Cactus Hunting at 56 Degrees North

We live in a pretty incredible region here in the Peace Country. Located in the Northeast corner of British Columbia, we border the Rocky Mountains to the West and Alberta Grasslands to the East. The Peace Region is larger than the entire United Kingdom in size, and curator at the Royal BC Museum, Richard Hebda has described the Peace Region as "one of the most magnificent places on earth." 

And surprising as it sounds - when winter temperatures drop below 20-40 degrees Celsius for nearly 6 months of the year - you can still find native cactus growing on the south facing slopes of our river valleys.

I didn't think a day of cactus hunting would bring me back round to building science, but read along to see how the dots connect along this journey…

Little Prickly Pear, or Opuntia fragilis, is widespread through Canada, but is the most northerly cactus species in THE WORLD.

My friend Sheena is an Agrologist and general nature lover, and after talking about our cactus hunt for a while, we finally made it happen this past weekend. And while the cactus are quite easy to find in certain spots (there are even rec trails in the area dubbed 'Cactus Trails') - we were on the hunt for the MOST northerly of these hardy little cacti.

We started heading NE from town towards Cecil Lake, where the road curves and climbs along the banks of the Beatton River. We stopped and walked along a ridge to a clear grassy point and sat down to take in the view, enjoy a snack, and chatter before looking in the grassy slopes more seriously.

As luck would have it, Sheena casually leaned back into the slope we found our first cactus of the day - a friendly fellow who clung to the sleeve of her shirt, hoping to hitch a ride farther north perhaps!

Found 'em! Prickly Pear Cactus on the south slopes of the Beatton River, NEBC

Found 'em! Prickly Pear Cactus on the south slopes of the Beatton River, NEBC

After some laughter, and realizing we didn’t need luck as the Beatton hillside was literally covered in cactus, we hiked back to the truck and made our way toward our next stop: the Doig Community Pasture.

To get there, we briefly pass through the Doig River First Nations Reserve along the way. Did you know there is a passive house church in the proposal stage for this community? And if certified it would then claim the title of most Northern Passive House building in North America? It would be in good company to join the prickly pear cactus on the ‘most northern’ podium.

Near the community pasture land is a slope with grassland habitat where Sheena had stopped the previous year for other related field work, and she wanted to check this time for little prickly pear.

Here we saw a huge garter snake, easily two feet long and as thick as a loonie around his middle. He startled me as we looked through the shallow grass, but I reminded myself there is an advantage to not living in the actual desert - we have few if any venomous snake up here.

With a little patience, we found what we were searching for - Northern Prickly Pears. We noted a funny feature among them was their common shape - many of them had two appendages branching off a single trunk. We laughed about how they seemed to be waving at us, beckoning us to find them like little snowmen peeking out of the scrub and dirt!

Hello there! Winner of the Most Northerly Cacti in the World near the Doig River in NEBC (unofficial)

Hello there! Winner of the Most Northerly Cacti in the World near the Doig River in NEBC (unofficial)

Returning home, I was inspired to do a bit more reading and internet research on our little hillside neighbor, from the comfort of my home in the City of Fort St John Passive House.

Considering I live in a home that is also designed to adapt to extreme temperatures in order to conserve energy - it wasn't hard to recognize some similarities between #passivehaus and #cacti in terms of temperature adaptations.

The prickly pear cactus are certainly unique - they can withstand extreme freezing temperatures in the far north. But they are also a rare type of cactus where photosynthesis occurs at night, that allows them to conserve moisture.

This makes it hard for prickly pear cactus to cool off during the hot days, and it's thought they've adapted their funny shapes and spines as a way to reflect and radiate excess heat as a means to mitigate thermal loading (overheating.)

The southern orientation of a passive house allows for maximum sun exposure during the day to maximize solar gains, so that little supplemental heating is required.

A well designed home will also protect from overheating, and our passive house has large overhangs to provide shading, and the tilt and turn windows allow for natural ventilation in the evening too, minimizing the need for active cooling.


I didn't think a day of cactus hunting would bring me back round to building science - but that’s the influence the most northern Passive House in North America has on me when researching the most Northern Cactus in the World. It's these kinds of connections that make life so fun and interesting to discover.