Nature writer Matt Collins explores how cacti have adapted to survive in the desert...
The will to survive is ubiquitous in nature. It is the narrative of wildlife documentaries, the emphasis of nature publications and the concern of a great many organisations charged with conserving the natural world. The means by which any living organism maintains its place on earth is profoundly intriguing – an insight into the diverse mechanics of ecologies often still beyond our understanding. The raw elements of survival, be it the communal ingenuity of a wolf pack or the shifting colours of a chameleon, continue to enthral because, as creatures of the earth ourselves, the subject is unavoidably relatable.
In the plant world it is survival, not prettiness, which endears me to cacti. Ultimately all plants are the embodiment of adaptation, but the physical armaments of survival are displayed so particularly garishly in cacti that it is hard not to admire them. (Or to anthropomorphise: no plant or flower proclaims more assertively, ‘do not bother me, I am growing here’, than the bulbous, needle-clad stems of cacti). Exposure to the elements is the driving force behind their uncharismatic composition: a pleated, expanding skin maximises water storage to tackle drought, while a substitution of narrow spines for leaves lessens transpiration under a blazing sun. The spines, of course, serve a second defence – warding off desert inhabitants enquiring of their succulence. Many cacti also possess a finer set of surface needles known as ‘glochids’, the tips of which are barbed so as to embed in the skin of an attacker. However, the physical ungainliness is not without moments of striking beauty – cacti possess some of the most vibrant of flowers – it’s just that many of them are either inconspicuously small or short lived. On the other hand, species of Echinopsis, like the south American Echinopsis oxygona, produce stunning pink and white flowers with pointed, multi-layered petals, often dwarfing the body of the plant itself when fully open.
The vast majority of the world’s Cactaceae family are native to the Americas, found in profusion in the south-western United States. The region’s dry and mountainous terrain is home to some of the more familiar forms: peyotes, barrels and prickly pears, for example, and perhaps most iconic of all, the saguaro. This tall, multi-limbed figure is the pinup of the cinematic Wild West – so emblematic of the arid landscape that early filmmakers would famously ship the plant on set to dress locations far outside its native Arizona. But it is to the Sonoran Desert – the glorious area where many of the photographs in this book were shot – that the saguaro belongs and where examples over 12 metres tall can be found. The thriving city of Tucson – featured in the Spring chapter in this book – is situated to the east of the Sonoran footprint, and the surrounding hills are crammed with the silhouettes of giant saguaros. They are the upper storey of this landscape, its particular version of trees, complete with resident woodpeckers that bore nests into their trunks.
Though the saguaros of America feel a long way from temperate, urban Britain, cacti have never been so popular here as they are now. The trend for succulents has extended to their prickly cousins – purchasable from even the most unlikely of high street shops. However, our perception of a plant will be rewarded by an awareness of its origin, always offering a better understanding of its basic housing requirements. But more than this, provenance attributes reason to strange or defensive physicality, the peculiarities of which become something to admire. After all, what is a windowsill to a survivor of the desert?
Words by Matt Collins