Cactus in Spots You Might Not Expect

Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis, in bloom.

Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis

The above picture was taken by me last week in Lillooet, BC. There were several large patches of yellow flowers by the road, easily enough to get my attention as a passenger. Their size and color indicated they were probably cactus flowers. I alerted the driver so we could go back, stop, and admire them.

Many are surprised to learn there is wild cactus growing in Canada; my fellow companions on that trip were amongst the surprised. Many are equally or more surprised to learn that the same species also grows wild in western Washington, in the most rain-shadowed areas of the Olympic Mountains. Here is a patch I saw near Sequim earlier this spring:

Opuntia fragilis growing near Sequim.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that cacti are found in either Lillooet or Sequim, as both locations are rain-shadowed. Lillooet in particular is known for being a dry spot, and being well inland often has just the sort of hot, dry summer conditions that cacti love. Plants don’t care about our preconceived biases or political boundaries; they grow wherever the environment is suitable for them.

The winters aren’t hot or dry, but this species is one of the hardiest and most northerly of cacti. It grows as far north as the Peace River Valley in northeastern BC, a region that can see temperatures colder than -40˚ in the winter.

Its common and scientific names point to how its pads easily become detached from the mother plant, their thorns embedding themselves in the fur, clothing, or skin of unwitting creatures that brush against them. When removed and discarded, they root and create new plants. In this trait, this prickly pear acts more like a cholla. That’s not a huge surprise, as the chollas (genus Cylindropuntia) and prickly pears are very closely related; for many years both were even lumped into the same genus.

Some of my own Opuntia fragilis are getting ready to bloom. I may be interested in plants, but unlike most who are, I’m not very good at gardening. This cactus was the answer to my question: “What could I plant in those window boxes (preferably a native plant) that I wouldn’t kill by forgetting to water or being away and not able to water?”

Those window boxes in question face south and are beneath eaves that serve to keep most rainfall out of them, the perfect micro-habitat for a sun-loving rain shadow plant like this. It felt a little odd dumping the nice potting soil out of them and replacing it with the gravely glacial till (of which I have plenty in my yard) that our local populations of this cactus prefer.

There Is No Shortage of High-Tech Workers

There is a shortage of decency in the high-tech industry.

I base both these assertions on my experiences at the symposium today, where I met not one but two other individuals in basically the same situation as I am. As long as the high-tech industry considers the following non-qualifications to be job requirements:,

  • Male,
  • Between the ages of twenty-five and fifty,
  • Thinks coding is the most fun thing in the universe,
  • Thinks coding is about the only truly fun thing in the universe, really, and
  • Outside of role-playing games, martial arts, and science fiction and fantasy fandom, thinks there’s basically little else of interest besides computers.

Then, yes, that industry will continue to suffer a “shortage” of “qualified” people.

Red Huckleberry Jam

I had planned on picking dewberries and blackcaps on the Toandos Peninsula last weekend. I know of a good spot for both there.

But fate intervened and ruled that option out, so I went to a revegetating clear cut where I have noticed a lot of berry plants before in the Green Mountain State Forest instead. That resulted in a different harvest, as most of the berries I found there were red huckleberries instead.

They’re a new one for me. Oh, I’ve snacked on them many times, but never set out to harvest them and bring a quantity home with me. The jam turned out great: I followed the “low sugar” recipe, using a tad more than the recommended amount of sugar because the berries are naturally tart. For the same reason, I opted not to add any lemon juice to the recipe, figuring there was plenty of natural acidity to set the pectin.

The result was tangy and flavorful, just like the berries it was made from.

Eating a Philodendron

Let me say, they are very tasty indeed. Best described as a mix of baobab and pineapple.

“What?!?” You say? “Philodendrons are poisonous house plants and are most certainly neither edible nor tasty, you moron!”

Not so fast. The common “cut-leaved philodendron” sold as a house plant, also called the “Swiss cheese plant” for the perforations in the large leaves of mature specimens, has the botanical name Monstera deliciosa. That name is a clue.

All parts of the plant are in fact poisonous and highly irritating… with the exception of the fully ripe fruit (unripe, even slightly unripe, fruit is poisonous). They’re also tropical and actually barely survive as a house plant, and need to thrive to bear flowers and fruit. That typically never happens unless they are planted outdoors, which would normally rule out Seattle as a place to ever get a fruit for one.

Enter the Volunteer Park Conservatory, which has a large mature one. Twenty-odd years ago, it was the first time I saw one ever in bloom. It’s still one of the few places I’ve ever seen flowers or fruits on one. Today I noticed one flower open, a bud or two, and lots of developing, unripe fruits. The latter got me thinking if anyone who worked at the Conservatory ever ate them.

And lo, there in the gift shop, sitting on a plate, was a ripe Monstera fruit giving off a most appetizing fragrance. So I helped myself to a few small bits, and it certainly does deserve the deliciosa moniker.

Visiting Roxhill “Bog”

At the headwaters of Longfellow Creek in West Seattle is what used to be an extensive peat bog. It was then partially mined for peat, filled, and turned into a park. Except that much of the park never was very successful, because it was still in a low area and its lawns tended to be mushy and squishy. Worse, there was still peat under all that fill, meaning the land had a tendency to subside.

So about 10 years ago, it was decided to try and bring the bog back, at least in the lower part of the park. Except that it’s no longer a coniferous forest in the surrounding area; it’s mostly lawns. Lawns that get a fair amount of lime and fertilizer dumped on them in order to keep them healthy.

Alas, what keeps a lawn healthy is the same thing that kills a bog. Bog plants can cope with extreme acidity and low nutrient levels just fine. What they cannot generally cope with is non-bog plants, because the latter grow faster and out-compete bog plants in non-bog environments.

And so it is that, ten years on, the “bog” is not really bog at all; it’s an open, marshy wetland in the process of evolving into a forested, swampy one.

Wetland (as opposed to bog-specific) plants were in general doing just fine. Swamp roses were growing in great profusion, and black cottonwoods and willows were volunteering everywhere. The Sitka spruces which had been planted generally looked very healthy.

However, most of the specific bog species plantings I found were sickly and barely surviving. There were a fair number of stunted bog laurel bushes, and an even smaller number of very sickly-looking Labrador tea shrubs. Hardly any of the bog sedges remained; invasive grasses had pretty much universally displaced them. Sweet gale was an exception to this rule; I saw a number of vigorously-growing, very healthy specimens, which had obviously spread significantly to form large clumps since they were planted.

It was, in total, less of a complete weed patch than I had expected. Perhaps there’s enough remaining bog acidity in the soil there to keep a damper on the worst of the weed overgrowth.

Sorry, but I don’t have any photos to accompany this article. I did have a camera with me, but I spaced and forgot to use it.