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National Recognition of Cactus and Agave Collections


by Raul Puente, Curator of Living Collections; Chad Davis, Agavaceae Collections Manager; and Scott McMahon, Cactaceae Collections Manager

In May of this year, the Garden once again lived up to its mission “…to advance excellence in education, research, exhibition, and conservation of desert plants…” when its living collections in the cactus and agave families were designated as the country’s National Collections of those two plant families. This prestigious recognition was granted by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC), part of the American Public Gardens Association (APGA). Although the Garden’s holdings of these two families has long been known as one of the world’s most impressive living collections, receipt of the official National Collections status adds validity to this claim.

What is the NAPCC?

The NAPCC is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta working to coordinate a continent-wide approach to the preservation of living plant material, and to promote high standards of plant collections management. All designated collections serve as reference collections for plant identification and cultivar registration and are also a source of documented materials for scientific study. Currently, there are thirty-nine National Collections situated in more than seventy participating botanical gardens and arboreta. Some of the individual collections are found at single locations. For example, the National Collection of elm trees (genus Ulmus) is located at the Morton Arboretum in Illinois; the National Collection of citrus is at the Fullerton Arboretum on the California State University Fullerton campus. Other National Collections are multi-site collections distributed among several institutions. The National Collection of oaks (genus Quercus) is held by seventeen botanical gardens and arboreta located throughout the United States. Information about plants in all of the National Collections is made available to participating institutions so they can compare holdings in order to identify duplications or gaps in their own collections. This collaborative sharing of information makes efficient use of available resources, strengthening all of the collections.

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View of cacti and agaves along the Desert Discovery Trail

The Application

Garden staff began the application process in 2009, beginning with announcing our intention to propose the two collections for consideration as National Collections at the annual APGA conference in Boston. The application was completed and submitted to the APGA in February 2010. It included a printout of the plant database, which included the names and number of plants, where the plants were collected or obtained, and other collection data for each accession. (An accession is a single plant or group of plants that have common data, including collection locality and date.) More than 500 pages of information were included in the application for the cactus family (Cactaceae) and about 200 pages for the agave family (Agavaceae).

The NAPCC designated Michael Bostwick, Curator of Horticulture at the San Diego Zoo, to conduct the on-site review at the Desert Botanical Garden. In early April, he spent two days at the Garden examining the collections and interviewing staff. In addition to directly reviewing the horticulture program’s care of the collections, he also assessed the way the collections are used and integrated into other Garden programs, including research, exhibits, and education. His review also included meetings with the Garden’s executive director, the president of the board of trustees, and the directors of the research, education, horticulture, and exhibits departments. He then prepared two separate reports, with a total of twentyfour pages. On May 19, six weeks after his visit, we received notification from the NAPCC granting the national status to our Cactaceae and Agavaceae collections.

Significance of Designation as a National Collection

The designation of our Cactaceae and Agavaceae collections as National Collections is a formal recognition of the Garden’s long commitment to these plant families. It also acknowledges past and present staff members who had the foresight to develop world-class collections through their acquisition efforts, horticultural care and propagation of these plants, and the maintenance of accurate accessions records. The large number of plants and species in our collections and their thorough documentation made the Garden’s collections of the cactus and agave families ideal for inclusion as National Collections.


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Engelmann's prickly pear - Opuntia engelmannii Cardon - Pachycereus pringlei

The Cactus Family Collections

The living collections of cacti have been a prime focus of the Garden since its beginning in 1939. It currently maintains more than 7,890 accessioned, living specimens of 1,319 species of cacti, representing almost three-quarters of all cactus species. Nearly 70% of those plants have associated data documenting collection locations in the wild, making those plants extremely valuable for educational purposes and scientific research. The quantity and quality of our collection makes this the most prominent cactus collection in the United States and perhaps in the world. The collection includes a vast array of different groups of cacti ranging from the prickly pears and their kin (subfamily Opuntioideae) to globular and columnar species of both North and South America. Some tropical and high-elevation species that require modified environments to protect them from the harsh summer climate of Phoenix are also represented. These unusual living plants are enjoyed by more than 320,000 visitors annually; visiting researchers from the United States and abroad, who request materials such as tissue samples, seeds, and pollen for scientific studies, enjoy seeing the spectacular variety of species as well.

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Creeping Devil - Stenocereus eruca

Throughout its history, the Garden has been a valuable resource for scientific information about cacti. Some of the most up-to-date knowledge about the cactus family has been generated by our research staff. For example, the late Dr. Edward Anderson, Senior Research Botanist from 1991-2001, published The Cactus Family, a scientific synopsis of knowledge of all genera of cacti, during his tenure at the Garden. Currently, Research Botanist Dr. Charles Butterworth presses ahead with research on the evolution of cacti through studies of DNA. Other botanical gardens recognize our scientific expertise on cacti: recently, the New York Botanical Garden invited our researchers to write a comprehensive treatment of the cactus family for a series of botanical books entitled Intermountain Flora. The project, completed this year, was led by Herbarium Curator Wendy Hodgson, with contributions by Assistant Herbarium Curator Dr. Andrew Salywon, Dr. Butterworth, and Garden research associates Drs. Marc Baker and Donald Pinkava. Access to the Garden’s large and diverse living cactus collection, supported by our extensive herbarium collection of pressed and dried specimens, makes research efforts like these possible.

In addition to scientific contributions, Garden staff has also substantially expanded knowledge about the horticultural care of cacti. Techniques and guidelines for the moving and planting of large saguaros, for instance, have been shared widely.

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View of Arizona Agaves Collection along the Desert Discovery Trail

The Agave Family Collections

The Garden houses one the most diverse collections of the Agavaceae (century plant family) in the world. Currently the collection contains over 340 species and varieties, and more than 2,500 plants. The family includes nine genera: Agave, Beschorneria, Furcraea, Hesperaloe, Hesperoyucca, Manfreda, Polianthes, Prochnyanthes, and Yucca. All have cultural and economic importance both regionally and worldwide.

The genus Agave, for which the family is named, has been another priority of the Garden since its inception. The artistic depiction of an agave on our logo gives testimony to this focus. The Garden still holds plants collected by some of the most influential figures in its history, including past directors George Lindsay, W. Taylor Marshall, W. Hubert Earle and Rodney Engard. Dr. Howard Scott Gentry, author of the most important monograph on agaves, The Agaves of Continental North America published in 1982, introduced hundreds of specimens into the collection as he researched these fascinating plants. Research activities continue today as Garden scientists use the collection to generate new knowledge in the fields of systematic plant evolution, ecology, horticulture, and conservation. Wendy Hodgson continues Dr. Gentry’s research legacy through her current research on agaves, which has included discovery and naming of three new species and ways in which pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region used certain species.

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Agave sp.

Agave is only one of the many genera contained within the family Agavaceae. Living specimens of other genera, such as the genus Yucca, are some of the most impressive plants growing in the Garden. Tall Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) and other arborescent yuccas can be seen throughout the Garden. The bold forms, interesting textures, and striking colors of all the members of the agave family highlight, accentuate, and punctuate the trails and exhibits. Some wonderful examples can be viewed in and around the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus & Succulent Galleries and the historical beds near Schilling Library. The recently installed Berlin Agave Yucca Forest showcases these fantastic plants. The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail is home to many native species that have played important roles in the historic and prehistoric lives of indigenous cultures.

Looking to the Future

With the designation of our Cactaceae and Agavaceae families as National Collections, the Garden is officially recognized as possessing important, world-class collections. This honor is not an end in itself, however, even as it acknowledges our long-standing and on-going commitment to advance excellence. To that end, Garden staff are currently in the process of creating collections plans for both families, which will carefully examine the needs of multiple users and the degree to which the collections serve both those needs and its own mission. This plan will ultimately contribute to improvements in curation and record keeping, and will also yield priorities for future acquisition of new species of plants. As work goes on to ensure that its future collection will be grander than ever, the Desert Botanical Garden proudly accepts the honor of the two National Collection designations.

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