I refer to the lowly cactus.
While I will admit I find some cacti rather pretty, I have never yet understood why people must nurture the things. They generally grow very well with little or no help from human hands, and those that don't, well, it might be because they weren't meant to grow where those sticker-encrusted hands wanted to grow them.
I have had a problem with cacti for years; even though I rarely wander around in bare feet-a couple of feet full of sandspurs will cure that habit-I try to avoid all things that poke or jab. I always thought the two plants were related, but plant-people assure me sandspurs are just spiritual cousins to cacti, since they both cause painful punctures to tender flesh.
Once upon a time I loved cacti; my grandmother had a wide bed of the things, big, true prickly pears from the Southwest. The flat stems were a foot or more long, and generally as wide. Each year, they produced delicious, evil- looking purple fruit in droves.
The fact that those cacti throve in Northern Virginia, blocks away from the icy Potomac shoreline, was not so much a testament to my grandmother's green thumb as it was the tenacity of those plants.
What I didn't know is that the things won't die.
Somewhere I have a photo of knee-deep snow surrounding her cactus plants.
We thought it was fascinating that a desert plant-literally a desert plant, since Grandmother and Grandfather got the plants in New Mexico in the 1920's-could do so well in cold weather.
My first experience with her prickly pears, though, was not a pleasant one. I'd watched great-Aunt Pauline's boyfriend delicately snap off two or three of the fruits one afternoon, and nothing doing but I had to get some for myself. He skinned the fruit with his pocketknife and enjoyed the fruit in Grandmother's front yard.
While the picking went fairly well, the skinning was a disaster. Stubbornly, though, I refused to quit-and ended up with hands and mouth full of cactus needles. Nobody ever said I was a smart little kid.
While Mother and Aunt Carol bordered on near-hysterics, Aunt Pauline cackled; she had a way of laughing at you that made you laugh with her, since you knew she meant no harm. She actually made me halfway forget those spikes in my mouth for a little while.
But Aunt Pauline and her boyfriend are a column for another time.
Grandmother simply placed a piece of salt-pork against my mouth. It stung like fire, but soon the needles came out with ease.
I figured Grandmother had plenty of experience with cactus, since she had another, more aggressive cactus on the porch where we children always slept.
Every time the temperature reached a certain point, around 70-something degrees, that cactus would begin shedding, if not actually shooting, needles. I always wondered why she turned up the heat to make sure the most destructive grandchildren slept very warm we came to visit.
I am told I called it a "don't touch me" plant when I was a very small child. Not because we weren't supposed to touch them, but because that demonic cactus would reach out and touch anyone who got too close.
A good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, also had a rather traumatic experience with cacti.
She was in her last year of being eligible to go trick-or-treating, and as such, intended to go out with a bang.
Halfway through begging at every single door in her parents' neighborhood-and it was a large neighborhood-she sat down on a large planter to rest for a moment.
And sat right in a bed of those accursed things.
She tells me her backside and her costume were never the same again.
My own run-ins-or would that be run-intos?-with cacti did not end with childhood.
After a particularly promising hurricane that turned into a dud, I was spending the weekend with some friends at the beach. We decided to take a little boat trip to one of the barrier islands, enjoy a picnic and an afternoon sans tropical storm.
I was atop a sand dune when my buddy called for me to come see something on the shore. Throwing caution to the wind, and enjoying a momentary flight of whimsy, I began trotting down the dune, only to find it was steeper on that side than I'd realized.
Keep in mind this was when I weighed about a hundred pounds over my current 180; my momentum flying down that dune must have been something to behold.
There was no stopping that hairy freight train.
When I spotted the first bed of cactus, I knew I had but one chance. I jumped, and sailed across the cactus with all the grace of a frightened manatee.
Then I saw the second bed of cactus.
I landed in it, hard, on one foot, then bounced out, hit the sand, and howled.
My buddy's wife pulled tines out of my foot for hours that afternoon; thankfully, she had been a trauma nurse, and a darn good one.
I felt fortunate that I landed on one foot and bounced; had I landed as seemed inevitable, face and belly first, I likely would have needed her services as a hospice nurse instead.
For years afterward, cactus tines would suddenly calcify and push their way out through the sole of my foot. They provided my least favorite memory of the beach on Lea's Island.
So forgive me if I'm not a big fan of decorative succulents, as cacti are often called. I admit, they can be pretty-I even like the tiny Christmas cactus plants Miss Rhonda spent so much time bringing back to life.
If you see me gingerly stepping through my front yard anytime soon, eyes focused on the space between my front feet, don't worry. I'm just appreciating the cactus.
In fact, I appreciate them so much I can almost hear Aunt Pauline laughing every time I go to the mailbox.