Monday, October 28, 2013

Beatrix Potter's Cacti

One always hopes for earth-shaking discoveries from research.  Sitting in the Morgan Library Reading Room on August 23, 2011 with a stack of Potter reference materials on the table, I felt a strange vibration.  My chair was moving, so was the table and my laptop.  When I saw the puzzled look on the librarian’s face, I knew it wasn’t me.  Within seconds, the Huffington Post tweeted about the earthquake, centered in Virginia and that had nudged the eastern seaboard of the United States ever so slightly. But in addition to participating in a natural phenomenon usual to New York City that day, two pieces of plant-related Potter research came together with a satisfying click.

The twin motivations for this particular trip to the Morgan were an illustration in Linda Lear’s biography and selections from The Choyce Letters, edited by Judy Taylor.

In Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, plate 16 you will find ‘Leaves and Flowers of the Orchid Cactus’, a lyrical watercolour held in the Morgan Library’s Charles Ryskamp Collection.  

Orchid Cactus:
In The Choyce Letters, cacti are mentioned in three letters from Beatrix Heelis to her friend (and former employee) Louise Choyce as follows:

July 19 1939

I am interested to have the cutting of cactus, it may be like one that was in the cool greenhouse at Lindeth How  – a very delicate salmon pink; growing something like the common magenta, but larger and much more lovely. I think it should root easily. Its been a season for cactus. I have had 2 plants large scarlet cactus with 6 flowers each – a blaze of flame colour.

June 29 1943

I have been excited about your cactus, it has had 5 flowers – lovely – very like my old pink cactus, put prettier as the trumpet is pearly white instead of deep pink all over. It is such a pretty plant, with fresh green leafage. One of my scarlet has had 7 large flowers’ the other variety at Hill Top has had only one flower, it does not flower so freely as the pink.

August 16 1943

Your cactus has grown another (6th) flower bud. I am trying a cutting from it; its [sic] a most pleasing variety.

My focus was to compare the cactus shown in the painting to those described in the letters.  In 2000, John F. Reed, retired Director of the Library at the New York Botanical Garden, had identified the specimen shown in the Morgan’s painting as Epiphyllum phylanthus.  Potter herself left us clues to its cultivation.  The catalog entry for the painting reads, “Signed at lower left, in pencil, H.B.P. 1886; inscribed on verso, at lower left, in pencil, At Camfield / Given to Miss Hammond. ’87 / Helen Beatrix Potter.” 

Commonly called Orchid Cactus, Epiphyllum phyllanthus is a large member of the family Cactaceae.  It is one species of sixteen from Central and South America, first described in 1812 by Englishman botanist Andrian Hawworth.  Bushy and semi-erect, E. phyllantus can grow up to three meters (nine feet) tall, earning its other common name:  Climbing Cactus.  Thankfully it does not have spines like the typical desert cactus.  It is used to growing in the jungle, nesting in soil pockets in the forks of trees.  If you invite this rather stiff green monster into your home or glass house, it may reward you with several large fragrant flowers that open on summer nights, buds pushing out from its scalloped green branches.  (Think epi- “upon” and –phyllum “leaf.”) The flowers do not resemble an orchid’s, but are equally exotic. 

I picture Beatrix Potter and her governess, Miss Hammond, strolling out after dinner to Camfield’s conservatory, their skirts brushing against the benches and gravel crunching underfoot.   The gardener would have passed along the message that the cactus would open that night.  Beatrix would have brought her sketchpad to capture the short-lived yellowish-white blooms, opening for a night or two, then fading until the following year.  Pity she did not record it in her journal, but alas, her mentions of Camfield in summer 1886 center on plumbing and insect infestations.

Also interesting to note, Potter’s 1886 painting of Epiphyllum phyllanthus is a botanical study with the bloom shown from two different viewpoints and the green, leaf-like stems carefully detailed. This layout and rendering is botanical art, that intersection of art and science.  It was during this period that Potter’s interests were moving toward scientific illustration. In A Victorian Naturalist Anne Stevenson Hobbs notes, “Most of her microscopic drawing dates from 1886-87: insects and spiders, the wing-scales of butterflies and moths.” (p. 144)  Her Epiphyllum painting is a precursor to her fervor for fungi which seems to have germinated in 1887.  

In the three Choyce letters, Mrs. Heelis refers to cacti that are easy to propagate in a range of colors:  the common magenta, scarlet, flame, pink and salmon.  I originally assumed that these were Schlumbergera, the so-called Holiday Cactus, which bloom in that color range in my sunroom from October through December.  But looking at the dates, I note that the cacti in question were blooming in summer, unlike the Schlumbergera of my acquaintance. 

A bit of additional research revealed starting in the 1830 and ‘40s restless horticulturists in England and across Europe were starting to cross and re-cross the rather unwieldy Epiphyllum phyllanthus with other genera, often smaller terrestrial cacti.  The result:  the introduction of hundreds of hybrid cultivars, named varieties in a wide range of color and bloom time and a much smaller habit.  One hundred years later, when Beatrix Heelis was writing to Miss Choyce, they were discussing these cacti, much better suited to a windowsill at Hill Top or Castle Cottage than their E. phyllanthus forebear.

The “Epies” as they are fondly known are easy to share as they propagate easily from cuttings.  As an experiment, my friend Cathy brought me a cutting of her night-blooming cereus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) on her last drive down from Maine to New Jersey.  It was wrapped in a not-so-damp paper towel for about a week along the way.  I unceremoniously cut in it half, plunked it in a jar with a little water, and look:

It's ALIVE!!!

So it is possible that Louie Choyce sent a cutting of this “most pleasing variety” to her friend Beatrix Heelis through the post.  Perhaps a hybridizer can name a new specimen for Beatrix Potter one day soon.


  1. Hi again Marta-
    I wanted to comment on the cactus post to just say that this was very interesting to me. I had no idea that Beatrix owned cactus (or drew & painted them) or that they even had them in England at the time. Thanks for another interesting post. I'm a little behind and was playing catch-up reading them all at once.

    What I also have to comment on is that I received your new Beatrix Potter gardening book today. How excited I was! Like opening a Christmas gift. It was snowing here and the ground is covered with about 5" of snow from last night, so it was nice to receive the book on gardening and flowers. I have just looked through it briefly and it looks wonderful. So many nice pictures. Many I have not seen before. Best wishes to you on the release of your new book. ~Christine

    1. Thanks, Christine. Where are you with winter already settling in? So glad you enjoyed the post. These are cacti that like it indoors. Let me know what you think of the book. Marta