Houseplant of the week: An odd cactus and a family mystery

A cacti collection may explain how Christine Richards’ relatives got a plant from Brazil more than 100 years ago. It also helps explain why some succulents are at risk for extinction.

Hello, green friends.

Hello, green friends.


Denverite has solved Christine Richards’ century-old plant mystery.

According to family lore, their so-called “Elliot Cactus” traveled the American frontier before it became a staple in their home for generations.

Here’s an excerpt from a history of the plant that Richards sent us: “Ma and Pa Meek, grandparents of Thomas R. Elliot, Sr., were the first-known owners of this cactus in the Elliot line. They were Disciples of Christ Christian ministers. They traveled from Kansas to Oklahoma before statehood. As a young child, Tom’s mother Mable Meek Elliot traveled with her parents, their belongings and this cactus in their covered wagon across the plains.”

It was an odd cactus, thirsty for water as it shot up narrow and tall to the ceiling.

“The thing grows like a weed with wicked thorns about one inch long,” which are capable of piercing tough leather gloves, Richards said.

But nobody ever knew what it was, and “no one actually knows where it came from.”

A few years ago, on a road-trip to see the family, she asked her husband’s Aunt Diane about the odd crop. And then, Aunt Diane offered a piece of the cactus to take home. She was having trouble managing the mysterious, fast-growing member of the family.

So Richards and her husband secured it in the back seat, and the cactus began another trip across the American landscape.

“We gingerly put it in and configured this rope system,” she recalled. It sat at a 45 degree angle and “pretty much took up the whole back of the wagon.”

The cactus was about a foot and a half tall when it found its new home in Virginia Village, she said. In a few years, it was taller than five feet. She had to chop the top off to manage its growth.

Christine Richards and her mystery cactus. (Courtesy: Christine Richards)

Christine Richards and her mystery cactus. (Courtesy: Christine Richards)

But she always wondered: What was this thing? About 20 years ago, she said, the family took a bit of the plant to a university to see if they could find answers. Experts there couldn’t provide any. And, Richards said, she knows a thing or two about plants, so this was vexing.

“I’m a big plant nerd,” she said, “but this ones always stumped me.”

So we sent photos to the professional nerds at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Spokeswoman Erin Bird responded.

“Nick Daniel, Horticulture Specialist, Cactus & Succulent Collection, says it is a Brasiliopuntia brasiliensis. An opuntoid from Brazil, an arborescent cactus.”

But how did the homesteader family get their hands on it?

According to Daniel, plants “have been traded, propagated, and traveling the world for a very long time, way before the 1800s.”

That’s probably how the opuntoid found its way to America and, eventually, Richards’ home in Denver. It’s also one reason why some cactus species are endangered.

According to a study published in the journal Nature in 2015, 31 percent of 1,478 cacti species it studied are threatened. Researchers found the “dominant drivers of extinction risk” are “unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections,” as well as use in agriculture and ranching.

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