The Art of South Mountain: Part I

By Alison Willis

Succulents and cacti have become a real trend lately. Live succulent bouquets and goods covered in different cacti patterns can be found all over. While cacti are abundant on the market, the number of cacti found in the wild is decreasing at an alarming rate. Cacti are actually one of the fifth most threatened groups of organisms in the world. The main threats they face are climate change, habitat loss, and poaching, all of which are dependent on humans. While cacti face these extreme threats, though, efforts to save them are lacking because there is still a lot we don’t know about them.

Many botanists and conservationists, including myself, are studying the life and the circumstances surrounding cacti in order to fill the existing gaps in knowledge. As these gaps get filled, hopefully awareness can increase and new plans to save them can be developed.

Most of my research revolves around the endangered Acuña cactus. When found in its natural habitat it is about the size of your fist and covered with beautiful, dark pink spines. From March to April they flower with large flowers that range in color from a bright, fluorescent pink to a light, almost white, pink. While the Acuña cactus has a beautiful form, the work I do with it is microscopic. Not much is known about the history of this species and its exact interaction with close relatives is still blurry. To fill this gap in knowledge, I am comparing the DNA of individuals within the same population as well as comparing individuals in one location to others in populations from different locations. I am also comparing the DNA of the Acuña cacti to other similar cacti. Understanding these relationships will give us a better understanding of the Acuña cacti’s role in the world and how we can help keep it from disappearing.

I think a big part of saving this species, and other cacti species that find themselves threatened for similar reasons, is to bring awareness. I created this art piece in the image of the Acuña cactus. The body is ceramic and covered with metal spikes that imitate the spines that are naturally found on cacti. The bright pink flower is made of tissue paper and has been painted with watercolor to give it some depth.

While it is a small step, I hope that this piece will be the first step in my journey of bringing greater awareness to this species, and to endangered plant species as a whole.