Sunday, December 25, 2016

Escobaria vivipara: what's in a name?

Escobaria vivipara var. bisbeeana

One of my cactophile Facebook friends has challenged me to do a blog about cacti:I could, should and probably will do dozens if not hundreds of blogs about succulents--since these are among my favorite groups of plants...and one species in particular is near and dear to my heart. One of the most widespread ball cacti in North America is Escobaria vivipara: it can still be found abundantly here and there throughout the West from Canada to Mexico, and from the Great Plains to the Great Basin. If you happen to grow one or two accessions of "nipple cactus" (alas, its best known common name), you have barely begun to test it. It grew wild a few blocks from my home at the edge of Denver where Harlan Hamernik collected a batch of seed he grew and sold through Bluebird Nursery for years. That colony is now an apartment complex (I believe there are more another mile or so down the road). I have seen it in Kansas and many places in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona--and all over my native state. Each colony seems a little different, and varietal names have been coined for some extreme forms you see here. What unites them all is that they tend to be quite adaptable and easily grown--from seed preferably!

Here are a few shots from my archives...

Escobaria vivipara var.rosea

This rare subspecies from Nevada was given to Denver Botanic Gardens almost 34 years ago by botanists from the B.L.M. Long gone, alas--except for this scanned image.

Escobaria vivipara var. buoflama
I got this one from Mesa Gardens...

Escobaria vivipara var.cicipara
I photographed this in central Kansas.

obaria vivipara var.cicipara
Here is a New Mexican form growing with a Turkish succulent in a trough in my garden.

Aobaria vivipara var.deserti
Amother very different one--growing in the Barnett Garden in Pueblo (more about them in the end)

Escobaria vivipara
I was shocked to find these long, columnar forms growing in the display garden at Wild Things in Pueblo==I never dreamed they'd grow so tall!

Escobaria vivipara var.cicipara and Convolvulus boissieri v. compactus
The one on the left came from my ex-wife's ranch in West Texas near Abilene. Growing with a very different plant from Turkey on the right...

Escobaria vivipara var.cicipara
One of my favorite sites for this cactus in the wild in Wyoming not far from Laramie.There are hundreds there in the grass growing with a welter of choice wildflowers. I brought Ron McBeath (head of Alpine and Herbaceous plants at RBG Edinburgh at the time) here many years ago--and he couldn't believe it!

Escobaria vivipara at Wild Things
William Weber stupidly accuses the "International Rock Garden Trade" of exploiting these cacti in the wild in the intro to several of his Floras. Of course, most rock gardeners avoid cacti like the plague. Besides,they're being produced in enormous numbers by nurseries like Wild Things where this was photographed: I don't believe many hobbyists collect ball cacti any more: why bother when you can have an unblemished nursery specimen cheaply? I've known Bill since I was a child--and he writes beautifully and well, but he is horribly ignorant about anything touching on horticulture. Had to spit that out.

Aha! I've lured you to the bait!

This is all preamble to let you know that Escobaria vivipara and dozens of other taxa are much more exhaustively treated in this wonderful new book than you can begin to imagine, starting with county map distributions, and fantastic photography throughout. Just click on the Cactus of Colorado and
you can order your copy! (Full disclosure: I did write the Foreword--but I don't get any kickbacks!)


  1. I have some of this species in my garden that I grew from seed. They are all really small and I question whether they will ever get large enough to bloom. The few I put in a pot and store in my insulated garage through very cold winter weather are doing better. Still, I am impressed that these cactuses have survived the very cold northern Illinois winters.

  2. Be sure to feed them a bit in the spring: dryland plants need nourishment! And perhaps the company of some small alpines (that will help to take up extra water during rainy spells). In nature, Escobaria vivipara almost always grows among grasses and small perennials--I think there is some symbiosis going on with their neighbors: just a hunch!

  3. I do give this bed 1/2 strength fertilizer every two weeks in Spring. Although I grow this cactus and alpines in a freely drained mix, the soil is never completely dry. I water daily in the heat of summer to keep the alpines sharing the same bed from baking. All this pampering means I have to work extra hard at keeping the weeds out.

    The E. vivipara in my garden are funny little things. They are all smaller than a dime. Each winter they contract down into the soil so all but the spiny top is completely buried. If the snow is thin and a cold spell is coming I will give this bed extra protection by shoveling extra snow on it. Otherwise, these cactus make it through the winter with no help from me by sinking themselves down into the soil.

    1. I know it is hard to believe that my little cacti sink themselves into the ground. To prove it, I posted some pictures. The biggest one only half buried itself.

      p.s. It took me too long to remember how to make cactus plural :)


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