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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cactus Are Wildflowers Too!

What is the first plant that comes to mind when you think desert?

The cactus is usually one of the first plants people think of when they think of the desert. It is certainly one of the more conspicuous plants you encounter in the desert landscape. Cacti are well adapted to dry, hot environments with an anatomy and physiology that has evolved to survive such desert extremes. These specialized plants have a photosynthetic process all there own (CAM), effectively splitting the process between night and day—a mighty useful ability for reducing water loss!

Cactus are thought to have evolved in the last 30 to 40 million years and are almost exclusively a New World plant. There are over 2,000 species of cactus. Tehuacán Valley of Mexico has one of the richest occurrences of cacti in the world.

Their thick stems are succulent and full of water (undrinkable by the way), with a waxy coating to reduce water loss. Cactus ribs will expand for water storage, or shrink depending on available water. As cactus ribs and stems shrink, this creates deep valleys on the plant, providing more shade for the stems.

Cactus spines are actually modified leaves that evolved as protection. They are usually light-colored to reflect radiation away from the plant, another adaption for reducing water loss. Spines also create a lattice to shade plant bodies; interestingly for some species there is a higher density of spines on the side that gets the most sun exposure. The arrangement of spines on a cactus also help guide rain directly to the roots.

Cactus flowers are typically big and showy. They're great photographic subjects because of their large size, beautiful array of bright colors, and the fact that they don't sway in the wind like other wildflowers. You will often catch a variety of pollinators busy in these eye-catching blossoms for some fun shots!

Here in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California, many of our wildflowers have already peaked by this time of year. However, beginning on the desert floor we are now treated to the "second act" as many cactus and succulent species are now in full swing, spotting the desert landscape with bright pops of fuschia, orange, red, yellow and creamy white blossoms! This visual treat can last into June as you follow the bloom from our low-elevation desert floor to the upper, high desert blooms.

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