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Cacti of the Southwest - Cactus Photographs

As a full-time RV'er, Stephanie writes about many natural wonders to be found in the U.S. National Parks and Monuments are her favorites.

The stately saguaros proudly preside over the desert landscape.

The stately saguaros proudly preside over the desert landscape.

Close Encounters With a Cactus

Like almost everyone growing up on the East coast, my close encounters with cacti consisted of seeing little dish gardens in greenhouses and meeting an occasional cactus at a friend’s house. I could never figure out the attraction to these unfriendly little plants. The cacti of the dish garden not only didn't flower, but they would stick you any chance they got, drawing blood if they could. They definitely did not appeal to me!

It was many years before I had the chance to see a “real” cactus in its natural desert landscape environment. When I did, I fell in love. This article is about cacti I’ve known and loved as we traveled through the southwest deserts in our RV.

Agave seed pods shoot high above the plant.

Agave seed pods shoot high above the plant.

Standing next to an Agave at Big Bend, I felt shorter than my five feet.

Standing next to an Agave at Big Bend, I felt shorter than my five feet.

The first real cacti that I met close up were in Big Bend National Park. The size of the cacti amazed me, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of every cactus that I saw. As we drove through Texas in our motorhome, the landscape was dotted with vegetation. It was only when we finally arrived at Big Bend National Park and began walking the trails that we realized how large some of the cactus plants were.

While the agave is classified as a succulent, in my ignorance, I lumped it together with all the other huge, thorny plants that we found growing around Big Bend National Park and thought of it as another cactus.

The Agave, a succulent, introduced itself to me at Big Bend National Park.  It was only when I stood next to it and looked at it eye-to-eye that I realized its size.

The Agave, a succulent, introduced itself to me at Big Bend National Park. It was only when I stood next to it and looked at it eye-to-eye that I realized its size.

The Magnificent Saguaro Cactus

My first sight of a saguaro (pronounced suh-wah-roh) cactus was in the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona as we made our way toward Tucson. Saguaros dotted the hills here and there, and I couldn’t wait to get a closer view. When we finally did drive into Saguaro National Park, I was speechless! The amazing giants appeared everywhere, alone or in groups and in seemingly endless forests. Some were tall, dignified towers without branches while others stood comically with arms akimbo, reaching for the sky or pointing at some distant hill. Knowing that a saguaro cactus takes 40 years to reach a height of ten feet and doesn't begin sprouting branches until it's around 75, made it more awesome. Some of the 30-foot-tall giants that we saw must have been over 100 years old!


This Saguaro cactus in the Sonora Desert of Arizona is probably well over 100 years old.

This Saguaro cactus in the Sonora Desert of Arizona is probably well over 100 years old.

Ocotillo Cacti Are a Common Sight on The Desert Landscape

The Ocotillo Cactus grows in groups of straight branches reaching for the sky. When I first saw them in Arizona, it was during a dry spell in January, and they all looked gray and dead. However, a week or so after a rain, we noticed the stems turning green as they sprouted tiny green leaves up and down every branch. It was so delightful to see the feathery red blooms appear at the ends of each long branch, and sometimes, if we were lucky, we would see bright hummingbirds buzzing around the blooms!

The Ocotillo sprouts leaves on its gray branches four or five days after rain and will bloom a few weeks later with feathery red blossoms that hummingbirds love.

The Ocotillo sprouts leaves on its gray branches four or five days after rain and will bloom a few weeks later with feathery red blossoms that hummingbirds love.

An Ocotillo Cactus will show its beautiful red blooms a week or two after a rain. Hummingbirds will soon be here to feed on them.

An Ocotillo Cactus will show its beautiful red blooms a week or two after a rain. Hummingbirds will soon be here to feed on them.

Teddy Bear Cholla Sound Cute, But...

Teddy Bear Cholla are found over the southwest, sometimes alone, but often in large congregations. When the sun hits them, they look so deceivingly fuzzy and soft that it's not hard to see why they were named "Teddy Bear." However, I learned the hard way that their other name, Jumping Cholla, is well deserved! I inadvertently backed into one while photographing some wildflowers, and spent the next 15 minutes whimpering in pain as my husband removed thorns from my, ahem...tender flesh. The thorns don't really jump, but all it takes is a light brush with the plant, and you'll have a painful reminder not to invade the cholla's space!

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Teddy Bear Chollas look fuzzy and harmless, but don't be fooled! Their thorns will stick fast even pierce your sneakers!

Teddy Bear Chollas look fuzzy and harmless, but don't be fooled! Their thorns will stick fast even pierce your sneakers!

Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus with buds.

Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus with buds.

cactus-on-the-desert-landscape

The Yucca Blossom is a Show Stopper

It was common to see the Yucca wherever we went in the southwest, but the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas was abloom with them when we visited. Although the Yucca is not in the cactus family (it's an Asparagaceae), I didn't know that until much later. To me, any plant in the Southwest that was out to draw blood must be a cactus! The pink-tinged buds are just as beautiful as the striking creamy white blossom heads that eventually bloom with a profusion of flowers.

A Yucca in bud at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

A Yucca in bud at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

The Yucca bursts into bloom.

The Yucca bursts into bloom.

Yucca seed pods are silhouetted against the sun as they shoot high into the air on older plants.

Yucca seed pods are silhouetted against the sun as they shoot high into the air on older plants.

cactus-on-the-desert-landscape

Staghorn Cholla Blooms

The Staghorn Cholla was just coming into bloom in March as we headed out the dirt roads towards Castle Dome. I watched closely to see if I could spot the flowers that were usually on the sunny side and towards the bottom of the plant. As the weather was getting warmer, there were other plants beginning to flower and leaf out, making it difficult to have a clear view of what was on the ground. I definitely did not want to step on a rattler or some other venomous critter, so I stepped VERY carefully in my photography expeditions!

Staghorn Cholla near Imperial Dam Recreation Area in southern Arizona started bloomin in March while we were camping nearby.

Staghorn Cholla near Imperial Dam Recreation Area in southern Arizona started bloomin in March while we were camping nearby.

The flowers of the staghorn cactus were sometimes to hidden by branches of the cactus, but I found a few blooms by looking carefully.

The flowers of the staghorn cactus were sometimes to hidden by branches of the cactus, but I found a few blooms by looking carefully.

Organ Pipe Cactus at Organ Pipe National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument was a desert garden the year that we were there. Several rainstorms in January provided just enough moisture for flowers to bloom and the desert was turning green. Organ Pipe cacti only grow in a small portion of the southern Sonora desert. They are amazing in their own way as the tall stalks point skyward. They are the second-largest cactus (saguaro is the largest) and will reach heights of 23 feet when mature. Here and there in the desert were the skeletons of old cacti looking like driftwood on the desert floor.

Organ pipe cactus is seldom seen outside of Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona.

Organ pipe cactus is seldom seen outside of Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona.

Cacti: Beautiful, Proud, Formidable Survivors

The cacti that I photographed in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were a far cry from the cactus dish gardens of my experience. Cacti in their natural habitat were imposing and majestic, comical and beautiful. The cacti of the desert landscape survive the harsh conditions of drought and summer heat. They provide food and shelter to wildlife and, at certain times of the year, decorate the desert with their charming flowers and fruit.

Silhouetted against the blue sky or red rocks, cacti have a beauty and grace that belies their toughness and resilience. I hope you've enjoyed my collection of cactus photographs as much as I've enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite places through these pictures.

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel

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