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Planted: Little-Known Facts About Cacti

by Andrew Broadous
March 2017


1. The saguaro (pronounced saw-waro) is what most people think when they think cactus. The largest of these towering plants stand at 40-60 feet. When they die, saguaros are reborn as roofing, fences, and furniture, and their hollow husks give new life to owlets and spotted finches. Slap a sombrero on their heads, two maracas in their outstretched arms, and you’ve got yourself Mexico, a nation you’ve only seen on postcards or eaten at Taco Time.

                       

Someday, you’ll taste the real thing.


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2. Mammillaria cacti sound like you wouldn’t want to get too close to them or you’d catch something. But the Latin word suggests voluptuousness and sweet milk, for mammilla roughly translates to “nipple” or “teat.” These swollen bulbs are usually seen wearing a crown of purple flowers, reminding you that even cacti want to be in Hawaii, not plopped in a terra cotta pot on your neighbor’s windowsill. They’ll stare at suburbs, but they’ll dream of blue oceans, the leap of a dolphin. You’ll be dreaming, too, and woken suddenly by traffic stirring in the streets.

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3. The Discocactus belongs to your Brazilian and Bolivian friends, not to you, no matter how much you like to dance. The name actually comes from the Greek diskos because of the cactus' squatty, disc-like appearance. This plant often sports a parachute of a large white flower, but it always seems to stay grounded. You feel like digging it out of its plot and delivering it personally to its colorfully warm, native land. That way, you both could breathe fresher air.


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4. Peyote cacti are the surefire way to get to a place—any place—other than where you are. The spineless boulders look more like moss-covered pumpkins than cacti. You heard stories about these ones from your older brother. Chew on their button-shaped seeds or soak them in hot water for a trip to Jupiter. Drink too much juice, though, and you’ll find yourself riding the slow pony through the rubber forest. But even then, would that be the worst thing? At least you’d be traveling.


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5. The football-shaped Echinopsis goes by a slew of other names: hedgehog cactus, sea-urchin cactus, Easter lily cactus. Don’t be surprised to see six-inch flowers tinted with magenta sprouting from these prickly, pint-sized pods. These plants try harder than you do in creating their own oasis—giant, flowering fans like palm trees transporting them to brighter vistas. You want to be more like them; they know how to make the most of gray skies.

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6. The genus opuntia, commonly recognized as the brittle, paddle-jointed prickly pear, stretches its spine from Canada to the pampean loess of South America. On its journey, it stops in your backyard in Austin, Texas. Its juice, which runs through it like green blood, freezes overnight, causing it to droop its gloomy head by the fence—stuck and solemn, as if it knows you.

As if it really knows you.