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ISSUE 2 (12):

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Cactus Magazine "Welwitschia". - Slovenia,

Probably the only albinos to survive outside the laboratories are some of the plants in the cactus family. Eiji Watanabe and K. Kitoh from Japan were the first to breed such cacti in 1940. This plants were hybrids of several gymnos and Gymnocalicium michanovitchii v. friedrichii. They found two albino plants among 10,000 seedlings and made repeated cuttings and grafts. Watanabe first obtained a yellowish red cactus, named 'Unjo-nishiki'. In 1948 red 'Hibotan' appeared. Japan soon produced millions of such cultivars, which spread all over the world. They were known by easy-to-remember nicknames, such as 'Ruby Cactus', 'Red Cap', 'Nishiki', 'Hibotan', 'Optima Rubra' etc. After 1960, they were cheap enough that everybody could buy them. Interestingly, West European collectors, scientists and researchers didn't accept this type of plant. Maybe they were jealous that such a discovery was made in the land without a cacti research tradition, or maybe it was the unusual stock, (Hylocereus undunatus and its relatives), that they did not like. No one can be sure. Plants soon appeared with yellow, pink and purple variations. In 1983, Ishikawa recognised 16 variations of 'Hibotan' and 10 in 'Nishiki'.

After 1955, they wee produced with tissue-culture engineering. Japan dominated their production, and later some other countries in South-eastern Asia joined in. New albino plants began to appear much later also in Europe, (Hungary, Austria, East Germany, and former Czechoslovakia). In Slovenia the first specimen appeared in 1978 (Proteus, February 1984).

(«Cultivar» №1 за 2001 г.)

Hazhima Oku's report at the congress of international organization of studying succulent plants in 1959 was devoted to growing colored cactuses. (The report was published in "Succulentarum Japania", October, 1959. The report covers in detail the question of growing colored plants including cactuses.

"The first colored cactus appeared in Japan in 1935. It was Gymnocalycium mihanovichii. This inspired flower-grower I.Vatanabe to try to get a fully red cactus. He learnt that Gymnocalycium mihanovichii has the richest red color and came to the conclusion that it can be the basis for a fully red cactus.

Vatanabe imported from Germany 300 seeds and in 1937 got seedlings which 4 years later grew into plants that gave in total 10,000 seeds. In 1941 when seedlings came up there were 2 pink cactuses among them.

Vatanabe implanted them, after a short period cut them into several parts and implanted them again. As a result he got a bright red "Hibotan" and motley "Hibotan Nishiki".

CACTI AND SUCCULENTS IN JAPAN, PART 2. Aikichi Kobayashi, Editor, The Succulent Society of Japan (Cactus and succulent journal (U.S.). Vol. 68 (1996), p. 21)

Sourse of this material is: "Bunakov's Cacti Bookshelf",

Eiji Watanabe, 1957

The most famous cacti from Japan must be 'Hibotan' and 'Hibotan-nishiki', which are often called "ruby cactus". The only difference between them is the color pattern: 'Hibotan' lacks chlorophyll entirely, while 'Hibotan-nishiki' is partly green or often brown, sometimes almost black. The latter is therefore often grown on its own roots.

Editor Myron Kimnach wrote me that the origin of 'Hibotan' was poorly known in the U.S. In 1958 its origin was discussed in English in the first issue of Succulentarum Japonia, a journal of the Japanese section of the I.O.S. In this issue, Eiji Watanabe, who was the "father" of 'Hibotan', wrote a short history of its birth (translated into English by the editor, Hajime Oku). Later, in 1959, Oku presented the story at the 5th Congress of the I.O.S., and the manuscript was printed in issue No. 11 of Succulentarum Japonia. These must be rare issues outside Japan. E. W. Putnam (1978) briefly noted this story in his excellent booklet that appeared 20 years after the birth of 'Hibotan'.

According to Watanabe, in 1937 he imported 300 seeds of Gymnocalycium mihanovichii var. friedrichiae from H. Winter of Germany. In 1940 he obtained 10,000 one-year-old seedlings from some two dozen flowering plants. Among the seedlings were two slightly reddish plants, though they did not have a clear red color. Oku noted that Watanabe made repeated cuttings and grafts of these seedlings. He first obtained a yellowish red cactus, named 'Unjo-nishiki' by him and his friend K. Kitoh. Unjo means "above the clouds", i.e., noble variegated cactus. They continued tomake cuttings and grafts again and again until at last the glittering red-colored cactus, 'Hibotan-nishiki', appeared from many offsets in 1948; later, 'Hibotan' appeared. The prices of 'Hibotan' and 'Hibotan-nishiki' were 2000 and 20,000 yen respectively (at the present time 2000 = ca. 20,000 yen). Hayashi (1957) also retold this story.

Why did Watanabe sow seeds of G. mihanovichii var. friedrichiae? Prior to 'Hibotan-nishiki' there had been another variegated cultivar of G. mihanovichii with the Japanese name of 'Zuiun-nishiki'; it had been one of the most popular cacti during the 20 years before World War II. He therefore wished to produce variegated cultivars more beautiful than 'Zuiun-nishiki'.

The above story has been widely circulated, but there are some doubtful points. In those days, origins were not revealed, and Watanabe was agood story-teller. My friend M. Ekuma, an authority on variegated plants, points out that nonvariegated offsets from 'Unjo-nishiki' are slightly different from G. mihanovichii var. Friedrichiae and that 'Unjo-nishiki' may be related to 'Zuiun-nishiki' or other variegated gymnocalyciums. It is hard to believe that the color of variegated plants can change so easily just by offsetting. 'Hibotan-nishiki' was crossed with many gymnocalycium species in order to obtain different colors. N. Sei (1990) reported he had found another 'Unjo-nishiki' with a different color and ribshape. He bought it from the owner, K. Yamada, a cactus nurseryman. Later, Watanabe insisted on buying it from N. Sei. I think Sei's report supports Ekuma's suggestion. 'Hibotan' and 'Hibotan-nishiki' were hybrid ized with many gymnocalyciums, in particular G. mihamvichii and its varieties, G. anisitsii. G.damsii, G. schickendantzii and others (Sato, 1989). For example, the color pink often originates from G. anisitsii (Arakawa, private communication). Ishikawa (1983) recognized 16 color variations in 'Hibotan' (e.g., crimson, yellow, scarlet, whitish yellow, orange, pink, pale pink, and red with yellow spots) and 10 in 'Hibotan-nishiki'. Mizutani and Yamada (1990) reported that in 1970 Nihon-senbi-kai (The Association of Specialists for Variegated Cacti and Other Extreme Cultivars) registered eight new names of 'Hibotan-nishiki' selected from many color variations. Regretfully, most of these forms of 'Hibotan-nishiki' may have been lost. Though some color variations of' Hibotan-nishiki' are now being sold, they are not usually named.

'Hibotan' has been propagated by cuttings and grafts from the beginning. Since about 1955 it was propagated by grafting month-old plants on Hylocereus stock, which produced large quantities and accelerated the appearance of new color varieties (Yamada & Mukoyama, 1990).

'Hibotan' is a short-lived cactus, losing vitality after repeated vegetative propagation. Therefore, nurserymen should produce new 'Hibotan' generations by sowing seeds of 'Hibotan-nishiki' (Hirao, 1995). This fact is one of the reasons for the many color variations; new 'Hibotan' stock is selected from seedlings of 'Hibotan-nishiki' as a whole variegated clone or from an offset entirely lacking chlorophyll. Exportation of 'Hibotan' started in the early 1960's with Edelmann, a well-known European cactus nurseryman. It decreased after the peak in 1980-1983, due to the changing yen/dollar exchange rate. Recently 'Hibotan' is being imported from South Korea. There is only one Japanese nursery producing 'Hibotan' at present: the Arakawa nursery (wholesale only), 5753, Kotocho, Hamamatsu 431-11. 'Hibotan-nishiki', on the other hand, is still bred by enthusiasts. I hear that beautiful mature specimens have been sold for more than $ 1000.

(those ending with an asterisk are in Japanese)

  1. Hayashi, S. 1957. The birth of 'Hibotan-nishiki'. Shaboten 15:15.*
  2. Hirao, H. 1995. Cacti, past and present, pan 3. Succulent 335:4-6.*
  3. Ishikawa.T. lftg'3. Reference book on cacti. Tatcyama, private publ., 627 pp. (with names in Latin and Japanese).
  4. Mizutani, I., and 0. Yamada. 1990. - Shin-nihon-Senbi-kai. Pages 185-186 in A history of cacti in Japan. Fujisawa, The Japanese Cactus Growers Association.*
  5. Oku, H. 1959. Raising and propagating variegated plants in Japan. Succulentarum Japonia 11:4-7.
  6. Putnam, E. W. 1978. Gymnocalycium. Brit. Cact. Succ. Soc. Handbook 5:63-64.
  7. Sato, T. 1989. Variety of Gymnocalycium cv. Hibotan-nishiki. Cactus Guide 3:4-7, 10.*
  8. Sei, N. 1990. In memory of Mr. Kitoh. Pages 261-263 in A history of cacti in Japan. Fujisawa, The Japanese Cactus Growers Association.*
  9. Watanabe, E. 1953. My memories of variegated plants. Shaboten Shinshu 2:20-23.
  10. 'Hibotan' and 'Hibotan-nishiki'. Succulentarum Japonia 1; 7, 1958 (Japanese and English text).
  11. Yaroada, 0., and Y. Mukoyama. 1990. A thirty-year record of the Japanese Cactus Growers Association: Tokai area, Shizuoka Prcf. Pages 134-1S8 tit
  12. A history of cacti in Japan Fujisawa. The Japanese Cactus Growers Association.*

We are thanks Alexander Bunakov for help in preparing this material.


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