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Cereus Peruvianus -The Least and Best Known Cactus
As the owner/creator of a website dedicated to the identification of Cacti, I run into lots of people who ask for my help
identifying a particular cactus plant. Often times the mystery plant is not a cactus at all, such as an Agave or Euphorbia,
but that's a subject worthy of its own article. This article is written to address a particular cactus plant that is
simultaneously one of best known and least known species in the entire cactus family. It is Cereus peruvianus.
This plant or rather the identification of it is the cause for a great deal of confusion. The source of this confusion
is multi-faceted and this article will examine those reasons.
To start with, whenever you run into the name "Cereus", there's a good chance you are dealing with a plant that has not
received much attention by those who scientifically study and classify cacti. Most experts agree that cereus is one of
the least understood genera of the entire Cactus Family. It is also one of the oldest names in the family, described
by Philip Miller in 17541 it dates back to 1625. From the beginning up until the 1920's, nearly every columnar
cactus was given the name cereus. Today there are 34 species that are officially accepted to belong to the genus Cereus,
but there are over 500 species or synonyms that were once classified under Cereus that are now either no longer
accepted or have been reclassified as a separate genus.
The name Cereus peruvianus has been applied to both C. hildmannianus and C. repandus which are both
recognized as legitimate species today. The trouble is, neither of them resemble the many plants that we see labeled as
Cereus peruvianus. Therefore the logical conclusion would be that these plants are simply not properly identified
and through due diligence, we should be able to find their true name. Yet what we find is that the best choice of names
turns out to be Cereus peruvianus! Sound absurd? That's because it is.
It is my belief that these cacti are almost certainly a product of cultivation and do not exist in the wild. Because there
are so very many people who like to grow plants, but couldn't care less about proper names or origins, tracing back to
parent plants is no longer an option. That is short of comparing the plants DNA. However, the guys with the laboratories
and know-how at their disposal to study the DNA have been studying unusual and uncommon species such as Aztekium or Eulychnia.
The plants we see carelessly tossed into the classification of Cereus peruvianus are all very easy to grow. They
tolerate a wide variety of conditions, they can be propagated easily by seed and even more easily by cuttings. They are
resistant (indeed impervious) to rot, disease, and infestations; they grow fast and they produce nice large white flowers
without any coaxing. You will find these plants in cultivation across the globe. They are in just about every garden
center that sells cacti and they are inexpensive. In warmer areas they can be planted in the ground where they obtain
massive size over 20 feet high with many branching arms. These qualities make the problem worse as their popularity
keeps them spreading around the globe. They show up in the collections of the novice or slightly interested cacti growers,
who sometimes are inspired to search for a name for their cactus. What do they find? Cereus peruvianus!
This brings us full-circle. Perhaps someday the right biology student will decide to do a thesis on the "Origins of
Cereus" and we'll all get lucky. In the mean time you can probably get away with using the name Cereus peruvianus
as everyone will have a good idea of exactly what plant you have based on that name. And if that is the purpose of a name,
then Cereus peruvianus fits the bill.
Author: Daiv Freeman
Note: 1. Edward F. Anderson The Cactus Family, Timber Press, page 142.