For you snowbirds that fortunately haven’t left the desert yet to head north, this is the best time of the year to see cacti in bloom. Stick around a little longer to enjoy the amazing world of cacti in this three-part article on the cacti of the Southwestern deserts.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been rudely impaled by thorns from cacti, the plant world’s version of Dr. Seuss creations. They have assaulted my ankles, perforated my pants, and bore into my boots. They have skewered my fingers, ravaged many a shirt, and used my derrière as a pincushion. But when I’m stalking the wild cactus, I throw caution to the chubasco and plunge ahead, paying no attention to what my vulnerable pink-skinned legs brush against.
But finding a beavertail in full bloom, with a dozen or more vivid fuschia blooms bursting from such an otherwise drab desert plant, is worth the pain and suffering of the occasional thorn attack. Mother Nature endowed the succulent cacti with spines and thorns to protect them from critters that find their fleshy insides delectable and a much-sought source of moisture. The lethal spines stick out perpendicularly like swords, as if the cactus were challenging “en-garde” to those who would want to eat it, and leaving a prickly warning to the careless or unwary who venture too close.
Some of the thorns have tips curved like fish hooks, complete with barbs that once stuck in your skin require often painful extractions. Others, cumulatively called jumping chollas (pronounced ‘choy a), according to popular myth leap out at passing animals and people, attaching themselves to the nearest victim. The species of chollas thought to jump (such as the Bigalow cholla) have weak joints between segments of their appendages, which break easily away from the mother plant when brushed against. The spines snag any passing creature and when finally dislodged, fall to the ground and take root, establishing a new plant.
For most of the year cacti, of which there are about 1650 species, languish benignly on the barren desert, stoically accepting their fate and grateful for what little favors the weather bestows on them. Then in April and May they explode with mind-bending bursts of color, blooms that glow with an intensity as if lit with internal LEDs.
And at what strange places these flowers appear, as if Dr. Seuss himself had come along and affixed a flower created in a fantasy world onto an ill-looking plant in the most incongruous of places as a joke. Consider a regular wildflower, for instance. It grows where it belongs, along or at the end of a thin, graceful stem. Cactus flowers, however, like those of the impossibly flamboyant beavertail jut out randomly along the edges of their ping-pong paddle pads. Other flowers, like those of the chollas, protrude out of the ends of cylindrical appendages like tube worms on a coral reef.
Next week Part 2: Saguaros, organ pipes, and fish hooks.