About the genus
Lophophora, common name peyote, must be one of the easiest of cactus genera to recognise. The name translates from Greek as ‘bearing a crest’ and this refers to the rows of prominent woolly areoles that lack any spines whatsoever.
Mature plants produce a succession of small flowers from their apex throughout the summer months. These vary in colour from white or yellowish-white (L. diffusa) through pale pink to rich mid-purple (L. fricii).
L. williamsii in the wild is a variable, widespread species that occurs from southern Texas south through Mexico to the state of San Luis Potosí, a range of almost 900km. It is easily recognised in cultivation because it is the only self-fertile species and produces masses of elongated pink berries without intervention from the grower. The other generally-recognised species are L. diffusa, the most southerly species which is isolated further south in Querétaro, and L. fricii which is found in an enclave in the western part of the L. williamsii distribution area. There is good evidence to accept two more southern species: L. koehresii and the miniature L. alberto-vojtechii.
How to grow them
L. williamsii is easily grown in a 1:1 mix of John Innes No3 compost and coarse grit. Plants should be kept in good light but not the sunniest part of the greenhouse. Like most other cacti they can be watered from sometime during March depending on the weather, through to mid-October; keep them frost-free and dry in winter. Regular liquid feeding with half the recommended strength fertiliser such as Chempak 8 is advantageous. Lophophoras have fat carrot-like roots which might need larger pots than their top growth would suggest.
Typical large areoles are only produced when they reach flowering size. However, they are slow-growing and eventually attain a steady state when new growth is balanced by old growth shrivelling and becoming corky at the base. Some plants produce offsets and there is a more vigorous form, often called ‘caespitosa’, which can form clumps of 100 or more bodies.
All species are particularly prone to red spider mites which hide in the woolly crowns. Damaged epidermis, which is light-brown rather than green, is seen only when it grows out from the woolly crown and then it is too late. So regular prophylactic spraying through summer with SB Plant Invigorator is recommended. A soft paint brush can be used to tease out the hair tufts after spraying.
L. williamsii is most famous for containing the hallucinogenic alkaloid mescaline. Plant tops are harvested and dried as mescal buttons for use by Native Americans in traditional ceremonies. However, do not be tempted to eat your peyote because the effect requires many plants and can be accompanied by violent vomiting! Other species contain different alkaloids that do not have the same pharmacological effect. Cultivation of Lophophora as ornamental plants is legal in the UK and most other countries apart from the USA, Russia and some states of Australia. However, mescaline itself is a Class A drug in the UK and if you extract it from your plants, you will be breaking the law.
Text and photos: Terry Smale.
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