Plants of the Western Slope June 28, 2017
By Evelyn Horn
Published Thursday, June 29, 2017 10:22 am
Photo by Allen Horn Cactus in bloom
The landscape looks poorly -- rather like the 'dobes! There were some birds at Hart's Basin. We found about 25 American white pelicans (just swimming along), one white-faced ibis, four or so western grebe, a bunch of coots, and loads of the usual too-plentiful Canada geese.
As we drive away, the contrast between Vela's irrigated fields on our left, and the 'dobe hillside on the right is striking. Amazing what a little water can accomplish! And equally amazing is the hillside just beyond the road, for it is a golden-hued, thick with blooming cactus! We stop and admire them. What a marvelous display! Most of them are a bright yellow although I've seen red ones in the past.
These charming little fellows are properly known as Opuntia polycantha. In long ago Greece, the scientist, Theophrastus, used this name, but we don't know which plant he was describing! Oh well. The term polycantha means "many+spines." If you look closely, you can see the shadows of the "glochids" on the cactus pads. These innocent looking little spots are filled with tiny spines, felt before they are seen and extremely painful to humans. I remember picking them out of my husband's back when he accidentally backed up into an Opuntia! Never happened again!
Notice the grayish tone to the photo. What you see is cheat grass gone to seed. This invasive species of grass can be found across North America. It burns very rapidly and very hot. I've read of concerns for the desert flora to our south with the creosote bushes being threatened by their fire.
Another cactus should be considered: Opuntia fagilaris or potato cactus. This plant breaks apart very easily and often hybridizes with ours. Opuntias can come in yellow, orange, red, pink and any color in between and Weber suggests that this may result from the potato cactus hybridizing with other species.
The flowers of our cactus are short-lived. Enjoy them while you can.