Blossfeldia (2009)

By Chris Deem (November 2009)

Everything about this place seems ordinary: old rocky hills and a seldom-used road. It’s just a dry, little nowhere place in northern Agentina, or maybe we strayed into Bolivia. Around here, it is hard to tell.

It is just a dreary, empty place – no diamonds or gold, no tiny fern fossils or dinosaur bones. There’s not much to look at. No animals or birds, just these hills, very old and weathered, a pattern of light and dark gray.

It’s 4 o’clock on a November day, and the shadow of a cloud has fallen on a long, shallow fissure high in the hills on the left side of the road. In this narrow crack, almost hidden in the compressed dirt, are 11 Blossfeldia cacti, the smallest cacti known.

They look rather primitive, and in their bleak, isolated habitat, even swollen with rainwater, are seldom more than a half-inch wide. These tiny plants, depending on dormancy, are a shrunken grayish-brown or plump dull green. Their flowers are unremarkable and usually a washed-out shade of pale white.

Being the smallest is enough to make these cacti special, but they are unique in many ways. When mature, and with luck on their side, they cross-pollinate with their usually small number of neighboring blossfeldias. However, I read that they are also able to produce viable fruits by self-fertilization.

Perhaps their most unique adaptation is the ability to dry out and become dormant for extended periods of time. Their main weakness, like many other cacti, is their tendency to rot. This is one reason they are usually seen as grafted plants. Sadly, grafting does change the appearance of Blossfeldia cacti.