Is there a plant so grotesque yet so gorgeous, so reviled yet so revered as the cactus? Take the creeping devil cactus, which could have slithered out of a ’50s horror flick. Or the fearsome horse crippler. Or the much-maligned barrel cactus, to author Edward Abbey “that bloated monster of a vegetable” and to crude jokesters “the mother-in-law’s seat.”
But for every cactus that offends, another delights: the queen of the night, which unfurls velvety white petals on a midsummer’s eve; the fishhook cactus, which wears a garland of bright blossoms; and the organ-pipe cactus, whose arms beseech heaven.
Cacti symbolize the Southwest, but members of this adaptable plant family of 2,500 species also grow far from the land of lonesome cowboys and sun-bleached bovine skulls. Within sight of breaching orcas, you can poke yourself on a native brittle cactus on Washington’s Whidbey Island. In Montana, it wasn’t just grizzlies and rattlesnakes that tormented Lewis and Clark—a low-lying prickly pear tore their moccasins. And watch your step on the east slope of California’s Sierra Nevada; cacti thrive as high as 9,000 feet.
Cactus spines act mainly as armor against hungry animals. Yet these slim daggers also help the plant retain a bit of warmth on winter nights and protect it against ultraviolet rays on sunny days. As the camels of the plant world, cacti can be 95 percent water, endure air temperatures of 138°F, and survive years without a drink. Botanist Luther Burbank wrote of a cactus, uprooted and left hanging from a tree for six years, that threw off new stems and flowers after it was stuck in the ground.
Whether you’re a veteran cactophile or a new fan of prickly plants, consider a flowering-season trip to a park or garden where native cacti abound. Bring a hat, sunscreen, and a comb—a tried-and-true tool for lifting spines off an ankle or sleeve.