Raul Puente-Martinez has been punctured by cacti needles on numerous occasions.
He’s been studying prickly pears and chollas, which are known for their barbed spines,
for decades as a research botanist and curator of living collections at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.
The worst cholla attack he’s ever seen happened while he was hiking in Mexico with a group of pals.
One of the hikers spotted a cactus fragment stuck to the tip of his shoe as they walked through a cholla woodland.
He tried kicking the spiny hitchhiker out with his foot. The majority of the cactus flew away, including one that went straight up and got trapped in the man’s top lip.
Fortunately, Puente-Martinez has a lot of experience removing spines. He recalls, “You could tell that they were pretty deep inside his lip.”
“There was a small stream of blood flowing out of the hole every time I pulled one; that was quite bad.”
The majority of cactus interactions aren’t quite so traumatic. Cactuses, on the other hand, are common in some regions of the desert, not to mention popular as houseplants.
To survive in the harsh desert, they’ve evolved a diverse range of spines, some of which can snare you more easily than others.
They can also lead to uncomfortable side effects. As a result, it’s a good idea to be ready for a cactus emergency.
Fortunately, Puente-Martinez and a few other cactus specialists can share a few pointers for eliminating spines based on their hard-won knowledge.
WHY ARE THESE THINGS HAPPENING?
Cactus spines provide excellent protection, but they’re not only there to harm you.
These fibrous structures, which are produced from leaves, also serve a variety of functions.
Spines can provide shade during the day and insulation at night. According to John Trager, curator of desert collections at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, spines can diffuse light similarly to a photography umbrella.
Even if the plant is growing in a shaded place, this ensures that light is delivered evenly across its entire surface.
Cactus spines can also be used to gather water. Some are curled downwards so that any condensation drips onto the earth around the roots, while others have a cork-like structure that absorbs moisture.
The flattened, twisted spines of the paper spine fishhook cactus, which mimic blades of grass, can hide a cactus from hungry predators.
Cactuses are so effective at fitting in with their surroundings that they can go unnoticed while trekking, according to Trager.
“Depending on the illumination, you might not realize it’s prickly until you feel it,” says the author.
Spines on chollas and prickly pears serve another role that makes tussling with them particularly uncomfortable.
These species, unlike the pillar-like saguaro or squat ball cactus, are made up of tiny sections that can be readily snapped off.
According to Puente-Martinez, “each of those pieces of the stem has the power to root in the earth and start a new plant.”
“It’s because of their ability to spread and scatter like this that they’ve been so successful in the desert.”
Because spines allow a cholla or prickly pear pad to catch passing animals, they are an important aspect of this strategy.
“They could chop off a piece of that cactus and drop it somewhere else,” Puente-Martinez speculates.
Cactus spines are meant to grab hold of anything that comes within range, including you.
Trager describes them as “frequently viciously barbed.” “The so-called jumping cholla doesn’t jump, but once it catches you, the barbed spines don’t let go.”
According to Park Nobel, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of The Cactus Primer and several other publications on cactuses and agaves, the barbs on these spines resemble a line of fishhooks.
“Any movement of the unlucky animal causes the spines to travel deeper and deeper into the tissue, contacting additional barbs and making movement even more difficult,” Nobel explained in an email.
To make matters worse, chollas and their relatives have glochids, which are fine, hair-like spines.
Some species, like the Mexican bunny ears cactus, have glochids but no conventional spines, giving them a more innocent appearance.
Don’t get taken in by it. Glochids are more difficult to remove than larger spines because they are barbed.
“At first impression, they appear fluffy and fuzzy,” explains Trager. “You could be tempted to pet it or touch it, and you end up with a mouthful of itchy spines.”
ARE CACTUS SPINES HAZARDOUS?
Cactus spines are exceedingly rare to kill you, but they can cause significant injury.
This is especially true, according to Puente-Martinez, if you trip and fall on top of them, as happens occasionally when people become tipsy at Garden events.
After the initial attack, the spines may end up in more sensitive locations. “If you touch that cactus and then rub your eye or put your finger in your mouth if you have those little barbs or glochids in there, then you can have a problem,” says Raymond Dieter,
a semi-retired cardiothoracic surgeon who volunteers at the Tri-City Health Partnership Medical and Dental Clinic in St. Charles, Illinois.
“Even if they’re trapped in your knee, they could end up somewhere else in your body.”
The barbs can irritate the skin or create an infection in some cases. Dieter and his colleagues came upon a young woman who had stumbled and fallen on a cactus while getting up from supper.
According to Dieter, who wrote about the incident in the journal WOUNDS last year, swelling and redness set in quickly.
This reaction can cause pustules to form that continue for months, as well as small black areas of dead skin that must be removed.
The wound may get infected with germs that cause staph infections or gas gangrene in some situations.
But that isn’t the most likely scenario. “The vast majority of people will be fine,” Dieter predicts.
“They’ll get over it in a few days or a week or two, but it can last a long period in other people.”
Using a cold pack on your skin after being poked may help to minimize the severity of the reaction, according to Dieter.
GREAT, WHERE DO I GO TO GET THESE THINGS OUT?
First and foremost, do not grip the spines.
Dieter explains, “It’s a natural reaction.” “However, if you can avoid it, you’re better off not using your fingers.”
It’s all too simple to exasperate a poor situation, especially if you try to peel cholla off with your bare hands.
Nobel once witnessed the consequences of this decision in a couple who had been attacked by the infamous teddy bear cholla in Saguaro National Forest.
Initially, one of the couples became entangled in a piece of stem, and as his wife attempted to free him, she became entangled as well.
Nobel claims that the more they struggled, the deeper their spines became.
“They were wailing for assistance as they walked along the road in an unnatural hug, gripping hands with the torturous joint.”
Nobel was able to liberate the pair by using wire cutters to cut the spines out.
Before dealing with the individual prickers, Puente-Martinez recommends removing the portion of stem the spines are attached to like he did when his friend’s lip became a pincushion in Mexico.
Clip the spines attached to the stem with scissors or pliers, leaving around half-inch segments of the spine in your skin, he suggests.
You may also work the stem and some of the spines free using the teeth of a comb.
If you don’t have any tools and the spines are embedded in your hand, you can try bending over, standing on the stem joint,
and pulling your hand free, however, this will likely result in further bleeding as the spines are taken away.
What you should do next is determined by the type of spine you have. With a pair of tweezers, try removing bigger, needle-like spines.
Straight spines, such as those found on saguaro cactuses, are the easiest to remove, whereas barbed cholla spears or hooked spines, such as those found on barrel cactuses, require a bit more effort.
When you try to remove a cactus spine, it will typically break, leaving shards lodged under the skin.
“You’ll know if you haven’t gotten it all because [the region] will still be sensitive to the touch,” adds Trager.
You can try to extricate the spine fragment with tweezers or a needle, but they can be transparent and difficult to distinguish.
“Trying to dig around with a needle often does more harm than the spine itself,” Trager explains.
“It might not be worth it unless you can feel the broken base of the spine just beneath the skin or something.”
He claims that soaking in a warm bath with Epsom salt can help ease some of the pain associated with implanted spines.
When you touch a cholla or related cactus, the tiny glochids are very difficult to dislodge, and it’s easy to wind up with dozens or more trapped in your skin.
When Puente-Martinez is in this predicament, he prefers to run the injured limb under warm water to soften the small barbs.
He next uses a knife to scrape the bristles off, albeit this method can leave the points in your skin.
He confesses, “They’re going to bother you for a time.” He’s discovered that tiny tweezers, like the ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife, are great for plucking recalcitrant glochids; larger tweezers, like the ones that many people keep in their bathrooms, appear to be less suitable for grabbing the tiny prickles.
A magnifying glass is also useful for this task. To pull the barbs out of your flesh, use something adhesive like duct tape.
Don’t worry if you can’t get all of the spines or barbs out. They will disintegrate or be expelled out of your body in the majority of cases.
WHAT THE HELL, I’LL JUST PULL IT OUT WITH MY TEETH
When he doesn’t have any other tools, Puente-Martinez has been known to remove spines with his teeth. You, on the other hand, shouldn’t.
Remember how the glochids can sometimes cause a painful reaction?
“Imagine you hit a cactus with your wrist or arm, and you reach down with your mouth to take [the spine] out and spit it out,” Dieter explains.
“You might get the spine, but the glochid may stick in your tongue or lip, causing a reaction in your mouth or lip, and you won’t be happy.”
Another terrible potential is that the barb will become lodged in your neck,
as it did with Puente-Martinez in the past (and is the reason why he strongly recommends you do not try this method at home, or ever).
When one of the employees working on the plants nearby asked him a question, he had delicately grabbed the spine with his teeth and was going to spit it out.
He continues, “I spun back and swallowed the small glochid.” “I had it there for a few days, and it was causing me a lot of grief.”
By eating bread, he finally dislodged the glochid. His opinion is that saliva moistens the lump of bread, making it sticky enough to pull the spine out.
When he was at a conference a few months back, one of the other attendees ordered prickly pears for lunch, he used the same tactic.
The fruit had not been fully washed, and the man ended up with a glochid embedded in his roof of the mouth.
Puente-Martinez urged him to begin eating the white bread that had been brought out earlier by the server.
The problematic glochid was removed after four or five slices.
ISN’T THIS THE STAGE WHERE YOU TELL ME CACTUSES AREN’T ALL BAD?
Yes, of course! For starters, they’re visually appealing.
“Cacti have a considerable aesthetic appeal to a lot of people,” says Trager, noting that cactus societies have sprung up all over the world.
Cactus flowers, in reality, have the same betalain pigments as beets and a few other plants, and their blossoms are very bright and vivid.
The feather cactus is one of the few cactuses that is genuinely soft enough to pet (if done correctly).
According to Trager, this Mexican cactus utilizes microscopic spines that look like ostrich feathers to diffuse incoming light.
“There is usually one pleasant technique to pet a cactus,” he says.
Cactus spines were also utilized as phonograph needles in the past.
Cactuses are also an essential component of desert ecosystems.
Because grass is scarce in the desert, many animals, such as jackrabbits and javelinas, rely on the fleshy stems and fruits of cactuses as their primary source of nutrition.
Their nectar and pollen are vital to doves, hummingbirds, and a variety of other birds and bats.
When the fruits and flesh have been properly de-spined, they are also rather palatable.
“There are a lot of ways to enjoy cacti,” adds Trager.
Just take a step back and observe them from afar.