Friday, February 16, 2018

Plant Profile: California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

Spring is creeping up on us, and plans for our annual springtime pilgrimage to the desert of southern California are underway!  Abundant and well-timed rain the past two years have produced prolific displays of wildflowers in places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, Mojave National Preserve, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  (Carrizo Plain, a western outlier of San Joaquin Valley grassland, also put on a phenomenal show last year.) 

This year, the forecast for wildflowers is not so promising, but I'm keeping my hopes up anyway!  Regardless of blooms, beautiful and captivating things always await discovery in our deserts.  I find the sculptural shapes of those favorite of desert denizens, the cacti, attractive at any time.

California Barrel Cactus, it's crown of yellow blossoms just beginning to open in April,
Joshua Tree National Park.

The California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) is a well-known species of cactus throughout its range in the Sonoran and Mojave desert.  Barrel cacti in the genus Ferocactus are found across the deserts of Mexico and Baja California, and four species grow in the American Southwest; only one, the California Barrel Cactus, is found in our state.  They are typically found growing along desert washes, below canyon walls, and on bajadas (gravely slopes of alluvial material) in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Yellow flowers grow in a crown around the top of the plant, blooming from April through June; the fleshy fruits which follow are also bright yellow.  The stems of barrel cacti (really, the whole thing is a giant modified stem) are covered in spines of varying sizes.  Large, fierce spines (Ferocactus literally means "fierce cactus") repel desert critters that might otherwise nibble on the succulent tissue, and the smaller spines provide a measure of protection against the scorching sun by reflecting some of the sunlight and shading the stem.

The flowers must be pollinated in order to set fruit and produce seed, and native solitary bees (not European colonial honeybees) pollinate barrel cacti almost exclusively.  Though known for their hardiness, cacti do eventually reach the end of their lives and when they do, dead cactus tissue provides a habitat for numerous species of beetles, which in turn feed many other desert animals.  Everybody has an important role to the play in the delicate balance of a desert ecosystem.

A close-up of barrel cactus flowers, which are pollinated almost exclusively by cactus-specialist solitary bees.

Though these cacti are cylindrical and distinctly barrel-shaped, they are not filled with water quite as one would imagine.  Rather than being full of water like a barrel, their spiny stems contain wet, spongy tissue.  The soggy pulp inside the stem can be a source of water in an emergency situation, but remember that these cacti are protected in many places and these slow-growing beauties should never be vandalized or removed from the wild!

Native people have long relied on the barrel cactus' flowers and seeds as a source of food; I have also read that the large stems were sometimes hollowed out to fashion cooking pots, and the cactus spines were used as needles.

Barrel cacti growing on a rocky slope along the Rings Trail in Mojave National Preserve.
Bonus photos below, taken just around the corner from the picture above: Petroglyphs at Mojave National Preserve.  

Found along the Rings Trail near Hole-in-the-Wall campground, this rock art is evidence of this region's human past.  The petroglyphs are estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, probably made by the ancestors of the Chemehuevi people (a branch of Southern Paiute) or Mojave people as they lived, sheltered or rested in these rocky outcroppings.  Surely these desert inhabitants were familiar with the barrel cactus and its many uses.

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