The endangered Santa Fe Cholla (Cylindropuntia viridiflora)

Over twenty years ago the Cactus Rescue Project (CRP) was founded by cactus enthusiasts who perceived an immediate need, challenge, and opportunity to save the rare state-listed endangered Santa Fe Cholla (Cylindropuntia viridiflora). Admittedly, there was a naivety present with the mission—citizen activists without specific backgrounds or experience driven by passion and enthusiasm. (And, at the time more youthful energy…)

NOT to be confused with the larger tree cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) with the magenta blooms that populates much of the state, the Santa Fe Cholla (SFC) is a smaller version with blooms ranging from distinct peach to copper colors. (It is necessary to recognize informed opinions that the species is a hybrid between the tree and whipple cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata x whipplei).) Hybrid or not, this special rare plant has been worthy of two decades of CRP efforts to advocate, propagate, distribute and grow. These efforts continue.

When the project started, only a small concentration of this rare cholla remained present but virtually unknown in the area of Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe. It was here that the species was first identified. Other SFC could be found scattered in small groups in Pojoaque, north to Espanola, and beyond. Development, failure to recognize the uniqueness of the species, and environmental issues were factors in compromising the SFC to the verge of extinction. The observation was made—if the SFC was unable to survive in the Fort Marcy location, the species could vanish in a short time. (Some SFC “propagated-from-garden-cuttings” had entered the “trade” but only as novelties.)

The rescue of the plant involved significant help from an increasing family of volunteers and supporters including the former New Mexico State Botanist, Daniela Roth. It was under Roth’s leadership and tutelage that the CRP became officially permitted to work with the SFC. CRP began installing monitored colonies on private property in locations in the greater Santa Fe area including the Santa Fe Institute in Tesuque and the New Mexico Wildlife Center outside Espanola—returning the plants to possible former locations within their historic range. About these efforts Roth stated: “Well, this is rapidly becoming the most ambitious conservation project in the state of New Mexico! Better yet, it’s all based on volunteer efforts! Congratulations! If all endangered plant projects would receive such enthusiastic input from the community, we would not have any endangered plants, and I could just focus on research.”

Installing a Santa Fe Cholla colony at the Santa Fe Institue, Tesuque, NM

Propagation and distribution of the Santa Fe Cholla extended to other species. In addition, rescue operations were launched in advance of commercial developments or perceived “improvements” to rescue cacti that were being routinely destroyed. And, as misguided gentrification and homogenization was damning cholla—archetypes of high desert—to brush piles in landfills, the need to educate and mitigate the damage became another mission. Rescued and salvaged plants became the basis for an increasing inventory of native species for demonstration gardens.

Legacy Tree Cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) victim of “urban renewal”

As these efforts continued, it became apparent that the perception and reputation of cacti also needed rescuing. Cactophiles aside, cacti, as with so many iconic species (think coyotes, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas) have too often been dismissed, frequently vilified, ripped out of historic locations, and replaced with environmentally, contextually, and intellectually inappropriate choices destined to fail in our increasingly arid climate. In New Mexico, gardeners often start with scorched earth.

Presentations, demonstrations, interviews, public outreach and articles, too numerous to mention, combined with social media presence, have been part of the CRP from its inception.

As familiarity can breed acceptability, the CRP launched a campaign to install a series of highly visible public cactus demonstration installations. These ranged from gardens in a commercial business location, median strip, community center, community parks, a medical center, governmental office, schools, and facilitating numerous private gardens.

These installations and the ongoing maintenance were made possible by continuing support from dedicated volunteers. Most volunteers had or were developing significant cactus gardens of their own. The CRP began hosting “weeding parties” at community installations. The turnouts have been overwhelming. Volunteers bring their own tools and gloves or have access to a wide range of CRP tools. Volunteers can test an extensive variety of tools mostly repurposed for cacti. The gatherings have been opportunities for the exchange of information, comparing experiences, and general socializing. Watermelon has been a standard refreshment. The sessions include plant and cutting giveaways and free raffles for special plants and other items—like special purpose cactus tools.

Cactus Rescue Project volunteer weeding party, Q&A session, cactus cutting giveaway, free raffle, and watermelon

Cactus Rescue Project member Catherine Williamson sampling watermelon

As the installations grew and thrived, seasonal maintenance and pruning was required. This developed into an annual cacti cutting giveaway held every July in Eldorado at Santa Fe in the parking lot of the LaTienda commercial center—home to the first public CRP installation. The giveaway has grown from a modest collection of cuttings in recycle bins made available to a few dozen enthusiasts to literally truckloads of the endangered Santa Fe Cholla and crowds of 200+ participants. And, yes, made possible by volunteers.

2022 Annual Cactus Rescue Project cactus cutting giveaway

As cacti’s potential becomes increasingly recognized and appreciated there will be a need to work to establish and advance legal protections. The CRP supports growing cacti from seeds and cuttings and obtaining plants from licensed commercial sources. Intervening to save cacti from development or destruction is important. The trafficking of native plants by “diggers” should not be supported. The removal of these indigenous plants en masse adversely impacts ecosystems.

Native plants stripped from the wild and sold by roadside “diggers”

The CRP Volunteer cacti gardens at the Eldorado Community Center are among the largest in the state. The Bosque del Apache Desert Arboretum is larger. And, more significant in its variety of species not possible in the colder high desert climate of Santa Fe. The Desert Arboretum’s design and variety is inspiring—another example of exceptional passion and enthusiasm. Visits to the Desert Arboretum gardens have been a routine pilgrimage for the CRP for years. We have swapped cuttings. And, the CRP has the special opportunity to see the Santa Fe Cholla find another home at the Desert Arboretum.

Cactus Rescue Project volunteers at the Eldorado Community Improvement Association cactus gardens

Practicing what CRP preaches, it has been a privilege to provide volunteer assistance and support with the necessary ongoing maintenance of the Desert Arboretum. The significance of citizen activists dedicating and volunteering time, passions, and special skills is critical to adding and maintaining value, integrity, and longevity for our natural environment, indigenous wild lives, and society in general.

Cactus Rescue Project member Phil Musser at the Desert Arboretum

Hopefully we have learned it is unwise, and unnecessary, to wait until something is lost to realize its value and significance.

The CRP lost founding member John “Obie” Oberhausen in December of 2022. Obie’s value and significance on so many levels is impossible to overstate. Obie was as accomplished at propagating and nurturing volunteers and friends as he was with cacti. He achieved and deserved recognition as one of cacti’s finest and most dedicated advocates. His honesty and generosity of spirit remains a light and inspiration especially with his willingness to lead by example. His tributes have been numerous and his legacy is extensive. Each Santa Fe Cholla is a memorial to his all-too-brief presence among us.

John “Obie” Oberhausen rescuing cacti from a construction site

Bosque del Apache is one of the crown jewels of New Mexico and the Desert Arboretum is a hidden gem that makes experiencing the preserve even more significant. The efforts to provide and maintain sanctuary and preservation for a wide range of species is critical. Thanks to all for your involvement, activism, and especially VOLUNTEERING!


Photos and article by Joe Newman for the Cactus Rescue Project
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