Pincushion Cactus

This week I ventured up a wash that leads deep into South Mountain Park. Unlike many washes that are rocky and impassible, this dry streambed is level and sandy for some way.  I’ve come across owls up here before, both Great Horned, and Long-eared, so I was keeping a sharp eye out. And I did see two owls, one on my way in and one coming home! In both cases I spooked the hunters from their day roosts in trees along the upper shoulder of the wash, so caught only a glimpse as they sailed off and away from me. As thrilling as this is, I am sorry to disturb them!  

This pincushion cactus was more willing to pose for photographs. But I consider it no less a miracle to see. What are the chances I would happen up this wash at exactly the time this little cactus put out its pretty blooms? 

Less than six inches tall, the pincushion cactus often grows from cracks in rocks, and it’s usually found in the shade of other plants. The setting of buds and the bloom of the flowers are stimulated by rains, so can vary year to year. Its surprising that this pincushion has such a nice set of flowers given the very small amount of rain we’ve had this winter, and the complete lack of monsoons last summer.

The stem of the pincushion is covered with a spiral pattern of protrusions called tubercles, one spiral goes clockwise and the other counter clockwise. On the tips of these tubercles are small bumps called areoles from which grow a profusion of white spines. Long hooked spines add yet more in defense. 

I hiked up this particular wash last year and saw this same pincushion cactus. In early February, it was already ringed with smooth red fruits. The fruits are edible and quite tasty, but you wouldn’t get much of a meal! The flower blossoms are pollinated by bees drawn by their sweet nectar.

The scientific name for the pincushion is Mammalaria grahamii or Mammalaria microcarpa.  There are 25 named Mammalaria species in the Sonoran Desert region.

Pincushion with fruit
Flower close up



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