Monday, March 20, 2017

Plant Profile: Optunia basilaris, Beavertail Cactus

Last spring on our desert odyssey, the first glimpse I got of Beavertail Cactus (Optunia basilaris) in bloom was from a moving vehicle - while I was driving.  It was really just a flash of brilliant pink out of the corner of my eye, a bright splotch of color amongst the creosote scrub.  But I knew right away what plant produced those beautiful blooms.  If we had seen no other wildflowers, I think the Beavertails alone would have made the trip worthwhile! 


From first glimpse, I was smitten with the Beavertail Cactus.  Its brilliant pink rose-like flowers are about 3 inches in diameter, with lovely ruffled petals.  They bloom from March to June; as you can see from all of the buds in these photos, the blooms were just beginning to open when I photographed them last March. 


The Beavertail Cactus gets its common name from the shape of its wide, flat succulent stems, which are reminiscent of the shape of a beaver's tail.  The gray-green stems are jointed, dotted with clusters of tiny reddish bristles (called glochids), and grow in clusters.  This plant is low-growing, up to about a foot in height, with a spread of up to six feet in large specimens.


The Beavertail Cactus grows throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, in southeastern California, southern Nevada, western Arizona and southwestern Utah.  It can be found on dry, rocky or gravelly desert slopes with very sharp drainage, at elevations between 300 and 6,000 feet.


Like other members of the Optunia or prickly pear genus, the flowers of the Beavertail Cactus are more than beautiful; they develop into edible fruit that is an important food source for many animals, as well as people.  The flowers are frequented by a variety of pollinators, and are of special value to our native bees.


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