From the Digest

Plant Fireworks

PhotoBy Joe Merkelbach (August 2008)

Although no loud noises are involved, cactus flowers, particularly those of desert species, can be thought of as fireworks of vision and frequently odor. Cactus plants range from large and stately to small and inconspicuous, but most share bright and, in many cases, large and perfumed flowers.

The plants that we grow as hobbyists in optimized conditions generally have a striking appearance, but in habitat, they are often camouflaged into the landscape and difficult to see. Since desert species live in hard conditions, they must invest significant resources in drawing the attention of the creatures that pollinate them to assure seed formation and reproduction. Many cactus blossoms have the drama of fireworks in the desert to advertise their presence to pollinators.

The means of growth for the buds and flowers contribute to their dramatic appearance. Flowers, just as spines, develop from the areoles and begin growth with stem tissue at first.

As the buds develop, the stem tissue grows on the outside as a sort of sheath, and the sexual flower parts develop inside what is effectively a tube. The flat, triangular scales on the exterior of blooms are leaves, and in most cacti, the only ones that ever grow. This tube construction protects the important stamens and pistil until the flower opens for business.

Numerous waxy petals, which can exhibit a rainbow of hues, form a corolla surrounding the opening of the tube. Inside, bright yellow anthers loaded with pollen and a contrasting-colored pistil add to the striking appeal to potential pollinators. These splashes of color are powerful visual beacons to the creatures required for seed formation and plant reproduction.

Many of the most showy flowers are so grandiose and delicate that they cannot withstand the heat and dryness of a desert day. They use the power of scent to draw bats, moths and other creatures to the job of pollen distribution. Colors tend toward pale white and cream for these blooms, but their perfumes are potent.

Without any noise, but flashes of intense color and intoxicating scents, cactus flowers certainly contribute something like fireworks to the gray, brown and beige backgrounds of New World deserts.

Information for this article came from the Wikipedia cactus page and