- Photo: Deborah Bird
Cactus flowers are usually showy and have many stamens, petals and sepals
May is Getting hot. Hard to think about cool winter holidays. Nonetheless the Desert Christmas Cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) is carrying on! I often see the bright red fruits of this plant throughout the year. The fruits form during the summer months and persist year-round. Before we can have fruit, we must have flowers and the Desert Christmas Cactus is glooming in May along with many other Chollas. The Desert Christmas Cactus is also a Cholla. All these related plants have jointed cylindrical stems. Those of the Desert Christmas Cactus are quite slender. If you find one in flower, you’ll notice the small, pale yellow flowers. They can be inconspicuous but are still quite beautiful. The plants can be easily found on Bear Canyon Path. You’ll notice the red fruits first. As with some other cacti, the fruits are covered with many tiny glochids. The stems have one two-inch spine per areole and many glochids.
Often on nature walks I point out our Desert Christmas Cactus (sometimes called Desert Christmas Cholla). I’m usually met with the comment that “It doesn’t look like a Christmas Cactus.” The Christmas Cactus that’s for sale in nurseries during the Winter Holiday season is also a cactus. It is native to coastal mountains in Brazil. It is in the Cactaceae family but is a different genus (Schlumbergera) than the Desert Christmas Cactus (Cylindropuntia).
Even though members of the Cactaceae family may look different, depending on the type of environment they evolved in, there are similarities among all plants in the Cactaceae family. One of the main distinguishing features is the areole. It can be round or oval and is comprised of two tight adjacent buds. Spines and flowers emerge from this structure and the spines may be preceded by leaf like structures which are quickly lost as the plant matures. You can see these clearly on young prickly pear pads. Cactus flowers are usually showy and have many stamens, petals and sepals. Sometimes visitors mistake many of our prickly or sticky plants here as being cactus. However, as naturalists we can point out the difference just by showing how the spines originate from the areole. Notice the difference in the Ocotillo (in the family Foqueriaceae) and on an agave (in the Asparagaceae family). Neither of these have the spines and flowers radiating from a central structure as do the Cactaceae. All are from different families with different characteristics, yet no one wants to grab any of them.
Cactaceae originated in the Americas, as did hummingbirds and chocolate. There are some species of Cacti found in other parts of the world, but it is generally known that they were brought there by travelers or explorers and sometimes seeds were transported by migrating birds.
Etymology: Cylindropuntia comes from kylindros, for the cylinder-shaped stem segments, and the related genus Opuntia, from which this genus was segregated. Leptocaulis means slender stemmed.