It’s in the dead of the Phoenix summer and you’ve been asked to talk about your Phoenix Cactus Map. What else can you do except get up at the crack of dawn to roam the quiet streets to beat the heat? That’s what happened in July 2022 when Peter Fuhrman asked to film me for the plant film series PlantPop. I couldn’t wait to get out the door on a blessedly cloudy day to show him some of my favorite spots.

Starting Out at Home

We started out, bright and early with a look at some of the cacti in my own yard. With the second edition of the Phoenix Cactus Map, I was able to include my own yard as a spot with cacti I haven’t seen elsewhere! This includes the featured Hedgehog Prickly Pear that I picked up from a local seller. A year or so ago, I found this one at an unofficial “cactus sale” in someone’s front yard, north of Midtown. I recognized this as a native cactus, usually found around the Tucson area. I hadn’t seen it before in all my cactus roaming of Central Phoenix. Luckily, it took to my yard and didn’t dry up in the brutal 2020 summer.

Also on the map, I featured my Arizona Pencil Cholla which is now flourishing. This one came from a cutting I took of the now-dead Pencil Cholla mapped along the Grand Canal, west of 12th Street. I’ve propagated this one several times, sharing it with several others. I’m glad to know that I could keep this native cactus alive, even though its original plant didn’t survive.

Financial Circles

When I originally thought to make my cactus map, I immediately pictured the cactuses ringing the iconic Financial Center at Osborn and Central. These strange, round buildings have always stood out to me. But, more importantly, their array of well-established cacti has always made me stop to look. Whether I’m on a run, walk, bike ride, waiting for the train or even driving by, I can’t help but stare at the gorgeous Organ Pipe, Teddy Bear Cholla and more. On my map, I feature this spot’s Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). Its Latin name always makes me think of “big love,” begging you to hug it.

Screenshot from PlantPop’s “Jen Urso: Cactus Mapping” by Peter Fuhrman

Hedgehogs and More

In the first edition of my cactus map, I included notes about the cactus I wish I had found. One of those was the Engelmann Hedgehog. This short, spiny character has the most beautiful, bright, brilliant pink flowers when in bloom. Even though I’ve seen plenty while out on hikes, I rarely if ever saw them in town. I planted my own cutting in my yard but these guys seem to take a while to produce extra branches. While out running one day, I realized that a spot I had already mapped in the Woodlea/Melrose neighborhood actually had a gorgeous example of an Engelmann Hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii). Peter got a great shot of this for his film which you can see in the frame grab, below.

Screenshot from PlantPop’s “Jen Urso: Cactus Mapping” by Peter Fuhrman

New, Surprise Finds

While attempting to navigate Peter and myself to a giant smooth prickly pear, I epically failed. Don’t think I’m unaware of the irony of not finding something I mapped myself. I couldn’t find the prickly pear, but we did end up down an alleyway. Right there, growing from the base of a block fence was (I think) a Cane or Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata or fulgida) that stood about ten or eleven feet tall. I’d never seen one that tall in Central Phoenix. We stopped and I took a few pictures while he attempted to film me from the passenger seat. I suppose if there is ever a third edition of the Phoenix Cactus Map, I’ll have to include this spot. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find it again.

Filming at Home

After coercing Peter into stopping at Copper Star Coffee (didn’t take that much coercion), we headed back to my house. Temperatures were already starting to hit 100 and every other Phoenician was taking cover. Without trying to be too self-conscious of the lights and the camera, we talked about why I did this in the first place, what I like about cactus and some random thoughts I have about drawing, in general. There were even a few questions that made me realize how much my interest in my mundane surroundings possibly stemmed from walks to the grocery store and laundromat, when I was a kid. My mom would try to make it interesting by pointing out flowers or something interesting along the way. We’d stop to count the freight train cars passing by or look closely at the tiger lilies growing on the side of the road. Of all the things on our walk to the grocery store, I remember the tiger lilies the most.

Screenshot from PlantPop’s “Jen Urso: Cactus Mapping” by Peter Fuhrman

It’s pretty interesting to be interviewed or asked about your work. I always end up finding out something I didn’t realize before. This cactus map that I started years before has really turned into a learning experience.

  1. I never thought that many other people would be interested in navigating the city via cactus.
  2. I never thought that people would still be interested in it, over three years after making it.
  3. I didn’t realize that seeing my environment this way was something especially unique.

Sometimes, the things that seem to be the most ordinary or obvious about us, end up being the things that make us stand out.

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