A prickly tale from the Southwest.

Whenever man comes in intimate contact with succulent plants, strange changes take place in his mind. These changes are usually of an alarming nature and have at long last been recognized by some authorities as a most insidious disease. When the succulent plants happen to be cacti, the disorder is described as Cactomania and the victim is known as a Cactomaniac.

Now Cactomania, in spite of its potential seriousness, has been overshadowed by more glamorous ailments, such as carbuncle, seven-year itch, athletes' foot and bad breath. It is imperative that the early signs be recognized. Secret studies conducted in Switzerland, Germany and at the Cactus Ranchitos of Scottsdale have proven that Cactomania may be roughly classed as occurring in five progressive stages, of which only the first two are curable. The stages are as follows:

STAGE 1. A perfectly normal human being sees a cactus. He promptly becomes fascinated by this strange plant. He feels the spines and decides that he must have a cactus of his own ... and another ... then perhaps two for the road ... beside the house. This is the time for a compassionate friend to take matters into his own hands and sit down with this weird plant lover and tell him the facts of life. Get it through this person's head that he is playing with a loaded gun, a time bomb, a dangerous and potentially hazardous substance! Tell him to just say No!

But the Cactomaniac sends off for some plant catalogues: buys, begs, steals or collects more cacti and, by the end of just one month, purchases a book on the subject. This book tells him everything he ever wanted to know about his new found "spiny friends" and indeed, even broaches the kinky subject of asexual reproduction by offset. He learns how to keep his cacti happy and contented. He now has pots and dish-gardens filled to capacity with barrels, hedgehogs, prickly pears, snake-cactus, ruby dumplings, silver torches and snowball cactus, which all cause him great joy.

STAGE 2. The Cactomaniac now owns quite a large collection of plants which he proudly displays to anyone who will look and listen. He now haunts other collectors and botanical gardens, boring any and all with tales of his remarkable plants. He asks questions but doesn't seem to hear the answers. He has joined a club of similar individuals who all have equally remarkable experiences to relate. He also begins to try his own recipes for soil mixtures and starts to propagate his plants from cuttings. Someone slips him a packet of cactus seeds! After a soul-stirring struggle with himself he delegates the first book with the happy little cactuses in it to the trash can and in its stead sports a botanical treatise by some well known authority on cacti. Remember those spiny little darlings, cucumber cactus, golden torches, snake cactus and jeepers creepers? Well, they have now taken a back seat to ferocactus, mammillarias, echinocactus and pediocactus. Our victim rambles on and on about "spination and species" and buys a grafted plant!

STAGE 3. The living room, bedroom, basement, kitchen and bathroom are cluttered with catalogues from dealers, growers and importers. There are journals, magazines and books, plus assorted notes made by the Cactomaniac personally. Regular mealtimes are a thing of the past and now the members of our Cactomaniac's family wake up (too late, alas) to the fact that there is something radically wrong! Strange characters drop in at all hours to discuss marvelous new observations; seeds are planted, hormones and vitamins are tried. Flower colors and peculiarities of spine formations are noted in little black books. In cactus clubs and other social gatherings of kindred spirits he readily discusses britton and rose, bravo, borg and even Gibson & Nobel. If the Cactomaniac is a man of means, he begins to take five-day weekend trips to cactus land. His field truck is the equivalent of a British Land Rover and is cluttered with altimeters, high-powered binoculars, expensive cameras and plant presses.

STAGE 4. The Cactomaniac has now lost all sense of humor if, indeed, he ever had one. Words like morphology, genes, mutations, chromosomes and phylogeny flow from his lips as if he knew what they signified. He is certain that Echinocactus polycephalus var Xeranthamoides occurs along the western piedmont of the Eminence Break region of the Little Colorado River. He knows all the answers and reluctantly admits that he is the authority on cactus, botany biology and probably life in general. Furiously, he writes learned treatises on any subject that comes to mind. As far as Cactomania is concerned, he dwells at the edges of the inner sanctum of Minerva's Temple. From these Olympian heights he dispenses pearls of wisdom to be gathered up and treasured by the mass of his inferiors. Taxonomy, heredity, evolution ... who knows the answers? Certainly not the mediocre minds who, up to now, have labored over the solutions. No! The answer, the only true answer indeed, is here! (He strikes his forehead with a Napoleonic pose.)

Now, with a magnanimous show of altruism, so typical of his great mind, he decides to enlighten mankind by giving to the anxiously awaiting world the fruits of his Herculean mental labors. He now writes a book--a book to end all books. In fact, the book!

STAGE 5. Cactomania has now reached its apex and this is followed by a rapid decline. Publishers, being a most unenlightened lot, fail to recognize the worth of the gem which is being thrust at them and a hoard of rejection slips begin to clutter his mailbox. He has just purchased a mainframe computer, complete with a DSL satellite link, and is communicating 14 hours a day (or night) with every world-class cactus expert. His telephone bill has the same number of digits as his phone number, including the area code. He has dedicated the entire memory of his giant mainframe to Cactomania Trivia, the title of his "soon-to be-released" book.

Meanwhile, rejection slips continue to pour in from large and small publishing houses worldwide. His postman is earning overtime pay sorting mail by the sack, all addressed to "Mr. Cactus."

Eventually the men in the white coats arrive. They have little trouble in persuading the Cactomaniac to "come along with them." They show our friend a rubber cactus!

More by David L. Eppele


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