Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The DANGEROUS Christmas Cactus!

Echinocereus coccineus at Denver Botanic Gardens dryland mesa
There is a wonderful blog I follow called "Danger Garden": she ain't got nuthin' on ME when it comes to danger: for me these enormous hedgehog or claret cup cacti exercise an almost fatal attraction! Alas, the term "Christmas Cactus" has been purloined by the very tame Zygocactus (which admittedly do bloom at the right time for the name)--but there is something about our ubiquitous, widespread and wonderful giant cushion hedgehog cacti of the West--especially the taxon that has been called Echinocereus mojavensis or E. coccineus--that has always struck me as Christmassy in a sort of hulking, menacing way! Even though it blooms in the Northern Hemisphere from late April to June depending on altitude. (Come to think of it...they should be blooming about now in the SOUTHERN hemisphere--they ARE Christmas cacti down there! HA!

You can find these awesome cushions from the Intermountain region--throughout Canyonlands for instance--across much of the higher Chihuahuan desert and steppe highlands to the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado. Stumbling (figuratively of course) on one of these in full bloom is always a magical moment--like watching a volcano of molten crimson magma near at hand (and almost as dangerous!)...Their numbers have diminished--and collection is undoubtedly a problem: don't do it--buy little ones: they will grow much faster in gardens than in the wild--and it's fun to watch them do it!

Echinocereus coccineus blooming late May this year on a corner in Littleton, Colorado
 I have driven by this monster a hundred--nay! a thousand times over the decades--always admiring the terrible symmetry of its glistening spines and orotund form. This spring I finally drove by when it was in full bloom. It is obviously very happy where it's situated...The color is a tad more orange than others of its delightful ilk...

 Echinocereus coccineus on the dry flats near Moab
 I particularly admire the wonderful white spines on this specimen I found seven years ago in late April near Moab. The red badminton birdie flowers are none too shabby either. Words really are feeble vessels to describe or try to anyway these encrusted carapaces of cacophonous red. Did I mention that I love these?

Methusalah of the Canyonlands near Moab
I have probably photographed twenty or more people sitting alongside this specimen. In fact, I've taken two tours to Utah in spring--and this is always a highlight of the trip: there are those that say they don't love cacti. They're so full of it! How can you not admire, marvel and just plain gasp at the utter majesty of this display? Have I mentioned that I love these things?

Enormous Echinocereus coccineus a the Grand Junction cactus garden (at the old Fairgrounds on Orchard Mesa)

There is a long and amusing story about how this enormous claret cup was moved to this Xeriscape garden. This is not the time to share it--but I would like to acknowledge how majestic these are even OUT of bloom! Not many plants evince an air so venerable and imposing...

A reprise of the clumps at DBG's Dryland Mesa
Somewhere I have told the story of how the two large coccineus at the Dryland Mesa were moved here in the 1990's (easily 20 years ago) from the site of the old cactus garden at Red Rocks that was replaced by the expanded gift shop there...we were invited to rescue these: the plants had grown at that garden for decades when they were moved, and I am sure they'd been put in there already as fairly large clumps. I don't think there is a way of knowing for sure, but I suspect these clumps are well over 50 years old. Who knows how old the other ones in this series may actually be?

Tonight a cold front is blowing into Denver--the temperatures approached 70F yesterday, and tomorrow night may go well below zero--a rather shocking differential...can you blame me for dreaming about these festive flowers from the flip side of the seasons?

Why do I love to live in the West? Look above and you'll see a half dozen excellent reasons!


  1. I'm having heart palpitations.
    Thank you very much ;>]]

  2. I thought I might have "rescued" one of these from the fields around Truth or Consequences, NM last October. However David C (http://dryheatblog.wordpress.com) came up with another name when I asked him what he thought it was. Oh well. Beautiful photos and I'm blushing that you even mentioned my blog. I had a 4 hr layover in Denver on my way home from that NM trip and only later realized I probably could have squeezed in a trip to the DBG....someday!

  3. My Echinocereus are looking very white and blobby this morning under 8" of snow. Springtime dreams of fiery red flowers. Maybe I'll go visit the enormous specimens on Stansbury Island on the GSL again next year...

  4. You know how to get to me Susan: Long have I wanted to visit that island--especially in early spring to see the Ranunculus andersonii I know grows there! So they have big claret cups too? Cool...Sorry we missed you, Ms Danger! You must not miss the chance to visit Denver Botanic Gardens--it's a marvel if I don't say so myself. And sorry to hear of your (hopefully temporary) heart condition, Christi! Glad you like these spiny things too!

    1. If you're ever in UT in mid-March, I'd be happy to arrange a trip to show you all the goodies.

    2. Better watch out what you suggest! I may take you up on it (I'm not overscheduled this March I notice...)

    3. I was just noticing the native plant society and rock garden group are planning a trip to Stansbury for sometime in the next 3 or 4 weeks to go see Ranunculus andersonii. Remembered this post and thought I'd mention it.

    4. Thanks for the heads up: There is a remote possibility I might join in! I'm not too heavily scheduled mid March...

    5. If you find yourself interested, let me know what might work best with your schedule and a group of us will arrange a trip!

  5. Hello Panayoti, I have been thinking about the reason cactuses and succulents have such thick stems and leaves. Although I believe thick stems and leaves are an adaption for a dry climate, I do not believe water storage is the selection criterion that has driven this adaption. If water storage was the selection criteria, then why wouldn't all desert plants have thick ROOTs to store water? If succulence is not an adaption to store water, then why do most desert plants have thick leaves or stems?


  6. I agree that succulence is probably not a mechanism for STORING water for Desert Plants--in fact that succulence in some ways is a liability (since it requires that they imbibe and gold extra water just to stay turgid): in fact, many desert plants avoid the whole process altogether by being annuals, or deciduous and simply "going into hiding" during the long dry spells. I believe that the succulence is largely a mechanism that desert plants adopt because they need the bulk of matter to efficiently perform their Crassulean Acid Metabolism functions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crassulacean_acid_metabolism) which require an abundance of tissue for storage of the chemicals, enzymes and have the "laboratory space" so to speak to actually perform the complex functions that provide the plant with carbohydrates to survive. As this article shows, the CAM phenomenon has occurred independently in numerous unrelated plant families--and in practically EVERY instance it results in plants with greater leaf or stem succulence: the two go hand in hand (so to speak--or should I say leaf-in-leaf?). There is one instance where I believe that succulence IS a form of water storage and that's in the MANY MANY root and lower stem succulents that are far more prevcalent in xeric habitats (Mediterranean and semi-arid as well as truly arid) than in mesic habitats. In cactus and succulent circles these are called "Pachycauls" or Big Foot plants--like Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea Recurvata) and the innumerable plants that some people specialize in growing for their swollen roots--that are exposed in pots--although in nature plants like Trichodiadema for example (always grown with most of the root exposed above the pot in cultivation) the root is invariably below the ground surface in the wild. These I have absolutely no doubt are water storage organs more than vessels for CAM metabolism.

    1. Hi Panayoti,

      Here is something I found on the topic.


      I was thinking more along the lines of the information covered in "Adaptions to Other Desert Conditions." The fact being that succulence allows heat to be drawn away from the surface more quickly. However, the physiological needs of the CAM process are likely the more important criteria for selection.



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