Cactus Flower Fun – Part I

May is a wonderful time of year if you are a flower lover. Almost every cactus species is blooming in our Sonoran spring and oh, what fantastic flowers cacti produce! Every color of the rainbow can be found, often in bold and vivid hues. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.  These are joined by scarlet, pink, rose, crimson, claret, burgundy, magenta, purple, lavender, cream and white. In some cactus species, individual blossoms are rainbows in themselves.

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Cholla blooms are vivid.

Prickly pear flowers are generally yellow, but different species may have orange, red, apricot or other colors. Grow your own cactus rainbow by getting a pad or two of those with unique color for your yard. See the end of this article for how to propagate cacti.

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A prickly pear with apricot blooms and edible fruit. What’s not to love?!

Cactus Pollinators

Long before European honey bees were brought to these shores, a plethora of different species of native solitary bees buzzed the desert skies, searching for the nectar and pollen needed to feed their young. One such is the cactus bee (Diadasia rinconis, yes named after our Rincon mountains). The cactus bee nests in undisturbed soils, one of the group called “chimney bees” due to the form of their nest.

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Grey colored cactus bee busy licking up nectar.

Birds do their share of pollinating. Hummingbirds and the tiny green-yellow verdins visit prickly pear, cholla, and barrel cactus in my yard. Bird books state that verdins are insectivorous and claim verdins are simply searching for insects in the cactus flowers. Bird specialists should check their assumptions. Verdins regularly visit my hummingbird feeders – they have as much of a sweet tooth as the rest of us.

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Red cholla flowers are easy for a hummingbird to visit.

Many people do not appreciate cholla but wait until our Sonoran Spring! Buckhorn and staghorn cholla have flower colors not found in any other plants! Florescent-reddish-magenta-purple is as I can come to describe the color. Fun to watch the cactus wren (Arizona State Bird) use cholla cacti as the perfect snake and cat-proof nesting site.

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European honey bee visiting a mammalaria. Photo courtesy of Judith Clark.

Propagating Cacti

Rule one for cacti. Dry well before planting – otherwise they rot! Cacti need to heal their open cut and form a “callus” before they are planted. Set them upright – out of direct sunlight – to callus for about 1 week before you plant them.

Once a callus is formed, put your cutting in a well-drained rooting media like perlite, vermiculite or sand. Peat moss and coir retain too much moisture and can lead to rot. Or you can plant the cutting where you want the plant to grow. Place it with the callus just touching the soil and hold it upright with a mound of rocks.
Remember, it is illegal to collect wild cacti.

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Before: a succulent freshly cut.
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After: callus tissue is formed and succulent is ready to plant.
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