It’s Not Gardening, It’s Cactomania


Calhoun cactus

Y'all please welcome Friend of Rant Scott Calhoun, author of a new book called The Gardener's Guide to Cactus. Read on for the chance to win not just a book, but an actual cactus. I have to say, this is a totally amazing and really fun book.  Gardening with surgical instruments?  Japanese plant smugglers?  Cacti that are so rare that the only remaining specimens wear metal tags in the wild?  Cacti bred by Luther Burbank?  Who knew? Oh, and after reading his book, I now know how to select a cactus that is seed-grown, not poached from the wild, except when poaching is a good thing,which involves conservations groups grabbing rare cacti from sites that are about to be strip-mined or drilled for oil.  There's a lot of international intrigue in this book, is what I'm saying.  But let's let Scott say it: 

 Why cactus?

I tend to specialize in horticultural lost causes, and cactus are the outcasts and misfits of the gardening world. While I was photographing gardens around the U.S. for my book, Designer Plant Combinations, it occurred to me that most home gardens contain exactly zero species of cactus. In my estimation, they are the most underrepresented group of plants in gardens, nurseries, and plant books.

As I stewed over this injustice, my own cactus collection expanded. I grew a species of pincushion whose flowers smell exactly like Lemon Pledge, and a prickly pear cactus whose fruit makes alluring magenta lemonade and margaritas. I added the totem pole, whose spineless skin looks like melted wax, and the feather cactus whose furry spines feel like the hair of a terrier. I became ensnared in a love affair with spiny plants. I caught, and still have, an STD (spine transmitted disease) called cactomania.

Snow leopard

An impressive pot of twin-spined pincushion (Mammillaria geminispina) growing with the wildflower sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii).

I began taking long dangerous trips into the Mexican backcountry with succulent plant explorers. I became acquainted with a vast subculture of spiny plant enthusiasts and cactus traders across the globe: a Bangkok peyote grower, a Tokyo executive who collects living rock cactus, and a young Czech organizing a Prague conference called “Spiny Perspectives”. I lusted after artisan made pots fashioned to resemble meteorites and sea creatures.


A display of otherworldly Mike Cone spiny pots and assorted cactus and succulents at Sticky Situation nursery.

Got Weirdness?

The gardens cactomaniacs cultivate are hardly traditional. Their plants are not potted, but rather “staged”. They plant cactus among knobby rocks to approximate their natural habitats and the most discerning collectors apply a final top-dressing of micro-gravel collected from special anthills whose locations they keep secret. As a final flourish, wildflower seeds from the same range of the staged species are sprinkled over the gravel. Many cactus species are exceptionally slow-growing and long-lived—some so much so that they will be passed down to the next generation. They more closely resemble sculptures set on plinths than plants. I’m not even sure if what cactus growers do with their plants can be called gardening, but don’t care because it is so weirdly beautiful! I’ve decided that weirdness is a greatly undervalued quality in gardens. In my horticultural pursuits, I aspire to high weirdness.


A grouping of the aptly named Bishop’s Cap cactus in a mid-century modern Vessel Pottery container.

Prickly and Tasty

The ethno-botanical history of cactus is deliciously culinary. It is full of marvelously tasty but strangely packaged fruit absent from the produce aisles of the First World: hedgehog cactus fruits are encased in a web of spines that magically fall off when the fruit is ripe, revealing a strawberry-like nugget; the whortleberry, whose grape-sized fruit has the acid-sweet zing of a cranberry-blueberry cross; the organ pipe, whose golf-ball sized gems are said to be the tastiest of all cactus. The organ pipe’s fruit are eaten fresh, and turned into wine by the native Seri in a wild bacchanalia celebrating their New Year. The organ pipe fruit, which is full of tiny seeds, is so prized that the Seri historically enjoyed it twice—picking through their own feces to reclaim the nutty high-fat seeds in a “second harvest.” This is not a practice I recommend for the home gardener, but to each his own.


The fruit of the dinner plate prickly pear is delicious and mysterious.

Kings of Xeriscape

And then there are the practical reasons for growing cactus. Cactus are the undisputed grand champions of drought tolerance. If climate doomsday scenarios prove true, neither watering restrictions nor hotter temperatures should prevent gardeners from planting cactus. When climatologists speak of desertification, I think, more cactus! As a person who is occasionally forced to live a life outside my garden, to hit the road and sell some books, I find it comforting to know that my cactus collection will be stoically enduring whatever the Mother Nature dishes out in my absence.

They are the ideal antidote to fussy perennials that wilt in a warm breeze or trees insistent on dropping their leaves around the yard. Cactus, on the other hand, are nearly perfectly clean, dropping almost no annoying leaf litter on your patio. They also require less watering than any kind of plant that isn’t plastic. When I walk by my cactus, they seem to say, “By the way old chap, would you mind giving me a sprinkle of water when you think of it, it is bloody hot out here. No rush, don’t trouble yourself, just next time you have a watering can at the ready.” Yes, my prickly ones speak to me with British accents. In fact, my cactus sound like Keith Richards.


To me, cactus are more masculine than any other plant group. Even those with stunning flowers (and there are many), avoid prissiness by arranging them in a snarl of thorns. The sort of frilliness associated with cottage gardens is nowhere to be seen in the cactus world. When garden clubs ask me to speak, they often say something like, “you can speak on any of your areas of expertise, but please, no cactus.” I usually sneak some cactus in anyway.


It is hard to get manlier than a Totem Pole cactus in front of a tangerine colored wall.

Beyond Ouch!

The pain factor is way overblown. With good gloves and a little technique, you hardly ever get poked. And when you do, it is just not a big deal. Take it from someone who is horrified by needles. In fact, the pain you share with your cactus may further endear you–a sort of horticultural Stockholm syndrome. You too may contract an STD in these intimate interactions with your plants, but the symptoms are largely manageable and not completely debilitating. Buy some long tweezers, a set of welding gloves (for the very prickliest species), and you are pretty well set. For small plants, regular gardening gloves work fine. You can also handle many species by their roots without gloves at all.

But I live in Zone 5?

Well, yes, you cannot grow as many species outdoors in the coldest parts of the country, but in a sunny windowsill, you can grow a host of potted cactus plants that you can bring onto the patio during the warm months. And if you want to grow cactus in the ground, there are a few hardy species to choose from. Consider the following: Potato cactus (Opuntia fragilis) is the most cold-hardy cactus and grows well into Canada. It is low growing, forming a mat of little round pads, blooms pink or yellow, and is hardy to Zone 1. Beehive cactus (Escobaria vivipera) grows from Mexico to southern Canada, and sports hot pink flowers and fruit with a strawberry-kiwi flavor. It is hardy to Zone 4b.

A Beehive cactus in all its pink glory near Denver, Colorado.

Obsession with spiny plants is not limited to the desert Southwest. Just ask the Oregon-based author of the Danger Garden blog, whose mantra is, “Nice plants are boring – my love is for plants that can hurt you.”

Okay!  We promised you some free stuff.  Any cactus-related comment will get you the possibility of winning Scott's book.  But wait, that's not all!  He'll send a purple fishnet prickly pear pad (or a more cold hardy species) to the reader who posts the most interesting cactus love tweet to his twitter account: @scottcalhoun.


  1. I must have a mild form of an STD, as that totem pole cactus is fabulous! How many of the warm-weather cactus (all the coolest ones are) will survive with minimal light in an unheated garage? My house has no useful south-facing windows for overwintering, but the garage seems to work for the couple of cactus I have right now.

    Looks like a great book for the collection!

  2. As a New Englander, whose suitcases come back packed with cacti and succulents whenever we visit southern CA, I can attest I can’t stop looking at this group of plants. So many textures and forms. Have to add! this book to my collection

  3. I live in zone 5 and thought there was absolutely no hope of growing cacti outdoors. I used to work at a greenhouse, and one day while tending to the prickly pear cacti we had on sale, I accidentally broke off a chunk. Feeling adventurous, I stuck it in my pocket and took it home, where I promptly realized that I had absolutely no idea what to do with such a thing. Despairingly, I tossed the little cactus chunk into the yard and forgot about it. A year later, imagine my shock to find, under the poppies which had begun to die down, that tiny prickly pear hanging on by a thread-like root, having not only survived the winter but also grown a couple new lobes. That was several years ago, and the tiny thing is still holding its own. You may not love them at first, but cacti are persistent. They’ll wait for you.

  4. You have some of the best looking and interesting photos of cactus online. In the higher regions of the southwest many of those cactuses will not survive the cold climate.

    The cold snaps we’ve had in the last couple of years have done much damage to some of these plants. I believe it has something to do with “climate change”.

    It would be a big shame to lose the natural beauty of the southwest.

  5. I ripped out my lawn a few years ago (front and back, with a spade. A spade.) and replaced it with a rock garden complete with cacti, succulents and other xeriscapy plants. Now I can head outside, and do my yardwork in the evening with a wine glass in hand. Try doing that while mowing!

  6. Alan: to treat the symptoms of your STD, give money to nurseries in exchange for cactus.
    Katherine: It sounds like you are in a high risk group. Watch yourself.
    Brent: You posted at 5:17am–it is a little early for cocktails–even for me and Ms. Stewart. If you come to GWA this fall though…
    Andrew: There are many cold hardy prickly pear and as you discovered, anybody can propagate them.
    Paul: Thanks for the kind words. Yes, the cold last year hit saguaros hard in AZ and killed Ferocactus near El Paso. It sucked. This year, no bad frost so far.
    ST: Rock gardeners rule. They almost always grow some cactus. Congrats on your conversion.

  7. Cacti arranged in a bowl may not seem like an obvious Valentine’s Day present, but my husband loved the one I did for him.

  8. I may switch from the benign succulents to prickly cacti simply because the deer won’t eat the prickly things. (they do love to graze on my succulents)This new book needs to be in my library!

  9. Loree: Thanks for going public with your “issues”. I’ll have to try your recipe.

    Deirdre: Wait, I didn’t get a cactus bowl for V-day? (Deirdre is my wife’s name too).

    Cheryl: Yes, come to the prickly side.

  10. Scott, I agree that the Totem Pole is awesome and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a place to buy one, but I can’t agree that a plant that looks like it has a hundred little breasts is very masculine. (Though, being enamored of such a plant may be very masculine.)

  11. Oh man, I need this book! Been wanting to add cacti to the plant collection for awhile, need to get started with this book.

  12. First with the chickens in the garden post and now with the cactus – is there a reason why my comments don’t post?

  13. Cacti bring back fond memories of working at a public garden and taking over the maintenance of the cactus garden. I learned how to get at weeds growing up in the cactus with a pair of stout gloves and good long dandelion digger. Only thing I did: love the low maintenance aspect.

  14. Oh darn ! I don’t tweet & won’t sign up just so I can win a prickly pear pad :(((( Maybe the book will tell me what I need to know.

    I’ve been contemplating where I might put a prickly pear in my garden, and which variety to place for a while now. See, Dear Hubby spent part of his childhood in Arizona & fell in love with prickly pear jelly. For a few years now, I’ve been foraging for the fruit from front yards of various homeowners to make the jelly for him, but the taste is never quite right. Suggestions on variety ? Where to purchase ? I live in CA so I’m hoping shipping these cacti here won’t be illegal.

  15. Laura Bell – lately I haven’t been seeing the no-robo-reply thingy. It allows me to preview and shows my comment and acts just like it always did in the past but nothing shows up.

    it didn’t show it for this comment either!

  16. I live right on the northernmost limit to the organ pipe’s natural range. They are beautiful, but I have not yet had the chance to try the fruit. We are still deciding where to plant our edible cacti…the local wildlife are rough on cacti (no one loves cacti more than the javelina that broke down the neighbor’s gate).

    @Laura: Prickly pear cacti have been selectively grown for fruit or for pads (nopales) for a long time. You might be picking fruit from cacti that are grown for their pads…or ones that are ornamental varieties.

  17. I’ll comment again from my home computer and see if this time it will show up.

    I have the ultimate prickly pear cactus – just your basic looking mound of pads but when it blooms each flower changes color depending on its age, going from bright yellow to dark pink in four days. Since all the flowers open at different times on different days the overall effect is a multicolored mass. I have no idea which species it is and it doesn’t matter, I’ve grown it for over 20 years and have no desire to stop.

  18. Michelle: Well, I suppose…:) I’ve never looked at a totem pole as “a hundred little breasts” but I suspect I’ll never be able to *not* look at it that way now:)

    Laura: The variety of prickly pear most often used to make, jelly, syrup, etc. is Opuntia engelmannii. It is everywhere in central/southern AZ.

    Ian: Love your blog treatise on cactus and I’m glad to find your blog. I too wonder why people categorically ignore this large and diverse family.

    Niko: Bravo. Enjoy your prickly growing and eating.

    Kathleen: Where do you live, it must be close to me? Are you in Ajo? Did you know that they found an organ pipe growing in the Tucson Mountains last year? I suspect someone planted it there.

    John: It sounds like a great prickly pear. Do you know Timberline Gardens in CO? Kelly Grummons there does a lot of prickly pear breeding there and might be interested in your plant.

  19. I can’t wait to read your book! I garden in Michigan in a Zone 5-no wait-Zone 6a garden, according to the new USDA map, and have an opuntia. Actually, I have 2, and they are growing in hypertufa troughs. I never knew they had horrible spines until a little girl touched one at my daughter’s graduation party. She cried so hard, and I felt so bad. I touched it, too, because I was sure there were no spines. I found out very quickly that those little spines hurt and are easy to get out-with a magnifying glass and tweezers! Yikes! I garden around the troughs now. Very far around. The weeds can grow through them and will be undisturbed by me.

  20. True, cacti sure are very persistent. I am keeping some in my garden and they have been there without me noticing them sometimes. When guests come to my garden, sometimes they would tell me, “oh, i didn’t know you have a cactus in your garden.” and that’s the time i would remember them. They really just don’t require that much maintenance and I’m glad my guests love them. It was a nice change for typical gardens.
    I have found this website where you could find great gardening tips for those who would like to start taking care of a cactus or have their own garden.

  21. I live in New England and I have many indoor potted cacti. I had no idea there were cold hardy cultivars! I want them and I want this book!

  22. Craig, there are for sure some plants you can grow outside.

    Deirdre: We must be googlegangers.

    Andre: There are around 2500.

    Nancy: Beautiful, I think it is Echinopsis x ‘LA’

  23. As a professional gardener who kills every houseplant I’ve ever owned because of a stubborn refusal to water, I think this book may be a breakthrough for me.

  24. Having just moved from Maryland to Florida, I’m looking forward to expanding my cacti/succulent collection. Love these plants! This book would be a fabulous addition to my library!

  25. I think we all remember our first run-in with a cactus. I know I do. I’ve respected them ever since, but only recently had any interest in growing them. (I know, me of all people.) It’s their exquisite geometry that seduced me, and even those with pads are gorgeous–especially purple Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ which graces gardens all over your area (Tucson). And when it sends forth satiny yellow flowers, OMG.

    Btw, I have a great shot of a chic-looking member of the garden-club set holding a soccer-ball-sized golden barrel cactus. She’s wearing tough gloves and cradling it in newspaper in preparation for transplanting. When I show the photo at my presentations, I ask, “If she can do it, why not you?”

  26. ‘They’ say that women love succulents, and men love cacti. ‘I’ say, would you rather be poked, or succ(ed)? Nonetheless, I’d settle for a nice cactus, which I would promptly give to my DH.

  27. I will be adding this book to my collection for sure! Great article on some of my favorite prickly friends! I am with you the weirder the better! I will be adding this link to my Facebook page Sweetstuff’s Sassy Succulents and will add the book to my reading list! Awesome, can’t wait to read! I should do a blog post on that idea too hmmmmm great idea!

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