Matchbook covers. Cigarette wrappers. Business cards. Coffee stirrers. Fingernails.

Thanks to the ingenuity of a pair of Mesa businessmen, the orally aggravated can add another item to this list of unorthodox toothpicks: a two-inch spine clipped from a saguaro cactus.

"They're much superior to traditional, wooden toothpicks," claims Anthony Williams, an independently wealthy idea man who "invented" the product while lunching at his partner's home several months ago.

"I had something caught between my teeth, so I just snapped a prick off a cactus in his house, washed it off and stuck it in my mouth. It really worked great!" says 27-year-old Williams.

"They're smooth, they gradually go to a point and they're really no sharper than some of the wooden toothpicks on the market today. And unlike the forests that are cut down to make traditional toothpicks, the spines will grow back."
Another plus? "They're reusable," volunteers partner John Rogokos of the pair's "all-natural" brain child. "You're probably going to lose one of our cactus picks long before you wear it out." (An unscientific New Times survey confirmed that most people who tried the cactus picks did, indeed, prefer them to their traditional, manufactured counterparts. Participants claimed the cactus picks' sharp points made it easier to remove annoying interdental debris from hard-to-reach places. Another oft-heard comment: The cactus picks do not absorb saliva and, consequently, do not break off between teeth as commercial toothpicks often do.)

Looking for other markets, the businessmen have surveyed cowboy-style steak houses throughout the Southwest and have, they claim, found restaurateurs who are eager to use the cactus spines for everything from holding sandwiches together to lancing martini olives.

"They're a great souvenir from the West," says Rogokos, a production worker at the Arizona Republic's Mesa plant. "I can see these going to Russia, Japan or anyplace else where people have teeth in their mouth."
Convinced that the public would bite, the duo began researching the legality of harvesting cactus pricks. Luck was with them. Although the state has strict laws regarding the removal and wholesale mutilation of cactus in the wild (don't even think about using a saguaro as a shotgun target), there appears to be nothing on the books preventing anyone from simply clipping cactus spines.

"According to the information we got from the agriculture department, we can just go out in the desert and start snipping away," says Williams, who named the partners' newly formed company Natural Cactus Toothpics.

But the lack of a specific law against spine removal does not necessarily mean the government favors cactus-needle harvesting. A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Agriculture insists the spines are "there for a purpose, and removing them makes the plant vulnerable to predators and biological infections."

So, to stay on the safe side, Williams and Rogokos have been trying to work primarily on private property, paying landowners a few dollars for each cactus harvested.

"We're not stripping the cactus, by any means," says Williams. "Since we're only interested in the longer pricks, we can remove up to 2,000 from a single cactus, and you wouldn't even be able to tell we'd been there." One expert estimates that it takes saguaros about two years to replace lost spines.

While the men currently use wire cutters to remove spines (a tricky process that requires the harvester himself to grip the end of each spine without sticking himself on surrounding needles), Williams reports he's trying to develop a clipper that will hold the spine mechanically. The clipped spines are cleaned in an antibacterial soak, dried under heat lamps and then packaged in either Williams' or Rogokos' apartment.

The American toothpick industry probably isn't losing any sleep worrying about competition from the cactus alternatives. Scheduled to hit the market this week at Que Pasa (a gift shop at Arizona Center), packages of five cactus picks are expected to sell for approximately $1.50 each. For roughly the same amount of money, a shopper at Mega Foods can currently buy three boxes of wooden Diamond toothpicks--or 2,250 wooden toothpicks.

"When people come out here to visit, they don't come for blueberries," explains Kay Benson, a Tempe gift distributor whose company handles the cactus picks. "They come out here for cowboys and cactus, so that's what we sell them. But I'm hoping that if these toothpicks catch on and the volume goes up, they'll be able to bring the price down, so that people like you and me can buy them, too."
One person who isn't holding his breath awaiting that day is Jim McGinnis, native plant manager for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. On learning of the new enterprise, McGinnis is barely able to squelch a snicker.

"I don't think I'd use a cactus spine for a toothpick," he says. "Unless they're planning to dull them down somehow. Those things are sharp. And if you miss the tooth and hit your gum, you're going to be bleeding.