Urban Legends

The Exploding Cactus

The Legend

A couple of newlyweds were driving back to Los Angeles from their Las Vegas elopement when the woman spotted a beautiful little cactus in the desert just off the highway. Although it is illegal to "poach" cacti in Nevada, the couple drove off the road in their SUV, dug up the plant, and brought it home.

Back at their little ranch-style tract home, they repotted the cactus carefully and gave it a prominent place on the patio.

The cactus thrived in the California sun for about three months. Then one day the woman was at home talking annulment with her lawyer on her cell phone when she noticed that the cactus was moving. She told the lawyer she'd call him back and went to see what was going on. It looked to her like the cactus was breathing.


Totally creeped out by this, she speed-dialed the L.A. County Floral Emergency Hotline. They asked her a few questions, each one more frantic than the last, finally ending up with, "Are you alone at home?" The woman said she was. "Good. Get out of the house. Help will be there soon."

Moments later, two police cars arrived. They were accompanied by an ambulance, two large fire trucks, a HASMAT van, and a camouflaged halftrack. Black helicopters circled overhead.

A pair of men in what looked like space suits jumped out of one of the trucks and ran toward the house brandishing flamethrowers. They kicked in the front door (even though it was unlocked) and rushed through to her back yard as the police cordoned off the street and evacuated the neighbors.

The men with the flamethrowers laid into the cactus. The wash of their weapons engulfed the plant, the back fence, the organic vegetable garden, and the Astroturf putting green. Back on the front lawn, firefighters ripped off the woman's clothes for immediate implosion by a demolitions team. The house was ordered fumigated. The neighborhood was quarantined and condemned. Nobody was allowed back on their property until the government had spent a year using it to test atomic weapons.

But why? A good question, and a question that the woman soon thought to ask. "It was the cactus," government agents told her. "Either it was filled with baby bird-eating tarantulas and was about to explode, or it was one of those novelty cacti that dances and sings 'I'm Stuck on You' whenever someone walks by. Either way, we weren't going to take a chance."

Behind the Legend

This one is almost true. In 1984, a couple living in La Jolla, California, did indeed illegally take a cactus from the Nevada desert and repot it in their back yard. There was no "breathing" involved, however. Instead, the woman found a beetle on the cactus that experts identified as a Mexican long-horn root borer -- a bug with the power to completely replace California's wetland population of Mexican medium-horn root borers should it ever be introduced into the wild. Fortunately, the threat to indigenous species and the environmental status quo was immediately recognized and government conservationists lept into action. (The part of the story about the flamethrowers, etc., is true.)

A number of variations of this legend exist. For example:

  • The cactus is dug up from the garden of immigrant neighbors, purchased from a guy at the side of the road who doesn't speak English, or bought at a convenience store owned by "those damned foreigners."
  • The cactus is found to be home to scorpions, spider-eating jumbo birds, one absolutely gigantic spider, billions of carnivorous budgies, a Mexican sewer rat disguised as a Chihuahua, a pony, or some combination of the above.
  • The cactus is really a piñta filled with yummy treats.
  • Instead of a cactus, the plant is a yucca plant, rose bush, or pine tree (and in the latter case, Christmas decorations go flying everywhere when it explodes and thousands of baby tarantulas kill Santa). Occasionally it is a bunch of grapes.
  • Instead of "breathing," the cactus shakes, hums, whirrs, "sort of giggles," does bird calls, or orders the woman to "get out" in a creepy voice.
  • The woman is on the phone trying to find an agent for the "amazing dancing cactus" when it explodes.
  • Instead of a cactus, a book is brought home, and when it is found filled with dangerous ideas, "firemen" are dispatched to burn it to the ground. Unfortunately, the woman had completely memorized the book beforehand.
  • The cactus explodes in the dead of night before anyone notices that anything is wrong. The spiders overtake the neighborhood and, eventually, spread across the country, killing every living thing and causing North America to be declared a no-man's land.

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