A Cactus Odyssey by James D. Mauseth, Roberto Kiesling, and Carlos Ostolaza

51PrUXQ7X2L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_A Cactus Odyssey:

Journeys in the Wilds of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina


James D. Mauseth, Roberto Kiesling, and Carlos Ostolaza


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


Hopes springs eternal, et cetera. I’m still looking for a good combination travel and gardening book. If you’re looking for a good travel book, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for an interesting book about cactus biology, with some travel thrown in, you could go further and do worse. The book has some faults, but they are not fatal.

I’ll start out by telling you that there is one thing in this book that I found really irritating. The book is, in effect, written by a committee, and they have chosen to write in the plural—we did this; we saw that—instead of in the first person singular. I don’t know why, but somehow it seems to slow down the narrative.

The second problem is that the first chapter, the one that’s supposed to hook readers and make them glad to have started the book, is yet another discussion of taxonomy and of the difference between lumpers (who like to lump species together into a few big genera) and splitters (who like to like to create lots of genera.). Clearly, it is useful for anyone interested in plants to understand the principles of taxonomy, but I think this kind of a chapter would be better placed at the end of the book for those who want to read it.

The text in general gets a little bogged down in Latin names, but there’s no way out of that, because most of these plants probably don’t have common names that would be familiar in English.

Although the book has a few negatives, it also has some important positives. First, the authors do communicate their delight with cacti.

In the worst of circumstances, they seem to maintain positive attitudes. They describe trying to help a truck ahead of them hung up in mud:

Jumping up and down on a back bumper amidst a bunch of corn on the

cob and with mud flying everywhere–this is proof that we are enjoying

the sophisticated life that was guaranteed us by all those years of college

education. At least the truck is not carrying pigs and chickens. (page 101)

They are generous in spirit. All through the book they propose “many research possibilities you might find irresistible” if you are a cactus biologist.

The book has seven chapters: the introductory chapter and two on each of the three countries they traveled through. It describes six field trips the three authors took together between 1985 and 2000. A rather minimal map of each country is included.

This is a book for the specialist reader who is particularly interested in the biology and evolutionary history of cacti. Of particular interest and surprise to me was the number of different environments where they found cacti growing and even thriving.

As with many garden books, the 191 color photos are the highlight of the book. They are tied closely into the text and have useful captions. The book is hardbound, 306 pages, and includes a rather minimal bibliography and index.