The Cactus family is not popular among English horticulturists in these days, scarcely half a dozen species out of about a thousand known being considered good enough to be included among favourite garden plants. Probably five hundred kinds have been, or are, in cultivation in the gardens of the few specialists who take an interest in Cactuses; but these are practically unknown in English horticulture. It is not, however, very many years ago that there was something like a Cactus mania, when rich amateurs vied with each other in procuring and growing large collections of the rarest and newest kinds.
“About the year 1830, Cacti began to be specially patronised by several rich plant amateurs, of whom may be mentioned the Duke of Bedford, who formed a fine collection at Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Devonshire, and Mr. Harris, of Kingsbury. Mr. Palmer, of Shakelwell, had become possessed of Mr. Haworth’s collection, to which he greatly added by purchases; he, however, found his rival in the Rev. H. Williams, of Hendon, who formed a fine and select collection, and, on account of the eagerness of growers to obtain the new and rare plants, high prices were given for them, ten, twelve, and even twenty and thirty guineas often being given for single plants of the Echinocactus. Thus private collectors were induced to forward from their native countries—chiefly from Mexico and Chili—extensive collections of Cacti.” (quoting J. Smith. A.L.S., ex-Curator of the Royal Gardens. Kew).
This reads like what might be written of the position held now in England by the Orchid family, and what has been written of Tulips and other plants whose popularity has been great at some time or other. Why have Cactuses gone out of favour? It is impossible to give any satisfactory answer to this question. No doubt they belong to that class of objects which is only popular whilst it pleases the eye or tickles the fancy; and the eye and the fancy having tired of it, look to something different.
The general belief with respect to Cactuses is that they are all wanting in beauty, that they are remarkable only in that they are exceedingly curious in form, and as a rule very ugly. It is true that none of them possess any claims to gracefulness of habit or elegance of foliage, such as are usual in popular plants, and, when not in flower, very few of the Cactuses would answer to our present ideas of beauty with respect to the plants we cultivate. Nevertheless, the stems of many of them (see Frontispiece, Fig. 1) are peculiarly attractive on account of their strange, even fantastic, forms, their spiny clothing, the absence of leaves, except in very few cases, and their singular manner of growth. To the few who care for Cactuses there is a great deal of beauty, even in these characters, although perhaps the eye has to be educated up to it.