The color and variety of many cactus flowers could make your irises swoon, no pun intended. Cactus flowers are generally short-lived. They bloom in the desert, and they usually last only a day or two. Ever seen an epiphyllum? The jungle cactus, or orchid cactus, grows extravagant, ostentatious flowers in unbelievably rich colors. There's an epiphyllum collection at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido that'll take your eyes to a new spectrum. Orchids are okay, and roses carry pedigree, but if you ask me, cacti are the floral kings and queens of the plant world. To look at cacti is to see the imagination of evolution dramatically played out in audacious gestures. How did life come up with so many shapes? Cacti grow in buttons, angles, columns, cushions, cylinders, flat pads, pendants, globes, ovals, sprawls, tubers, pyramids, and treelike, shrublike, and rocklike forms. The names of cacti reveal the attempts to describe their incredible variety — prickly pear, rainbow cactus, crab cactus, barrel cactus, candelabra cactus, rat tail cactus, chain-link cactus. After reading a few dozen of these names, we might visualize gardens full of teddy bears, cucumbers, and mini spaceships. Among the thousands of varieties of cactus, we find a link to religious images and holidays: the Christmas cactus, Easter cactus, mission cactus, and bishop's cap. Many cactus enthusiasts make wreaths out of cacti and other succulents. In Native American societies, hallucinogenic cacti were used in holiday ceremonies. So, although corn takes Thanksgiving, the pine owns Christmas, and the pumpkin has Halloween, the cactus lands a spine or two in these holidays and more, which might make the cactus the Great Celebrant of the plant world.
For two days, the first weekend of every June, in room 101 of the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, dozens of vendors, thousands of hobbyists and scientists and the curious, and tens of thousands of very special plants unite.
The San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society's annual show and sale, which is free and open to the public, spills out of spacious room 101 -- potted cylinders and stars, planted pendants and pyramids -- and juts and sprawls into the inevitably sunny courtyard, a million spines and barbs and the loyal fans of the family Cactaceae.
The society meets monthly in the Casa del Prado. When I went to one of these get-togethers recently, I expected to see nine or ten botanists standing around talking about how to revive their sick pet cactus, "Spike." What I witnessed instead was a vibrant scene: 80 or 90 gardeners, horticulturists, collectors, plant photographers, and other enthusiasts milling through a collection of hundreds of thriving cacti with names like night-blooming cereus and red pitaya. There was a slide show about a trip one of the society members had taken to photograph and collect cactus in Argentina. There was passionate conversation, not to mention ample refreshments. And alongside the usual harmless geekiness that attends esoteric seminars and conferences, at the Cactus and Succulent Society meeting there was also that infectious eagerness that radiates from dedicated hobbyists.
Tom Knapik is a past president of the society who teaches math at Patrick Henry High School. He has a master's degree in botany. When I was introduced to Knapik in the Casa del Prado, he was deeply engaged in a conversation using Latin names and technical lingo. Thankfully, Knapik had no trouble toning it down to chat with me.
"Many collectors can tell you the moment they saw a special cactus for the first time," Knapik said, "that moment when it hit them, and they realized that this was something they wanted to grow in the future. For me, the moment was when I was visiting a friend up in Northern California, and his girlfriend was growing succulents in her attic, under a light. And she showed me these plants, and I went, 'Wow!' And that was it. That started it all. And literally my life has been altered in where I live, in the hobbies that I have, in the people that I've met, in the friends that I have, in the vacations I take: it's all been shaped by my interest in these really unique plants."
The plural for "cactus" is either "cacti," "cactuses," or "cactus." (Many of the collectors I talked to prefer "cactus" as the plural for cactus, kind of the way "sheep" is plural for sheep.) "Cactus" itself is a Latinized Greek word, hence the us ending and the fact that an i at the end can make the word plural. It's the same with those other great ancient Greeks and Romans: octopus, hippopotami, alumnus, nuclei, and syllabus. Which means the cactus is like the imperial Roman senator of the plant world.
"I think it's an underappreciated plant," Knapik said, "since we have cactus in our back yards and in our surrounding areas. People kind of take it for granted. This hobby is much bigger in places like Italy and England, probably because they don't have cacti growing in their back yards. The collectors in those countries are really passionate."
Cactus are not indigenous worldwide. They've been spread around the world by collectors, but, with one exception (Rhipsales baccifera), they developed in the Americas only. Many plants in Africa look like cacti but they're not, they're usually euphorbias (common name "spurges"). Cacti are native to 45 states in our country, all but Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Knapik told me, "European collectors have been caught with cactus filling their suitcases, and the plants sell for hundreds of dollars on the market over there. A lot of collectors here focus on buying only seed-grown or propagated plants, instead of collected plants, which is a good ethic to go by."
Then Knapik said, "Many of the top collectors in this area feel, in one sense, like we're preserving things that are sometimes close to extinction in the wild. We can produce seed from species that are extremely rare because of habitat destruction."
Cacti can be relatively pricey — especially if you want some specially bred variety -- but compared to orchids, for example, they're cheap. The most you might pay in San Diego for a rarer cactus would be about $80.