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School class makes a prickly proposition that sticks: designate an official state cactus

Courtesy Matt Berger/Wikimedia Commons
A Columbia Plateau cactus, aka basalt cactus, pictured growing near Mitchell in eastern Oregon in 2021. This native Northwest cactus species could soon be the official cactus of Washington state.

The Washington Legislature has a lot of prickly problems on its plate. But there's a new one that may be the prickliest of all: Should lawmakers designate an official state cactus?

A school class proposed a native cactus for the honor and they now have a sponsor in the Legislature.

State Senator Judy Warnick, who represents an arid district that straddles the mid-Columbia River, is leading the way to add the basalt cactus to the Evergreen State's array of official state symbols. The Moses Lake

Republican introduced legislation on Thursday to establish the state cactus.

"I don't think it's frivolous at all," Warnick said pointedly. "It does give us a chance to do something a little more fun and work with the students to learn what civics is all about, how we pass bills, how they become law. So, it's an educational experience."

Second to fifth graders from Discovery Lab of Ellensburg, a small, private co-op type school, wrote letters to Warnick proposing the basalt cactus be Washington's official state cactus. The plant, pediocactus nigrispinus, is also known as the Columbia Plateau cactus, hedgehog cactus or snowball cactus. It grows in scattered dry locations in central Washington, eastern Oregon and north central Idaho.

The snowball and hedgehog common names seem fitting because the spiny plant is small and round. It sprouts showy pink or magenta flowers in spring. The cactus can appear as a solitary plant amid rocky outcrops or on sagebrush hillsides. But it also can form large clumps or mounds of bulbous cacti.

Discovery Lab school director Natalya Parker said the proposal for the state cactus emerged from a class project in the fall devoted to learning about the nearby shrub-steppe ecosystem. She said the elementary students fell in love with the basalt cactus after encountering them while on a field trip to the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, a wind farm east of Ellensburg.

Parker said the young students, their teacher Brooklyn Edgar and a retired botanist who advised them hatched an idea. "If they could designate the basalt cactus as the state cactus, that would potentially help raise awareness of it and help people protect it and the habitats where it lives," Parker said.

"People don't know very much about this cactus," Sen. Warnick said in a separate interview Friday. "They're going to help us all learn more about it."

The author ofa primer on Washington's native cacti, Ian Barclay, said the plants are increasingly imperiled in the wild because of invasive species and the expansion of agriculture.

"Cacti are now absent from large areas of eastern Washington where they used to grow," Barclay wrote online. "Non-native grasses have out-competed the cacti for light and nutrients in many places. Lesser threats to their preservation include the expansion of suburban development, over-collection by irresponsible individuals, and sheer carelessness by property owners where cacti are found."

If Warnick's bill passes, Washington would become the fourth state with a cactus among its official symbols. Arizona put the saguaro on its license plate and anointed the saguaro cactus flower as its official flower. In 1995, Texas lawmakers designated the prickly pear cactus as the official state plant. In 2014, Colorado chose the claret cup cactus as the state cactus at the suggestion of a Girl Scout troop.

In Olympia, the state cactus proposal was referred to the Senate State Government Committee where it awaits scheduling for a public hearing. In January, a state House committee gave a favorable vote and moved along a separate measure todesignate an official state dinosaur. As was the case with the cactus legislation, the state dinosaur proposal was brought forward by an elementary school class.