September 29, 2015

Cactus liberation, and a local opuntia

Salad days. (Hesperoyucca whipplei.)

Saturday morning I set off on a mission to liberate a couple paddles of Cow's Tongue Prickly Pear  (Opuntia engelmannii var. linguiformis), and check out some opuntias in the wash. There are two thickets of Cow's Tongue growing at the base of a slope below the Mousley Museum, and the museum's president of operations kindly told me to knock myself out (thanks, Claire!), so the expedition was on. I parked by the arroyo below the museum, and walked back up the road to the cactus.

How to get closer? 

This approach looks risky.

This side looks better.
[takes out large knife, avoids eye contact with passing motorists]

Cow's Tongue is native to Texas and northern Mexico, and is now found all over the Southwest, because it's gorgeous. It also has the advantage of being frost hardy to at least -22F (according to this site. Beautiful cactus photos there...). 

Wonderful big fruits, deep burgundy.

Mission accomplished! Two nice paddles sliced off and bagged. Next: find those opuntias in the wash. I know you're out there...

Chaparral, opuntia, two dried H. whipplei stalks like ivory tusks. Lizards were perfectly camouflaged until they darted. Rattlesnakes held their peace: too hot by now for much activity. 

Deeper into the wash...

Cylindropuntia californica var. parkeri, valley/cane/snake cholla. 

The big dirt nap.

What a beautiful little cactus!

There may be three species of opuntia growing here in the wash. Let's check Jepson. (California plant mavens can probably skip this next bit.)

"The Jepson eFlora is the foremost authority on the native and naturalized plants of California. For plants occurring in wildlands or otherwise outside of cultivation, the Jepson eFlora contains taxonomic treatments, distribution maps, illustrations, photographs, and identification keys."

Here in the wash we might have Opuntia littoralis, but the elevation is about 2700 feet and this area does get snow in the winter, so I'm leaning (carefully) toward frost-hardy Opuntia phaeacantha. And look at those spines on the cactus in the photo below -- yikes. Littoralis is extremely variable, but phaeacantha has the longest spines of the possible species, as far as I can tell. There may also be Opuntia ×vaseyi (O. littoralis × O. phaeacantha) growing here, but again... cold winters. I need to go back and take more photos, and in the meantime, phaeacantha gets my I-am-so-not-a-botanist vote.

This warmed my heart so much. The closest-to-home record of O. phaeacantha, according to the Jepson map, lists its locality as "Igo's Store, first canyon on the road to Barton Flats. San Bernardino Mt. Range." Small world! My great-grandparents spent summers up the road at Forest Home when their children were young, in the early 1900s, and I can't tell you how many times I heard older relatives speak of Igo's. 

Opuntia phaeacantha, I think. Cochineal for sure.

"Note: Igo's Store is present location of Mountain Home Village, Hwy 38, San Bernardino Mtns., San Bernardino Co." added one S.D. White in 2006. The shades of my ancestors would like me to point out that Igo's was in fact on the other side of State Route 38. Eye-goes. Thank you, botanist Lyman Benson, for adding some sweet memories to the weekend cactus hunt!


  1. What a great post! It's one thing seeing plants in nurseries or gardens but tracking them down in the (semi) wild is so much more exciting.

    I'm not an opuntia expert, but I have an Opuntia littoralis and its spines aren't as long as the specimen's in your photos. O. phaeacantha sounds like a very educated guess.

    1. Thanks! On the way home months ago I thought I caught a glimpse of a Claret Cup (Echinocereus mojavensis), which was one of the reasons I was looking around on Saturday. Of course they aren't found anywhere near here, but I'm still hoping, and still looking...

  2. You are a good botanist. This is a difficult ID which makes many experts pause.

    Good work on the ID. California plant mavens LOVE this. And so do plant historians; neat about the store.

    Yes, littoralis is easy to rule out because it is supposed to have 4–11 spines per areole; yours does not, it has 0-2.

    You can rule out engelmannii var. engelmannii the same way: spines 3–12 in all areoles.

    That leaves us with x vaseyi and phaeacantha. Since we have no flowers or fruit we have to look at the spines. Phaeacantha has 1–4(6) per areole on distal 30–70% of segment, fewer proximally, largest 3–8 cm, spreading, distal 1–2 red-brown near base, distally white or straw, smaller 1–3 ± reflexed, generally white or gray. X vaseyi spines are generally 0–4 per areole, longest generally 3–4.8 cm, generally straight, spreading to reflexed, yellow, generally ± white-coated, base brown or yellow, smaller spines 0–4, ± 5 mm.

    In your photo, the reddish-brown base is evident and many are reflexed. I think you got it right. This opuntia complex is very difficult to key.

    I'm sure this is exactly what you did. I think your ID is a good one. I agree with it.

    Do you use Flora of North America online? It has nice illustrations for this species

    1. Jane, yes! You would have laughed -- I was in front of the computer with a magnifying glass at one point, going back and forth between Jepson and my photos (round spines? flat? are there six?), oy. No two opuntias in that area looked the same ("highly variable," no kidding), but I'd bet a Starbucks that all the ones I saw are phaeacantha. Lyman Benson did record a ×vaseyi at the opposite end of the Crafton Hills, but it's warmer there...

      Thanks for the Flora of North America link! (I was also using Calflora. Their "What Grows Here?" feature is a real time sink.)

  3. Great tour. Every time I see those pics of the chaparral, I remember TV specials on rattlesnake bites from the Mojave about a place to be careful! Our western diamondbacks are mellow in comparison.

    Cactus - Jane's comments are great. That site you mention: I know their DJF, and the Sandia foothills are where I lived my last 15 years in Albuquerque. Like your area, but drier and 3000' higher. Some of their listed cold temps seem generous, and that's with dry soil.

    From personal experience, it seems there are 2 types of cow's tongue, which I think are actually O. linguiformis-related, not engelmannii -
    1) long pad ones, like one of your pics = damage at +5F, die outright near -10 to -5F (mine died a bad death)
    2) short pad ones, often more yellow = damage at -5 to 0F, not sure when they die as some in my area took the all-time lowest temp at -11F and were mostly fine.

    I remember the O. littoralis by my aunt's house on the canyon slopes - much different that what you have.

    Fun stuff!

    1. David, thanks! And thanks for the first-hand information about cold hardiness. Those low temps from the European nursery site did surprise me.

      Ah, rattlesnakes. The ones I've always seen in our area are the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, and they get nothing but big, big respect from me. And talk about perfect camouflage...! Here's an old rattlesnake post.

  4. You're a braver woman than I. I love the look of Opuntia but, when it comes down to it, I can never decide where it's safe to plant it in my own garden without putting myself or others in harm's way. For now, I content myself with viewing it in botanic gardens.

  5. Oh, no, I'm a huge chicken! I'm always stunned to see collections like this (beautiful -- but they're RIGHT THERE, oh please be careful)... My opuntias are all in pots above a retaining wall, away from guests and the dogs. Ask me about the time I tripped and fell into a cactus at my great-aunt's place, owww :~((( Still remember that one. (I was a preschooler.)


Comments are moderated. Some HTML tags [italics, linkage] work fine.