Message From a Cactus

The other night we received a message from a cactus and I laid in bed unable to sleep thinking about it.

Cactus flower shows Message From a CactusThe cactus stands in the narrow passage at the back of our house in Cadaqués in an old pot among several plants we don’t always remember to water. Who do they belong to? They don’t belong to anyone. They just are and get watered when it rains or when a gust of wind moves the leaves and reminds us that it hasn’t rained for months.

Within this little neglected forest, half hidden by a spreading oleander, the cactus has four stems as thick as a fist, each about 6 feet high and filled with the succulent tissue that keeps it healthy. The pot is ridiculously small, more like a prison than a homeland.Cactus flower shows Message From a Cactus 

One night we came home from somewhere and my neighbour was in the passage with a flashlight studying the cactus. To our surprise and wonder, after standing patiently in the passageway for 30 years, ignored and neglected, it had come into flower – a gorgeous lemon bloom about the size of a spread hand with gold-tipped stamens. It is easy to use the word beautiful to describe almost anything – the day, the dog, the dinner – but now I have seen the cactus flower I will use the word more carefully.

The cactus flower glowed in the moonlight with an ethereal light and we felt as if we were in the presence of something magical, or a miracle, a secret that we had been permitted to share. By coincidence, our Dutch neighbour with the flashlight is a biologist. He had seen a shoot growing from one of the four cactus stems and was waiting for it to burst into life. “It is sending us a message,” he said. 

The species of cactus comes from Death Valley in California and was first brought to Spain as an ornamental plant about 100 years ago. Summer temperatures in Death Valley rise above 45°C (113°F) and the ground is extremely dry – the perfect conditions for the plant to seed, flower and create the pollen insects move from one plant to another. Our corridor cactus wasn’t just ready to flower, she had fallen in love with another cactus somewhere unseen, in another narrow passage, perhaps, or in the garden of the cactophile who lives nearby with giant cactuses like policemen directing traffic and Mickey Mouse impersonators and silent prickly balls.   

Flower Message From a Cactus

The following morning, the flower had closed up and a day later it dropped, not to the ground, but into the mesh of thorns growing sharply from the four tall stems. My neighbour gathered it up and will take it back to Holland to make further investigations.

The message from our cactus may be a warning that the planet is overheating and that the temperature is now hot enough and the soil dry enough for Death Valley cactuses to thrive in Cadaqués. It is also a reminder that, like the flower that bloomed at night, life is short and fragile and we must try and glow in the dark if we get the chance. 

Incidentally, I discovered once that sunflowers have secrets and you only find out what they are when you plant them in a pot and watch them grow. 







Posted in Blog.


  1. Your lovely story has inspired a discussion and the cactus is apparently well known in Venezuela .
    The cactus is called Nogal in the USA and it is called ‘El Cardon’ in Venezuela.
    There is a lovely story about it that is too long to include here but I will forward it to you.
    Thank you for sharing those magical moonlit moments in Cadaquez and regards to Cor.

  2. I also share an affinity with cacti, as they are one of the very few plants I have been able to grow successfully. For years, I had one in a large clay pot from my grandmother’s old house, which grew and grew and grew (the cactus, not the pot), When we moved to Costa Rica, I gave the cactus to my best friend. Years later when we returned, my friend happily sold me back my treasured Gibson Les Paul, but he would not part with the cactus. Which is okay, because I believe it had grown to love him. For him, it would flower frequently. When it did, he would call me over to come see the flowers. We would sit out on his back patio, enjoy a few beers, play a little guitar, and enjoy the cactus flowers. My friend is no longer with us, but the memories of the cactus flowers still remain. I think that’s how things should be.

  3. Beautiful story, full of profound implication and mystery, that brings the world back to us in all its reality – that is, its wonder and unknowability. ‘We are poor passing facts’ (Robert Lowell). Not so the cactus, which has been here a good while longer. Thank you!

  4. p.s. A CAC member, I also failed Cambridge entrance many years ago – but returned to St John’s in 2015 as poet-in-residence. Strange and sweet.

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