Nature Book Review #1: The Great Cacti

May 1, 2008

First in an occasional series of natural history book reviews.  Books reviewed here can be purchased through Amazon.com by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

THE GREAT CACTI:  ETHNOBOTANY AND BIOGEOGRAPHY, by David Yetman, 2007.  University of Arizona Press, 297 pages, hardbound.

The Great Cacti

This beautiful book contains photos and descriptions of more than 100 species of giant columnar cacti in North, Central, and South America.  As the title says, it includes detailed distribution maps and plenty of details on current and historical indigenous use of each species.  But it is most valuable for its photos and natural history discussions, for which it is the only widely available comprehensive resource on these cacti.  The United States is home to only three giant cacti:  the senita and organ pipe (both almost entirely restricted to Organ Pipe Cactus National Park) and the saguaro (southern Arizona and extreme SE California).  Americans who have cactus gardens or who vacation in Mexico may be familiar with a handful of others.  But this book records all the columnar cacti (many of which are rare, localized, and poorly known) and is a celebration of their beauty and diversity.

Each genus has a brief botanical discussion, followed by a description of each species, including growth form, preferred habitat, and any uses that local and/or indigenous people have found for it (many species produce edible fruit and usable lumber).  There are photos of most species growing in their natural habitat, fruit (especially if it is gathered for food or sold in markets) and many unusually large individuals, protected or cultivated stands of cacti, and buildings or furniture made from cactus wood.  The writing style is accessible and informal, which means that anyone – regardless of scientific or natural history background – can enjoy and learn from this book.  As a naturalist, I would have preferred more specific botanical details and technical drawings for each species, and a more concise and uniform presentation of ethnobotanical information (these paragraphs are informative, but tend to be rambling and opinionated).  Oddly and unfortunately, the book’s treatment of the saguaro is perfunctory and incomplete.  Far more information is available on this cactus than on any of the others, and I think the author missed a great opportunity to use this familiar icon as a significant educational “ambassador” for the other giant cacti.  Despite its shortcomings (which may reflect the publisher’s preferences rather than those of the author), THE GREAT CACTI is lovely and inspiring, and a valuable gem among desert natural history books.

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