I had never been a fan of cactus. Prickly, tough-skinned, ungainly. Leaves so attenuated they’ve become sharp-tipped spines. Interesting shapes, perhaps. Fascinating as examples of environmental adaptation, but nothing to love.
Things have changed. I first came to the desert in 2012, and there, in the spare open spaces, living with sand, rock, spindly, dark-leaved, creosote, and spiny ocotillo, cacti began to make sense. The first to woo me was the teddy bear cholla, somewhat endearing despite it’s dangerous, bristling spines, the outermost ones virtually invisible. But those translucent outer spines, however treacherous to skin, catch the sun and make chollas a blaze of glory.
There were prickly pears, slightly less lethal, spine-wise. Their small ‘jumping’ spines are easier to see and harder to brush against, since their longer spines will discourage you. Set among the rocks, they began to seem interesting and handsome. Barrel cactus, too, it’s broad ribs creating a deeply pleated surface, with long, curving, colorful spines, fit well among the boulders and sand. The less obtrusive, even hard-to-find fish hook cactus were almost pretty, with a delicate network of curved spines.
But nothing reconciled me to cactus the way their flowers did, when they showed up on a longer visit in 2013. First come buds that look like they’re plated with armor. The bud then opens into a wrinkled mess that looks like the flower has already shriveled up. And, then, from this daunting start, a flower so lovely, so delicate, so translucent unfurls that you can hardly believe your eyes. It’s as if your tough-talking, cigarette-dragging, hard-as-nails but intriguing neighbor suddenly answered the door in the softest, silkiest lingerie, floating gorgeous colors.
Startled, you forget you came to borrow her chain saw, and you’re dying to ask whom she’s expecting. Cacti use those beautiful, filmy colors and textures for the same reason we do: allurement. They expect bees, mainly, though some expect bats and hummingbirds. They produce a profusion of pollen, and need their creatures to share it as widely as possible, since they aren’t self pollinating.
Just as you will never look at your neighbor in the same way, having seen that side of her, it became impossible for me to look at cactus and not know what they are capable of, come spring. So that went a long way toward learning to love them. But there’s something else that fostered the change. When you see them where they are supposed to be, where they have grown and adapted for millions of years, they fit into the landscape in a way they don’t anywhere else.
I love most flowers. I have a passion for them. But my greatest passion is for flowers in their native place, which is why I love wildflowers so much. There is a deep ecological and historical connection between a plant and the place it grows naturally. Cacti evolved to be tough and prickly so they can fend off predators and conserve water in an arid environment, where temperatures can be freezing at night and 115 degrees during the day. In wetter, cooler places they would have full-blown leaves, deep roots, more delicate skin. They wouldn’t need the waxiness that can give their skin a silver-blue hue, a desert color, or the spines that create an air buffer against the drying heat.
As a landscape designer, I planted wonderful plants that originated far from the northeast coast of the U.S. They were gorgeous and sturdy. But I loved most the native plants of Long Island, the ones I could find on long walks in the woods, or that showed up in summer meadows, or held the shifting sand dunes together. On my travels I don’t tend to go to botanical gardens, though I like them. I would rather climb the hills around town, finding the wild flowers.
There’s something different about their spirit, their connection to place, their adaptations of color, size, leaf shape. They have a sense of belonging to the landscape, the texture of the air, the life of that particular soil. It’s not just about the way they look, although I love that part, but about the way they feel, up there on their dry escarpments, or in the shade of tall trees, or flowing down a hillside toward the ocean, filling the air with their spicy scent. These are the plants most connected to the magic and mystery of the powers that created them. They are my direct connection to the soul of the earth.