The Cactaceae
n.l. britton and j.n. rose

Systematic classification of the cactus family began as early as the mid-18th century, when specimens from the New World were introduced in Europe for cultivation. The family proved notoriously hard to classify, and one reason was the difficulty in preparing herbarium specimens for study. Compounding the confusion was the changing system of botanical classification, from the Linnaean system to later efforts by the botanists Candolle, Salm-Dyck, Schumann, and Berger. As a result, Britton and Rose’s landmark study of cacti was welcomed by the botanical world, because such an extensive study of the cactus family had never before been undertaken.

The project as originally planned by Nathaniel Lord Britton was to be a study of the cacti of the United States, Mexico, and the West Indies; however, the scope of the work was greatly expanded when David MacDougal, the director of the Carnegie Institution’s Desert Laboratory in Tucson, encouraged Britton to take a wider approach and produce a study of the Cactaceae of the world. To help persuade Britton and his associate Joseph Nelson Rose, the Carnegie Institution offered to fund the massive undertaking.

The first phase of the project was to re-examine all the existing classifications of cacti, and in 1912 Rose set out to visit the herbaria and collections in Europe where many of these classifications had been made. In 1913 field work in both the Americas began and continued into 1918. Rose and Britton, along with Britton’s wife Elizabeth, travelled extensively to study in plants in their native habitat and to collect specimens.

In June of 1919 the first of four volumes was published. The works were lavishly illustrated with color plates, photographs and line drawings. As director of the New York Botanical Garden, Britton enlisted Mary Emily Eaton, a British artist employed at the Garden, as the main illustrator for the project. Other artists who contributed to the work were L. C. C. Krieger, Kako Morita, Helen Adelaide Wood, and Deborah Griscom Passmore.

The final volume was released in 1923, and the publication met with great acclaim. J. N. Rose wrote that the interest in Europe was so intense that it could be called a cactus craze, with dealers and fanciers eager to obtain plants and seeds.

While classifications within the cactus family have changed since 1923, The Cactaceae was a critical step in developing an understanding of cacti, and it continues to be an important resource for botanists and taxonomists.