Cactus Rescuers: John “Obie” Oberhausen, a massage therapist, and Joe Newman, an industrial designer, have a passion in their spare time for cactus, particularly the critically endangered Santa Fe Cholla.
Fifteen years ago, two Santa Fe two hiking buddies developed an admiration for the beauty and hardiness of cactus flowers. Eventually, Joe Newman and John “Obie” Oberhausen were inspired enough to establish cactus gardens in their Eldorado neighborhood, a perfect place for the plants with its restricted watering schedule and many unused planting areas. Armed with thick leather gloves, barbecue tongs, and an old Toyota pickup, they started their quest to collect specimens and -- in the process -- became advocates for the endangered Santa Fe Cholla.
From these humble beginnings, Newman and Oberhausen generated more and more interest in their work, eventually deciding to form the Cactus Rescue Project (CRP).
It’s easy to understand why their devotion to preserving New Mexico’s cactus. A distinctive part of Santa Fe’s natural environment, our numerous native cactus species feed and/or shelter insects, animals and birds such as the Cactus Wren which builds its nests in certain chollas. Interestingly, the cactus is a truly American plant family not native to Europe, Africa or Australia. It appears to have originated in a tropical environment until about 65 million years ago when the climate (in what is now known as the Southwest U.S.) changed from year-round rainfall to a pattern of dry summers and wet winters. Our early information is sketchy since only two cactus fossils have ever been found; the oldest, found in Utah, dates to 50 million years ago and was similar to today's prickly pear. The point is that our New Mexico cactus appears to have adapted and evolved spectacularly well; a true success story, at least until the modern-day human activity has threatened its successful track record.
Why? Because today many cactus species in and around Santa Fe are under pressure. Often found on prime real estate, they’re greatly affected by human encroachment and development. Builders and developers clear them away; the general public is ignorant about its plight and allows it to happen. Locally, no cactus is more endangered than the Santa Fe Cholla, Cylindropuntia viridiflora, which grows in only a few places in the metro area.
Early on, in response, Joe and Obie began collecting cuttings from a neglected and dying Santa Fe Cholla colony in downtown Santa Fe and began propagating them in their yards. They even took apart pack rat nests made out of cholla pieces to use as starts for new plants. They spoke to local nurseries, set up informational booths, lectured at local plant society gatherings, and gave away plants, all in an effort to make its plight known.
Home Sweet Home: Aldea
As great as the community and volunteer interest was in trying to save the Santa Fe Cholla, it was finally determined that, in order to truly save the cactus, they needed to reestablish them in nature. That’s how Aldea became involved. Specifically, the idea to transplant the endangered cactus in Aldea arose through the outreach efforts of former Permaculture Committee Chair Don Wilson. After meeting with Joe and Obie, the project was planned and executed through the organizing efforts of Permaculture Committee member Chuck Stein.
Offering a home to the Santa Fe Cholla is ideal for Aldea. With our 345 total acres, including more than 200 acres of open space, the property is earmarked as a natural preserve, described as a “vibrant natural landscape needing minimal additional maintenance or water, once established.” Bingo!
About 160 cholla cuttings were obtained from the CRP. Seven volunteers, including Chuck and Don, plus Debby Stein, Pat and Lee Harrell, Gail Szpatura and Tony Brown, transplanted them into pots. This part took about 90 minutes. Then Don and Chuck planted most of them, along with 15 larger cuttings, in the three of the parts as well as open space. The intention is to monitor the new plantings to see how they do.
So far, a couple of months in, the news is pretty good. Those planted in the ground around Calle Loma and La Vida Trail are still there, as are the bigger plants located in Esperanza Park, Plazuela Park, and Festiva Park. However, several leftover pots that had been saved for later have been eaten down to the earth by packrats, who use cactus pieces in their nests.
Aldea is receiving 50 potted Chollas from Eldorado that will go into the ground. Cuttings will happen again next summer and we will find a better way to store them.
“We started years ago with a few bins of three-to-four inch pieces of Santa Fe Cholla and now we have pickup trucks overflowing with 12-inch pieces for people to take home and plant,” says Obie.
The Cactus Rescue Project has now expanded its efforts to include the promotion of all cactus as a xeric alternative for gardening in drought-afflicted areas of the southwestern United States. The group is also working with the New Mexico Department of Transportation to plant cactus along a highway interchange.
The CRP now distribute plants to nurseries and individuals and has donated them to community cactus projects in Eldorado and Museum Hill. “A great thing about the Museum Hill Dry Garden is that people can actually visit to see which cacti thrive in our locale. Many people are surprised to see how many cacti grow well here,” says Obie. New Mexico State Botanist, Daniela Roth, who is responsible for the state’s endangered plants said: “If all endangered plant projects would receive such enthusiastic input from the community, we would not have any endangered plants and I would actually have time for research.”
Can two people really make a difference? You Betcha.