The prickly pear cactus is in full bloom in our desert. This hardy plant fends well in hard and good times. How an otherwise troublesome plant produces such a bloom of beauty will remain a mystery and an unexplained gift from God.
I did not realize it is a true native American plant and that it has been a pain underfoot and it’s paradoxical nature was noticed long before.
No sod, no sign, no cross nor stone,
But at his side a cactus green
Upheld its lances long and keen;
It stood in sacred sands alone,
Flat-palmed and fierce with lifted spears;
One bloom of crimson crowned its head,
A drop of blood, so bright, so red,
Yet redolent as roses’ tears.
— From “At the Grave of Walker”
by Joaquin Miller (1837?-1913)
Prosaic Prickly Pear
ew poets have yet been inspired by a cactus. Not that one or two haven’t tried, such as the eccentric American “Poet of the Sierras,” Joaquin Miller. Walt Whitman gave the plant a brief nostalgic nod in his reflective “Longings for Home,” from Leaves of Grass. But Joyce Kilmer never claimed to have seen a poem as lovely as a pricklypear. The ancient bards didn’t even have a chance at it, for all members of the large family of plants now known as Cactaceæ (kak-TAY-see-eye) are native strictly to the Americas, and had never been seen in any other part of the world until Columbus returned to Portugal with some samples after his second voyage to the West Indies. Soon thereafter, explorers and other travelers began to nurse more specimens of the prickley curiosity across the Atlantic to Euro-pean gardeners who had the patience to learn how to keep them alive in a cooler and wetter climate.
Nature’s Prickly Paradox
lthough Meriwether Lewis had nothing good to say about either the mosquito or the eye-gnat, he cheerfully recognized one of nature’s supreme paradoxes: the delicate flower that is all the more pleasing to behold because of its incongruous berth amid the defensive armament of a cactus. For Lewis it was a symbolic juxtaposition of pleasure and pain, of delight and repulsion. “The prickly pear is now in full blume,” he wrote on a mild early-summer day in 1805, “and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains.”
Otherwise, the nearly three dozen journal references to prickly pear consist mainly of complaints, now and then providing some insights into the measure of the plant’s pest-factor. Lewis, while making his first reconnaissance up Maria’s River on 4 June 1805, found the prickly pears “so numerous that it required one half of the traveler’s attention to avoid them.” Above the big Gates of the Mountains on 18 July of that year, Sgt. Ordway observed that “the prickley pears are So thick we scarsely could find room to camp without being on them.” While proceeding overland west of the Missouri in a premature hope of meeting some Shoshone Indians, Clark complained that besides the “musqutors” being “verry troublsom,” his feet were “constantly Stuck full Prickley pear thorns” despite having double-soled his moccasins. That night by the light of his campfire he pulled out 17 of those “bryers.” which prompted Lewis to try another expedient: “I have guarded or reather fortifyed my feet against them by soaling my mockersons with the hide of the buffaloe in parchment.”