Josiah Gregg and the Queen of the Night

After crisscrossing the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, British and European plant hunters returned home with their new exotic plants preserved in alcohol, planted in boxes, or pressed between sheets of paper. Drawing these plants from pressed or otherwise preserved specimens became a necessary skill for the botanical illustrator, and some, like the artists of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, became highly skilled in drawing from non-living specimens. The great British botanical artist Walter Hood Fitch wrote that drawing from a live specimen was merely copying what you see but that working from dried specimens would “test the artist’s ability to the uttermost.” It was a valuable and highly respected skill.

The situation was no different in the 19th-century American West. Plants collected and transported over great distances would by necessity be dried, pressed specimens, and the artists charged with illustrating them would need considerable skill to turn these shriveled, flat specimens into vibrant representations of three-dimensional plants.

During the mid-19th century explorations of the western U.S. and Mexico, several plant collectors came upon the remarkable ‘Queen of the Night’ cactus and sent specimens to botanist George Engelmann in St. Louis. By 1859, he had received specimens of the cactus from West Texas (from Charles Parry, John Bigelow, Charles Wright), Arizona (Lt. Col. Wm. Emory), Sonora (George Thurber and Arthur Schott), and the area of the Rio Grande south to Chihuahua (Josiah Gregg and Adolph Wislizenus).

Although he had received specimens of the cactus from a number of collectors, Engelmann chose to name the plant Cereus greggii to honor Josiah Gregg, the only collector to have provided him with a complete flower:

“The specimens sent for cultivation by Dr. [Wislizenus] were unfortunately dead when they arrived here, and neither flower nor fruit had been obtained; but Dr. Gregg has collected the same species near Cadena, south of Chihuahua, in flower, from which I completed the description. I could not have given it a more appropriate name than that of the zealous and intelligent explorer of those far off regions.”

Engelmann published this description of Cereus greggii in a botanical appendix that he wrote to accompany Dr. Wislizenus’s 1848 Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico. In 1846, Wislizenus (Desert Breeze Sep. 2017) had been in Mexico collecting specimens for Engelmann when he was detained involuntarily in a small village in the Sierra Madres as war broke out between the U.S. and Mexico. In 1847, after his release by a volunteer regiment from Missouri , he encountered Gregg who had been traveling with the soldiers on their way to Chihuahua. Wislizenus returned to the U.S., but Gregg remained in Mexico to collect plants, one of which was Cereus greggii that he collected near Chihuahua.

By mid-century, only one drawing of Cereus greggii had been published—a somewhat rough field sketch drawn by John Mix Stanley, the artist who accompanied the U.S. Army in its 1846 march from Kansas to California. A more refined drawing of the cactus didn’t appear for another 13 years when Engelmann’s 1859 Cactaceae of the Boundary was published. Three drawings of Cereus greggii (one of which was the variety transmontanus) were made by Engelmann’s friend, Paulus Roetter, with superb steel engravings prepared by Philibert and Eugène Picart of Paris.

Shown here is the Roetter/Picart engraving of the Cereus flower alongside the actual flower collected by Josiah Gregg, in 1847 (the specimen, from Engelmann’s collection, is now at the Missouri Botanical Garden). A close look at the two images indicates that this is the plant material used by Roetter to compose his drawing. While Roetter may have had living stems to work from, he drew the flower from a dried specimen that had traveled from Mexico to St. Louis.

A note about classification: In 1909, Engelmann’s Cereus greggii was renamed Peniocereus greggii by Nathanial Lord Britton and Joseph Nelson Rose. Josiah Gregg’s name remains bound to the plant, and next month we’ll look at the extraordinary life of the “zealous and intelligent” Dr. Gregg.

Here is a gallery of 10 illustrations of Peniocereus greggii that includes Stanley’s sketch of the cactus along with Roetter’s three engravings, works by Lucretia Hamilton, Ella Estill, and Margaret Pope. — Cindy Hartwell

A version of this article appeared in the August 2018 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.