What Is That Spiny Thing?

Written by Ranee Om Prakash, Senior Curator – General Herbarium IV, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum (NHM) holds over 80 million specimens and every single specimen tells a story.

Amongst these 80 million objects, one such object is a specimen (Fig. 1) that the museum acquired from Mexico over 2 decades ago. This object excites curiosity amongst novices, students and the general public alike. Whenever anyone looks at this, the first thing they ask is what is that? A pineapple? A furry cat? Is it a sponge? The imaginations are limitless….

Fig. 1. Flower of Melocactus (© The Trustees, Natural History Museum, London)

This is the flower of Melocactus Link & Otto, also known as the Turk’s Cap Cactus or Melon Cactus. This is how it looks in the wild (Fig 2).

Fig. 2. Melocactus azureus in wild (picture by Pierre Braun, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35738382

As per the Plant List (2018), this genus has over 40 species. This plant is a native of the Caribbean Islands and is found from the Bahamas, Mexico to North East Brazil below.

Fig. 3. Distribution of Melocactus (source: http://www.plants of the worldonline.org link: http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:331763-2.)

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus named the first species as Cactus melocatus. However, this name was rejected and the correct name for this genus is now Melocactus.

The plant has a phylloclade (modified stem that functions as a leaf, aids in photosynthesis and helps to reduce the rate of transpiration) and is easily recognizable by a woolly, bristle-coated structure at the apex of the plant, containing a mass of areoles from which the small flowers grow. At first glance, the dried flower looks like a furry cat, some people even think of it as a pineapple due to its spines and hexagonal structures on the flower. The fruits of this plant are edible. The juice of the plant is used to quench thirst and the plant is also used for medicinal purposes across many parts of the World.

Whenever we get a chance to talk about this mystery specimen, we do. It has been displayed at various events at the museum such as the World’s Plants Fascination Day (celebrated in the month of May) and the Science Uncovered event in the month of September. It a well-known fact that people like to touch, feel and describe the object and increasingly over the years, museums have engaged with audiences in this way as object handling is an excellent way to learn and be inspired. There are several other collections behind the scenes which are equally inspiring, but this Melocactus is one of my favourite specimens. I wonder if there is an object or a specimen that has inspired you too?

If you would like to come and see this and other interesting collections, our department is open Monday- Friday 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. You can drop us an email to book an appointment.

I would like to end this article with a quote from the World Collections Report (2019):

The objects in museums’ collections tell stories about people, places, nature and thought. It is only possible to understand the world around us if we understand its past, both natural and man-made. The stories told by these objects, brought to life by study and display, help more easily to explore common themes and threads through history and relate those to the present day. Some of the most comprehensive and internationally important collections of natural history, ethnography, technology, art, literature and design are held by UK museums – and so these world collections tell world stories.

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to Jonathan Jackson – Photography Studio Manager at the Natural History Museum for kindly imaging the object.

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