Q&A with Gideon Smith, author of “Cacti and Succulents Handbook”

By Shelley Pierce | August 5, 2018
by Shelley Pierce
August 5, 2018

Gideon F. Smith is a past President of the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study, and has held numerous positions on the steering committees of international botanical initiatives, including the Species Plantarum-World Flora Project, Global Plants Initiative, International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and Southern African Botanical Diversity Network.  He has also held positions as chief director for research, and acting positions as chief financial officer and chief executive officer at the South African National Biodiversity Institute. He is South Africa’s most prolific author on succulent plants, and has authored and co-authored over 900 scientific and popular papers, as well as over 50 books, many on cacti and succulents.  His latest book “Cacti and Succulents“, is the ultimate guide to the selection and cultivation of these diverse and fascinating plants.  Read on to learn more and enter below to win a copy from Fox Chapel Publishing!

1. How did your fascination with cacti & succulents begin and what keeps you interested to this day?

I was first fascinated by cacti and succulents as a pre-schooler growing up in a succulent-rich area of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, where stepping into a wonderfully varied landscape consisting of an enormous variety of growth forms, including stem and leaf succulents, was just a short bicycle ride away. To this day the remarkable diversity of ways in which plants have evolved to deal with challenging environmental conditions, including low amounts of available moisture, hold a special interest for me.

2. There are many books on cacti & succulents on our local bookstore shelf or online. What is the focus or theme of this particular book and who should buy this book?

The book gives as much background as possible on cacti and succulents in general – almost 40 pages – including on where they occur naturally, how to grow and care for them (both indoors and outdoors), how to use them in landscaping, and what are the pests to look out for. This is complemented with brief essays on 140 common, and even some not so common, cacti and succulents. In addition, a selection of some of the most remarkable cactus and succulent gardens found globally is highlighted.

3. You have written a large body of work on the topic of cacti/succulents – you have co-authored over 900 scientific and popular papers as well as over 50 books. Just how many of the 10,000 species of succulents in existence have you gazed upon personally? How many species do you personally cultivate at home?  What cacti/succulent related projects are you currently working on?

I have had the privilege of seeing a good 50% of the estimated 10,000 cacti and succulents of the world in their natural habitats, and a good few more in cultivation. At home I grow about 1000 species; these range from small, tiny soil-huggers in containers, to a few large succulent shrubs and trees. My garden is also a living laboratory where I grow material for projects I currently research. I work in the science of, broadly defined, taxonomy – the identification, classification, and naming of biological organisms – and have several on-going projects on, especially, aloes, agaves and stonecrops.

4. Tell us about the most unusual cacti/succulent you have ever seen and why you were taken aback by it. Have you ever met a cacti/succulent you didn’t like?

For the first time setting eyes on some large-growing succulents leaves an indelible impression on the onlooker. These include even some very common species; just think of the remarkable forests of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in Nevada, the ‘cowboy cactus’ (Carnegiea gigantea) in Arizona, and the quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum) in western South Africa. However, miniature species, such as Sedum album, growing on ancient, weathered roof slates in Mediterranean Europe hold their own fascination. I am yet to come across a cactus or succulent I do not like!

5. How will this book help us to become a savvy cacti/succulent gardener? Tell us about some useful features of the book.

The heavy hand of humans is impacting on nature in ways that are simply not sustainable. One strong message included in the book is that by switching to indigenous plants and waterwise gardening, every gardener can make a difference. The book sports a wide selection of high-quality color pictures that will facilitate identifying some common cacti and succulents, including how to become familiar with plant families that include succulents. Throughout text is deliberately easy to read, and plants are accurately named and classified.

Win a copy of the Cacti and Succulents Handbook!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, August 12, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What is one of your favorite cacti or succulents?  Why are cacti and succulents appealing to you?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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  • Jessica Mayhew
    Comment added August 12, 2018Reply

    Succulents are amazing. Favorites include jades and echeveria. I love their ability to survive through just one leaf! Propagating succulents is so much fun.

  • Denise Gurtner
    Comment added August 12, 2018Reply

    I have many succulents and unfortunately did not keep the labels, so I have no idea of their names. One of my favorites is the string of pearls. I have tried growing and failed, but I think I finally found the perfect spot this time as it has thrived and bloomed!
    I like the unique shapes and various colors and textures of succulents. Plus they are easy to care for!
    Thanks for writing a handbook, I really could use one!

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