Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cute as a button!

Escobaria echinus

There are those who don't like cacti. Even those people make an exception for these little golfballs with outlandish, unbelievably beautiful blossoms. If you are one of those who actually likes cacti, the miniature gems scattered liberally across much of Western America are the very quintessence of our marvellous flora. They are tough. They are often rare and obscure. They have a fascinating stem and spine structure interesting in their own right, and evident all year long. And when their flowers open, time stands still for a while and nearby angels can be heard strumming--not harps, of course--but perhaps a bluegrass or country melody. Nothing says "America" like cactus (in fact, it's down right unAmerican to dislike them I think!). You can hardly be out of sight of one prickly pear or another throughout the American West at lower altitudes. Sophisticated gardens in the Denver area are sporting more and more and more cacti of all kinds in their rock gardens and xeriscapes.

There was a time when collecting plants was not just tolerated by expected. Of course, that was the time when there were more plants than gardeners in the West. Cactus fanciers were perhaps especially guilty of overcollection, but in the last two decades a much more responsible ethic has kicked in. There are now dozens of specialty nurseries cranking out tens of thousands of cactus seedlings ongoingly: many of the rarest American cacti are now available in tremendous quantities, wholesale. There is no excuse to collect these in the wild any longer especially since nursery grown plants are invariably much cleaner and more easily established.

Escobaria echinus is not as rare as most: in fact it can be quite abundant in much of the western Texas--especially in rough limestone country in the Big Bend area. I have found thick colonies hundreds of miles further east near Abilene (and area where they are hitherto not recorded). Considering its range of many hundreds of square miles, the taxon seems to be pretty uniform, generally growing to about handball size, covered with dense white spines--sometimes forming clumps with dozens of heads. The comparatively huge flowers usually last a single day. They are invariably a clear yellow, often with a reddish throat. This one bloomed for me on August 15--my Saint's day!

Pat Hayward, CEO of Plant Select, once said nurseries should rate plants on a "cuteness quotient": this ball cactus is off the charts by that measure.

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