September in southern California brings triple-digit temperatures that dry wild grasses to crisp stalks of tinder. The park rangers set the fire danger dial (which is never negative) to “extreme.” Sometimes the only green vegetation on the exposed hillsides consists of dark evergreen oaks and the pale lobes of the prickly pear. This cactus is sturdy and invasive and about as welcome as wasps wherever it grows, but think what a marvel it must have been to Europeans who had never seen a cactus before.
Early sixteenth-century German herbals focused on medicinal plants, particularly those that grew locally. But by the later sixteenth century they began to show new and exotic plants from the Americas whose medical value was not always obvious, like maize, tobacco, and the prickly pear. In 1582 Adam Lonitzer wrote, “Nothing is known of the power and benefit of this plant. Since it has come to us, here I have displayed its strangeness.”(1) Actually both the fruit and the lobes are edible – available in farmers markets and some grocery stores—and they have medicinal uses too, but without context the physician from Frankfurt am Main could only look at the specimen and guess.
One of the features that fascinated Lonitzer was how easily you could grow a whole plant from laying one lobe on some dirt. This cactus gives anyone a green thumb – and a sore one too, if you happen to touch it. We once had a huge plant on our patio grown from a single lobe, which occasionally presented us with a delicate flower and, apparently inspired by Audrey Two in “Little Shop of Horrors,” eventually took over the whole patio bench. Judging from Lonitzer’s picture, the same thing happened to him, and he was delighted.
Although the plants seem sturdy, cactus flowers have a brief fragile beauty, and when we have a rainy spring tourists come from all over to see them in bloom. And when they do, I am reminded of a family drive on an August afternoon in 1960 when we found cactus in an unexpected place.
The sign said “Jardin Exotique” and underneath, for tourists like us, “Exotic Garden.” My mom just had to see that garden. An afternoon drive along the corniche road between Nice and Monaco suddenly became a quest. We turned on to a country lane that spiraled up the hill through a village and seemed to go on forever. Just before we gave up, there it was. Exotic Garden. Mom, a California girl, felt cheated. “Why it’s just a bunch of cactus,” she said. My brother and I were just happy to get out of the car and run around the winding paths while my dad patiently tried to explain to anyone who would listen that in southern France a cactus probably was exotic.
I think I’ve had a soft spot for these prickly plants ever since.