, they do. But like most plants, flowering is dependent upon season and/or conditions. Temperature controlled offices and apartments do not do seasons. Conditions are static and stable. And so are the plants maintained is such an environment.

To bring about flowering, it is necessary to simulate the native conditions, which are often deserts with cool nights; the day/night differential is a key phrase in many forms of botany, whether one is growing orchids or hemp.

Thus, most people have no idea about what a range of shapes and colours there are in the succulent world. Below is a selection:

Gymnocalycium Chin Cactus

Christmas Sleigh Aloe

Kalanchoe

Hoya Kerrii Variegata Bloom

Hindu Rope Plant