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4 march 2019

I learned a lot about Cactus from Dan Torre's excellent Reaktion Botanical volume on the spiny succulents. Being me, I'm going to start forgetting most of it immediately, but something will stick (no pun intended), and that's why one reads - to shore some sort of knowledge against the inevitable, quotidian erosion.

I will certainly take away the botanical definition of a cactus: a plant with areoles. Areoles are the bud-like structures from which the spines of true cactus grow. Lots of plants have prickly appendages on their stems, leaves, and elsewhere, but only cactus grow them in clusters from areoles.

Areoles are the sine qua non, but all cacti are succulent to some degree and most cacti are also leafless, spiny, and terrestrial – they grow directly from the ground. Most, because as Torre explains, a whole subfamily of cacti (the Pereskioideae) have leaves, many garden cultivars lack spines (thanks in large part to Luther Burbank), and some cacti are epiphytes, growing high up in the branches of trees – including the "Christmas cactus" Schlumbergera.

One thing I ought to have known was that cacti are native only to the New World. This obviously makes sense – what's more American than a desert full of cactus – but cacti have become so widely acclimatized worldwide that it can be hard to pin them down as American natives. The garrigue of Provence, for instance, looks fairly Texan at times with its dusty scrubland full of cactus. Sicily is synonymous with cactus, which grow all over the Mediterranean in picturesque profusion. Not so picturesque, apparently, was the plague of cactus that swept Australia about 125 years ago. Queensland in particular was so choked with exotic, invasive prickly pears that its authorities spent decades trying to get them under control, at times resorting to poison gas.

I grew up far north of the cactus line and encountered the plants, when I was younger, only in pots. I loved them, as most people do: they are wonderfully forgiving houseplants (though I remember my mother famously killing mine when I went away to college, a slaughter she later atoned for by cross-stitching me a wall-hanging that featured cacti). My partner grew up in Germany collecting cactus; Germany in fact has one of the oldest cultivated-cactus industries, and cactus collectors feature widely in German art and lore.

When we made our separate ways to Texas decades ago, both my partner and I found that collecting made little sense anymore; collecting cactus in Texas would be like collecting sand if you lived on a beach. Vast stretches of the American southwest have cactus as their signature vegetation. The first few hundred miles you drive across cactus scrubland are wonderfully exotic. Then saturation kicks in and you hardly notice them anymore.

Torre describes a world where cactus are alternately mundane and exotic. Saguaro, though their range has been eaten into by suburban development in Arizona, are still among the most common southwestern plants, and pretty unremarkable to residents of the desert. But certain saguaro become "crested," developing weird ingrown undulations that enjoy a special level of government protection. Cactus so easily hybridize, mutate, and otherwise diversify at intraspecies level that they can combine ubiquity and rarity in a pleasing way.

Cactus provide timber, animal fodder, and human food. Tunas and nopales, the fruits and pads of the prickly pear, are standard Tex-Mex items and I will vouch for their deliciousness. But cactus shows up as a flavoring far from where you'd expect it. A popular flavor of the Danish mint Läkerol is "Cactus." Cactus are "mucilaginous," though, which means that like okra they have a certain sliminess that some people find offputting.

Cactus pervade popular culture. Despite the fact that some cactus can be nasty customers in real life, they tend to be friendly and anthropomorphic in the form of cartoons and figurines. Even horror-story cacti tend to be campy, and at their nicest (as in some evocative runs of Charles Schulz's Peanuts) they can be a friend to man, or rather to man's best friend in the form of Snoopy's brother Spike. (Schulz in turn certainly got some of his cactus imagery from George Herriman's Coconino backgrounds to Krazy Kat.)

Torre quotes T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men," the most famous literary invocation of the cactus. I was at a loss to think of others. Cacti don't figure much in popular song. They are hard to rhyme and, though no pricklier than some roses, they aren't very romantic. Even if you've been through the desert on a horse with no name, you may not notice many cacti. There are plants and birds and rocks and things, but they all just blend together.

One cactus poem I found with some desultory googling is appropriately tentative. Michael Schmidt's "Notes for the Cactus Poem" (2010) doesn't get all the way to that elusive artifact. "The teddy bear cholla and the fat fat," Schmidt begins, only to trail off immediately and start again and soon abandon the project. Compared to Torre's delight in cactus potential, Schmidt seems to find only the most oblique possibilities in the plants. And they are nothing that one would want to embrace, for sure; but they are curiously and persistently beloved.

Torre, Dan. Cactus. London: Reaktion, 2017.