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ISSUE 5 (21):

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Figura 1. A collection of cristate cacti.

Figure 2. A cristate Espostoa.

Figure 3. A crested Ferocactus peninsulae growing north of La Paz, Baja California, Mexico.

Figure 4. Carnegiea gigantea cristate growing in the Phoenix Desert Garden, Arizona, USA.

Figure 5. Euphorbia obesa cristate.

Figure 6. A crest of Euphorbia lactea 'Grey Ghost'.

Figure 7. Mammillaria elongata crest.

Figure 8. A crest plant of Mammillaria bocasana 'Fred'.

Figure 9. Euphorbia abdelkuri cristate.

Figure 10. Ferocactus latispinus with unusually short spines.

Figure 11. Echinocereus davisii on the left with short spines, and on the right with typical spination.

Figure 12. A crest plant of the particularly woolly form of Mammillaria bocasana.

Figure 13. A short spined form of Gymnocalycium leptanthum (on the right).

Figure 14. Gymnocalycium spegazzinii with abnormally short spination.

Figure 15. Echinopsis calliantholilacina with reduced spination.

Figure 16. Mammillaria gracilis 'Arizona Snowcap'.

British Cactus & Succulent Journal, N2 Volume 19, June 2001

John Pilbeam

    John Pilbeam discusses a selection of cristate plants, and some oddities that produce unusually reduced spination. Photography by the author and Bill Weightman. Address: 51 Chelsfield Lane, Orpington, Kent BR5 4HG

One of the advantages of raising seedlings every year for the last umpteen years has been the occasional production of such oddities as variegated or cristate plants, which sooner or later turn up. This is most exciting when one comes on the scene which you have not seen available beforehand. The temptation of trying too early to get the adventitious seedling on a graft, with the attendant risks, has to be weighed against the possibility that if you do not do so, then for sure that will be the one which a sciara fly or fungus will choose to attack.

There are several hundred cristate cacti known now, and Stuart Riley of Plantlife nursery in East Sussex seems to turn up new ones every year on his travels, to swell the numbers. Some are a lot more obliging than others in their habit of growth, making neat, twisting mazes of ribbon stems in a most attractive formation, prompting the "brain cactus" nickname that is often applied to them. Others, the larger stemmed species usually, make a slow, thick fan which will eventually strain the support of any stock they are put on. I have seen massive cristate plants of such as Mammillaria rhodantha  or M. spinosissima , weighing ten pounds or more. Some of the more attractive of this larger growing sort are cristates of such as Espostoa , or Pilosocereus, Echinocactus grusonii  or Cleistocactus strausii , to name but a few.

The largest by far that I have seen are the occasional cristates in the wild of the larger growing plants. Three spring to mind. The first I saw was a huge single, fan crest of Ferocactus peninsulae  in southern Baja California, about 30cm wide, and about a metre from tip to tip. The second was a patch of Machaerocereus (Stenocereus) gummosus , again in southern Baja California which, in a thickly growing mass which reminded me of Brer Rabbit's briar patch, had several cristate stems, having grown late in the plant's development, so that they stood up at about shoulder level. They were of the sort of proportions that made growing them in cultivation only a consideration I should think for weight lifters, as although they were narrower than the Ferocactus , about 10cm wide, they were something like a metre long. The third I recall was a huge crest of Carnegiea gigantea , well-known and well photographed, at the Phoenix Desert Garden in Arizona, standing on a stem at least three Bowderys tall, and measuring at least one and a half Bowderys from side to side of the enormous fan of twisting, crested growth at the top of this column. (See my book Cacti for the Connoisseur for an idea of Bowdery size in proportion to plants, where he features as a yardstick – about 5 foot 6 inches — in several photographs.).

There are fewer cristate succulents available generally, and I find most of them less attractive than cristate cacti, but there are a few I have seen which have really competed with their prickly cousins.

One which I saw in Grigsby's nursery in California in the autumn of 1996 was a real knockout, a crested form of Euphorbia abdelkuri , with an extraordinary yellowish orange colouring in the young growth in the crested part of the plant. It had gone crested, it seems, late in life and so stood proud on top of a stem, almost looking as though it had been grafted on to a normal plant of the same species. I do not know if it has yet been propagated, but sooner or later I am sure the urge to do so will ensure the skilful propagators there will have a go at it, and it will come on the market. I view this possibility with as much apprehension as I did when I obtained my first normal plant of this species, which I know some Euphorbia enthusiasts  have managed to grow well, but which I failed dismally with, I think through not giving it enough heat. But I may well find the cristate irresistible to have a go at, given the chance; it is such a beauty.

Another I came by was what is known as the cristate form of Euphorbia lactea  'Grey Ghost', and this has been quite widely propagated by continental nurseries. I tried the wet method of propagation which I tend to use for less substantially stemmed Euphorbia  species, like E. aeruginosa , where the cutting is placed immediately in wet compost, and usually roots within a few weeks, but I failed to root any of the pieces taken. I think next time I try I shall revert to the more dry method of taking such cuttings, leaving them in an empty container in light, but not direct sunlight, until root nodes start to form around the base of the cuttings. At this point if they are placed in slightly damp compost they will root down quickly.

Another I was given for propagation was an old crest of Euphorbia obesa , which I find to be one of the better looking crested succulents, except that in age it tends to form a brown crusty base, which is unsightly. This is usually grown on a graft, as indeed many crests are, and I shall resort to the knife soon if I can find sufficient stock plants, i.e. fairly vigorous, thick-columnar species, like E. resinifera . Maybe I ought to do this too with the E. lactea  'Grey Ghost' but first I must get some stocks. On the cactus side I have had three new cristates turn up in seedlings raised in the last few years, which brings the total in some 50-odd years of seed raising to only about a dozen, a depressingly low percentage. I had seen one of these new ones before in cultivation, Rebutia einsteinii var. gonjianii , and this is probably the most difficult Rebutia  species to grow, with narrow stems, tiny spines, and the loveliest hue of custard-powder yellow flowers. This was duly grafted for propagation, an easy task with the continuous ribbon of vascular bundle which cristates have, making the matching up with the stock a simple operation, and I had the sense to keep several stock plants for future propagation. Unfortunately it has the habit more often than not of reverting to normal growth at various parts of the length of the narrow ribbon of crested growth, erupting here and there, reminiscent of the multiple formed growth of Opuntia clavarioides , which seems unable to make up its mind whether it is a cristate or not. At least one piece has behaved itself and kept the narrow crested growth without such aberration, forming a very attractive cristate, curled this way and that, and with the dark brownish-green colouring of this variety but green in the new growth. It makes one of the best looking of the cristates.

Another seedling was that odd form of Gymnocalycium andreae , which has been labelled for the last several years as G. doppianum , or G. andreae var. doppianum , not yet officially described. This has made a somewhat similar sort of growth to the previously mentioned cristate, with purple-brown colouring and very short, bristly spines, but with a slightly wider ribbon of growth and not much of a tendency so far to revert. It forms a more lumpy, uneven sort of growth compared with the neat growth of the Rebutia , nevertheless appealing.

I have another seedling Gymnocalycium  reserved in my stock trays at the nursery, which cannot seem to make up its mind whether to form a cristate or not. It has got so far in its development but has now stopped, looking like a dichotomously dividing head as often seen in Mammillaria  species, but not to my knowledge in this genus. It is one of the many forms of G. mihanovichii  or maybe G. friedrichii  (now determined to be correctly called G. stenopleurum ). As yet there is not enough plant crested to graft and hopefully encourage further development of the crested tendency, but I have recently potted it on and will encourage further growth with a view to at least helping it to make up its mind.

There seem to be very few cristate Gymnocalycium  species around at present, which surprises me since in a Japanese book I have by Y. Ito, there are no less than six pictured: G. anisitsii, G. mostii, G. saglionis, G. gibbosum, G. quehlianum  and G. bruchii . Even though this was published 40 years ago, it seems likely that some will still be in cultivation, and others may well have appeared.

The first to appear of the three seedlings I have produced was Mammillaria microhelia , which turned up about 5 or 6 years ago. When I grafted pieces of this one, I used two different parts of the crest. The first had the usual lovely yellow radial spines and had developed its reddish-brown central spines which continued to appear on the developing cristate growth. One piece was taken and grafted right at the end of the ribbon of growth where the central spines had not yet developed and to my surprise it has continued to grow without the central spines developing, making for a quite different looking cristate. Unlike some Mammillaria  cristates 1 have not yet had any flowers appearing on this species.

For this reason I am always pleased to pick up other Mammillaria  species as cristates, as this is one of the few genera which will produce flowers on the crested version. I have seen flowers on crested plants of M. zeilmanniana, M. wildii, M. longiflora  and M. carmenae , but none yet on some others, like M. gracilis, M. geminispina, M. bella, M. perbella, M. goldii, M. elongata, M. nana, M. dioica, M. schiedeana, M. pennispinosa , or more recent acquisitions, like M. bombycina, M. humboldtii, M. theresae, M. bocasana, M. lasiacantha, M. compressa , to name but a few of the many which are known — see page 25 of my recent book on Mammillaria  for a longer list.

Three in particular I would single out for special mention: M. elongata  in the form most commonly seen, with no central spines apparent, makes a wonderfully curling mass of narrow stems, tightly woven and giving rise to the comment so frequently heard, that it is like a brain, which it certainly resembles; M. bocasana , which seems to be the form commonly seen labelled "multilanata", with dense white wool, exults in its woolliness even more in the cristate form; and finally the incredibly structured Mammillaria 'Fred' , a form of M. bocasana  it seems, is even more bizarre in its crested form, as can be seen from the photograph.

One of the reasons I started to write about these oddities of the succulent world was to bring to your attention another form of oddness which has turned up in recent years, in as yet fairly modest numbers. This is an odd thickening and shortening of the spines, resulting in my opinion in most attractive, unusual looking plants.

Probably the best known of these is the form of Mammillaria gracilis  with thick, densely packed separate clusters of spines, variously known as M. gracilis  monstrous spined form or, shudderingly, M. gracilis  'Arizona Snowcap'. Equally well known is the reduced spination on a form of Echinocactus grusonii , in some plants almost non-existent.

One of the best of this sort of peculiarity is a plant of Echinocereus davisii , which flowers as readily (and normally) as the normal form, with its early spring, green flowers. It really is a most attractive, neatly spined little plant, as slow if not slower than the norm, even on a graft, which is how I received it.

Two species of Gymnocalycium  have produced similarly reduced size spination in batches of seedlings I have raised. The first, G. leptanthum , is not too apparently so until compared with the normal form, with more noticeably short spines, thicker as well, but not so obviously as others of this type. The second excites me more, as it is in its normal state an attractive, choice species with stunning spination: it is G. spegazzinii , one of the slowest growing species of the genus and presenting some difficulty in cultivation if good drainage and patience is not practised. The spines are extremely short, and although as yet only a young plant, the appearance has much to commend it and I look forward to seeing it increase in size. Hopefully it will continue to produce the diminutive spines.

Another two species have appeared in seed batches, one in my care, and one in Derek Bowdery's, the first is Echinopsis calliantholilacina , and the other is Ferocactus latispinus . Their development is eagerly being monitored in my care.

As you can see this odd growing habit makes for most attractive plants, and I am sure they will steadily come on to the market. What we do with them on the show bench is another matter.


  • ITO, Y. (1957) Explanatory Diagram of Austroechinocactinae.
  • PILBEAM, J. (1995) The Cactus File 2(6): 2.
  • PILBEAM, J. (1999) Mammillaria - The Cactus Filc Handbook 6.


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