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Oh Boy, Oh Boy, A Bunch of Cholla

In my continuing quest to learn what I can about my native desert, I have hit a couple of snags.

I recently learned that there are twenty-eight kinds of cholla cactus in Arizona. And then there is the problem of cactus blooms so vivid that their images set my printer on fire.

If you are familiar with cholla, you know that it rhymes with “Goya,” and you might agree that one variety would have been more than sufficient.

All during this glorious spring, I have taken photos of anything that blooms, and I have been trying to learn the names of whatever I shoot.

I’m working as fast as I can, because the desert is drying out, and temperatures are rising. The Hassayampa River, which has run continuously for half a year, screwing up my whole dry river schtick, is down to a trickle.

The late bloomers are putting on a show–saguaros, paloverde trees that light up the desert with blotches of gold, the smokey blooms of ironwood trees. Summer will soon clobber us, and nothing will bloom but lizards.

In my quest this spring, I bought new guidebooks, and dug out the ones I already owned. That includes one I helped edit in 1988 for Arizona Highways and the Desert Botanical Garden.

From that experience, I should have learned that you can’t take desert plants seriously (or cereusly, in the case of night-blooming cactus).

Plants are capricious, and guidebooks are arbitary, because the plants are capricious. Often, out of sheer cussedness, a live flower won’t look like the one in the book. Other times, identical blooms occur on different plants–just one of nature’s little pranks.

If it rains on November 16 instead of December 5, that affects which flowers will bloom in spring. A number of varieties appear faithfully every year, and this year they were spectacular.

Other seeds may lie in the ground for a quarter of a century, then decide to bloom because it rains on November 30, rather than November 29.

These are often tiny flowers, almost invisible to the naked trifocal. I was sitting on the ground beside U.S.60 the other day, taking a macro photo of a little blue flower.

A kindly woman driving by stopped to make sure I was okay. She said, “I thought you might have had a heart attack or something.”

No, just compulsive-obsessive disorder. I don’t find that little flower in any guidebook, which is not uncommon. It may be the 2006 model.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a little cholla.

My guidebooks tell me that two varieties, teddy bear cholla and chain fruit cholla, are “jumping cactus.” Segments of these cactus seem willing to leave their mother plants just to leap on you and stick you. Teddy bear cholla has always found me attractive.

The other day I was working my way around to the sunny side of a towering ocotillo, out south of Vulture Peak, so I could photograph the red blooms flying like flags at the tops of its stems.

I was being careful and stepping high, because the rattlesnakes are out. Two little balls of teddy bear cholla attacked, one on each boot. I was able to scrape them off against a steel fence post. They may take root and become new clumps of cholla.

If you were to walk through a forest of teddy bear cholla–I can’t imagine why you would–you might kick the little balls of cactus that had fallen to the ground. You would find that those which had not already taken root in the ground would become attached to your shoes.

Now, there are know-it-alls who say that the cactus does not really jump–you have to brush against it before it attaches itself to you.

I was being careful, and I would be willing to testify that the cactus jumped, if only an inch or so. My brother swears that one time when we were living in the little town of Dirt, Arizona, a particularly aggressive cholla chased him all the way home. You don’t ever want a cholla to know where you live.

The only excuse for the existence of cholla is its blossom. Cacti produce gorgeous flowers, and maybe that’s what God had in mind when he created cholla.

The photo on the left is the bloom of a teddy bear cholla. The bloom on the right may be from a staghorn cholla, or it may be from a buckhorn cholla. I can’t tell them apart.

This is not entirely my fault. A handy guide to cactus published by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association says I ought to be able to tell the difference between cane, buckhorn and staghorn cholla.

Then the book adds, “Unfortunately, these species tend to hybridize where their ranges overlap, so if you have trouble identifying one of these chollas, you may have come across one of these hybrids.”

Enough of cholla. I want to report one more thorn in my side before I give it up for the season.

In the cycle of desert life, most of the wildflowers had bloomed by the time the cactus started blooming.

The first cactus to flower was the beavertail prickly pear. It is said to be a cowardly cactus–that is to say, it appears to be spineless. But it has tiny, nasty fishhooks almost invisible against its flat paddles.

The color of its flower is so vivid that it bounces light into the camera like a magenta floodlight, and blows away details of the flower.

During days of frustration, I discovered that this was not because I was an inept photographer. In three books, I found pictures of the beavertail taken by professional photographers, including the renowned Josef Muench, and all had flared and wiped out the detail.

You can hear magenta echoing from clumps of beavertail. One knocked me to the ground and tried to steal my camera. When I tried to print a photo of a beavertail bloom, my printer smoked.

I took manual control of my point-and-shoot digital camera and screwed down the f-stop and ramped up the pixels. I manipulated the photos on the computer, but you can’t restore detail that was never there. My hard drive shrank under the glare.

I rejected the suggestion that I photograph the beavertail at night. The flowers close at night, and wandering around a cactus patch in the dark is not actuarily sound.

I was getting discouraged. Finally, I was able to photograph this beavertail,using a wool blanket for a lens filter.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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