Clinging cactus leads to nagging question: Are they spreading?

By Jayson Jacoby March 01, 2010 12:13 pm

I bear no particular grudge against the cactus. In fact I have an affinity for many succulents.

What I dislike, though, is believing, for even an instant, that I have been bitten by a rattlesnake.

Especially when I haven’t been.

And a prickly pear cactus can put on a pretty convincing performance as a rattler.

Which is impressive, considering the cactus lacks all the characteristics that define the serpent, most notably fangs.

Also, a cactus can’t move.

But then a cactus doesn’t need to move, because, much like a kid whose older sibling drives a car that their parents pay for, it can always catch a lift.

On my boot, in the case of the cactus if not the hypothetical whelp in the preceding paragraph.

No carless native New Yorker can hail a ride as effortlessly as a pad of prickly pear can.

The cactus’ spines have adhesive abilities that would make the chemists in a glue factory go green with jealousy.

After much experience, I’m not sure you even have to actually touch a prickly pear to take it on as a passenger.

If you get within a few inches a sort of magnetic field hauls it aboard, like a feather duster plucking cobwebs from a corner.

On a fine spring day about a dozen years ago I went hiking in the sage hills east of town, near Virtue Flat.

I was climbing a scabby slope just below a minor rimrock when a sharp pain, sudden as the stab from a hypodermic needle only worse because there was no nurse standing beside me, lanced my ankle.

I leaped, probably doubling my previous personal record for vertical distance. Possibly I could have dunked. Except I rarely bring a basketball when I go hiking, hoops being uncommon in the backcountry.

I’m sure I looked silly.

I wish I had set up a video camera to record the episode; I might have won some cash by mailing the tape to one of those funniest videos programs.

Except I wasn’t, at the time, amused.

I was in fact terrified.

I thought a rattler had struck, and further that its venom was right then coursing through my blood and preparing to wreak havoc on my nervous system.

It seemed not only a plausible explanation — it was as I mentioned a balmy day, ideal for a snake to get some heat in its blood after the long winter — but really the only logical reason for such an immediate and piercing pain.

I looked down, and confusion replaced terror.

A spike-studded object was stuck on my boot. It looked rather like the head of a miniature mace. But I was pretty certain no diminutive medieval ruffians were lurking about, waiting to waylay me.

After a few bemused moments I recognized the thing as a prickly pear, or part of one.

I knew that this cactus, one of two native species common in Oregon, grew in our arid part of the state.

But as I hadn’t yet come across any, I was surprised to wind up with a nice specimen impaling my ankle.

I reached down to yank the cactus free.

I failed, and came away with a pinprick in my index finger for my trouble.

In the years since that day I have endured many similar encounters, and as a result have honed my ability to see cactus, much like a soldier who learns to recognize the subtlest sign of an ambush or booby trap.

Even so I end up, more often than not, having to extract at least one prickly pear from my boot or pantleg during a hike.

This happens in part because our local cacti are the antithesis of showboats like the saguaro, which grow as tall as trees and so are easy to avoid unless it’s dark or you’re addled by drink.

By contrast, the prickly pear pads I’ve seen rarely are bigger than a golf ball, and they tend to hunker beneath a rock or a sagebrush.

(Which, come to think of it, is what actual golf balls tend to do when I slice a driver off the tee or skull a short iron from the fairway. And I often do.)

About the only reliable countermeasure I’ve devised is to avoid when possible the south-facing, thin-soiled slopes and stony plateaus which the cactus prefer.

Unfortunately there is an abundance of thin-soiled slopes and stony plateaus around here.

After that first encounter I figured the cactus had always been there, but I just never noticed.

Except that explanation seemed flimsy.

I had hiked the same ground before with no painful interludes; in any case I’m certain I would not have overlooked a cactus attached to any part of my body.

I’ve brought home much smaller, but similarly tenacious, hitchhikers — ticks, to name an especially aggravating example — and I’ve never failed to notice those.

And although I’ve hardly conducted a scientific study (doing so would be problematic anyway, since I’m neither a scientist nor much of a studier), it seems to me that prickly pear have become more prevalent in certain parts of Baker County over the past decade or so.

Since I’m aware of my utter ignorance in such matters, I put the question to Clair Button, a retired BLM botanist.

Clair said it’s possible that the cactus could multiply, to a noticeable degree, over small areas during such a relatively short period.

Figuring out what caused such a trend, however, is a vastly more complicated endeavor, he said.

I was afraid he would say that.

Suffice it to say that my experience — traipsing around, prying a prickly pear from my sweatpants on occasion — ranks about as far from peer-reviewed research as you can get.

Still and all, I’m curious. 

One of my ideas (I’m not so haughty as to call it a hypothesis and thus saddle it with the expectation of an actual answer) is that the county’s climate has changed so as to favor species such as cactus which thrive on aridity.

Statistics seem to lend a bit of credence to that notion.

The decade just ended, 2000-09, was the driest around here in at least half a century.

The average yearly precipitation total during the decade, measured at the Baker City Municipal Airport, was 9.16 inches.

That undercuts by half an inch per year the previous drought champion decade — 1990-99, when the yearly average was 9.66 inches.

The prior two decades were significantly more moist: the 1980-89 average was 11.44; and 1970-79 was 10.37.

The overall average for the airport’s entire measuring period, which starts in 1943, is 10.13 inches per year.

That’s a lot of numbers.

And I have no idea what they mean, if anything, as regards the possible proliferation of prickly pear cactus.

What I can say, though, is that if drought means more cactus, then I might have to reconsider my attitude the next time I whine about how I want to go for a hike except that it’s pouring out there.

Water, after all, just rolls off my rain gear, benign as bathwater.

Cactus cling.

And bite, after a fashion.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.