Fingernails, Cactus, Poppies


The other day I tried pulling out my thumbnail. I just yanked on it for a while but nothing happened. Nails don’t look like the stuff around them. Are they just stuck into our fingers? What makes them impossible to pull out? This is really starting to bother me and I need to know. Thank you.

— Anonymous, San Diego

I won’t ask what you were planning to do after you’d pulled out your thumbnail. I suspect you didn’t think ahead that far, but you might just keep that in mind the next time you consider trying. Nails might not look like the stuff around them, but they really are a version of skin. And a version of hair. In fact, your thumbnail is made of the same protein your hair is — keratin filaments. The first reason your thumb wanted to hang on to its nail is because the keratin filaments are growing out of deep skin cells. As they grow they become very dense and tangled and appear above skin level as dead, dried nail plate. So now we have your thumbnail connected to root cells behind the white “moon” at the base of the nail plate.

Maybe because they knew one day somebody like you would come along and try to pull them out, your nails are further attached to your nail bed (below the nail plate) and your nail fold, the skin around the sides and base of your nails. The fibers that connect your nails to the nail beds and folds are more flexible but just as tough as your nails.

But wait, there’s more. Not knowing how easily you’d give up on trying to pull your thumbnail out, your nails added one more layer of protection, just in case. Seems that your nail beds and roots grow right out of a whole layer of fibrous tissue surrounding the ends of your finger bones. So, in the end, when you yank on your thumbnail you’re actually yanking on your thumb bone. Just try and pull that out, Anonymous.

Hey, Matthew:

How long do cactuses live? They always look like they’ve been there forever.

— Wayne, San Diego

Yep. They just sorta sit there, it seems. Most only grow a few inches a year. But since they don’t have growth rings like trees, and nobody’s hung around one cactus year after year to see how it goes, most estimates are educated guesses, pretty much. Short life span is maybe 25 years. But consider the saguaro. That’s the typical cartoon cactus with the robot arms and sometimes a Mexican peasant leaning against it. Those puppies apparently have convinced botanists they can live from 150 to 300 years. Maybe somebody found Cortez’s initials carved in one. Montezuma. Somebody like that. Anyway, all bets are off if the cactus is in a plastic pot on your desk. That probably has a life expectancy of six months, tops. Not because it dies, but because you get sick of it and throw it out.


Not that I’m planning to go into business for myself, but I was curious whether you could make heroin from the poppies that people grow in their gardens around here. As I understand it, heroin starts out as poppies. And if poppies are poppies, why couldn’t people go out in their gardens to get their fix? Why do they have to crawl around bad neighborhoods looking for a connection? Not that I’m planning on going into business for myself.…

— Anonymous, somewhere out there

Well, keep it in mind, the way the economy’s going. Though you’ll have to move someplace else to set up your corporation, since the poppies we grow here are California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and the dazed-and-confused kind are opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). Heroin is extracted from the white sap of the big immature seed pod of the opium poppy, in case you need a recipe.

Matthew Alice:

Have you ever answered a question with only one word?

— John B, San Diego

What! Who? Me? Hah! Never.

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