Dr. Wislizenus and the fishhook barrel cactus

Ferocactus wislizeni, the fishhook barrel cactus—now in its spectacular bloom season—was originally named Echinocactus wislizeni by Dr. George Engelmann in a botanical report that accompanied Dr. Adolph Wislizenus’s Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico (1848). Engelmann’s description of the cactus was based on a specimen collected by Dr. Wislizenus on August 5, 1846, near what is now Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“Before reaching Doñana, I met on the road with the largest cactus of the kind that I have ever seen. It was an oval Echino cactus, with enormous fishhook-like prickles, measuring in height four feet, and in the largest circumference six feet eight inches. It had yellow flowers, and at the same time seed, both of which I took along with some of the ribs; but I really felt sorry that its size and weight prevented me from carrying the whole of this exquisite specimen with me. Dr. Engelmann, perceiving that it was a new, undescribed species, has done me the honor to call it after my name.” — Dr. A. Wislizenus

Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus (1810–1889) was born in Germany and studied medicine at the universities of Jena, Göttingen, Würzburg, and Zürich. In 1837, he emigrated to the United States and settled in the St. Louis area where he opened a medical practice. After a few years, feeling the lure of the American West, he joined a group of fur traders headed west. An account of his travels, Journey to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1839, was published in German in 1840 and translated into English in 1912 by his son

After returning to St. Louis, Wislizenus resumed his medical practice. He also began a lifelong friendship with the German physician and botanist, Dr. George Engelmann, who, ever in need of plant collectors, encouraged his friend to travel west once again to survey northern Mexico.

In May of 1846, Wislizenus set out for Santa Fe with a group of traders headed south to Chihuahua. War had just broken out between the U.S. and Mexico, and by the time they arrived in Chihuahua, anti-American feelings were rampant. The Americans in the trading party were detained in a remote village in the Sierra Madre for six months, during which time Wislizenus collected plants, recorded weather observations, and studied the villagers. In March of the following year, the 1st Missouri volunteer regiment entered Chihuahua and took control of the city, and Wislizenus joined the unit as surgeon. The soldiers from Missouri found the doctor’s name difficult to pronounce, so for the few months he spent with the unit, he was known as “Whistling Jesus”.

Wislizenus arrived back in St. Louis in July of 1847 and began writing an account of his travels. The government funded the publication of his memoir, which also included a botanical report by Engelmann that described 180 plants collected by Wislizenus, many of which were previously unknown.

While in Washington overseeing the printing of his report, he became smitten with Lucy Crane, the sister-in-law of George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont congressman and conservationist. She had a number of suitors in Washington society and was indifferent to the doctor’s attention. He returned to St. Louis where a cholera epidemic was raging in the city, so he had little time to dwell on his rejection. Eventually, he ended up back in Washington, looking for Miss Crane, only to find her absent. Marsh had been appointed minister to Turkey, and she had moved with the family to Therapia, some 5,000 miles away. Doggedly, Wislizenus managed to get a post as diplomatic courier to Turkey and turned up in Therapia, much to everyone’s surprise. He resumed his romantic pursuit, and Miss Crane finally agreed to marry him.

The couple arrived back in the U.S. in November of 1850. Within the year, he left for California, thinking it might be a good place for them to settle, but ultimately he decided that area was unsuitable for raising a family as the gold rush had turned the population into a rabble. In 1852, the couple returned to the doctor’s medical practice in St. Louis. The practice flourished, and he did not stray far from the city for the remainder of his life.

Engelmann and Wislizenus were among the founders of the Academy of Science of St. Louis, and Wislizenus contributed many scientific articles for the Academy’s journal. He began to lose his vision in 1873, and his eventual blindness forced him to close his medical practice. His last years were spent in seclusion in his hilltop home overlooking the Mississippi.

The illustration of Ferocactus wislizeni shown here is by Tucson botanical artist Joan McGann. Joan earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Wichita State University and a Certificate of Excellence from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute, Nature Illustration Program. Her current works in botanical illustration have an emphasis on plants native to the Sonoran Desert. The forms and textures of cacti and succulents continue to be the most fascinating plant specimens for her drawings. Joan works on paper with graphite pencil, colored pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the Shirley Sherwood Collection and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She has received Best Drawing awards in international exhibitions with ASBA/HSNY and the New York Botanical Gardens.

More of Joan’s work, including a larger portrait of Ferocactus wislizeni, can be seen at her website. She has specialized in succulents, so the site will be of particular interest to TCSS members. And check out her Desert Matryoshka! — Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.