Smuggling a Cactus into California
— 1935 —
Wally Lee Parker
Reprint from the 2001 Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter
(all rights to this material reserved)
For many years entry into California from neighboring states was subject to an agricultural inspection at the border — all vehicles were stopped, questions asked, and on occasion vehicles were either gone through and any prohibited plants and produce confiscated, or the vehicles were turned back. This is one of the stories my mother — Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker — told about evading that particular law.
“Your dad and I had been living in a little one room cabin on the J. E. Cooper ranch near Buckeye, Arizona — the cabin Wanda was born in. It was all dry sand around there, except for what was irrigated. And I just wanted to brighten the place up a bit.
“In Arizona we saw all kinds of pretty cactus growing wild. I especially liked the barrel cactus — a very big cactus with long stickers — but you could handle them if you was careful. So I got me a bunch of one pound coffee tins and went about gathering up a whole bunch of different kinds of small cactus and planting them in the tins. Then I arranged the tins ‘round our cabin.
“Everybody in the camp thought my cactus garden was really something. But when the Parker clan got ready to leave for California, and I was trying to figure out which cactus I wanted to take along, Pop (Alfred Wallace Parker) says to me, ‘You can’t take them cactus. They won’t let us take any plants across the line. They’re so strict we got to show that we’ve turned our cotton picking sacks inside out and boiled them before we can take them into California. So I know those cactus can’t cross.’
“But I was so proud of my collection. I think it was your uncle Ethmer who said, ‘I bet she takes ‘em. I bet she figures out a way.’
“Everyone was trying to help. ‘Course someone just had to say, ‘I don’t suppose you could sit on them.’
“We went about packing everything on our trailers. When we were breaking down our tin cooking stoves, I got to looking at the stove pipes. The pipes were black with soot inside, but they was about the right size around for them one pound coffee cans to slide up inside.
“I figured I’d take at least one of my plants along. I took my favorite barrel cactus, wrapped a cloth around it and the can holding it, then I wedged it all into the elbow pipe. I put one section of sooty straight pipe on each end of that. I figured if I couldn’t get my cactus back out, I’d just take a can opener to the pipe.
“I told the others, ‘I got my cactus in the pipe. Don’t take it apart. And don’t tell Pop.’ I knew he’d have a fit.
“The guys packed the pipe onto the trailer, tucking them between the legs of a turned over table.
“At the border the inspectors went through everything. They got up in the trailer, turned this over, that over, opened suit cases, went through boxes, went through everything. But when they got to those dirty stove pipes, they didn’t take ‘em apart. They handled them real careful so not to shake any of that soot out on their nice, clean uniforms.
“And Pop didn’t know ‘bout my cactus till we was well into California.”
Mom has never gotten over her love of cacti. There has always been at least one cactus living in each of the various Parker houses. Then, about ten years ago, Mom came back from a short trip to Montana with a cardboard box full of prickly pears. She’d seen them growing wild in a field. She asked the property owner is she could take a few, and he replied, “You can take all of ‘em if you want. They’re just weeds. And damn vicious ones at that.”
Figuring if they survived Montana winters they’d have no trouble with Washington’s, we divided the cacti and planted some outside at each of our places. We’ve found they thrive, bloom, and multiply with little attention on the dryer side of the state — though my daughter took some to the far wetter west side, to Gig Harbor, and they quickly succumbed to a mildew rot of some sort. All they seem to need in Spokane — and the only problem they seem to cause — is when it comes to weeding. Weeding tends to be a painful task. The hooked spikes average over two inches long. And when you get near, the barbed ends seem to jump at you.
I’m sure weeds are not much of a problem in the pear’s natural environment. During Montana's dry-land summers, most weeds would burn to brittle husk long before water starvation could hurt a prickly pear. But in well-watered gardens other plants soon overpower these low growers. So its kitchen tongs and needle nose pliers to weed the cactus patch, and tweezers to weed your fingers.
The only benefit to growing prickly pears — besides a pale, greenish-yellow tissue thin flower that only last a few days —