Sunday, March 13, 2011

Opuntia basilaris

Beavertail cactus

One of the few commonly occurring cacti in the Mojave, Opuntia basilaris is an unobtrusive, low growing "sub-shrub" found mostly in canyons. Not growing much more than 1.5-ft tall at most, its easily overlooked most of the year. Yet, in the spring, it puts on a spectacular show, bursting into deep-magenta flowers.

Like almost all members of cactaceae, and the opuntia group in particular, O. basilaris is armed with defensive spines. However, the spines are not the large, fixed structures that one commonly associates with cacti. Instead, they're armed with a type of spine called a glochid, which are fine, barbed and detach from the cactus on contact. Even casually touching a patch of the glochids is enough to leave dozens of them lodged in the skin, which easily break off at the skin's surface level, leaving the tips of the spines lodged underneath. It can take days for the spines to eventually work their way out, and the irritation caused by their presence can be maddening, depending on how deeply they get embedded.

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