Ariocarpus (2005)

By Chris Deem (September 2005)

PhotoLong ago, somewhere in northern Mexico, in our continent’s most isolated desert, the Chihuahuan, my ancient genus of cactus evolved with a difference.

We grew under the hot sun, half-buried and covered with dust or under the protection of tough desert brush, as we spread north to Texas. We grew at the bases of hills, where the limestone rocks were as sharp as the leaves of the agaves that shared our desert. We were widespread then. Now, due to loss of habitat and cactus poachers, we are so very rare.

Let me introduce myself – I am Ariocarpus retusus. Let me tell you about my family. There are about six species of Ariocarpus. We are called mimicry plants, as we blend into our environments.

We are made up of small, pretty rosettes, grey-green to chalky green, with thick, tuberous taproots. We grow very slowly for a short time in late spring and then again in the autumn. We thrive in bright sunshine and rocky, porous soils. If there is limestone around, all the better. It is very beneficial to our roots.

We can go a long time between drinks. Maybe one in late spring, a few good ones in summer and fall. That is all we need. We also bloom later than most cacti, in autumn. Our flowers are white.

Most other Ariocarpus species are similar, with shades of green, thick taproots and flowers that vary from white to yellow. Some are even a purplish shade of pink.

We have no spines to speak of, just a few bristles on our tubercles or sometimes a few in the woolly tufts of Ariocarpus fissuratus. We are not defenseless, though, Our bodies contain alkaloids, both bitter and toxic. This and the ability to blend into the landscape are our best defenses.

Laws protect us now, but our future is still uncertain. Protect us, be patient. Share your knowledge and our seeds with others.