For every person who sees a spiny, green menace, there are legions more who see an exotic beauty that produces flowers as showy as the loveliest of roses and orchids.
Was there ever a plant so ugly and ornery as the cactus? Take the creeping devil cactus, which looks to have crawled out of Night of the Living Dead. Or the horse crippler cactus, with its fearsome little daggers. And beware the bunny ears cactus, whose hairlike spines can cause stabbing sensations and swelling. A cactus’ thick, waxy skin and sharp spines are simply the plant’s way of fending off predators and surviving in an environment of scorching sun, pitiless heat and lack of water. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The cactus family encompasses some 2,500 species, whose natural distribution extends from southern Canada through to Central America and the West Indies, and deep into South America. If you’re in cactus country, or visiting a garden or nursery anywhere in the world, keep an eye out for these unusual species. Some might be homely or vicious. But it’s a mean world out there, and a cactus is just trying to survive.
Creeping Devil Cactus
It creeps! It crawls! It clones itself! The creeping devil is truly one of the cactus family’s most shudder-inducing members. Instead of standing erect, as do most long-stemmed cacti, the creeping devil lies on the ground and creeps along like something out of a ’50s horror flick. The species manages this unusual maneuver through a process called clonal propagation: The base end slowly dies and rots away, eventually detaching itself from the main stem; meanwhile, the underside of the remaining stem takes root in the soil while its tip grows as much as two feet per year. This demon of a succulent is endemic to Baja California Sur but you can find it creeping about at the Desert Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
Horse Crippler Cactus
This aptly named cactus keeps a low profile but can do a lot of damage. The horse crippler is native to New Mexico and Texas and has the shape of a squat little pumpkin. It’s hard to see–by either foraging horse or farmer–because it tends to retract into the soil and is often obscured by grass. Aureoles, which are special growing points in a cactus, contain clusters of about 14 spines, with a central dagger that is sharp and strong enough to lame a horse or punch through the sole of an Army boot. You can see this ferocious plant at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in Austin, Texas. Watch your toes.
Never mind what you’ve seen in old westerns. If you’re dying of thirst in the desert, you probably can’t hydrate yourself with water from a barrel cactus. True, the pulp of the barrel cactus can be mashed into a thick, gluey drink. But, if you were really that dehydrated, you probably wouldn’t have the energy for such a laborious undertaking–remember, you’d have to get past all those sharp spines and even if you did, toxins in the cactus might likely cause vomiting and diarrhea. While the barrel cactus may be useless in staving off death by dehydration, it will point you in the right direction to seek help: Barrel cacti in North America south toward the equator. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, in Tucson, Arizona, is home to many species of barrel cactus.
Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear cactus is prized for its showy flowers, tasty fruit, and tender flesh, which can be sautéed with onion and tomato for a dish known in the Mexican kitchen as nopalitos. This ubiquitous cactus coexists mostly in peace with its human neighbors. But such was not the case when the prickly pear was introduced into Australia many years ago. Two species of prickly pear reproduced at such an astounding rate that by 1900, they covered an area the size of Switzerland, rendering farms, homesteads, and pasture lands unusable. Landowners attacked the green invaders with fire, chemicals, and machines, all to no avail. Eventually, these pesky plants met their match in the form of a large moth whose caterpillar set up housekeeping in the prickly pear and proceeded to kill it. If you’re in Southern California, look for the prickly pear at Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California. It’s instantly recognizable for its flat, paddle-shaped stems that often look like Mickey Mouse ears.
Teddy Bear Cholla
Looks can be deceiving. From a distance, the teddy bear cholla–also known as the jumping cholla–appears to be a huggable stuffed animal cloaked in a coat of soft fur. But that furry coat is in fact a dense cloak of barbed spines. This chest-high cactus will seemingly leap out and impale the unsuspecting passer-by who so much as brushes an arm against it. How do you remove these nasty daggers? Pliers. One of the best places to see the teddy bear cholla is in the cholla cactus garden at Joshua Tree National Park in the Southern California desert. Keep your distance.
The United States’ largest cactus, ubiquitous in the Sonoran Desert, inspires awe and amusement for the way that it seems to strike human poses. The saguaro–pronounced sah-WAH-ro–is a towering column with arms that point in all sorts of different directions–raised skyward as if to say, “I surrender” or “Howdy, partner,” . In the spring, white trumpet-shaped flowers bloom from the tips of the saguaro’s arms. Yet the saguaro is not to be messed with. It can grow five stories tall, weigh eight tons, and be cloaked in sharp spines. In the 1980s, an Arizona man learned just how dangerous this cactus can be. While using a saguaro for target practice, the gigantic plant fell on the hapless gunman, with fatal results. You will likely remain unscathed when you hike at Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. The saguaro is a protected species in Arizona, so no shooting.
Old Man Cactus
What lurks behind the old man cactus’ unkempt mane of snowy-white hair? The long strands of hair that make this cactus look like it needs an emergency trip to the barbershop hide a profusion of sharp, yellow spines. But, in fact, the hairs themselves are a form of modified spines that protect the plant from intense daytime heat and nighttime cold. The old man cactus grows in the wild in Mexico, in the states of Hidalgo and Guanajuato, but you can also see it north of the border. The next time you’re in Washington, D.C., check out this cactus at the United States Botanic Garden.
Eagle Claw Cactus
In the summer, this less-threatening cousin to the horse crippler cactus sprouts a brilliant, magenta-colored flower that beckons you for a close inspection. Beware. The eagle claw cactus wears an armor of curved spines that–just as the name says–resemble the talons on an eagle. You can see it for yourself at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico.
Bunny Ears Cactus
Look but don’t touch. The bunny ears cactus is a popular houseplant for its flat, oblong pads that grow in pairs and are adorned with fuzzy little tufts in a polka dot pattern. The pads have no spines but they have something more insidious: Those innocuous-looking tufts are glochids, which are clusters of tiny, barbed bristles that are easily dislodged by the touch of a hand or a gust of wind. Glochids have been known to blind cattle and cause skin irritation in humans. You can see the bunny ears cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.
Silver Torch Cactus
A bizarre-looking cactus if ever there was one. The silver or wooly torch, is a columnar cactus that grows as tall as 10 feet and wears a white coat of slender spines. Many cacti of this sort produce showy blossoms with soft petals. But the silver torch does things its own way. This plant’s blossom is a carrot-shaped, red protuberance that is covered with hair and scales and grows horizontally at a nearly 90-degree angle to the column. The silver torch is native to altitudes above 5,500 feet in South America, but you needn’t climb a mountain to see it. The silver torch cactus is on exhibit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona.