cholla cacti
As Rains Ease in the West, Cactuses Shine Brighter Than Ever
Never has there been a better time to appreciate the gritty, bizarre charm of these prickly natives.
By Natalie Angier

My photos of cacti (pencil cholla, silver cholla, beavertail cactus, grizzly cactus, hedgehog cactus, fishhook cactus, mojave mound cactus) in Joshua Tree National Park or in Quail Mountain area adjacent to the Park. (Photos by rjzimmerman taken on various dates in April 2017 in Joshua Tree National Park and vicinity.)


A cactus in bloom is pure poetry — particularly that famous line by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.”

In the desert here, the thick, spine-studded paddles of a beavertail cactus look as surly as always, ready to smack you into next week if you get within striking distance.

Yet now, in a superbloom spring that many judge the best in decades, the paddles are topped by dazzling fuchsia flowers the size of teacups, which beckon you closer to feast on the view.

The fish hook cactus lives up to its name, its surface covered with long, curved barbs and a snarl of fibrous hairs; but now it wears a festive garland of creamy white petals smartly trimmed in rouge. Keep away. Come closer.

You got a problem with that?

“If somebody had taken me from rural Illinois, where I grew up, and dropped me here into this desert landscape to see all these fat succulent things,” said Jon P. Rebman, the chief botanist at the San Diego Natural History Museum and a cactus taxonomist, “I would have thought I was on Mars.”

For Dr. Rebman and other researchers who study the cactus family, Cactaceae, the 20-grit charm and mulish creativity of their subjects are always compelling, whether the plants are flowering wildly in response to rain after a sustained drought, as happened this year in California and parts of the Southwest, or simply doing what cactuses do best, which is persist in some of the world’s most parched and hostile environments for decades or longer.