Chuck enjoys both the beauty of the great outdoors and the challenge of finding and photographing its wild inhabitants both big and small.
Desert Blooms: Torch Cactus
Recently my wife saw an announcement that the spectacular flowers on the Torch Cacti were blooming in the Cactus Garden at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum is in Tuscon, Arizona.
Last year and the year before, we spent many days and hours hiking around Saguaro National Park West, which lies a couple miles or so north of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, both of which are less than a 45-minute drive from our home.
Torch Cacti Are Not Native to Arizona
As its name implies, Saguaro National Park West is home to hundreds of the iconic Saguaro Cacti as well as a number of species of prickly pear, cholla, barrel and other cacti, all of which flower in the spring.
Unlike the cacti in Saguaro National Park which are native species growing wild in the National Park, the torch cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are not native to Arizona. Instead, they hail from similar desert areas in South America.
Torch cacti also differ from the native cacti in that they are hybrids whose large, beautiful flowers are the product of selective breeding by horticulturalists. I suspect that these cacti have always had beautiful flowers, but the flowers were probably not as large as those on the hybrids. In addition to the size of the flowers, all of these may have had flowers that were the same color whereas now some have white flowers, some red and others yellow.
Flowers of Torch Cactus Only Last One Day or Less
Like the Saguaro and some other species of cacti, the flowers on the torch cactus tend to bloom at night or early morning and wither between the middle and end of the day.
We first saw them shortly after we arrived in mid-morning. There were flowers in full bloom along with tightly wrapped buds. A docent told us that because the day was relatively cool (close to 80° and dry) the flowers were still in good shape but would wither and die by nightfall.
We ended up spending the entire day at the museum and returned to the Cactus Garden late in the afternoon just before the museum closed at 5:00.
The white Big Bertha blooms were withering while the red flowers on nearby Torch Cacti still looked pretty good. Also, some of the buds on the Big Bertha that had been tightly closed in the morning were starting to open.
One was most open late in the afternoon. The opening actually appeared over the course of 30 minutes or so to be a few centimeters wider than it had been 30 minutes earlier. I imagine it was in full bloom later that night.
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Big Bertha Flower Above Is Beginning to Wilt
Compare the picture above with the one at the beginning of the article. Both are pictures of the same plant. However, the first photo of the plant was taken in mid-morning while the one immediately above was taken at about 4:30 in the afternoon.
In the first one, the four buds on top of the cactus are tightly closed while the flower below them is in its prime. However, in the picture above, the bud on the top left is starting to open and the three to its right are on the verge of opening while the flower below is starting to wilt and die.
A Beautiful Old Bishop's Miter Cactus From Mexico
The torch cacti are but one group in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's cactus collection. While most of the cacti are in the Cactus Garden location, there are some in other parts of the Museum.
The Bishop's Miter Cactus in the picture above is another species of cactus a group of which were growing in another part of the museum grounds. This species of cactus is native to north and central Mexico.
These cacti have a single stem and are slow-growing. The stems on many of them have a gentle corkscrew shape. Flowers only appear after many years.
It seems that over time, tiny grey hairs grow on the green stem. The cacti in the picture have been completely covered with these hairs, making the cactus look like it is covered with some type of silver-colored corrosion. Younger ones don't have any of these hairs while slightly older ones have small clumps or spots of grey hairs.
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus
There are a number of types of Hedgehog cacti, all small, ranging in size from about three to six inches for the smaller types to about ten inches for larger types. All of them that I have seen have large flowers that are generally found in various shades of purple.
This particular variety is native to the Mexican state of Baja California Sur (the southern part of the Baja California peninsula that lies between the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean just south of the U.S.border with Mexico).
Various types of hedgehog cactus are common throughout the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. They begin blooming in the spring with some, like the Strawberry Hedgehog cactus above, blooming throughout the summer.
Cactus Garden Is Just One Small Part of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
While the purpose of that day's visit was to see and take pictures of the cactus, there is much more to the museum than the Cactus Garden.
In the seven hours or so that we spent wandering the 2 miles of paved trails that wind through the 98-acre facility, we got to visit other parts of the museum as well. While it is possible to visit the entire facility in 3–5 hours, we were in no hurry and were focused mainly on taking pictures (it is not uncommon for my wife to spend time taking and deleting up to 50 or more pictures of an object or scene before she has the picture she wants) of the numerous blooming cacti.
Hummingbird Nopal Cactus: Beautiful Flowers and Tasty Fruit
The Hummingbird Nopal Cactus in the photo above is not a torch cactus but is instead a member of the prickly pear cactus family. The delicate flowers on the cactus attract hummingbirds (hence the name) as well as bees and butterflies as pollinators.
Like the more common prickly pear variety, the Nopal variety also produces a sweet fruit that can be eaten directly or crushed to produce juice, jams or jellies. It also has some medicinal properties.
This cactus is native to the Western Hemisphere and can tolerate drought and, to some extent, moderate cold. It can be grown indoors as well as outdoors where it can grow to several feet in height.
Like the other cacti discussed here these cactus species, along with many others, can be purchased in nurseries or online.
Speaking of Hummingbirds . . .
We didn't spend the entire time in the Cactus Garden.
Despite spending considerable time in the Cactus Garden and returning to visit it during our all-day visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, we also visited some of the other animal and garden areas while we crisscrossed the vast area covered by the museum. It was a relatively cool (temperature in low 80s) day with low humidity.
Of course, this is Arizona which, among the many other things, is known for skin cancer, so we lathered up with sunscreen a couple of times. We used our own 50 SPF sunscreen that we brought with us, but there were also dispensers in all the restrooms dispensing 30 SPF sunscreen.
With over 400 thousand visitors annually, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a great place to visit, especially during the cooler months of October through April. The museum is open 8:30–5:00 from October through February and 7:30–5:00 from March through September.
© 2019 Chuck Nugent