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What comes to mind when you think of cactus?  

Perhaps the first thing you think of is the spines. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been pricked by a cactus, you’ll likely never forget that most of them have needles.  
*Did I ever tell you about the time I worked on golf course landscape and backed into a teddy bear cholla and got an entire piece lodged in the back of my leg?
 
Besides being painful to those who get too near to cacti, did you know that there are important reasons that cacti have spines?

Golden barrel cactuses (Echinocactus grusonii)

First, let’s look at the spines of cactus for what they are – the main part of cactus often functions as a modified stem, and its needles are the leaves.
 
The most obvious function of cactus spines is to protect the cacti from animals and people. There are, however, a few animals who aren’t deterred by the sharp spines of cacti such as javelina, tortoises and pack rats.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) spines

 
Suprise, the primary function of the spines are to actually shade the cactus.
 
Although just one small spine would hardly provide shade, thousands of them can provide enough.
 

Why is sun protection needed for the surface of cacti? The shade from the spines let the cactus lose water through the atmosphere. This helps keep the cactus temperature relatively low.

Black-spine prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra)

 Another function that the spines serve is that they help certain species of cacti such as cholla to root and spread.

Teddy bear cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)

Spines of the Cholla are specialized to detach and attach onto anything that comes to close. There are tiny barbs at the tips which grab on to anything that gets too close. It almost appears as if they ‘jump’ off of the main cactus as they latch on the unlucky recipient.

Segments of the Cholla are usually moved and then fall off and grow in better conditions. If you have ever seen cholla growing in large groups, this is why. 
**If like me, you are ever unlucky enough to find a piece of cholla embedded in your clothes or worse, your skin – you can use a comb to help pull out the barbs.  When hiking in the desert, it is easy to get them stuck on your shoes.  I usually grab a rock and use it to push off the Cholla segment.  When all else fails, a good pair of needle-nose pliers works.
 

Two young saguaro cactuses are emerging from the shelter of a creosote shrub.

Hopefully, you have a new appreciation for cacti and their spines.  But, it’s still important to be careful because it hurts when you get pricked!
Young saguaro cactus were peeking out from its bursage nurse plant.

As you walk through the desert, there are many opportunities to view some of the striking cacti and their unique shapes.  What is not initially apparent, are the many examples of plants helping young cacti survive.  However, if you look closely, it is all around you – desert shrubs and trees sheltering growing cacti from the harsh desert climate. 

Young barrel cactus underneath a bursage nurse plant
Despite their tough, prickly appearance, cactus are quite vulnerable.  Of the thousands of seeds that are released by each cactus, only a tiny fraction grow into new cactus plants.  Most would not survive if it were not for “nurse plants.”   These plants provide much-needed protection from the sun, cold temperatures and predators (including humans).  Nurse plants also provide much needed additional moisture for the new cacti.

Mammillaria microcarpa 

It is easy to walk by and not even notice the presence of the small cacti growing underneath nurse plants.  Most of the year, the fishhook cactus (Mammillaria microcarpa), pictured above, are almost impossible to see.  It is only in the spring when they are blooming that you can spot them.

Hedgehog cactus outgrowing it’s bursage nurse plant.

For the smaller cacti species, bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) most often serves as the nurse plant.  It also often serves as the first nurse plant for saguaro cacti.

 
Two young saguaro cacti outgrowing their creosote and bursage nurse plants
 
Creosote (Larrea tridentata), palo verde, mesquite or ironwood trees often serve as the nurse plants for larger species of cacti.  As it grows larger, it requires more water and nutrients from the soil, which leaves little for the nurse plant.  So frequently, the nurse plant will decline and die as you can see from the photo above.

Young buckhorn cholla emerging from its bursage nurse plant.    

So next time you have the opportunity to take a walk in the desert, look around….you will most likely see examples of this unique relationship of plants helping young cactus survive.