A couple weeks ago I received an e-mail from the owner of a very large and impressive prickly-pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii, that grew at a storefront a couple miles west of Sequim. This cactus was so large that it may in fact have been the largest outdoor cactus in western Washington in terms of both dimensions and sheer biomass. Every year it bloomed with beautiful large, orange-yellow flowers in June (sometimes July), and it never seemed to have any problems with our climate. It was ideally situated with a southeast exposure in a planting bed surrounded by pavement. It had been there for years, and no one I talked to seemed to remember when it was planted, or by whom (by the way, if you do happen to know, I’d love to hear the story!). It was so well known that it had been pictured in publications by Sunset, meteorologist Cliff Mass’ excellent book The Weather of the Pacific Northwest, and others. Basically it was a landmark that every gardener – anyone who pays attention, for that matter – in the Sequim area, and beyond, knew about. Does this sound like an exciting plant? Keep reading.
But now, it’s gone. The store had been vacant since September 2009, and owner informed me that the new tenant who was moving in wanted to get rid of it, so it would have to go. I told him I would take most of it, or as much as I could, but this turned out to be a much bigger task than I bargained for. I probably took 400 pieces and hardly made a dent in the thing.
I’m not sure when I first noticed this cactus – probably in 2001 or 2002 – but I have taken many pictures of it over the years and watched its development carefully. Here they are:
The first picture I took of this cactus seems to be this one from September 2003. It is already very impressive and starting to spill out of the planting bed.
Here’s a picture of it from May 2005, which I took from the other side. New growth – hundreds of new pads, it seems – and flower buds are just forming.
Then here’s a picture I took of it on the way to a February 2006 trip to Hurricane Ridge.
By 2008 we had moved to Sequim, and so I was keeping a closer eye on the cactus. Finally I had a chance to photograph it in bloom, though I didn’t quite capture it in its full splendor. At this time it is approaching 6′ tall, and perhaps 12′ wide, and you can’t even see the planting bed anymore!
Here are a few more shots from this same visit…
…including some close-ups of the flowers. I’m glad I got those when I had the chance!
Then in December 2008 Sequim had a snow heavy enough to give this cactus its first major setback. (It snowed more than that in November 2006, though, and I didn’t notice any problems resulting from that – so I’m not sure how to explain why 2008 was different. Perhaps the 2006 snow was drier and didn’t stick to the plant as much?) There was no major breakage that I could see, but the whole thing just sort of leaned over on itself, and didn’t really stand up very well again until new growth began in spring 2009. And even then it didn’t quite recover it’s 2008 height. The main effect of the snow was that, where there used to be hundreds of pads sticking out in every direction, now there were hundreds of pads compressed and hunched over onto each other with room for even more to grow from the top!!
I didn’t take any pictures of the cactus in 2009. So now we come to the dismantling process.
This is what it looked like in March 2010, although a few pads have been removed already. It doesn’t look like that big of a job, right? But all those pads from 2008 are still under there… buried under the ones you can see.
Here it is after I took – not kidding – more than 300 pads from it! It looks like I hardly made a dent at all. They’re just all piled on top of each other.
Here it is in its final days. At this point the landlord was sawing large pieces from it simply to expedite the process. But I couldn’t take it all.
The landlord was hoping the new tenant might tolerate leaving just the main stump behind to grow back. But it was not to be. (This might not have been a bad idea, since the cactus was getting quite overgrown and lost a lot of its form in the 2008 snow. It probably would have come back looking as sharp [pun intended] as ever!)
… and now it’s gone, planting bed and all. I wasn’t there to witness how this final stage was accomplished. At least that new door looks sharp.
So you’ve read this far, and perhaps it seems a shame to learn of the destruction of such a special plant. But there is certainly a bright side to this. During the process, lots of people stopped by the store and were given permission to collect pieces of the cactus. At the Sequim Garden Show I was giving them away (with purchase). At least one Sequim area nursery employee was there collecting cactus to sell later. And I have so many pieces that it would probably take me all summer to pot them up, if I were to keep them all for myself. I even saved some large pieces, in case someone wants to replant a large one someday in the same spot, or nearby. And if not, I’m sure I can use them somewhere else. So although the original plant is gone, the end result is that many more people now have this cactus – people who really want to grow it! Another positive point is that spring is a good time of year to take Opuntia cuttings. They root quickly and easily in the spring.
And I’m not done giving them away. They are FREE WITH PURCHASE* to anyone who reads these words. Just indicate on your order form that you would like a piece! (I’d hate to send one to somebody who doesn’t want one!) It is probably hardy to about -10°F, and would like excellent drainage and sun. Set the pad upright in the soil (or in a pot) and bury it about halfway. This offer is good until I pot all the rest of them up. I’m not worried about running out of them, but probably sometime in May I’ll have to finish getting them all potted up, at which point they will no longer be free with purchase.
*This means you have to buy something else from the Desert Northwest to get one. Thought I’d make sure that was really clear, because you never know…