Sunday, February 26, 2017

Plant Profile: Many-headed Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus)

If I were to ask you to describe the quintessential desert plant, you would say a cactus, right?  Of course.  So then what is the first type of cactus that comes to mind?  Maybe the grand Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert in Arizona.  The tall, branching cactus has become a symbol of the American West, although its distribution is limited to the Sonoran desert of Arizona and Mexico, with a few very isolated populations in the rugged desert mountains of extreme southeastern California.  But we're not talking about the famous Saguaros today, since there are many other fascinating and beautiful species of cacti out there! 


Today, I'd like to introduce you to a lesser-known member of the Cactaceae family, a small cactus known as the Many-headed Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus).

Species account from The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California

Other common names for this cactus include Cotton-top and Mojave Mound.  I like the name "Many-headed Barrel Cactus" best, since it is both descriptive and its Latin species name, polycephalus, directly translates to "many-headed."  This cactus is low-growing, forming large clumps of 20-40 heads.  The larger California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) occurs singly rather than in clumps, and has a ring of yellow flowers around its top, like a crown, when in bloom.  The spines of the Many-headed Barrel Cactus turn a bright reddish-pink color when they are wet.  (It was raining when I took all of these photos.)


The range of the Many-headed Barrel Cactus includes the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  In California, look for them largely in Inyo and San Bernardino counties, with some in Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties; Calflora shows a few specimens occurring in Kern county as well.  Like many cacti, they are found on coarse, gravely and rocky soils, often growing on steep slopes and canyon walls with sharp drainage, up to 6,000 feet in elevation.

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