By Scott Calhoun
I tend to specialize in horticultural lost causes, and cactus are the outcasts and misfits of the gardening world. While I was photographing gardens around the U.S. for my book, Designer Plant Combinations, it occurred to me that most home gardens contain exactly zero species of cactus. In my estimation, they are the most underrepresented group of plants in gardens, nurseries, and plant books.
As I stewed over this injustice, my own cactus collection expanded. I grew a species of pincushion whose flowers smell exactly like Lemon Pledge, and a prickly pear cactus whose fruit makes alluring magenta lemonade and margaritas. I added the totem pole, whose spineless skin looks like melted wax, and the feather cactus whose furry spines feel like the hair of a terrier. I became ensnared in a love affair with spiny plants. I caught, and still have, an STD (spine transmitted disease) called cactomania.
I began taking long dangerous trips into the Mexican backcountry with succulent plant explorers. I became acquainted with a vast subculture of spiny plant enthusiasts and cactus traders across the globe: a Bangkok peyote grower, a Tokyo executive who collects living rock cactus, and a young Czech organizing a Prague conference called “Spiny Perspectives”. I lusted after artisan made pots fashioned to resemble meteorites and sea creatures.
The gardens cactomaniacs cultivate are hardly traditional. Their plants are not potted, but rather “staged”. They plant cactus among knobby rocks to approximate their natural habitats and the most discerning collectors apply a final top-dressing of micro-gravel collected from special anthills whose locations they keep secret. As a final flourish, wildflower seeds from the same range of the staged species are sprinkled over the gravel. Many cactus species are exceptionally slow-growing and long-lived—some so much so that they will be passed down to the next generation. They more closely resemble sculptures set on plinths than plants. I’m not even sure if what cactus growers do with their plants can be called gardening, but don’t care because it is so weirdly beautiful! I’ve decided that weirdness is a greatly undervalued quality in gardens. In my horticultural pursuits, I aspire to high weirdness.
Prickly and Tasty
The ethno-botanical history of cactus is deliciously culinary. It is full of marvelously tasty but strangely packaged fruit absent from the produce aisles of the First World: hedgehog cactus fruits are encased in a web of spines that magically fall off when the fruit is ripe, revealing a strawberry-like nugget; the whortleberry, whose grape-sized fruit has the acid-sweet zing of a cranberry-blueberry cross; the organ pipe, whose golf-ball sized gems are said to be the tastiest of all cactus. The organ pipe’s fruit are eaten fresh, and turned into wine by the native Seri in a wild bacchanalia celebrating their New Year. The organ pipe fruit, which is full of tiny seeds, is so prized that the Seri historically enjoyed it twice—picking through their own feces to reclaim the nutty high-fat seeds in a “second harvest.” This is not a practice I recommend for the home gardener, but to each his own.
Kings of Xeriscape
And then there are the practical reasons for growing cactus. Cactus are the undisputed grand champions of drought tolerance. If climate doomsday scenarios prove true, neither watering restrictions nor hotter temperatures should prevent gardeners from planting cactus. When climatologists speak of desertification, I think, more cactus! As a person who is occasionally forced to live a life outside my garden, to hit the road and sell some books, I find it comforting to know that my cactus collection will be stoically enduring whatever the Mother Nature dishes out in my absence.
They are the ideal antidote to fussy perennials that wilt in a warm breeze or trees insistent on dropping their leaves around the yard. Cactus, on the other hand, are nearly perfectly clean, dropping almost no annoying leaf litter on your patio. They also require less watering than any kind of plant that isn’t plastic. When I walk by my cactus, they seem to say, “By the way old chap, would you mind giving me a sprinkle of water when you think of it, it is bloody hot out here. No rush, don’t trouble yourself, just next time you have a watering can at the ready.” Yes, my prickly ones speak to me with British accents. In fact, my cactus sound like Keith Richards.
To me, cactus are more masculine than any other plant group. Even those with stunning flowers (and there are many), avoid prissiness by arranging them in a snarl of thorns. The sort of frilliness associated with cottage gardens is nowhere to be seen in the cactus world. When garden clubs ask me to speak, they often say something like, “you can speak on any of your areas of expertise, but please, no cactus.” I usually sneak some cactus in anyway.
The pain factor is way overblown. With good gloves and a little technique, you hardly ever get poked. And when you do, it is just not a big deal. Take it from someone who is horrified by needles. In fact, the pain you share with your cactus may further endear you–a sort of horticultural Stockholm syndrome. You too may contract an STD in these intimate interactions with your plants, but the symptoms are largely manageable and not completely debilitating. Buy some long tweezers, a set of welding gloves (for the very prickliest species), and you are pretty well set. For small plants, regular gardening gloves work fine. You can also handle many species by their roots without gloves at all.
But I live in Zone 5?
Well, yes, you cannot grow as many species outdoors in the coldest parts of the country, but in a sunny windowsill, you can grow a host of potted cactus plants that you can bring onto the patio during the warm months. And if you want to grow cactus in the ground, there are a few hardy species to choose from. Consider the following: Potato cactus (Opuntia fragilis) is the most cold-hardy cactus and grows well into Canada. It is low growing, forming a mat of little round pads, blooms pink or yellow, and is hardy to Zone 1. Beehive cactus (Escobaria vivipera) grows from Mexico to southern Canada, and sports hot pink flowers and fruit with a strawberry-kiwi flavor. It is hardy to Zone 4b.
Obsession with spiny plants is not limited to the desert Southwest. Just ask the Oregon-based author of the Danger Garden blog, whose mantra is, “Nice plants are boring – my love is for plants that can hurt you.”
Scott Calhoun is the author of six books about gardening. Timber Press has just published his newest title, The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus. In addition to writing, he runs Zona Gardens, a landscape design studio based in Tucson, Arizona: www.zonagardens.com.