A couple of years ago I was wandering along the south-facing canyon slopes up above Bisbee, Arizona. I was near the crest in an area which had suffered a wind-driven burn a few years ago. The fierce blaze had killed off the Emory Oaks and all other trees. Blackened skeletal trunks were gradually being shaded and replaced by new sprouts, but at that time the area was dominated by grass, yucca, and agave. Regeneration after a hot fire takes decades.
It was pure serendipity, a gift from the gods, which allowed me to stumble upon a lone pancake-like cactus, a species of Mammillaria which I knew had been reported as growing in the Bisbee area, but which I had never seen before. Sometimes known as Cream Cactus due to it’s milky sap, this particular specimen was about nine inches in diameter but only an inch or so high; it was nearly invisible, surrounded as it was by clumps of the indigenous grasses Blue Grama and Sideoats Grama.
That was the only Cream Cactus I’ve ever seen after many miles of tramping around — until last week. I was taking photos in a miniscule park on Bisbee’s south side, a rough area paved with limestone fragments and supporting a thick growth of ocotillos and agaves. I was trying to avoid ocotillo thorns while positioning myself for a photo when I happened to look down and saw my second Cream Cactus right between my feet! This photo shows the faded remnants of this year’s flowers atop the nippled cactus, and I suspect the orange-brown ovoid in the lower-right corner of the scene might be a fallen fruit. Like many cacti, Mammillaria heyderii completes its reproductive duties before the monsoon rains arrive. I have yet to see one in bloom.
Looking about on the web for possible human uses of this cactus I came across a quote from an ethnobotanical study:
“Mammillaria heyderi is a little discussed species, which is reported to be used by the Tarahumaras. We first encountered this species in the Tarahumara-English dictionary compiled by the Swedish explorer Ivar Thord-Gray. Discussing sorcery and black magic among the Tarahumaras, Thord-Gray reports, that ‘only the shaman is umeru-ame (powerful) enough to locate wizards and witches. To do this he will make medicine from ball-cactus wichu-ri-ki, which is greatly feared for its magical powers. This medicine will clear his vision. It matters not how well the suku-ru-ame (wizard, witch) is hidden, the shaman can see him clearly’ …Not only is this cactus useful for locating wizards and supplying food, but it is also used as a medicine to cure or relieve headaches. ‘After the spines are removed, the plant is cut up into two or more pieces, roasted for a few minutes, and then part of the stuff is pushed into the ear.’ …(This) is corroborated by Bennett & Zingg, who describe the same manner of roasting the cactus before ‘the soft center in pushed into the ear in the case of ear-ache or deafness.’ Thord-Gray also reports that wichu-ri-ki is an important medicine that will prolong life, ‘make the foot light and increase the speed of a runner in a race.’ The Tarahumara name for the cacti listed by Bennett & Zingg is witculiki. Witculiki and wichu-ri-ki are possibly related to wichuwa-ka, which means ‘crazy, demented, mad, insane, etc.” (Bruhn and Bruhn, 1973)
Known in Spanish as “biznaga de chilillos,” with the edible red fruits called “chilitos.” This species, and other latex-containing Mammillarias are often sold in the drug stalls of Mexico and are used as popular folk remedies. M. applanata, M. hemisphaerica and M. Meiacantha are generally believed to be M. heyderi. 2/P, 10/P
So the cactus was thought to prolong life, help you to run faster, and even cure an earache! No wonder there aren’t many left!