Cacti are wonderfully weird and paradoxical plants. While their spines can make them appear menacing, they can also exhibit beautifully sculpted forms and produce the most stunning floral displays. Some varieties might appear to be virtually lifeless, taking many years to grow a mere few centimetres; then in a matter of days they produce a bouquet of flowers that is substantially larger than the entire plant.
Because of their extraordinary features and strange contrasts, cacti have readily captured our imaginations. Many representations of cacti in art, literature and popular culture have imbued them with human-like characteristics. Some of these anthropomorphised cacti have appeared as cute and cuddly creatures – while others have taken the form of monstrous killers.
Cacti represent a very diverse family of plants, comprising some 1500 species, in all shapes and sizes. While many of these look as we imagine a cactus should – succulent and covered in spines – a number of varieties are totally spine-free. Some cacti actually grow in tropical rainforests and produce spectacular fruit, such as the popular dragon fruit.
There are some cacti that even seem to echo our own characteristics. Several species can grow long, human-like hair – earning the common name, old man cactus. And the giant saguaro cactus, found in the deserts of western North America, with its tall upright trunk and its arms held high, can look remarkably human.
In the 1890s, widely believed American newspaper reports described how a large stand of saguaro cacti in Arizona had “become magnetised” causing them to go about smashing and digesting unsuspecting human victims. It was claimed that due to huge veins of magnetically charged copper that existed deep underground the cacti had become lethal and, depending on their magnetic polarity, would either attract or repel living creatures with enormous force. Several “eye-witnesses” claimed to have seen a number of human victims in various stages of digestion trapped within the arms of these killer cacti.
Comic books have also featured many anthropomorphised cacti, including one notable story, Green Horror, from the 1950s Fantastic Fears series. It features a highly jealous saguaro cactus that falls in love with his female gardener – the woman who had originally transplanted him from the desert. In order to requite his love for her he systematically kills her husband, then later her new fiancé and finally the woman herself as he attempts to grab her in a loving embrace.
Marvel Comics West Coast Avengers series, features a super-villain known simply as Cactus that exhibits great strength. Although he has the ability to walk, he can also quickly fly through the air and spray deadly needles at his victims.
Several episodes of Dr Who have also featured cactus-like characters. One memorable four-part episode from the 1980s (starring Tom Baker) features a nemesis named Meglos, who is a giant cactus that is able to transform his human victims into green, spine-covered creatures. These transformed cactus-humans are then compelled to do his evil bidding.
The Walt Disney animated feature film, The Three Caballeros (1944), features an extended sequence in which Donald Duck can be seen dancing with dozens of anthropomorphised cacti. At one point Donald tries to woo a senorita but is emphatically blocked from pursuing her by hordes of cacti. The cacti then transform into dozens of duck shaped beings that proceed to knock him down, trampling painfully on his back.
Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, featured anthropomorphised cacti in many of his paintings. One particularly intriguing example can be found in his Landscape with Cacti (1931), which features an array of human-like saguaro cacti, one of them clearly female, with not only cactus arms but also cactus breasts.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip also features anthropomorphised cacti that interact with the dog-like character known as Spike. Living in the desert, Spike, who is Snoopy’s brother, suffers from what might be described as permanent sun-stroke, as he imagines that the saguaro cacti are very much alive. He frequently talks and interacts with them, and occasionally injures himself as he tries to hold hands with them.
The animated series Digimon features a cactus character named Togemon, an enormous creature that wears large red boxing gloves and is a skillful fighter. But when things get too dangerous, or if he confronting a particularly difficult opponent, he has the capacity to spray out a barrage of needles.
And Pokémon also features a number of cactus-inspired characters including, Cacturne – similarly in possession of rapid-fire needles. Another character known as Maractus is adorned with brightly coloured cactus-flowers, and can perform a special “dazzle dance” in order to confuse and startle its opponents.
In recent years, cacti have become extremely popular both as house and garden plants, and as design elements that are featured on everything from clothing to homewares. As more people embrace these amazing plants, we are beginning to see fewer examples of killer cacti and a lot more cute and cuddly cacti creatures.
One collection of loveable cacti-characters can be found in trendy lifestyle brand Tokidoki’s Cactus Friends series. These characters, and their pet kittens and puppies, are all adorned in colourful cacti costumes, which they wear to help to protect them from danger.
Another endearing cactus-character can be found in the Disney animated television series, Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, which features Toby, the kindly cactus.
We are likely to see many more anthropomorphised examples of these remarkable plants.
Dan Torre’s new book Cactus (Reaktion Books, London) is now widely available.