Monday, June 18, 2012

Life of a Cactus Part 8: Flowers

Prickly Pear Cactus flower.
As you may deduct from above, if a cactus is ever to reach maturity, it must earn its way.  The cactus first puts years of effort into establishing itself in the harsh desert environment.  Drought, scorching sun, and relentless heat day after day are unforgiving.  Any violation of these harsh desert laws results in death.  Very few cacti survive much past the seedling stage and only those that are fortunate enough to land in ideal soil conditions during a good rainfall year will survive.  Those that do must grow and work to establish themselves as a strong young plant before even a single flower is produced.  Cacti that do flower are survivors to which few other plants are comparable.  Some cacti, such as prickly pears, can flower within a matter of several years after germination.  Others, such as the saguaro, require 35 to 40 years of growth and may be eight feet tall before a single flower is produced.  After the first year of flower production, those that continue to flower and produce seed year after year are even greater survivors.  It isn’t until young cacti grow from their seed however, that these cacti have truly beaten the brutal reality of natural selection in the desert environment.     
Hedgehog Cactus in bloom.
When it comes to cacti and reproduction, water again is central.  This time it’s a little different though.  The normally water conservative cactus becomes quite liberal with water use in flower and fruit production.  Many cacti produce very succulent, tender, and beautiful flowers containing lots of water.  If you were to touch the petals you would notice a slight succulence.  Then, touching the inside of the flower you would notice a slightly sticky dampness.   This is odd when compared to other typical desert plants that produce much drier and water conservative flowers.  So why would the cactus put so much water into flower production?  Why is it wasting this water?  If a cactus could talk it would probably say it is not wasting the water at all.  Rather, the wetness of the flower displays its heavy dependence as well as contribution to the animal world around it.  The cactus gives a little and takes a little.  In the form of nectar, the cactus flower provides both water and food for animals.  Bats, bees and other insects, as well as birds look to cacti as both a food and water source in the hot dry desert.  Often, the moisture found in a cactus flower is the most available source of hydration smaller desert animals can find at certain times of the year in the desert.  This water and food source often becomes a magnet for activity during flowering time.  The cactus flower can become a small swarm of buzzing insects looking for nourishment.  The cactus doesn’t just give out nectar just because it’s nice though, it does expect something in return.  When bugs, birds, and bats feed on cacti nectar, they also inadvertently pick-up pollen.  The pollen is then carried to the next cactus flower as the animal searches for more nectar.  In this way pollen is distributed from one flower to the next and pollination is accomplished.  Without bugs, birds, or bats carrying out this pollination cactus fruits and seeds would never form.  So the cactus gives a little and takes a little. 

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