Desert Plants – Cacti, Date Palms, and Yuccas

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Ray Hahn

Desert Plants

Cacti, Date Palms, and Yuccas

I have no love for, nor dislike of cactus!
The “degree of care phrase,” benign neglect was defined the day, more than a quarter century ago, when I won a door prize at a long-ago forgotten faculty-social event. My prize was a small potted cactus. I’m unsure if anyone suggested that it matched my personality, but nevertheless, I kept it on my desk for the better part of three school years. It was watered only when I thought of it, which was seldom. It lived through two summer vacations; I don’t know why, and it was finally out of my life when I changed jobs. I always thought that cactus was the devil’s handiwork. Afterall, they grow best where it is hot as hell. Cacti are desert plants. We all know that, but not all deserts have long lists of desert plants. I have only seen five or six deserts, and none were destinations, I passed by or through those places to reach a destination. I would never dream of telling anyone I had a favorite desert. The Mohave in our American southwest is likely the desert with the most traffic, but the Sonoran in southwest Arizona is the most colorful with crowds of people visiting every day. The Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico and west Texas is the most arid and the Great Basin Desert in western Utah and northeast California is the only cold (and salty) desert in North America. The plants of the Great Basin are the most curious and unique because of the salt. The salt bush and other iodine brush survive as a result. I have also had the good fortune to see a couple hundred miles of the Sahara in northeast Africa. The Sahara reaches into at least four countries and is estimated to be well over three-million square miles. Unique in many ways, the Sahara, with its short list of desert plants throughout the entire desert, is truly a xeriscape to admire. The most notable exception is the African date palm tree. It is a member of the palm tree species, but it grows profusely, to as much as 100 feet tall, in climates that support cacti of all varieties.
African Date Palm trees within sight of the pyramids
Cactus varieties. Sources vary widely concerning the number of cactus varieties. The number 132 is often bandied about with names like Peruvian apple cactus that are frequently found for sale in Walmart Garden Centers, leading the list, to the Zebra Haworthia, which is native to the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. Cactus postcards. The only person I have known who collected postcards picturing cacti died several years ago. He had – perhaps 200 to 250 – cards, from the white-border era, through the linen days and well into the chromes of the 1960s and later. Each card seemed to be a fine example of the work done by Detroit Publishing, Curteich, and later by Petley. Here are some examples from that collection with bits of information that may be of interest. Saguaro is possibly the most recognized cactus and one of the few honored with a poem by a southwestern state poet laureate.
Giant of the desert How tall and straight you stand, With your arms outstretched to heaven, And your feet down in the sand! Your exterior is so hardened, And so thorny are your sides, ‘Tis no wonder you are lonely That no one with you abides. Yet, – beneath that hard rough surface Lies a heart, and not a boulder, For your arms are stretched to heaven, And birds rest upon your shoulder. In Spring you wear upon your head A crown of flowers gay, And in each of your hands you clasp A gold and white bouquet. I am not deceived, Saguaro, By your hard and thorny look; I can see beneath the surface And can read you like a book. So I wish you well, you giant, May you forever stand With your arms outstretched to heaven And your feet down in the sand. Ona M. Rollings
Golden Barrell Cactus
Cucumber or Hedgehog Cactus
Left: The Golden Barrel Cactus blooms each spring with a bright orange topknot. When the flowers die away a small green fruit is left behind. The fruit is hardy and has been known to last a year or more, but be cautious, the fruit is not one usually found on dessert menus. It is very dry and extremely bitter. Right: The Cucumber or Hedgehog Cactus has been called by at least five different names. It is a tiny little plant and seldom grows more than eight or nine inches tall. It is a popular plant with gardeners and was at one time a favorite of America’s First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Left: The Ocotillo or Coach Whip Cactus is peculiar to the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. During the spring and early summer red blooms appear. With the Ocotillo is the Cholla or Jumping Cactus is notorious since legend tells that when one gets near, the almost invisible needles seem to jump at you. And, that is not a pleasant experience. Right: Giant Faxona variety of the Yucca cactus. It is a cold hardy cactus that thrives in the higher elevations of the American west. Left: Beavertail Cactus or Prickly Pear Cactus. Right: Organ Pipe Cactus ranks among the larger cacti. It is native to southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico. It is one of the few succulent species that produces an eatable, sweet and fleshy fruit. In some parts of the country Organ Pipe Cactus are cultivated and planted in rows to form a hedge line. Some grow to be 15 to 20 feet tall.
For the gardener who likes cacti, the Spanish Bayonet is a tall and very nice contrast to ground hugging succulents. Often called Adam’s Needle, it is a species found in countries bordering the Atlantic and has become a naturalized plant in Western Europe and the eastern countries on the shores of the Mediterranean.
For the gardener who likes cacti, the Spanish Bayonet is a tall and very nice contrast to ground hugging succulents. Often called Adam’s Needle, it is a species found in countries bordering the Atlantic and has become a naturalized plant in Western Europe and the eastern countries on the shores of the Mediterranean.

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As an Arizonan I loved the article. I have several cacti cards myself.

The giant faxona isn’t the only cactus that tolerates the cold. I’ll attach a photo of a prickly pear cactus taken in my yard in central New York state.

Prickly pear.jpg

The most interesting cactus postcards in my collection are two which feature a variety of cacti with their names written alongside. The cards are essentially identical, except for the fact that the name of one species has been changed in the interest of political correctness.

Examples as these are buried by the dozens in antique mall dealer inventory in the SW. Teen era examples command a few bucks. Height comparison vs individuals captured in the image tell it all.

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