The History of Cacti at the Garden

The Missouri Botanical Garden has a long history of cacti research and has housed a notable collection for nearly 150 years. The collection today contains hundreds of plants, including some threatened in the wild. Selections from the collection can be seen in the Garden’s historic Linnean House conservatory.

Early collections and research

Dr. George Engelmann, noted botanist and primary advisor to Henry Shaw, was a widely published expert on cacti. Engelmann described and named many species of cacti, and willed his plant collection to the Garden. In the Cohen Court Garden, you’ll find a display of cacti discovered and described by Engelmann.

Dr. William Trelease became the Director of the Garden in 1889. He published many papers on desert plants, including yucca and agave, and promoted the use of cacti and succulents in Garden displays. The Pincushion Garden in our Victorian District is a great place to see succulents on display today.

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Cacti against a wall at the east end of the Linnean House. Today, this area contains cacti discovered by George Engelmann.

The Legacy of Lad Cutak

Ladislaus Cutak played a key role in expanding the Garden’s collection of cacti. Cutak joined the Garden in 1927 as a temporary laborer. His responsibilities grew over the years, as did his love of cactus. As superintendent of the greenhouses, he greatly expanded the Garden’s living collection. By 1941 it was the largest collection in the world of succulent plants under glass. Cutak also traveled to Colombia to collect tropical plants for the planting of the original Climatron. His 45 year career at the Garden ended with a stint as public relations manager from 1966-1972.

From the Archives – Lad Cutak: Patron Saint of Cacti

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Lad Cutak with the Garden’s cacti collection. Photo originally appeared in the May-June 1969 Bulletin, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Desert House

The Garden’s Desert House opened to the public in 1913 and displayed multiple species of cacti. When the Desert House closed in 1994, the plant collection was moved to the Garden’s greenhouses. Select plants from the collection are now displayed in the Linnean House.

Slideshow: See the Desert House through the years

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The Henry Shaw Cactus and Succulent Society was founded by Lad Cutak in 1942, and often uses the Garden for its meetings. The group also helped maintain the collection in the Desert House, and assisted in cataloging the plants when the building closed in 1994. The HSCSS has held a show and sale every summer since 1944.

Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist

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