"They came from outer space," claims David Salman, who sent out a press release that claims he discovered a unique group of extraterrestrial plants in an unmapped meteor crater just west of Roswell, N.M., of all places. Though he discusses it at length on YouTube, we cactophiles know it was all a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign to encourage people to take a fresh look at the importance of our precious native cacti.
Salman had me going as I read his fantastic claims, which also included a name for this fictitious cactus, "Ariocarpus extraterrestrialensis." Salman's day job is chief horticulturist at High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, N.M., but he's a dyed-in-the-wool cactophile.
He probably used "Ariocarpus" because it is a little-known genus outside the cactus-growing community. It has a limited range extending from the limestone hills of the Rio Grande southward to central Mexico. With only eight known species, they are incredibly rare in the wild. As supply dwindled, the sales price of a mature specimen skyrocketed, which encourages illegal collection of plants from the wild.
Now Ariocarpus are endangered due to habitat loss and over-collecting in unregulated Mexican deserts. Sadly, this is due to the small size and spinelessness that make them easier to carry away. Minus the spiky armor of other species that don't slip easily into a pocket, plucking an ancient Ariocarpus from the ground is easy with these conveniently small, slow-growing plants.
Ariocarpus need CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) documents to be exported from, or imported into, the United States, as well as health certificates. Therefore, buying them from Mexico or anywhere else outside the U.S. without proper documentation is illegal.
The vast majority of Ariocarpus plants sold today should be cultivated from seed in a nursery, but there remains an active black market among collectors. They are difficult to find online but plentiful on eBay, where amateur growers are selling their seed-raised plants. This is the best place to get started collecting with a wide range of affordable seedlings.
Larger Ariocarpus are among the most expensive cacti to buy. This is because it takes years to reach a marketable size and decades to become a mature specimen. Slow growth also limits seed production. Because this is not a cactus that produces "pups," or offsets that can be severed and rooted into new plants, making a new individual represents quite an investment. It requires growing from seed or grafting a bit of Ariocarpus onto faster-growing cacti to increase the population for sales.
This cactus is highly sensitive to soil conditions, which no doubt led Salman to suggest possible intergalactic origins. It is found in extremely porous mineral soils with little to no organic matter, much as you'd find on an uninhabited planet. Ariocarpus will tolerate water only during its summer growth period. Applying water any other time of year can be deadly, resulting in rot or sudden meltdown as waterborne pathogens enter the sterile succulent tissues.
Ariocarpus hunker down in the porous desert soil so you only see about 20 percent of the plant. The top portion exposed to sunlight sits upon a huge fleshy tuber that extends underground to keep cool and hold moisture for an entire year. This is why this cactus is grown in pots that are doubly deep to accommodate this extensive moisture-holding root.
For more information on Ariocarpus online, check out Living Rocks of Mexico, www.living-rocks.com.
I truly wish that these amazing plants did have extraterrestrial origins because it would explain why they are so incredibly different from other cacti. But who knows? Perhaps they really did arrive millennia ago as extraterrestrials and decided to hang around.