Friday, May 24, 2013

You Gotta Look Sharp!

Big shot, tell you what, tell me what goes on around here 
Go on and get me in the corner smoke my cigarettes and drink my beer 
Tell me that this world is no place for the weak 
Then you can look me in the eye and tell me if you see a trace of fear

You gotta look sharp! 
You gotta look sharp! 
And you gotta have noooo illusions 
Just keep going your way looking over your shoulder...

Or - Joe Jackson - you can sit still and actually be sharp. And pointy. And spiny.

Like a cactus.

Which is kind of a funky strategy if you think about it - store your water in fat, fleshy above-ground cisterns (stems), that you then have to protect with nasty, big sharp pointy things.

It's so Mad Max.

But dang it can be beautiful. And effective. Such as the fortress of this Hedge Hog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii:

hedgehog spines

For those interested, cactus spines are modified leaves, which is why they're called "spines." "Thorns" are modified branches.

Their structure is fibers, and the hardness calcium carbonate and pectin.

The Pancake Pear, Opuntia chlorotica, is uniform in both paddles and spines:


pancake spines

Chollas take the high density approach - as well as the jumping, attacking, and sneaking up on you approaches, too. As you can see on this Silver Cholla, Cylindropuntia echinocarpa:

silver cholla

The Pencil Cholla, Cylindropuntia ramosissima, also tries to cover every angle, but with much more pattern and style - looking a bit like desert DNA spirals...

pencil cactus spines

Density is also the mantra of the Grizzlybear Prickly Pear, also called Old Man's Beard, Opuntia polycantha var. erinacea, which uses long, wiry spines to seal off all access.

big prickles

And the often near-invisible little Nipple Cactus, Mammillaria tetrancistra, uses a densely woven basket to completely hide the flesh. It does, however, need to get foragers to notice and be able to access its fruits to eat them and distribute the seeds...


Cotton Top, Echinocactus polycephalus, uses a similar all-spines strategy. And yes, one is always bigger than the other.

cotton top?

But... when cacti do want to be noticed, they do a very good job of that as well, often popping out huge, colorful flowers that target everything from sphinx moths to big beetles, birds and bats.

Here's the bloomers we saw on this year's Mojave herp holiday...

Mojave King Cup, Echinocereus mojavensis:

mojave king cup

Hedge Hog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii:


Grizzlybear Prickly Pear, Opuntia polycantha var. erinacea:

plains pricklypear

The classic Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris:


The Pancake Pear, Opuntia chlorotica:


Silver Cholla, Cylindropuntia echinocarpa:

silver cholla

And Buckhorn Cholla, Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa:

buckhorn cholla

Btw - the sit-around-and-be-too-spiny-to-eat strategy also mostly works for the Desert Horned Lizard, Phrynosoma platyrhinos:
desert horned

desert horned

Look sharp!



  1. Wow. That's a lot of cactus diversity for one post, including some species I've never heard of. Great stuff!

    I've never liked pencil cholla though...not sure why.

    1. Blasphemy. Pencil cholla is the best cholla.

  2. What a great collection of cacti! And awesome macros of the spines!

  3. wow on that Mojave king cup. Wondering about the color orange in nature now.

  4. Totally appreciate your sharing. Thank you.

  5. Wow. SpecTACular photos, and super cool re: spines v. thorns.

    Thinking this is the post of the day.

    I hope the name cotton top never confused anyone re: its actual texture...

    And who doesn't love a Phrynosoma? I love their regal carriage. *happy sigh*

  6. oh, duh, btw, ADORE J.J., so thanks for putting that song in my head. =)


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