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NATURE HAPPENINGS - May 2002

Watch (Out!) for Cacti

by Damian Fagan

Mr. Fagan It is a classic cartoon. The one where the lost hiker crawls across the barren desert while a relentless sun beats down on the unfortunate soul. The desperate individual reaches a tall cactus growing out of a bed of sand and then he gouges the stem and drinks the life-saving fountain of water. Graphic, but wrong.

Cacti are not kegs of water. They are not “fixed hydration units.” You cannot puncture one and expect, like a Maytag™ refrigerator, for cold water and crushed ice to come tumbling down into a mug. Doesn’t happen.

Cactus cells do have the capacity to swell when excessive moisture is present in the soil. Extensive root systems that resemble a Los Angeles freeway spread throughout the soil, penetrating and absorbing this precious commodity. As the cactus increases its absorption of moisture, the cells swell like water balloons. But the moisture is transformed into cytoplasm, not stored as H2O.

Of the three types of cacti that grow in Canyon Country, prickly pears are the most conspicuous. Members of the Opuntia genus, these prickly pears have flattened pads that are jointed together connected like Legos™. The pads have both long and short spines that arise from a common point, and like one individual, whose species name polyacantha means “many spines,” these plants may be densely covered with mouth-infecting spines. The spines are not toxic, but an unwitting herbivore will surely develop mouth sores due to festering spines.

Flowering in May and June, these colorful flowers attract a myriad of flying pollinators. A quick glance down into the waving sea of stamens will often reveal several different types of beetles or bees all working quickly to collect the abundant pollen. The insects move about like someone trying to escape from a dense closet of clothes - they push their way through the racks of stamens. Post-pollination, the flowers fade and are replaced by thumb-sized fruits called tunas.

When mature, the fruits are red and filled with many seeds. The sweet pulp is a prize, well worth the suffering inflicted by the numerous tiny spines that embed in your skin. Gloves are recommended when harvesting these fruits, and often the speared fruits are rotated over a hot flame to burn off these offensive spines.

Named for its fishhook-shaped spines, another desert cactus, the Whipple’s fishhook (Sclerocactus whipplei), honors Amiel Wicks Whipple (1818-1863), a topographical engineer who served on a boundary survey between the United States and Mexico in 1853-1856, and who passed away in May of 1863 during the Civil War. Lavender purple flowers sprout from the top of this small barrel cactus that reminds me of a pineapple. Though the floral colors may vary from pink to white or even yellow their delicacy defines them.

The third type of cactus found in Canyon Country is the hedgehog (Echinocereus triglochidatus). Try saying that three times fast. Echinocereus is from the Greek words echinos (hedgehog), referring to the resemblance of this plant to the spiny mammal. Triglochidiatus means “three-straight-spines” a reference to the orderly arrangement of the spines. Another barrel cactus like the fishhook, the hedgehog tends to grow in clusters, from a few to several hundred stems in a tight hemispherical clump. The brilliant red flowers are the color of a dance-hall girl’s lips, and they seem to erupt from the plant, frozen in mid-pucker. Like some lonesome cowboy, hummingbirds are attracted to these flowers for the promise of sweetness.

Like many desert plants, the cacti often go unnoticed during most of the year. However, when May arrives and summer is just a blossom away, these plants unfurl their flowers in a brilliant display of floral fashion. So watch for their floral shows and watch out for those spines!

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