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A 100 Year Old Mexican Cactus Heroine

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Today in a plant shop here in the north of Spain we bought a Mammillaria matudae, a cactus from Mexico.

Mammillaria‘ means that the plant has lots of miniature breasts all over its body, equipped with prickles instead of nipples.  ‘Matudae’ pays tribute to Eizi Matsuda (1894 – 1978), a botanist from Japan who became a Mexican and worked for the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Señor Matuda / Matsuda-san also has some lizards and frogs named after him. Yet who honoured him by naming after him this Mammillaria?

That person, dear reader, is Helia Bravo-Hollis, 1901-2001—which is one century of important activity.  A great Mexican woman scientist, of whom alas I never heard up until now.

Yet I could have heard of her when I was a schoolboy because coincidentally it seems that in around 1956 she contributed a description of M. matudae to The Cactus and Succulent Journal of Great Britain—whilst In around 1957 I contributed a fledgling column about “The Cochineal Cactus“, to Amateur Gardening magazine of GB. My own contribution to cactus awareness was distinctly amateur due to me being only 14 in a pre-webbed world; how I would have loved to know about the fully grown-up scientific Cactus and Succulent Journal and the excellent British Cactus and Succulent Society which still thrives.

Helia Bravo was brought up amongst abundant nature within sight of the volcano Popocatépetl. In 1913, when she was 12, her father was shot dead during the assassination of moderate revolutionary President Madero whom he supported. By 1918 she was glimpsing Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivero painting murals in the corridors of her higher school. Before too long she was on her way to becoming one of the “fundamental pillars of Mexican botany” especially as regards cacti, latterly a founder of the Botanic Garden of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and of the Mexican Cactology Society. In 1980 ‘Her Serene Highness’ Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, who was fond of cacti, bestowed upon Helia Bravo the second ever Golden Cactus Award.

In a magazine interview during her 100th year, Helia Bravo attributed her longevity and alertness to constant cactology.

I realise that the International Day of Women has just passed, but I only discovered about all this today after we bought the cactus. Thanks, Google. And also: ¡BRAVA, HELIA BRAVO HOLLIS!
It isn’t often you have a Bravo to call out “Bravo” to.  Good things may come your way when you adopt a good cactus!

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