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Cactus in Colorado?

Posted on 29 June 2011

Cactus in Colorado? Sure. They grow here and in fair abundance. Prickly pear, or Opuntia, for example, are found throughout biking and hiking trails. They add a warm southwestern feel to any landscape. Cactus are so sought after, there is even a “Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society.” Members are interested in managing the survival of the species and the growing enthusiasm.

Cacti in Colorado generally grow in exposed, dry areas such as pinyon-juniper communities, sagebrush, mesa slopes, sagebrush, rocky hills and desert scrub areas. Cactus’s popularity could be growing as the climate continues to warm and the terrain in Colorado is very favorable to this low maintenance perennial. Cactus come in a number of shapes from flat to cylindrical to circular; they are minute and gigantic; their flowers are commonly very large and attractive; their fruits are edible (some delicious, some not so); and they have evolved a number of structures and processes that make them perfectly at home in what we humans call “a hostile environment. ” They have a tough, waxy outer layer that reduces moisture loss; they produce chlorophyll not in leaves but in the outer cells of the stems; they convert absorbed water into a mucilaginous liquid that can be stored in large quantities in tissues capable of expanding; and many Cactus root easily into new plants from the broken pads or stems of older plants.

Animals use cacti as a source of food. Birds, bats, mice, deer and javelinas are most commonly found enjoying the fruits of cacti throughout Colorado’s national parks and prairie lands.  Catuses are also food for people.  Some people eat cactus fruit or grind seeds into meal for pancakes. Some boil the pads and make a paste used like a jelly when cooled. Red food dye is also made  from  a cactus.

There are approximately 25 types of cacti in Colorado. Two of these species are rare plants. Sclerocactus mesa-verdae is only known to occur in the vicinity of Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of the state. Sclorocactus glaucus is endemic to the western slope of Colorado. Opuntia is the largest and most widely distributed cacti genus in Colorado. Ten Opuntia can be found in Colorado, with Opuntia polyacantha being the most common. The color of the flowers, size of the joints, and number and size of the spines show considerable variability and often depend on the amount of rainfall received during the growing season.

One of the most ornamental Opuntias in Colorado is the tree cactus, Opuntia imbricata. It grows in a shrub-like form up to 6 feet in height, has trunks with a woody skeleton, and has beautiful rose-pink flowers. You can find the tree cactus in the southeastern part of the state by places such as Pueblo and Trinidad.

All cacti produce flowers. They can usually be seen on the areoles. Flowers can be white or a bright color such as yellow, orange, red and lavender. Most cacti only bloom for a few days and many open only at night.

All cacti reproduce. Their flowers have both male and female parts. The male part yields pollen. The female part contains an egg. Birds, bats, and insects are attracted to the colors or the scent of the flowers. While feeding, these creatures transfer pollen from one part to other parts of the plant. This process is pollination.  This causes  a fruit to develop.  Cactus fruit produced fleshy berries that contain seeds.  These seeds are scattered by birds, wind and rain. A cactus plant producec millions of seeds yet only one or two seeds will live to become a new cactus.

Why not explore your area to see just how many types of cacti you can find and identify in Colorado.  Note their colors and tecture and perhaps plan to add a few into your landscape. Be aware not to remove cacti from their natural habitat, they are available at a near by garden center.

Written by, Janine Buchal June 2011

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