The Sacrificial Succulent
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Features column:At the Huntington, one plant dies so that others may live

I needed a break from life and death and sacrifice and martyrdom. For the moment, I was sick of hearing about heroism. Sick of soldiers waging war. Sick of funerals for firefighters and police officers. Sick of Jihads. I needed to shut it all out for a couple of hours.

So I went to San Marino, to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to seek some tranquility. Hit my favorite stretch, the Dr. Seussian Desert Gardens, closest terrestrial comparison to life on a coral reef. Stumbled into, for the first time, the Desert Garden Conservatory. Stumbled into, go figure, life and death and sacrifice and martyrdom--right there in the world of flora.

There's a sign on the entrance to the Conservatory--a 3,000-square-foot glasshouse filled with about that many plants, constructed in 1985. "The plants in this glasshouse are fragile and often dangerous," the sign reads. "Please do not touch."

Indoors, just a few feet away, is a single small plant called Graptolpetalum paraguayense. It's a succulent, or "juicy" New World plant that only occurs in captivity. From afar, the Graptolpetalum paraguayense looks like a bonsai version of a palm tree. It has 16 wood-knot-pocked branches and higher up, 18 green leaves that spiral like rose petals. The leaves have creases down the middle that make them look like tongues in need of a morning brushing. The leaves come to a point at their tips, like cowboy boots. No prickly needles like cacti. Easy to propagate, cloned from a strain of genetic material that's been around for a century. There is a sign in front of the Graptolpetalum paraguayense, too.

"Touch only this one," the sign reads. "Many echeverias and some other succulents have a waxy deposit which will rub off very easily. When you touch them you leave permanent fingerprints. Now that you touched this one, please don't leave fingerprints on others."

So, don't touch any of the other plants. They will die. Do touch the Graptolpetalum paraguayense. Smother it with curiosity. Kill this one plant so that the other plants may live.

"I often refer to it as our sacrificial specimen," says John Trager, the longtime curator of Desert Collections. "And that's definitely what's going on there. But it is a pragmatic decision to hopefully satisfy people's urge to touch the plant to an extent where they won't damage any of the other stuff."

Trager's been with the Huntington for 18 years. He supervised the creation of the Conservancy. The martyr sign has been up for about a decade. Ten sacrificial specimens, mostly Graptolpetalum paraguayense or similar hybrids, have come and gone since then. By comparison, Pachypodium horombense, another plant nearby in the Conservatory, dates back to 1928.

"We realized," Trager says, "that people really do have this desire to experience the plants in a tactile way, as well as just visually, and, ahh, felt, why fight it? Might as well provide a plant that can do that for them."
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Graptolpetalum paraguayense is not a particularly impressive looking piece of flora.

The plant pales, aesthetically, compared to its more psychedelic neighbors and glasshouse-mates. To its immediate right is an Aizoaceae, from South Yemen. This plant has a lone, tiny yellow-and-pink flower with petals as stringy as the tails of comets.

Behind the Graptolpetalum paraguayense, and dwarfing it, is a spectacular Borzicactus aureispinus. This Bolivian plant is composed of what appear to be the brownish, yellowish fuzzy tails of a band of monkeys, as if a dozen simians had dived headfirst into the planter in search of grubs or bananas.

The rest of the room, same as the outdoor Desert Gardens, is full of pumpkin patches of spiky watermelon-looking Echinocactus gnusonii. There are lots of "pincushion cacti," little succulents that resemble pickles or cucumbers. There's a stunning desert stalactite, hanging straight down from a pot, silhouetted by the afternoon sun pouring in through the all-windows room.

Trager, of course, has to handle all of the plants. Ideally, he says, visitors wouldn't be able to paw even the Graptolpetalum paraguayense. But, the curator adds, there is some profit in it.

"I think that's a worthwhile purpose, to allow people to handle these things," Trager says. "People often decry the need to collect specimens--to document a new species you have to have a permanent specimen of some sort. And in the case of plants, that's usually something that doesn't bother people. You just squash a specimen and put it in a herbarium where it can be looked at again for hundreds of years. With birds, on the other hand, the first thing you have to do when you find a new species is shoot one and stuff it. It's a little harder for people to accept that sort of sacrifice, but it's a necessary one to be able to learn more about the species.

"As an amateur entomologist, I have an office full of pinned specimens," he continues. "And it may seem morbid to some people, but how else can you learn about them unless you have them in front of you to look at?"
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Next, I turn to Obadiah Harris, Ph.D., president of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. He's been to the Huntington, but doesn't recall seeing this particular plant. I ask Harris about the greater issues brought up by Graptolpetalum paraguayense. Harris talks about the fragility of civilizations, talks about sacrifice of innocent souls to remind us of that fragility. Notes that the two major Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, celebrate a helpless baby in a crib and a helpless man on a cross.

"There's always a price paid for every advance of civilization," Harris says. "And it's sometimes a very expensive tab."

Naturally, I ask Harris, "Why does that have to be?"

"We do not grow when everything is going alright and everything is beautiful," he says. "It seems that our growth individually and collective as a society occurs in moments of grief, pain. Someone has said that it is through grief that we experience divine disclosure. I think it was Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet who said it's very difficult for God to work with anyone who hasn't had a broken heart. That's a very penetrating statement."

Why can't we collectively save this one little plant? Why can't we just resist the urge to handle it?

"I think we have almost an insatiable craving or desire to touch the untouchable," Harris says.

"We have an attraction to death, a fascination with death, as Freud would put it and I think he was right about that. . . There is something about darkness and death that we cannot resist. In fact, some great philosophers have said that death is our deepest passion, our deepest fascination, our greatest fulfillment."

Dr. Eugene Mornell is the executive director of The Skirball Institute of American Values. He's also familiar with the Hungtington. By phone and e-mail, he discusses the Graptopetalum paraguayense.

"I have often found metaphors to be both provocative and dangerous," Mornell writes. "I believe choosing to sacrifice oneself for others, for the common good, in resistance to evil, is one of our greatest virtues. But I note that the Graptopetalum paraguayense did not choose to sacrifice itself. I have learned to distrust people who would require others to die for their own utopian beliefs. Our grasp of the truth is always limited, but those who believe they have found it often try to unite heaven and earth, doing the work of God here and now. Sincere faith and a realistic view of history always lessens our own hubris."

Other calls around town lead to Michael Gerson. He's a licensed psychologist who has researched the concept of sacrifice.

"I have found that sacrifice is part of a transformational process," Gerson says via e-mail. "That is, to distinguish sacrifice from destruction, the death that is perpetrated must be of something that is sacred or symbolic, not ordinary. In that way the killing is symbolic as a process of rebirth. . . This death is often achieved by suffering the pain of personal challenges that kill off the former self and allow the individual to emerge renewed and changed. Perhaps this ties into the events of Sept. 11 by elevating the murders of innocent ordinary people into the sacrifice of free Americans for the preservation of justice."

At the Huntington, with five minutes left before closing time, I touched Graptopetalum paraguayense. Added my oils to the leaves. Helped rub off the natural wax that defends the plant from the elements. When I got back in the car and turned on the radio, as expected, I heard more war news. But, as it turned out, even in the most unexpected of places there's no escaping the times.