Cacti: The Silent Stars of the West

An example of lively non-fiction

by Wendy St Germain

This article is reprinted with permission from the High Chaparral Newsletter, to accompany Wendy St. Germain's article on Writing Lively Non-Fiction.

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Cacti: The Silent Stars of the West

The West wouldn't be 'The West' without them. There are nearly 2,000 species of cactus the world over and all are believed to have originated in the Americas. Very few people haven't seen a cactus at least once in their lives. OK, we'll give the more isolated Eskimos and Rainforest people a break since neither of those environments is cactus territory. Other than that, pretty much everyone has seen one.

The cactus species you most probably associate with the west are the saguaro and the barrel. Some fans won't need to be told that the Cannon ranch was originally going to be named Saguaro after this plant. The fact that many people at the studio where High Chaparral was filmed weren't even sure how to pronounce the word was one reason it was abandoned -- and with it, the humble cactus' shot at stardom. Well, maybe not stardom since, as I understand it, none have ever successfully learned to act but at least some degree of recognition. And so, they continue their lifelong roles as silent, but prickly, sentries dotting the magnificent desert landscapes of our favourite westerns.

This piece aims to give the cactus family its five minutes of fame. Let's start by clearing the air about how John Cannon and the rest of the cast would have pronounced the elusive word Saguaro to begin with. My research suggests that most English speaking people would say sa-gwa-ro. Say each of the three syllables separately. Don't say sag-wa though or sag-you-war-oh! John would not have said that. It's sa (rhymes with ma), then gwa then ro (this last bit pronounced like row). If English isn't your first language you might say sa-wa-ro. I confess, I'm torn between the two names; High Chaparral versus Saguaro. I can well imagine John Cannon, with his wonderful baritone voice saying, 'Welcome to Saguaro!' Not that I have any issues with HC, but I digress...

The saguaro cactus is also called The Giant Cactus and for good reason. Every outdoor scene on HC has them.  It is an 'arborescent' cactus. Arborescent means resembling a tree or treelike. A champion specimen in Arizona reached a height of nearly 14 metres (45 feet) with a girth of over 3 m (10 ft) so it's easy to see how it gets both its giant and treelike names. Wouldn't that one have looked wonderful outside the Cannon ranch! Saguaro is a long lived species, some of which have exceeded 150 years old.

I developed a whole new respect for them when I learned that a side arm can take up to 75 years to grow. They will grow a bit faster with more rain but even in ideal conditions they're still very slow to gain those arms. It's not impossible that there exist today among those we see, true pensioners that were only tiny during the late 1800's (though we're probably pushing it but it's not impossible). The major pollinator for the saguaro is the bat so you won't be surprised to learn that its flowers open at night, when bats are most active.

Another cactus that features in High Chaparral is the barrel cactus. It's a much smaller cactus, averaging about a metre high (3 ft). It's recognizable by its barrel shape and pronounced accordion-like 'ribs'. It has a lifespan of 50-100 years. The Seri Indians (from the Mexican state of Sonori) recognize three species of barrel cactus; saguaro barrel, big barrel and true barrel. The true barrel is also commonly called 'The Killer Barrel' as a warning against ingesting any part of it. It is sometimes called the Compass Cactus because it points toward the south to reduce the effects of sunburn.

Have you seen the Survival episode of High Chaparral? If so, you will recall that John and Blue ate the pulp from a barrel cactus and later Blue complained of 'sour stomach' as a result, but thought their Apache captive could survive on it for days without suffering ill effects. For me, this mystery needed some investigation! How could one man be fine while another suffered?

My first question was, is there something poisonous about the barrel cactus or was it just a coincidence that Blue felt sick? The Seri name of Killer Barrel was a giveaway. Sure enough, red is often a warning colour in nature and this red-flowering cactus is no exception. Indeed, people are warned against eating any red-flowered cactus (and you would need to check with experts before tasting the others).

The pulp of the barrel cactus contains crystals of oxalic acid. Consequently, the liquid also contains it. Oxalic acid is an alkaline substance used as a bleach. Not surprisingly, it's poisonous if taken in excess. While many fruits and vegetables contain trace amounts of oxalic acid, the barrel cactus contains more than is good for anyone.

It appears that taken in very small amounts and with food in the stomach, the effects of the toxin can be reduced. This leaves us with the possibility that the Apaches, wise in the ways of the desert, knew that one must have something in their stomach and take only the smallest possible amount to quench the thirst. Meanwhile, John and Blue weren't aware of this. Blue might have ingested too much and on an empty stomach. That would certainly explain what we see in the episode.

Nonetheless, most learned people will agree that it's a bad idea to ingest any barrel pulp or liquid at all. This is something the Seri, and no doubt other Indians have known for a long time. Symptoms of eating this species of cactus include nausea, diarrhoea, body aches, difficulty or complete inability to move or walk, nosebleeds and red, burning eyes among other things. With this in mind, I'd say John and Blue got off easy!

For those with a botanical interest, the scientific names for the Saguaro species discussed in this article are:

The Giant Cactus - Carnegiea gigantea
Saguaro barrel cactus: Ferocactus acanthodes
Big Barrel cactus: F. Covillei
True Barrel Cactus: F wislizenii

Welcome to Wendy St. Germain, the author of this article. Wendy St. Germain is an xperienced writer and co-author of many titles. A Science graduate from Sydney's prestigious Macquarie University, she specializes in Zoology & Genetics with a particular interest in the rehabilitation of large, captive carnivores. She has written nearly three dozen non-fiction books, most of which are science texts, independently or co-authoring with highly respected biochemist, Peter Gribben. read more...Copyright (C) 2007 High Chaparral Newsletter All rights reserved.  

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