This is yet another article about a plant most commonly known around the world as Cereus peruvianus, but with a name botanists don't like and
won't accept as legitimate, in part because it is not from Peru which the name implies. So where did it get such a misleading
name and where is it from then? I am not a botanist and so perhaps do not have the right to state I know anything for a fact,
but none the less would like to share my thoughts, experiences and ideas with you on this subject.
When I was a younger man in my early twenties I grew cacti and succulents and sold them at Victoria market in Melbourne where I
had a permanent stall. Regular customers were often teenage males seeking legendary cacti with hallucinogenic properties, and
notably they asked for 'Peyote' or 'San Pedro'. The latter is botanically Trichocereus pachanoi, a native of Peru. Occasionally
I was also asked for Trichocereus peruvianus, Trichocereus bridgesii or to a lesser extent other Trichocereus species. In the
beginning, I knew little and so researched them all and found that all members of the genus Trichocereus contained psychoactive
alkaloids within, and could be eaten or made into an alcoholic type drink. In approximately eight years at Vic markets I had
hundreds of questions on this topic and discussions often followed if it wasn’t too busy. While I never advertised or
encouraged the sale or use of 'drug plants' I did develop a fascination for all aspects of cactus understanding.
The word 'cereus' was commonly and freely used to describe any 'tree-like' cacti. Even in the Cactus and Succulent society,
the word 'cereus' was commonly used to describe most tall green columnar cacti. Newer members would ask the experienced ones,
'What type of cereus is that?' or 'Can I have a cutting of that cereus in your front yard?' This generic use of the word 'cereus' is in
this sense misleading and the word 'ceroid' or 'ceriform' should be used instead. Botanists mostly use the latter in this context
(see text box on previous page).
The word 'cereus' is also the botanical name of a genus of cacti. Species from the genus Cereus were among the first of all cacti in
cultivation, and so this is one of the first cactus genera ever recorded. Then in the years that followed the numerous tree-forming
species discovered that were perhaps similar in growth habit but found to be unrelated, were given the genus name Cereus with a prefix
e.g. Pilocereus, Oreocereus, Trichocereus, Cephalocereus to name a few. With over forty new genera created with 'cereus' as part of their
names, it is therefore understandable when a society member at one of our meetings refers to any tall green cactus as a type of cereus.
And then with the following questions 'But what type of cereus?' or 'Do you know exactly which genus that cereus belongs to?' and
'What species of Cereus is it?'
Back to my earlier days at Vic market and being involved in this Society. My greatest enjoyment often came from identifying samples or photos
of plants brought to me for identification. And over the years I've come to know my reference books and a range of different ceroid cacti
very well, and also the colloquial terms for the plants by the youth of today, new members in our Society right up to old experienced
growers in our midst. I was always very comfortable when someone would bring to me a picture or a cutting and they'd ask what type of cereus
it was, often followed by 'I'm after the Peruvian one.' I could look them up and down and often could tell instantly what plant they
were referring to and why.
Many inexperienced nurserymen have also grown or sold ceroid cacti simply with the label 'Cereus' or 'Peruvian Torch' or 'San Pedro'. Sadly
nurseryman can't be expected to be experts on all plants and far too often base their own labelling on scant information available and
possibly from a book or books that are too generalist, out of date or just plain wrong.
Did the common and readily available and easily propagated Cereus peruvianus get confused with the hallucinogenic genus Trichocereus
and therefore end up in more gardens than otherwise? And from a misinterpretation of the range of Peruvian species that correctly go
under the genus Trichocereus? Perhaps Cereus peruvianus was mistaken for Trichocereus peruvianus. Could this story and/or explanation
perhaps solve the mystery, as how it came to have this name?
Trichocereus peruvianus (Peruvianian Torch)
Trichocereus pachanoi (San Pedro)
The above three are all from Peru and contain psychoactive chemicals.
Cereus peruvianus has none of these chemicals, is not from Peru (but from across the Andes in various other countries) and its name
is not recorded as a published plant name in scientific journals. Therefore is not a legitimate name in scientific circles.
However in summary, the early cactus books had used the name Cereus peruvianus, then it was corrected to Cereus uruguayanus
then more recently to Cereus hildmannianus but now the latest books call it Cereus repandus.
Author: Attila Kapitany