Spring in California's deserts is a beautiful thing. The wildflowers are blooming, the birds are singing, the reptiles are out sunning themselves. And, the Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus mojavensis) is beginning to flower!
I have a soft spot for cacti, especially when they burst forth into such radiant and unexpectedly brilliant bloom. I appreciate their unassuming nature: for months cacti lie low, quietly conserving their resources, until just the right moment in spring when they astound desert hikers with their vivid flower show. Last spring, while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, the Claret Cup Cacti in particular caught my eye.
This cactus has a few aliases; it may be found in field guides under the common names Mojave Kingcup Cactus, Mojave Mound Cactus, and Claret Cup Hedgehog Cactus. Its scientific name was formerly Echinocereus triglochidiatus. (It can be a challenge to keep up with botanists and their ever-changing taxonomy.) But thankfully, a Claret Cup Cactus by any other name is still just as beautiful.
The bloom period of Claret Cup Cacti begins in April and lasts through June. You can see in the photo below, taken in early April, the blooms were just beginning to open, with many more to come. Each flower lasts for three to five days, and blooms open in succession for a number of weeks. The flowers provide a source of nectar for hummingbirds, which in turn provide pollination services for the cactus. Later in the summer, the plants produce edible fruit.
The Claret Cup Cactus inhabits dry, rocky or gravelly sites in the Mojave Desert, often associated with Creosote Bush scrub, Joshua Tree woodland, and Pinyon-Juniper woodland. It's range extends from southeastern California east to Utah and Colorado, and south into Texas and Mexico, between about 3,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation. Plants are low growing, reaching about one foot in height, but can attain a spread of several feet, forming mounds of one hundred heads or more.