Spring is a wonderful time of year if you love cactus flowers. Virtually every Southwestern species of cactus is producing flowers now as the days lengthen and ample sunshine heats the air and the soil.
The Summer Rains are Coming
In much of this region, cacti bloom and produce seed just in time for the summer monsoon rain showers. Showers that will water and nurture the tiny seedling babies. Cactus seedlings’ chance of survival is greatly improved the when monsoon rains drop ample water for thirsty wildlife. Otherwise the juicy little baby cacti get eaten by javelina, ground squirrels, pack rats, bunnies, not to mention vegetarian quail and the like. (Wildlife and plants – here)
Oh, what fantastic flowers cacti produce! Every color of the rainbow can be found on the many different species of cacti, often in bold and vivid hues. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, are joined by scarlet, pink, rose, crimson, claret, burgundy, magenta, purple, lavender, cream and white. In some species, the individual blossoms are rainbows in themselves.
Most cactus blooms are not only colorful, they are also large. Some blooms are even huge. The size of the bloom depends, in part, on who is doing the pollinating. Next time you see a cactus flower, take a closer look. Can you tell who the pollinator is?
Cactus Flower Pollinators
Perhaps the most famous cactus flower is the Arizona State Wildflower, the saguaro blossom. The large white flower first opens at night. High in the air, atop this Sonoran desert sentinel, the flowers invite a very special night flyer to pollinate them — bats! Not just any bats, but especially the lesser long-nosed bat.
Like a key in a lock, the head of the lesser long-nosed bat and the shape of a saguaro flower are closely matched. A ravenous bat will flap hard to force its head deep into the bottom of the flowers. Way past its ears, almost “waist” deep in the bloom, the bat will lap up the nectar at the distant base of the huge, cone-shaped flower.
Nectar consumed, the bat emerges from the flower, its head and upper body yellow with pollen. Pollen clings well to the soft fur of this bat. Next stop, another saguaro flower for more nectar. Meanwhile the saguaro bloom makes more nectar to reward the next visitor. Nectar is the stationary giants reward to the busy bats for all their hard work of carrying the pollen from flower to flower. Pollen is a secondary reward. Later, back at the bat cave, excess pollen is licked off the fur, a little protein snack.
Other Night Pollinators
There are a number of night blooming cacti, and not all are pollinated by bats. Night bloomers may be strongly scented with a faint sweetish-musky scent. The scent wafts far in the gentle night breeze, drawing in their pollinators — moths! (But bats come by too.)
In Tucson, a very “famous” flower of the night is the night blooming cereus. It flowers sometime in late May into June. Tohono Chul Park has a hot line you can call to find out when the huge flowers are expected. The Park hosts a special open night for viewing these glamorous glorious, gigantic blooms.
Colorful Cactus Flowers
If you like color, look to the day blooming cacti. They too have their special pollinators.
First on the list is the fuzzy and charming cactus bee. They look somewhat like a honey bee, but they certainly quite act like one! No delicat nectar sipping and tucking pollen grains into pollen baskets. Theses bees approach a cactus flower and just dive right in! The then wallow around in the bloom – thoroughly coating their body with pollen before buzzing off to the next bloom.
No frail flower will stand for their actions. You’ve gotta be tough to have a cactus bee as a pollinator. Cacti pollinated by cactus bees have large, sturdy, wide open flowers, generally featuring the deeper colors of magenta and violet red. They have plenty of space for the bee to wallow around in, getting coated with pollen in the process, of course. I fancifully imagine their tiny delighted cries of “Banzai!” as the dive in – just like we used to do as kids, cannon-balling into the swimming pool.
Here is my YouTube video on these native bees.
Birds Join the Bees
Birds join the bees in pollinating cacti. Doves will clean up any saguaro nectar the bats have missed, visiting many saguaros and spreading pollen. Unfortunately, doves are clumsy, and they often knock the loosely attached flowers to the ground. If the doves only knew, their clumsy action deprives themselves and others of a sweet, juicy, seed-filled fruit that ripens in late June.
Hummingbirds and cacti. While there are some species of hummingbird specific cacti. Look for long, narrow, tubular flowers to attract hummingbirds. I have seen them visit saguaro blooms, but they appear to prefer the senita cactus (Lophocereus schottii).
I have watched the tiny green-yellow verdins busily visiting prickly pear flowers. Verdins are not intended cactus pollinators, according to cactus specialists. Bird people point out that verdins are insectivorous and “merely” are searching for insects in the cactus flowers. I believe that cactus and bird specialists should check their assumptions. I watch the verdins regularly visit hummingbird feeders. They have as much of a sweet tooth as the rest of us. Protein filled insects in the cactus flowers may be a secondary reward for their pollinating services.
Many people do not appreciate cholla (choy-ah). Spring could change their mind. The buckhorn and staghorn cholla are stunning in flower. Florescent-reddish-magenta-purple is one way to describe the color. Later, watch the Arizona State Bird, the cactus wren, use the cholla as the perfect snake and cat-proof nesting site. The New Mexico State Bird, the road runner, is reputed to use cholla joints to build snake traps. But this last is a story for another day.
More about colorful cactus flowers in this book ~
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Cover image – one of the night blooming cacti that bloom into the morning hours.
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