Visitors to the desert worry about encountering rattlesnakes, scorpions, killer bees, and other formidable creatures, but in my experience it’s the plants that’ll get you. The defensive arsenal employed by much of our perennial and woody flora includes a wide variety of spines, thorns, and chemical defenses. Though these are aimed mostly at discouraging herbivores, they don’t discriminate between the mouth of a Mule Deer or Javelina and the skin of a human being.
I recently had the most painful encounter of my life with one of my prickly desert neighbors, and (not surprisingly) it was entirely my fault. One night at about 11 p.m., our dog started giving her Javelina bark. Usually I ignore these alerts, but this one was followed by the clatter of pig-like snouts tipping the metal trash can where we store our bird seed.
A short burst from the garden hose scattered the nearest members of the herd, but in the dim light from the porch I could see several other Javelinas snuffling obliviously around the feeder area. I charged down the steps, grabbing a leaf rake on the way, and rushed the marauders. Most bolted away, grunting and squealing in alarm, but one found itself trapped behind a bush and tried to butt its way through the picket fence. Hoping to give the critter good reason to avoid our yard in the future, I swung the leaf rake toward its hindquarters. The rake missed, but my hands connected with a Tree Cholla (Opuntia [Cylindropuntia] imbricata).
Chollas are cousins of the prickly pears, but with narrow cylindrical stems instead of broad, flat pads. They’re among the prickliest of all our cacti, with dense clusters of long spines protecting their succulent flesh. The impact drove a number of these spines deep into my hands.
I dropped the rake and hurried back into the house for first aid. The right hand took the worst of it and was positively bristling along its pinky side. Let me tell you, the spines hurt much worse coming out than going in. Their surfaces are covered with backward-pointing scales, making them more like porcupine quills than rose thorns. It takes some force (plus pain and blood loss) to extract the larger ones from the skin. This tenacity enhances the secondary function of the spines, which is to aid vegetative reproduction by attaching stem sections, or joints, to passing animals. Once separated from the mother plant, each cholla joint can take root and form a whole new clone. I suppose I was lucky not to come away with big chunks of cholla attached to my hand instead of a few dozen spines.
This particular cholla was a tiny seedling when we moved into our house 15 years ago, and the only member of its species inside the fenced portion of our property. Chollas are popular nesting sites for Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wrens and produce gorgeous flowers, so I kept putting off moving it to a safer location outside the fence. No more. As soon as my hands heal, I’ll carefully transport the mother plant and all its loose joints to a new home where we won’t cross paths in the dark of night. —SW