Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Hedgehogs, Mammilarias, Chollas and Prickly Pears

The cactus flowering season in the desert is in full swing.  Sometimes the beauty you most appreciate is the kind you have to look for, making you work a bit for a delicious reward.  Flowers in the desert can be like that.  To just look out across the landscape, you might see nothing special.  But this land takes you in its hold slowly but surely.  Take the time to wander through it, to really see the many fascinating small sights and you will be surprised and amazed.  Take the strawberry hedgehog cactus, for example.  A rather innocuous, small clumping columnar cactus that is easily overlooked until one day its bright magenta flowers open and Wow!  They seem to be everywhere!  The color is so vivid against the usual desert colors.
Strawberry Hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii)
Another species, with lighter pink flowers grows somewhat taller.

The hedgehogs are among the earliest-blooming cactus in our area.  But there's also the lovely Claret Cup which is often the very first to show its stunning finery.
Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus)
Look closely at cactus flowers and you will see what defines the cactus family - many stamen and a multi-lobed stigma.  Many species of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) inhabit the Sonoran Desert and at our elevation very few of them have begun blooming.  The beavertail (Opuntia basilaris) is native to the lower elevations of the Sonoran Desert and to the Mojave.  It's bright pink blossoms are often open in February and March.  In my yard and around town I see the multi-colored flowers of the long-spined prickly pear now beginning their show.

Long-Spined Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrocentra)
Other native prickly pear species, such as Engelmann's and Santa Rita, will begin blooming sometime this month.  Elsewhere, the giant saguaros, too are getting ready for their show.  In my neighborhood we are fortunate to have a very rare crested saguaro whose bloom cycle is somewhat off-kilter from its cousins'.

Crested Saguaro in Bloom (Carnegiea gigantea)
Already, this specimen is in full bloom and will actually have another bloom period in November.  That I cannot explain!  The 'normal' saguaros are now forming buds and a very few of them have actually opened.  Most, however, will be later this month and into May.

Cholla, the jointed cactus, of which we have a number of species, is also just beginning to show flowers.  A little later, they will be putting on a breathtaking performance in a whole palette of colors.  So far this spring, I've only seen two plants with open flowers.

Many species of cactus which grow in the Mexican portion of the Sonoran Desert are represented at the Desert Museum.  Here are two I saw in bloom last Friday.
Cardón (Pachycereus pringlei)
The cardón is a relative of the saguaro, but grows taller and its branching will occur closer to the ground.  Below is an interesting specimen from the convergent evolution garden at the Museum.
Astrophytum myriostigma
I just have one more genus of cactus to tell you about - Mammilaria. Generally these are tiny, clumping cactus whose flowers from a ring near the crown.  My wild mammilarias are not yet in bloom, but here is a beautiful specimen from the Desert Museum.

And one from my yard whose flowers are not yet open in the early morning when I took this photo.

This small sampling indicates the amazing variety and beauty of the cactus family.  I leave you with the outrageous blooms of the Torch Cactus (Trichocereus) which is cultivated, but not native, in our area.  Mine are just now forming buds, but at the Desert Museum last week we were treated to this stunning display.

Cactus are native only to the Americas, but some bear a striking resemblance to certain euphorbias from Africa, the result of a process known as convergent evolution, and thus defined:  In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

Here's wishing you beautiful blooms this Spring!


  1. Well said! What a great, eloquent, and well-photogrpahed presentation of the beautiful desert flowers. In the often desolate landscape, their colors shine all the brighter.

  2. All I can say is, "OH, WOW!". Such an excellent post highlighting these beauties!! I so enjoyed my visit today. Wish I was there witnessing this is person! ~karen

  3. Such vivid colors - a feast for the eyes. I'm soon visiting AZ - I hope the color lasts a bit.

  4. This is such a delightful treat, so many species and colors. That is one awesome crested saguaro. I saw cardon in the Baja and they get trunks as big as Douglas Fir. Still waiting for blooms around here.

  5. All I can say is, they are just gorgeous!!

  6. oh, very beautiful cacti flowers, what a very pleasant treat.

  7. Another spectacular, informative post. I was opening this BC (before coffee) and I forgot what I was doing in the midst of opening your blog. When that first cactus picture popped up, I said "WOW! What a Painting! What a beautiful handling of light!" Then I remembered I was looking at your blog. WOW! What a photograph! What wonderful use of light and compostition."

  8. The photos are BEAUTIFUL! I have always wanted to visit the Southwest when the cactus are blooming. It's on my bucket list. I've been there in summer, winter, and even early spring, but never seemed to time my visit right.

    I will have to enjoy the beautiful flowers and colors via your photos. Thank you for sharing.


  9. Spectacular and beautiful blooming!!!! The cactus flowers are amazing! Thanks for sharing such nice photos. In our blog you have something waiting for you!

    1. The correct post link is:
      Sorry & have a good day!

  10. Holy moly....nice work!!! I see a couple here and there. Beautiful shots of the flowers. I'm looking forward to the big show soon. I see several Saguaro with blooms already. I can't wait to see the flowers this month.....several buds are about to open:) Awesome post!

  11. Great post! The little longspine opuntia has to be O. macrocentra. I finally found wild ones in the Waterman Mts. I just got some painting commissions to do and I'm going to use that species, one of my favorite subjects. For my garden, I was such a purist and wanted only native cacti, but now we raised so many Trichocerei from seeds, and they had to go somewhere...hope they'll bloom one day like the ones at the ASDM.

  12. I've never been anywhere near a desert, but these are beautiful photographs and I hope to be able to take some like them someday.

    Really gorgeous!


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