WHY NOT CACTUS?
The car slowed. The occupant rolled down the window. “Hey,” he said, “I want you to know how much I enjoy your yard.” A few days later, a couple was walking by as I was retrieving the mail. They said, “We walk by every few days just to see what’s blooming.” I must be Mr. Green Thumb, spending my spare time and spare cash on flowers and lawn care products? Not at all! The compliments I received were for my cactus.
My wife and I moved to Western Colorado from Southern Arizona where grass in the front yard was practically considered sinful. Besides, growing grass takes a lot of time, trouble, money, and maintenance for most of the year. Unfortunately, our subdivision has an antiquated rule that a certain percentage of grass has to remain in the front yard. Our front yard is large, so with the minimum amount of grass, I still had a lot of space—to fill with cactus
The previous photos are of a claret cup (echinocereus triglochidiatus, v. melanocanthus). This particular plant has an interesting history. I mentioned in a previous blog (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/fewer-visitors-at-juco-this-year) that my wife is a descendent of a pioneer ranching family. In 1985, on what we suspected was our last visit to her Great Aunt and Uncle’s Northern Arizona ranch, I removed this plant from a small hill near the ranch house. The hill had been used by long-ago inhabitants as there was a small structure from piled juniper branches, several manos, a couple of metates, and many potshards.
The cactus thrived in our Grand Junction yard for a year---but then I was transferred to Missouri. What to do? We decided we would rather have the plant die in our care than live with someone who didn’t appreciate its history. I managed to dig it up and move it to our new home near Kansas City. The cactus rode in the car—taking precious space—but it was an important possession. Even with the humidity, extreme cold, and one month with 19-inches of rain; it survived. Perhaps, the plant suspected what our level of unhappiness would be, because within a year, I had found a new job permitting our return to Grand Junction. I dug it up again, and moved it back where it has thrived ever since. As someone who always enjoys and looks for cactus during frequent desert hikes, I have never found one of these in the wild nearly so large.
Most of my front yard is stocked with plants that cost me nothing. Their care requires no more than one morning per year except for a little weeding throughout the spring and summer. Yes, that one morning, when I trim and prune all the plants to a reasonable size; I typically have to endure a spine or two—but only when I’m careless.
[NOW AN IMPORTANT ASIDE: YOU ARE NOT FREE TO COLLECT CACTUS OFF OF PUBLIC LANDS. Collecting from Park Service Property is strictly prohibited. Similarly, on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, you should check with the local office for rules and regulations. Finally, it is important to know what plant you are taking. Wherever you are, don’t damage or remove a rare or endangered plant. Fortunately, as described below, often you don’t even need to remove plants.]
How did I accumulate my collection without buying any plants? Fortunately, I did have the ranch, from which I removed two varieties. I also had close friends from Southern Arizona who had cactus on their property. Where did the rest come from? Mostly from roadside ditches or vacant lots. And, here’s the other secret: most cactus are very easy to propagate—this goes for the opuntia varieties—known to most as the prickly pears and chollas. All you need is a single joint. You don’t even have to take very good care of it.
For example, I had business in Santa Fe. I noticed some tall cholla in a vacant lot. I had a Styrofoam coffee cup in my rental car. A quick stop. A whack of the cholla with a small stick released a bruised joint from one end. I scooped it into the coffee cup. A week or two later, I planted the joint in a small pot. (I often use cactus planting mix purchased at local nurseries.) Some weeks later, I could see new growth. Time to plant! I dug a nice hole. I always make sure that if the soil is clayey to use some cactus planting mix and gravel—and now, for more than a decade, this plant has provided me with beautiful purple flowers.
Cactus look good, and are easy to grow. Are they good for anything else? Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies visit the flowers. We have even used prickly pear fruits to make jam, and prickly-pear pads are used in many Mexican dishes. [The cactus varieties that grow the best in the Grand Valley, are not ideal for these uses, so, no, I haven’t done it often, but it was fun when my young daughter and I retrieved sufficient prickly pear fruits to make some tasty jelly.] Cactus are easy and inexpensive xeriscaping—give them a try!
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!