Our Instagram-Fueled Cactus Fetish Is Destroying The Desert. What You Need To Know

March 1, 2019

Sometime in the last 5 years, our adoration of the humble cactus has taken the world by storm. Those prickly little (or sometimes very large) succas offer a certain kind of charm that has us wanting to adorn our homes with everything from bed linen to wall art boasting desertlife medleys. Whether it’s a prickly pear print smiling up at you with a cute, expressive face or something more sophisticated like living rocks at sunset, long gone are the days when one lonely, little cactus on your bathroom windowsill would suffice. These days, we gotta catch em all.

I feel it’s appropriate for me of all people to discuss this topic, because I have had quite the love affair over the years and am a self-confessed crazy plant lady. Of actual real life plants, but also prints, tupperware, patches for my denim—you name it, I’ve likely dabbled. Those who know me well know that plants are my very favorite gift to receive, because they brighten up a space like nothing else. The gifts that keep on giving, they literally breathe life into our surroundings. Plus, it’s an exercise in mindfulness remembering to take care of that little life form on your desk or dresser.

Only, it saddens my heart (and I’m sure it will yours too) to share some troubling news that has recently crossed my radar. There’s a crisis on our hands that we’re fueling with our cactus obsession. And it’s one that people like me have an obligation to discuss because we are quite literally killing them with love.

Let’s backtrack a minute to recall what we’ve always known about cacti: they’re hardy. It’s how they withstand such harsh desert conditions, after all. So, if they can handle prolonged periods of bone-dry earth, surely they can keep on photosynthesizing when we (the irresponsible, forgetful humans that we are) go a little longer than we ought to between waterings. A cactus is the ultimate low-maintenance plant if you find a sunny spot for it that’s well ventilated.

It’s easy to see then the reason for its mass appeal. And as it becomes more and more trendy to adopt the bohemian chic, cactus-adorned wonderlands found everywhere from Pinterest to Instagram, we begin to see where this might be going, don’t we?

It’s important to question the provenance of everything we choose to consume, because funding businesses with ethical practices literally gives energy to a better kind of future for our planet. I know it isn’t always possible and transparency in supply chains is sadly few and far between, but it’s the trying that counts here.

One area that has come to light as having huge implications is the questionable beginnings of many of the cactuses that line our walls and porches. Cactus theft is ravaging the US southwest and unless we start questioning where our plants are sourced, we continue to fuel this crisis.

I was just in Arizona last month and venturing around Saguaro Park had me all kinds of crazy in love. The unique and fragile ecosystem that surrounds Tucson is a sight to behold and one it’s vital that we preserve. After all, the Sonoran Desert is the only place on earth where saguaros are found and once they’re gone, they’re gone. These towering beauties can grow over 40ft tall, live well over 150 years if undisturbed and take almost a century to grow their first picturesque sidearm. But as well as being glorious in their own right, they provide an important habitat for birds such as woodpeckers, sparrows and owls, not to mention an important source of nutrition for mule deer, bighorn sheep and jackrabbits.

Every saguaro is protected by the Arizona Department of Agriculture and a permit must be granted in order for any to be so much as moved (for example during the construction of a new property). It’s serious business trying to convince the D of A that your project is worthy of habitat disturbance—that’s how fragile the ecosystem is. So imagine the crisis on their hands when plants start going missing. Unaccounted for, vanishing in thin air with only hollowed earth remaining. There are people venturing out to the wild, wild west with dollar signs in their eyes: the theft of saguaros and other desert succulents for sale on the black market.

Guns, drugs and sex; these are the kinds of things one typically associates with the black market, but believe you me, cacti are in the mix too. In fact, the theft was becoming so common that saguaro park rangers began implanting microchips into these gentle giants in the hope of serving justice to those who dared to steal. These days, over 700 plants are chipped and rangers have eyes like hawks on the vegetation delicately colouring their landscape.

We are a part of the problem. You, me and anyone else who blindly buys plants without knowing full well where they were originally sourced. The truth of the matter is that the further away we are from a plant’s native habitat, the increased likelihood that something shady went on to get those plants to us, somewhere along the line. Sitting here in the UK looking around at my plethora of pots, many thousands of miles away from the dry dirt of the southwest, that thought leaves my heart heavy and stomach swirling with a concoction of guilt and shame.

As long as it’s trendy for us to stop by hipster cafés and Instagram their cactus-covered counters, or promote our #urbanjungles (or deserts) as the best kind of paradise to come home to everyday, we add fuel to the fire: demand in a dry, dry desert. Perhaps it’s time we start thinking local instead? Bringing some of what’s outside our doors inside and promoting their beauty, rather than only the most exotic. Just a thought.

This issue of plant theft isn’t reserved only for the deserts of the planet; tropical plants too are scavenged around the world and illegally transported to unethical greenhouses, from whence they make their way to a local plant store near you. The big difference is though, that the tropics are like the ovaries of the earth: extremely fertile. Things grow fast and furiously near the equator. In contrast, life in our deserts takes its sweet time, hence why the effects of plant theft in these parts are felt so intensely.

I know, I know, it’s a lot to think about these days: where your food comes from, who made your clothes, whether your cosmetics were tested on animals…No wonder we’re struggling with burn-out. But this is one that we cannot afford to miss. Next time the calling comes to add a new cactus to the shelf, I encourage you to pause and do your research. Ask nurseries for details on where the plants came from and consider something local instead where traceability is lacking. Your actions matter and so do mine, so let’s start doing things differently.

What do you think about the cactus crisis? What’s your favorite plant that’s local to you?

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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