Monday, January 23, 2012

cholla awol

My front-yard bed of (mostly*) cactus and succulents is a conversation piece. Neighbors stop by to ask the names of plants or compliment a blossom. Last spring's long-lasting crown of yellow flowers on a small red barrel cactus (no more than 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches in height) was especially popular, and I have high hopes for two barrels that are even smaller.

Sometimes a passerby is especially knowledgeable about cacti and succulents, and this brings about a virtual garden club meeting. It was on one of these occasions that a charming young man offered me a start of cholla (the Spanish name is pronounced CHOY-yah). Cylindropuntia is the scientific name of this plant, native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S., known for its cylindrical stems and "papery epidermal sheaths on the spines." I was enthusiastically receptive to the new plant, which he delivered at least two months later. (In the interim, I realized, my new friend must have potted a cutting and waited for it to root.)

My tiny new cactus brings back memories of many visits to the huge natural stand of chollas at Joshua Tree National Park. This site is commonly called the 'Cholla Garden,' but I resist this designation since it implies a level of human intervention that does not occur in national parks. The aforementioned "papery epidermal sheaths" produce a rich glow and an extremely deceptive impression of softness when one views chollas from a distance -- which, of course, is the best way to view them since the spines are so sharp and so loosely connected with the stems that they seem to 'jump' through one's epidermis even if it's sheathed in heavy denim.

Late last fall, I mulched my cacti and succulents with a layer of shredded paper, mostly junk mail and preapproved credit card offers. The snowy effect was appropriate for holiday decor, but early in the new year I'd hidden it under a tasteful layer of brown leaves. Then I looked around for my beloved little cholla. I had a general idea of where I'd planted it. A barefoot walk-through, of course, would have revealed its location in no time. (Remember learning the term phyrric victory in junior high?)

Finally I recalled that I tend to surround tiny plants with a protective border of rocks. Furtively feeling for these through the leafy mulch, and knowing roughly how much room I'd have been likely to leave between the cholla and a colorful crassula, I was able to locate the plant and scrape back the surrounding mulch. It looks healthy, in spite of rainy-season moisture, and has an excellent chance of survival.

I predict that sometime next summer a charming young man will stop by and say, "Your cholla has done well to get through its first year." I'll thank him kindly and offer him a cutting of something else.
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*Gardenias, paper-white narcissi, sweet violets, and california poppies are notable exceptions, along with the lupine expected to return in spring. Nasturtiums are the tolerated weeds.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License