We think it’s pretty safe to say that everyone has wanted to find buried treasure at some point in their lives. That hunt is immortalized in movies where weathered men and women risk life and limb to emerge from the scorching desert clenching a coveted idol or shimmering bounty of another variety. Modern archeology is still romanticized in this way where the dusting of the right rare fossil can radically change the course of history but there are devoted seekers out there of another variety.
Sitting in the densely packed Hot Cactus shop located in a postage-stamp sized storefront on the edge of LA’s Echo Park borough, it’s hard to imagine where all these plants came from. Christian Cummings offers some insight on their source. Some of the rare varieties traveled a long way to get here and at any given time there are at least one hundred fifty kinds in stock. In a separate conversation, co-founder Carlos Morera suggests that Cummings is sort of the Indiana Jones in their operation who lights up if you ask him about any of the stories in their out-of-print homage to the prickly plants aptly called, Xerophile.
There’s the botanist/naval officer in the 1960s who travelled to a rocky island in the Socotra Archipelago to find the rare and highly poisonous Euphorbia abdelkuri growing in one of the remotest habitats on Earth. Or the freakishly obsessed French cactiphile who, circumnavigating the globe on his bicycle, almost met his fate from heat exhaustion in the Mojave desert where what he thought were the pearly gates and heavenly angels was actually a brothel and sex industry workers. “Christian wanted to name the patio after a famed cactus poacher who only exists on Internet threads. He became obsessed with him and trying to find his fake seed catalogs from the 70s. He introduced us to this level of lore, mystery and myth that exists in this world,” Morera shared, broadening the mystery.
“The store has always been a convenient public facing mask for us. It’s an approachable form that crosses demographics,” Cummings adds. “It’s an unfortunate fact of our times that people relate to nature through commerce. Yes we sell plants, but I don’t actually believe it is possible to own a plant or any other sentient organism. I like to think of Cactus Store more as a relationship broker between people and the botanical beings we represent. Like a sort of adoption service.”
Customers come in droves from all over to the LA shop to ogle an affordable Euphorbia or rare Echinocereus Subinermis; in fact, Hot Cactus has grown so much in popularity that their seasonal greenhouse store on the lower east side of Manhattan is just coming out of its third rotation.
As a result, just about every variety of prickly plant has attracted the attention of budding collectors and life-long enthusiasts who know that Hot Cactus can help you score that one rare find. “People are starting to engage more with the science and nomenclature—coming into our store for a specific species or rare variety that you normally don’t hear about. Collectors are way more dialed-in today than they were when we started five years ago,” Cummings elaborates.
“This combined with the popular resurgence of psychedelics, you start to see the problems of relating to nature through capitalism’s “own everything” ethos. Lophophora for instance (aka Peyote), known for having specific cultural significance to peoples like the Huichol and Chichimeca in Mexico is now on the growing list of plants now facing extinction, not from climate change, but from poachers who source plants unethically,” he expands on the topic.
This special cactus that grows to concentrate its mescaline is perfectly adapted to the Sonoran desert, an area that is comprised of approximately 100,000 square miles. It’s vast by comparison to other arid regions but not when you take into account that Peyote only grows in specific areas and people are travelling there en masse to hunt the coveted button.
“I’d rather tell people to do Peyote than to take Peyote,” Cummings remarks. “I struggle with the idea of taking. We should give back more than we take. Most people don’t realize that in nature it can take 20-30 years for Peyote to grow its first seed. What’s more, most plants in the desert don’t live long enough to reproduce. If you remove even just one plant, you are putting the entire species at a disadvantage. One of the easiest ways to be ecologically responsible with Peyote is to seek out a Peyotero, a person who is growing this plant legally in the desert specifically for ceremonial use.”
Poaching also extends to plants of the non-tripper variety; in fact, Cummings laments the recent eradication of a rare agave population in Nevada—sharing stories of how unchecked digging of rare plants fuels the insatiable consumption of treasure seekers on sites like eBay. “Unfortunately, poaching is a profitable business,” he says, adding “fucking poacher scum are a cancer on the Earth. These assholes have no idea what impact they are having.”
On the upside, shops like Cactus Store inspire people to connect with their roots and start small with something organic that doesn’t take too much effort to look after. Even novice horticulturalists are taking cultivation into their own hands as the popularity of growing your own vegetables, cannabis plants and even Psilocybin mushrooms reaches a high we haven’t seen since the 1970s.
“I heartily support the re-popularization of everything organic, heirloom, and psychedelics,” adds Cummings. “But I see it less as a trend than a reconnection to something that we’ve always been a part of. Plants are essential to life on earth. Without them there is no us. Calling a plant a trend is like calling oxygen a trend. There is of course a small learning curve to re-connection with nature, but once you get over it, you realize that this is who you really are.”
So if you get the urge to grab a seedling on your next desert road trip please heed this advice: holster your trowel and keep in mind that nature is doing just fine without us meddling in its fragile ecosystems. You can still find a similar sense of adventure by walking into a shop like Hot Cactus and doing a deep dive on Astrophytum or second guessing the source of your psychological expansion. After all, the real treasure is preserving the planet that nurtures all kinds of life, including us.