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1922 - Wyatt Earp's wife thanks William S. Hart for defending her husband's honor [story]
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Back to Nature | Commentary by Linda Castro
| Thursday, Sep 24, 2015

LindaCastroMore than 30 species of cacti can be found in California’s deserts, ranging from the 3-inch fishhook cactus to the towering 30- to 40-foot saguaro. That number does not include plants which some people incorrectly think are cacti, such as yuccas, agaves, ocotillos and Joshua trees.

In my opinion, the best time to look for cacti is in the spring, when most of them are in bloom. But they are all interesting and beautiful at all times of the year. If you can’t make it out to our deserts to see cacti in person, here is a brief tour of some of them.

Engelmann's hedgehog cactusEngelmann’s hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmanii) is a spiny plant found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts on exposed slopes, desert plains and scrubland. It often grows in large clusters, with sometimes as many as 50 stems. Its flowers are bright and colorful, typically magenta or pink, and sometimes purple or lavender. This is one of the most common hedgehog cacti.

Pancake prickly pearThe pancake prickly pear, aka dollar joint prickly pear (Opuntia chlorotica), is large and tall with a thick central trunk and branched clusters. Older plants can reach heights of eight feet or more. The pads are usually five to eight inches long with golden yellow spines that are between one and two inches long. This cactus can be found in southeastern California on rocky slopes, mountain foothills, and scrubland.

Silver chollaThe silver cholla, aka golden cholla, aka Wiggin’s cholla (Clindropuntia echinocarpa), is found in east California on rocky or sandy flats, hillsides and pinyon-juniper woodlands up to an elevation of 5,000 feet. The plant is made up of large, irregular clusters several feet high that are centered on a short, thick trunk. Its blooms are yellow or greenish-yellow with red at the petal tips.

Beavertail prickly pearThe beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris) is found in eastern California in various types of habitats, including scrubland, sandy flats, canyons sides and pine-oak-juniper woodlands up to an elevation of 7,000 feet. This cactus is completely devoid of spines and has grey-blue pads that are shaped like a beaver’s tail (hence the name) which are covered with fine, velvety hairs. The plant is made up of low clumps that grow sideways and does not have a central trunk. Its flowers are a dark pink.

Scarlet hedgehogThe scarlet hedgehog cactus, aka claret cup cactus, aka scarlet beehive cactus (Echinocereus coccineus). can be found in volcanic soils, grasslands, scrubland and pinyon-juniper forests up to an elevation of 5,000 feet in Southern California. The plant forms low clusters with sometimes as many as 100 stems or more. The flowers are typically a bright-orange color, and sometimes pink.

Cushion foxtailThe cushion foxtail (Escobaria alversonii) is found along the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, most frequently in Joshua Tree National Park, in sandy and gravely areas up to an elevation of 4,000 feet. The plant forms small globes with a dense spine covering. Stems typically do not reach more than 10 inches in length. Its blooms are pale pink with a dark pink band.


Mojave prickly pear, aka grizzly bear prickly pear, aka hedgehog prickly pear (Opontia erinacea), is widespread in distribution in scrubland, Joshua tree communities, and pinyon-juniper woodlands in eastern California. The plant consists of spreading clumps without a central trunk. The spines are dense and quite long, between one and seven inches in length (on one plant). The blooms are light yellow with reddish tips.

cholla1The teddybear cholla, aka Bigelow cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelow), can be seen in the Sonoran Desert (southeastern California) on fully exposed slopes and flats. It can reach a height of about five feet. The stems are usually less than five inches long and are covered in thick, gold-colored spines which give the plant a fuzzy appearance. Blooms are green-yellow with small red patches at the tip.

Not only are cacti beautiful; they are also useful to many desert animals. Cacti are an important food and water source for the desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, antelope squirrel and other animals. The cactus wren and California thrasher often build their nests in buckhorn cholla, while the Gila woodpecker and gilded flicker live in burrows that they cut into saguaros.

Indigenous people also had many uses for cacti. For example, they ate the pads and fruit of the beavertail cactus and the buds of the barrel cactus. They also used the buckhorn cholla to treat cuts and burns.

Today, prickly pear cactus is an important commercial crop in Mexico, Latin America, North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Cacti are also used to make a variety of products including candy and perfume.

California’s deserts are beautiful and unique for many reasons – one of them most certainly being the wonderful native cacti that are found here.



Linda Castro is a nature enthusiast and animal lover.  She is the Desert Field Organizer for the California Wilderness Coalition and serves on the board of the SCV-based Community Hiking Club.  Her commentaries relate to California’s deserts.

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1 Comment

  1. Denny Truger says:

    Nice article. Very informative

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