The Boyce Thompsoni hedgehog cactus, named after the great benefactor of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Ariz., allegedly grows “glorious magenta” flowers that emit an “irresistibly fragrant” aroma. It sprouts “showy red fruits” so tasty that early desert settlers raced to pick them before animals could eat them. Unfortunately, repeated visits to the arboretum have yet to provide first-hand confirmation of the luscious gifts of the eponymous species.
That’s because there’s a short window to see Echinocereus fasciculatus in action–March through early April. Hoping to see one in action at home, I bought a cactus in the Arboretum parking lot during a visit to the in the 1980s. It would never do its thing in Maryland. After two disappointly unproductive seasons, in which it repeatedly stung us and shredded our clothing, we decided it had to go.
It wasn’t long before I panged to see it again and perhaps see it in action. I found one in the cactus garden along the gravel trail that winds through the 323-acre facility. The Boyce Thompsoni cactus is remarkably squat considering the oversized stature of the arboretum’s benefactor. Its prickly cucumber-like appearance, with a short brown stem and an array of thorns somewhat reminiscent of rodent hair, does conjure visions of hedgehogs. The first part of its genus name, Echinocereus, is Greek for hedgehog. The second part comes from the word for large candle.
No one readily available at the arboretum was able to explain why the cactus bears Boyce Thompson’s name. Scientific literature is likewise mum. Was the naming of this cactus, which can only be found in certain counties of Arizona, an act of patronage? Or did William Boyce discover the variety himself while walking through the 400-acre tract of desert he bequeathed to the state? The true story may never be known.