Monday, October 29, 2012

How To Identify a Cactus

The columnar saguaro cactus.  Note the huge column like shape and ribs lined with spines traversing from the bottom to top.
Cacti are one of the most diverse and interesting plant families in the plant kingdom.  Cacti are native only to North and South America but are prized worldwide by plant enthusiasts.  I once worked with a PH.D who was from England but came to the United States specifically to work with cacti.  While you can go to just about any botanical garden in the world to observe cacti, the Southwestern United States and Mexico are probably the best places to observe cacti in the wild (in North America at least).  Within the United States, cacti can be found in the wild in just about every state.  Where I grew-up in Iowa, every once in awhile I would come across plains prickly pears growing in a dry prairie.  Now, living in the Southwest I come across cacti every single day.  The Sonoran Desert is loaded with all kinds of different cacti ranging from the 50 foot Saguaro cactus to the six inch tall pincushion.  Cacti are really not that difficult to identify, at least to the genus or "group" level.  Just about anyone can learn the major groups of cacti simply by looking at three major traits; the shape, ribs, and spines.
Barrel cacti in foreground.  Named after their barrel like shape.  Barrel cacti also have ribs lined with spines.
Shape is possibly the easiest and best way to categorize a cactus.  The most common cactus group is the prickly pears.  These cacti have stems that are sectioned into flat, pear or pancake shaped pads.  The overall prickly pear plant is joined together by these pads typically forming a shrub shape.  Cholla cacti are similar in that the plant is made up of sections, but instead of these sections being flat and pear shaped, they are cylindrical, and the overall plant also is shrub shaped.  Barrel cacti are barrel shaped.  Columnar cacti such as saguaros form tall columns. Tiny pincushion cacti are small and often shaped like an actual pincushion.  Hedgehog cacti are sort of like small columnar cacti that only grow a few feet tall at most, with the small stems bunching together.
A cylindrical cholla cactus section.
Ribs are the next important way of identifying a cactus.  Saguaros and other columnar cacti have long ribs or pilleates that stretch from the bottom of the cactus to the top.  Hedgehogs and barrels also have ribs.  Pincushions, prickly pears, and chollas do not have ribs. 
Prickly pear cactus with flat pear shaped sections.
Lastly spines.  Spines don't always help us distinguish between different groups of cacti but are extremely useful in determining the actual species of cacti.  A few spines like the tiny hairlike glochid are only found on prickly pears.  Glochids are the tiny spines that get stuck in your skin and have to be taken out with a tweezers.  Pincushions typically have tons of white spins which helps give them a "pincushion" like appearance.  Spine color, number, and shape are essential in learning to distinguish specific species of cacti.
Hedgehog cactus

Pincushion cactus.

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