Tephrocactus (2005)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (March 2005)

The darkness fades slowly; another frigid night has passed. The sun rises over the distant, snow-covered mountain peak as the sky changes from black to blue. The thick, dry air warms quickly here on the dry puna of southern Peru. The bright blue of the sky is the only constant in this land of extreme temperature fluctuations. Here where the three months of rain seem only a memory – or a hope.

Here, in masses of white or yellow spines, we fill the stark landscape. We are Tephrocacti, and we are legion. We grow at high altitudes on the Peruvian-Bolivian intra-Andean plateau.

Our flowers, light pink or yellow-orange, are similar to those of our cousins the opuntias, but there are differences between us. Here our bodies have evolved into two subgroups: those with globular bodies and those that are more elongated. Also, our spines have evolved differently, from scarcely visible to paperlike, or long and fierce. Here in the high country, we also have thick tap roots.

Here where the drab brown earth hides its wealth of mineral nutrients, we wait. Soon the seeds from last autumn will at last begin to crack the hard surface of the earth. We are frost germinators, and the frost of winter will give brith to many. Then the rains will come again as we grow slowly across the landscape toward our mountain, lightly brushed with snow …

As our story shows, Tephrocacti can survive many changes in temperature, but they like it cooler than most cacti, especially at night. They also love bright sunlight, nutritious soil and plenty of water during the growing season to keep them looking their best.

Go ahead, put a nice tephrocactus on your window, maybe T. articulatas var. papyracanthus. You’ll be glad you did.