Monday, February 6, 2012

Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus: White Tank Mountains Ironwood Trail

Three species of cactus along the Ironwood Trail.  Hedgehog cactus lower left, barrel cactus lower right, and teddy bear cholla middle.

The Ironwood Trail is only a 0.9 mile easy hike across a flat bajada, but as for viewing cacti it is pretty good.  When I say viewing cacti, I specifically have in mind Teddy Bear Cholla, and the size of these cacti along this trail, along with the size of this population is rather remarkable.  Typically I would say Teddy Bear Chollas reach about three to four feet in height.  Here however, the stand appears significantly older and there is a sizable population over five feet.  As anyone who has been around Teddy Bear Chollas for more than five minutes knows, these cacti are nice to look at but only at a distance.  And their nasty nature is one of the major reasons why these cacti are so abundant along this trail.

When looking at a Teddy Bear Cholla at a distance it defiantly gives the appearance of a nice fuzzy teddy bear.  The huge density of large spines creates this deceptive appearance and often give the cactus a nice golden orah in the sun.  If you examine one of the joints of this cholla up-close you will notice the spines are so dense it is impossible to touch any green portions.  Using a microscope you would also notice that the spines have many fishhook like barbs on them.  These spines and barbs are what give this cactus its nasty reputation.  The density of spines makes them impossible to avoid and the barbs make the spines difficult to remove, and why you will want to stay far away.  I have had two occasions where I accidently had joints of this cactus firmly lodged in my leg as a result of hiking too close.  The difficulty and pain of removing them I will not soon forget.  A day of two after this, a huge bruise developed where they were lodged.  I have also seen a few dogs get joints lodged in their feet, the resulting yelping and whining was unbelievable.  So stay far away!
Teddy bear cholla cacti.  
This nasty nature of this cactus is the exact reason why it is so abundant on this trail.  You would expect all plants to reproduce through seed, but not the Teddy Bear Cholla.  This cholla does produce seeds but typically none are viable.  Quite a weird problem for any plant to have.  There isn’t even much emphasis by this plant to produce viable seeds.  The cactus doesn’t produce many flowers at all.  Flowers that are produced are green and do not attract much attention.  This problem is easily overcome by the cactus hitching a ride on some unfortunate animal passing by.

As you may know, cacti have the ability to root into soil from nearly any green fleshy portion of their stems, pads , or joints.  Teddy Bear Chollas are especially good at this.  First of all, their joints are loosely attached to the plant.  I frequently see joints simply falling off even with the slightest disturbance or breeze.  Once on the ground these joints can root into the soil and develop into another plant.  Secondly, the spines are extremely sharp easily sticking into the flesh of any animal that passes by and the barbed spines hold the joint in the flesh making it difficult to remove.  When the joint sticks into an animal, the animal then transports it, albeit unwillingly, to another location.  The joint will eventually fall off and once on the ground can root itself and grow into a new plant.  This cholla seems to prefer  soils with caliche but overall they are not really picky and can grow in some of the worst soils were no other plants will grow.

This easily detachable, easily carried, easily rooted ability of the cholla makes it extremely widespread and why it is so abundant on the White Tank Mountains Ironwood Trail.  Prior to the 1980’s the White Tanks were grazed and I would guess the flat area around Ironwood Trail had an especially high concentration of grazing.  As a result cattle frequently bumped into and carried around cholla joints to be deposited elsewhere.  This caused a huge increase in the Teddy Bear Cholla population in this area and the population remains to this day.  Even today, humans, deer, packrats, and other animals continue to transport cholla joints around.  I am sure this is at a much slower rate than the cows used to do though. 

Oh-ya, there are also quite a few Ironwood trees on the Ironwood Trail, as the name implies.  Their presence though is dwarfed by all the Teddy Bear Chollas.  As for my 2012 New Years resolution of hiking 150 miles and blogging nature tours I am currently at 22 miles.  At this rate I will be done before June!

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