Cactus lingerie

Staghorn cholla (Cycylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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 its 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.

Gander’s cholla (Cylindropuntia ganderii) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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, its 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 was almost pretty, with a delicate network of curved spines.


Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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.

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) Saguaro National Park West

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.

Prickly-pear-cactus-Opuntia-engelmanii-Saguaro-National-Park-Arizona-by-Betsey-Crawford copy
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmanii) Saguaro National Park Arizona

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.

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) n the Anza Borrego Desert, California

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.

Fishhook cactus (Mammillaria dioica) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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 wildflowers.

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.

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

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Related posts:

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) with California poppy (eschscholzia california) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford
Native plants:
the genius of their place
Newspaper rock petroglyphs, Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford
A land of stone tablets
Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford
Living on the ledge:
ingenious bitterroot

11 thoughts on “Cactus lingerie”

  1. Pingback: Native plants: the genius of their place

  2. These photos are heard rendingly beautiful and I love the lingerie connection. It’s so masculine/feminine so yin/yang. Some of us painters went up to the Russian River Rose Garden in Healdsburg. They had a plaque with an Abraham Lincoln quote on it. Something like: we can lament that rose bushes have thorns or be grateful that thorn bushes have roses. Seems to apply here! Also makes me remember the movie Wings Of Life. Did you see it? Meryl Streep narrates from the perspective of the flower. There were sequences of cactus flowers at night and the bats coming to drink their nectar. Incredible. Thank you for bringing me to the desert and for curating the best of it. Sending my love.

    1. I can’t wait to see the pix from the rose garden. And I’ll have to find that movie! Not that I ever have the internet for it, but I’ll look for the DVD. Thanks and love.

  3. This is so incredibly beautiful-the photos and dialogue! It brings me the sense of perfect balance in the universe-a reminder that when I give up all control perfection is what is left.

  4. Perhaps “dessert” would be more appropriate? (Although not quite sympatico with the “lingerie” motif??) A deliciousness in itself, and, like the final event of the meal, the ephemeral and final reward to the otherwise long, state-of-life of the desert — unending spines, subtle and subdued hues, and then the unsuspecting burst, captured perfectly by these unbelievable images, with depth and mystery.

  5. OMG, OMG… This is SO beautiful! Beauty everywhere; it’s ALL beautiful, and that’s what the Universe gives us, apparently everywhere. “Desert” is SUCH a wrong word. We only call it that because we haven’t looked, have yet to see… You’re helping!

    Blessed messenger you are… (I sound like Yoda!)


    1. Thank you for this — and I love Yoda! Paradoxically, one of the great beauties of the desert is its relative emptiness. It’s both a visual and a psychic beauty, where so much falls away so all senses can sharpen, particularly the inner ones. And there’s quite a variety. In my travels I’ve seen a lot of difference in deserts — the Sonoran desert around Tucson is positively lush.

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