6 Cool Cactus Flowers You'll Find in the Desert
Wait a second, just six?
While there are over 2,000 cacti varieties, you don't come across them all in the Sonoran Desert. For simplicity's sake—and that of my husband's as I quiz him on plant names while we're strolling through the neighborhood— I have selected six cacti that are fairly easy to find and definitely 'wow' with their attractive flowers.
Many cacti appear similar at first, I get it—they're all succulents with thick, fleshy stems that have spines (well, most of them do) and vibrant blooms. On closer inspection, you'll notice the round barrel-like cacti; the short, hairy, tubular ones; flat-padded cacti; and then, of course, Arizona's giant saguaro cactus. If you're living in the desert, or even just visiting, it's neat to be able to identify (a few of) the local plants and flowers.
If all cacti look the same to you, here are several different cacti you'll find in the desert and how to tell them apart (even the three prickly pear types). And if you're interested in desert wildflowers, you'll want to check out this post afterwards.
Blooming season: February to June
The cactus gets its name from its grey-blue fleshy pads that are flat and shaped like beaver tails. Unlike beavers, the cactus can change color (well, takes on a purple tint in arid conditions) and sports a beautiful floral hat (think fuchsia blooms) in the spring.
Before I encountered the Beavertail up close, I referred to it as the naked cactus—I mean, it does appear spineless from afar. Although it doesn’t have the long spines of a prickly pear, its fine bristles and barbed tips will certainly bite you—you can't see them, but they're there.
In spring, 2 - 3 inch wide flowers fan out their petals, appearing almost top heavy. It’s quite a beautiful sight.
The Beavertail Cactus grows in clumps, typically up to 12 inches tall and likes full sun. It thrives in rock gardens and is easy to care for—welcome to the neighborhood, Beavertail.
Chenille Prickly Pear • Old Man's Whiskers
Blooming season: April to June
Texas-native Chenille Prickly Pear gets its name from the small clusters of microspines (glochids) on the cactus pad. The glochids, which are likened to whiskers, can be golden or brown and are found on rounded, green-blue pads (especially around the edge). Longer spines are either absent or few in number.
The blossoms are vibrant shades of orange with broad petals and pointed tips. If you get close, you'll see yellow filaments and a green, lobed stigma.
Chenille Prickly Pears flower in spring to early summer.
Fun fact: the species name, Aciculata, means "covered with small pins" in Latin—a reference to headdresses, how flamboyant!
Engelmann Prickly Pear
Blooming season: April to July
One of the most widespread, spectacular blooming cactus varieties is the Engelmann Prickly Pear. The cactus clusters can be identified by their broad, flat green pads with protruding white spines (less than 3 inches long) and tiny microspines.
The spines on an Engelmann Prickly Pear are widely spaced. Two to six spines grow from each areole (spine-bearing area) and point downwards.
Spring brings gorgeous yellow and peach-colored flowers, while summer brings the vibrant pink fruit (tuna) used for shrubs and syrups locally.
Engelmann Prickly Pears can grow up to five-feet tall and live up to 20 years.
They’ll grow anywhere where the soil is sandy or gravelly… like my neighborhood (and most of Tucson).
Long-spined Prickly Pear
Blooming season: March to June
This cactus is also referred to as the Purple Prickly Pear. Regardless, it's easy to remember because the name is descriptive—the spines are long and the pads bear a purple tint. ;)
The Long-spined Cactus is found in the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico. It's the third Prickly Pear genus and Opuntia species (known for purple pigmentation in the stem) on our list.
The purple tint is the most intense at the edges of the gray-blue (or blue-green) cactus pads. When the plant is stressed, by drought or cold, it produces more purple pigment (betalain). When I'm stressed, I eat sugar and sleep poorly—who do I have to call about this betalain idea?
The upward-pointing spines can be predominantly seen on the upper half of the pad, up to 4 inches (10cm) in length. Many spines have white tips—they look like porcupine quills to me.
Then come the flowers, peach or yellow (with red at the base), on the upper edge of each pad. They're unique.
Blooming season: Late April to June
These large, tree-like cacti grow on warmer south-facing slopes in Arizona's Sonoran Desert; Sonora, Mexico; and parts of California. The iconic Saguaro can grow up to 25 arms but some never do—we call the latter a spear. It's the largest cactus in the US and is protected in Arizona—harm the spiny beast and you’re breaking the law.
The slow-growing cactus, reaching 40 - 60 feet (12 - 18m), can live up to 200 years old. The cactus trunk can reach 2.5ft in diameter with up to 30 spiny ribs. Its spines shoot straight out and are as strong as metal needles—you don't want to encounter one, I assure you.
If you've traipsed through the desert, you've likely spotted a Saguaro 'carcass'—my term for its wooden skeleton. The skeleton is made up of dense, wooden 'ribs' that make excellent building materials and home decor—make sure you contact the Arizona Department of Agriculture before harvesting the skeletons.
Late spring, milky white flowers bloom atop the Saguaro for a less than 24 hours. Blink and you’ll miss them… almost. The waxy flowers, between 3 - 5 inches long, open after sunset and close mid-afternoon. The flowers cross-pollinate, attracting honey bees, bats, and doves.
Keep your eyes peeled for a Crested Saguaro—only 1 in 10,000 saguaros grow an abnormal formation on top. I've only seen one and it's quite a sight.
Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus
Blooming season: March to May
The Scarlet Hedgehog cactus is the belle of the ball with bright orange-red flowers.
The cactus grows in clusters, up to 16 inches in length, with up to 100 stems–yep, you read correctly. It's a clumping cactus that ranges from spineless to densely-spined. Spines start as yellow and fade to grey in a few years.
The vibrant flowers, around an inch in diameter and 3in long, sport rounded petals with lime-green stigma. They attract hummingbirds and bees.
The Scarlet Hedgehog cactus delights in unfavorable conditions and is the perfect addition to a cactus-rock garden. Ooh la la.
I hope that you're inspired to start identifying local blooms and cactus varieties on your neighborhood and trail walks. There are so many beautiful flowers popping up, it's hard not to photograph them all. However, if I've left out one of your favourites, let me know and I'll add it to the list.
Starting with wildflowers, followed by cactus blossoms and golden Palo Verde trees, we are spoilt with colorful sprays in late spring and early summer here in Tucson, Arizona. If you happen to witness the blooming season, soak it all up while you can. :)