Prickly Pear Cacti – Many Varieties, Many Uses

Prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia) range from southern Canada to southern South America, in habitats ranging from arid desert to tropical semiarid woodlands and high mountains. There are about 18 species in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which form hybrids. Native peoples recognize many more varieties. I have five (maybe six) varieties of prickly pear in my yard. The most common in the Tucson area is the Engelmann prickly pear. The first photo above shows the ripe fruit. The second shows the flowers which start out reddish and get yellow as they mature. All cactus fruit is edible.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), cacti of genus Opuntia, which includes chollas, are distinguished from other cacti by four characteristics. “First, the stems grow in distinctly jointed segments. The elongation of joints is permanently terminated by the onset of the dry season; subsequent growth of the plant occurs by the initiation of new joints by branching from the areoles. (Other cacti have indeterminate growth. A saguaro stem, for example, grows ever longer each growing season until the plant dies or the stem tip is damaged.) Second, whether or not they have regular spines, Opuntioid areoles bear glochids (usually small to minute, barbed spines that are very sharp and brittle, and very easily detached). Third, rudimentary leaves are present on new joints. Fourth, the seeds have a pale covering called an aril; most other cacti have shiny black seeds.”

Prickly pears are Western Hemisphere plants, but they are now found all over the world. “Sailors brought them back from the New World in the sixteenth century and they are found in Italy, India, Ceylon, South Africa and Australia. In all but Italy, the hope was to raise cochineal insects, but the insects died and the cactus escaped to become part of the landscape.” – ASDM

Cochineal insects, a source of red dye, grow, sometimes profusely, on prickly pear pads under white fuzzy webs, especially in August. See link below.

Spineless varieties of prickly pear were also tried as food for cattle. In South Africa, I saw many plantations on farms for that purpose.

Use as food:

Both the pads and fruit are eaten by pack rats, jackrabbits, javelina, insects, and humans. Note: the pads contain oxalic acid which can make humans sick. However, new spring pads contain much less oxalic acid so these pads were used for human consumption. Preparation may include boiling to leach out the acid. Many native American tribes used the pads as their green vegetable. The flesh is mucilaginous (like okra) and was used to thicken soups.

Fruit from any of the prickly pears can be eaten by humans. The fruit turns reddish-purple when ripe. (The ripe fruit is called “tuna”or “cactus fig”) Some preparation is required to remove the spines and glochids. Native Americans rolled the fruit in sand or other plant material. Cowboys used to put the fruit on a stick and burn off the glochids with a match or over a camp fire.

Generally people eat the flesh of the fruit and discard the seeds. The seeds are edible, but too many cause intestinal upsets. The seeds can be parched, dried, and ground into a flour. They don’t cause digestive upset that way. The juice of the fruit may be made into a syrup or jelly or used in pies and drinks.

Flower petals can be used to garnish salads.

Preparation techniques for both pads and fruit are shown here: and

Medicinal use:

According to WebMD: Prickly pear cactus is used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.

According to DesertUSA, “Researchers are using the prickly pear juice, produced by Arizona Cactus Ranch in Southern Arizona, for their studies, because it is pure. Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson Arizona uses Arizona Cactus Ranch Prickly Pear Nectar in their Alternative Medicine Diabetic Preventive Program since 1997. Prickly pear extract has also been shown to reduce the severity and occurrence of hangovers if taken in advance of drinking. Nausea, dry mouth, appetite loss, and alcohol-related inflammation were all reduced in test subjects who ingested prickly pear extract 5 hours prior to drinking. You can make your own tests and see if it works for you, which is the only test that really counts.”

The juice from the pads was also used topically to treat cuts, bruises, and inflammation of the skin.


Other uses:

The juice from prickly pears has long been used to strengthen adobe mortar. It was so used in the restoration of the San Xavier Mission in Tucson.

As mentioned above, there are many species and hybrids, so exact identification may be difficult. ASDM notes: “Numerous species of cholla and some prickly pears hybridize with one another. Hybrid populations are fairly common. Some of these hybrids may reproduce sexually; others are sexually sterile but can reproduce vegetatively. There are several such ‘clonal microspecies’ in the Tucson area alone, some of which are restricted to a patch of just a few acres. Most of the descriptions of these species are published only in scientific monographs and have not yet appeared in general plant lists and keys. So if you are frustrated with being unable to identify a cholla or prickly pear from a field guide, be assured that you’re not alone. No field guide can cover all the possible hybrids and ‘microspecies.’”

See also:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Indian Fig – a useful variety of Prickly Pear Cactus

Cochineal the Little Red Bug

A green lynx spider may be lurking in your yard

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Pima Pineapple Cactus recovery

The Pima Pineapple cactus (Coryphantha scheeri var. robustispina) is a small (pineapple-sized) cactus that inhabits grasslands and desert scrub in Pima County and parts of Santa Cruz County, Arizona, and parts of northern Sonora, Mexico, at elevations below 4,000 feet. About 90 percent of its historic range is in Pima County.

The cactus is sparsely distributed within its range, but does have some high-density clusters. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) this species is incapable of self-fertilization, which means pollen from another individual cactus is required.

The Pima Pineapple cactus is a low-growing hemispherical cactus that may be found as single or multi-stemmed plants. Mature plants measure 4-18 inches tall and 3-7 inches in diameter. The spines are stout and arranged in clusters with one central hooked spine and 6-15 radial straight spines. Spines are originally straw colored, but become black with age. Flowers are yellow and the fruit is a green ellipsoid. See photos here. The flowers are pollinated mainly by bees. Seeds are dispersed by rodents, rabbits, and ants.

Because the cactus is small and inconspicuous, it is subject to danger from grassland fires, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, and housing development.

The Pima Pineapple cactus was listed as endangered by FWS on September 23, 1993. FWS never got around to establishing “critical habitat” but now is proposing a recovery plan which you can read here (76 pages). If we follow the plan, which will cost $62,910,560, FWS says they can delist the cactus by the year 2046. There have been many studies of the cactus, but FWS still doesn’t know how many there are scattered around its habitat.

The main recommendations of the recovery plan boil down to protecting existing habitat from human intervention, invasive species, and wildfires. In other words, restrict land usage. FWS also recommends acquisition of private lands to increase habitat and limit development.

The plan recommends monitoring the cactus for at least 15 years. It so happens that Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR) established in 1985, comprising 117,464-acres, lies in southern Pima County within the range of the cactus. Has not the FWS been paying attention to the cactus on the Refuge during the past 25 years?

Ironically, management of BANWR may have caused the population of the cactus to plunge. When BANWR was established, they removed all cattle. The result was that the grass grew taller which promoted more damaging wildfires which damaged more cactus. Tall grass also discouraged jackrabbits which are the primary agent of seed dispersal. In tall grass, jackrabbits can’t run fast enough to escape predators.

I have an alternative suggestion. In order to preserve the cactus, delist it and farm it. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge could be used as an initial farm stock source with many plots dedicated to the cactus. FWS could, if the cactus were delisted, allow commercial nurseries to grow and sell the plants to people who would like them for their yards or gardens, something that is problematical as long as the cactus is listed as “endangered.” This small cactus would make a good potted plant for porches and patios.

See also:

The Flaws in the Endangered Species Act

Mexican Cardon Cactus – the world’s largest cactus

Mexican cardon 3

The icon of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is the large Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). But there is a larger cactus in the southern part of the Sonoran Desert: the Mexican Cardon (Pachycereus pringlei), which is native to Sonora and Baja California. The Saguaro commonly reaches 40 feet high and may get larger; the Cardon commonly reaches 60 feet high and more.

The Cardon is not as frost tolerant as the Saguaro. That is why it does not grow naturally in Arizona. The photo above shows a Saguaro on the right and a Cardon on the left. This photo was taken at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and you can see that the Cardon shows frost damage. See more photos from Google images.

According to ASDM:
“The Cardón resembles the Saguaro in growth form but it is much more massive. It develops a very thick trunk and the branches are closer to the ground and often more numerous than those of a typical Saguaro. In sheltered locations plants may exceed 60 feet tall. Young stems are armed with stout spines; mature stems are nearly spineless and have bluish epidermis between the rows of closely-spaced felty areoles on the external ribs. The flowers are similar to those of a Saguaro, but with more and narrower tepals. The ovoid fruits are densely covered with felty areoles; on different plants they range from spineless to very long-spiny. The juicy pulp of ripe fruits ranges from white to red and contains large, hard seeds—very different from the tiny seeds of the Saguaro.”

The ribs of the Cardon are generally fewer and more widely-spaced compared to a Saguaro.

Saguaro flowers occur mainly at the top of the trunk and arms. Cardon flowers may extend down the sides of the stems. Flowers of both cacti are large, white, and pollinated mainly by bats. The flowers of both cacti open at night and stay open for about 18 hours. The Saguaro has the edge in pollination because its flowers produce a second batch of nectar in the morning for birds and insects. As a result, about 70% of Saguaro flowers set fruit versus only 30% for the Cardon flowers.

Cardon flowers

Cardon fruit 2

Cardon fruit was an important food for the Seri people in Sonora, who call the cactus xaasj.

The flesh of this cactus contains alkaloids, and may have been used as a psychoactive plant in Mexico according to Wikipedia which also notes: “A symbiotic relationship with bacterial and fungal colonies on its roots allows P. pringlei to grow on bare rock even where no soil is available at all, as the bacteria can fix nitrogen from the air and break down the rock to produce nutrients. The cactus even packages symbiotic bacteria in with its seeds.”

Saguaros have a life span of about 200 years, whereas Cardons can live 300 years (Source).

There is another cactus called “Cardon.” This one lives mainly in Argentina and is frost tolerant as is the Saguaro.

The Argentinian cardon (Trichocereus pasacana) is “A robust, Saguaro-like, South American columnar cactus, this differs from its North American counterpart in its denser, more bristly spination and less [sic] branched stems. These are stout, to 1′ in diameter, to 30′ or more tall, branching and candelabriform only in age. Like the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) in the Sonoran Desert, T. pasacana is a dominant component of the vegetation in many habitats in northern Argentina and southern Bolivia, where it can form nearly homogeneous stands.” (Source)

A specimen of the Argentinian Cardon may be seen at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum near the art gallery.

See also: Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert and

Life on a dead saguaro

Photo credit: Cardon fruit from Deborah Small’s Ethnobotany Blog

What goes on inside cacti “guts”

Saguaro1-189x300The Arizona Daily Independent recently ran an article entitled “Cacti “Guts” Can Purify Contaminated Water” which reported on new research about using cactus mucilage to remove contaminants in water. That lead me to review the basics of plant metabolism and how that metabolism has evolved to deal with the environment.

All plants carry out two basic and opposite chemical reactions: respiration and photosynthesis. During respiration, carbohydrates are oxidized to water, carbon dioxide and energy. Written as a formula, this would be Carbohydrate + O2 >> H20 + CO2 + Energy.

During photosynthesis, water, carbon dioxide, and energy become carbohydrates plus oxygen: H20 + CO2 + Energy >> Carbohydrate + O2. The energy for this reaction comes from sunlight which is captured by chlorophyll and stored as stable chemical energy.

Photosynthesis in about 90% of plants produces a 3-carbon sugar as the first stable product. In botanical terminology, these are called C3 plants. About 3% of plants produce a 4-carbon sugar and hence are called C4 plants. C4 plants use carbon dioxide more efficiently than C3 plants and lose less water through evapotranspiration. C4 plants can grow faster than C3 plants at high temperatures. C4 plants include most summer grasses in warm climates, many weeds, and some important crops such as corn, sorghum, and sugar cane.

Cacti and other succulents use a more extreme metabolic process called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) to supplement the respiration and photosynthesis process. About 5% of plants use CAM.

In succulents, water is stored in leaves, stems, or roots and in the plant “flesh.” Water is bound into extracellular mucilages that hold onto water very tightly.

CAM plants keep their stomates (pores) closed during the hot day to prevent water loss via evapotranspiration. Their stomates open at night to take in carbon dioxide. But since there is no sunlight to provided the energy for photosynthesis, the carbon dioxide is stored as an organic acid for use the next day. CAM plants lose about one-tenth the water through evapotranspiration compared to C3 plants. CAM works best when the diurnal temperature variation is large such as in the Sonoran desert where it is common to have a 25- to 30 degree (F) difference between the high temperature of the afternoon and low temperature every night. Under extreme drought conditions, CAM plants keep their stomates closed both day and night. Their metabolism slows to using moisture within plant tissues and carbon dioxide released by respiration is recycled into the photosynthesis process.

Some plants, such as agavi deserti, can switch between CAM and C3 metabolism depending upon the abundance of water. Idling CAM plants can resume full growth within 24- to 48 hours of a rain. Agaves can sprout new roots within 5 hours after a rain according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Desert-adapted plants use other strategies as well. For instance, mesquite trees have very deep roots that can tap groundwater sources making them less dependent on rain. Have you noticed that many leafy desert plants have relatively tiny leaves? Many tiny leaves have a higher surface area to volume ratio compared to a large, broad leaf. That allows the plant to be a better radiator of heat. The Foothills Palo Verde is the extreme example of this. Even oak trees in our region have small leaves compared to those of more temperate climates. Another adaptation is that leaves may be grayish rather than deep green. This reflects light better and keeps the plant cooler. Some plants, such as Prickly Pear cactus and Jojoba have a vertical orientation of their pads or leaves. This orientation allows them to get more direct sunlight in the cooler early mornings or late afternoon rather than in the hottest part of the day. Photosynthesis is more efficient during these cooler times.

Reference: A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

Jumping Cactus -Chain-fruit and teddy bear cholla cactus

I write about the chain-fruit and teddy bear cacti together because both are called “jumping chollas” or “jumping cactus.” Of course, they don’t actually jump at you, but if you happen to brush against them, even slightly, they become very attached to you. Both cacti propagate mainly by clonal rooting of joints or fruit.

The chain-fruit cholla (Opuntia fulgida or Cylindropuntia fulgida) is so called because new fruits grow from aureoles on older fruit. The aureoles contain stem cells which can give rise to branches or buds.

Cholla chain fruit

Cholla chain fruit flower

Chain-fruit cholla range throughout south-central Arizona and northern Sonora. They may have several trunks and grow to about eight feet high on average, but can get over 12 feet high. The stem and fruits are green. Purplish-pink flowers usually open in the afternoon during the summer. The fruit and flowers generally hang down from branches.

The fruits may contain viable seeds, but more often fallen fruit takes root in clonal asexual reproduction. This cactus tends to form dense clonal colonies on the finer soils of bajadas and valleys.

The not so cuddly teddy bear cholla (Opuntia biglovii or Cylindropuntia biglovii) is so called because in certain light, its dense yellow spines (which are barbed) appear fuzzy. The teddy bear cholla has a single trunk, three to five feet high, with densely-packed side branches on the upper part of the plant. Yellow-green flowers give rise to spineless fruit that usually contain no fertile seeds. The teddy bear cholla survives in the warmest parts of the Mohave Desert and the hotter, drier parts of the Sonoran Desert. This cactus seems to prefer rocky habitat.


Cholla teddy bear flower

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

“The detached joints will readily generate new plants by rooting and branching. During cooler months, the terminal joints are detached by a slight touch by a passing animal or even a strong wind. “

There are many myths associated with “jumping” cactus. According to ASDM:

“One myth is that the joints are attracted to the moisture in animal flesh. Many people believe that they really do jump, and some even claim to have caught them in the act. The truth is that the very sharp spines are so well-barbed that even if one barely penetrates the skin or clothing, its grip is stronger than the connection between joints. If you pass a jumping cholla and turn to look when you feel a tug on your clothing, you may see the joint detaching and flying through the air as the elastic recoil of the cloth snaps it into your flesh. The double surprise of seeing a plant moving faster than you and the sharp pain of impalement leaves a lasting impression.”

“The easiest way to remove a cholla joint is to place a comb between it and your skin and quickly jerk it away. Because of the barbs, it will take considerable force to dislodge it, and the joint may fly several feet. Make sure a hapless companion is not in the line of fire.”

The fruit of both chollas generally does not ripen. Cactus wrens make use of these cacti for nesting sites, and pack rats use the joints to fortify their dens.

Reference: A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, 2000, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press

See the Article Index for more stories on desert plants.

White-winged Doves

White-winged doveWhite-winged doves are part-time residents of Arizona that arrive as the saguaro cactus blooms. They have become one of the principal pollinators of saguaros along with bats, bees, and other insects.

White-winged doves are grayish-brown with a white wing-patch visible as a narrow stripe along the lower edge of a folded wing. In flight, the white appears as a stripe on the upper side of the wing. The underside of the tail is white-tipped below a black stripe.

White-winged doves have a body length of about 12 inches and a wingspan of 19 inches.

White-winged doves summer in the southwest and spend the winter in southern Mexico. Some are permanent residents of the Carribbean and coastal southeastern U.S.

White-winged doves eat mainly seeds and fruit. They also sip nectar from saguaro flowers, and eat the saguaro fruit and seeds. Doves grind seeds in their muscular stomachs (or gizzards) using sand or gravel much like internal teeth. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “White-winged Doves also disperse saguaro seeds: they eat the fruit, then regurgitate it to their young; in the process some seed falls beneath the nest where it germinates, and the young saguaro grows in the protection of the tree.”

White-winged doves have a distinctive call, something like a hooting “whoo-OOO-oo, ooo-oo.” You can listen to recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology here. They also make noise slapping their wings to ward off intruders.

Nesting: According to Cornell, “The male gathers twigs and brings them to the female, which constructs the nest over a couple of days. Made mostly of twigs, the nest also may have weeds, grasses or Spanish moss arranged in a flimsy bowl about 4 inches across. On rare occasions it’s also lined with leaves, bark, feathers, or pine needles. The male chooses the territory and the general nesting site, while the female selects the specific nest site, usually on a tree branch or crotch under heavy shade. In cities, the doves choose large ornamental shade trees like pecan, live oak, and ash. Elsewhere, they gravitate toward the interior of dense woodlands, particularly along streams.” Clutch size is one or two eggs which are incubated for 14 to 20 days. Chicks fledge after about 18 days.

Cornell: “Males perform courtship flights, spiraling up into the sky and then returning to the branch he started from in a stiff-winged glide. They may also bow, puff up their necks, or fan the tail to entice females to mate; White-winged Doves are monogamous and stay together for at least one breeding season. When a predator comes to call at the nest, White-winged Doves may feign a broken wing to lead the intruder away. In other situations, they escape by flying directly into the bushes. Predators of adults or young include Great-tailed Grackles, Green Jays, Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, Great Horned Owls, woodrats, deer mice, gray foxes, Norway rats, black rats, house cats, and snakes.”

I maintain an elevated seed block in my back yard. It is visited by many kinds of birds. White-winged doves tend to be bullies, trying to keep other doves away from the food source. They are unable, however, to bully Gambels quails.

Doves have the ability to suck up water without moving their heads; the beak acts as a straw. Most other birds must fill their beak then tilt their heads back to swallow.

According to Cornell, White-winged dove populations have been increasing since 1966 and their range is also expanding. ” White-winged Doves have been seen from Alaska to Ontario, Maine, Newfoundland, and most places in between.”

See stories of other desert birds:

American Kestrel

Barn Owls

Cactus Wren

Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – is it a real species?

Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias and Phainopeplas

Cooper’s Hawks – swift predators

Creatures of the night – Nighthawks and Poorwills

Curvebilled Thrasher

Gambels Quail

Gila Woodpecker

Great Blue Heron

Great Horned Owl

Great-tailed Grackle

Harris’ Hawks, Wolves of the Air

Mourning Doves

Parrots in the desert?

Peregrine Falcons

Ravens and Crows

The Red-tailed Hawk, a varied and versatile predator

Roadrunner, a wily predator

Vultures, the clean-up crew

Way of the Hummingbird

Western Screech Owl

Western Tanager

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

The Night-blooming Cereus cactus (Peniocereus greggii) is now hiding among desert shrubs which provide shade and physical support, but it will soon make itself known some time during late May to early July. The cactus stems are thin, barely succulent and often few in number. The stems rarely get over three feet high. They grow from a root, a large, starchy tuber, that can weigh over 40 pounds. If stems are eaten by desert critters such as packrats, new stems sprout from the root. Some synonyms for its name are Arizona queen-of-the-night, sweet-potato cactus, and deer horn cactus.

Night-blooming cereus

Although the cactus itself is inconspicuous, the flower is spectacular. The flower is bright white and up to three inches in diameter with very long floral tubes and a strong, sweet scent that attracts sphingid moths which are the main pollinators. Some people say the scent is like vanilla. The flowers close up soon after sunrise.

The Night-blooming Cereus ranges from Southern Arizona to southern Texas and adjacent northern Mexico, as well as in Baja California.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

“This is one of the Sonoran Desert’s most famous yet least encountered plants. It is virtually invisible most of the year, but on a few nights it becomes stunningly conspicuous. Plants in each population bloom in synchrony; large ones can produce a score of flowers at once. The legend is that they all bloom on a single night per year. Reality is almost as intriguing: each plant produces only three to five flushes of flowers between late May and early July. During each flush most of the flowers open on one night, with a few stragglers the night before or after the big bang.”

ASDM goes on to note:

“In ideal cultivated situations where the plants are protected from predators, these cacti can grow hundreds of times larger than they do in nature. Archaeologist Julian Hayden had a plant in his Tucson yard that was over 8 feet tall and perhaps twice as wide. Its great tangle of stems produced 200 flowers on one night and another 100 on the following night.”

“Desert night-blooming cereus plants usually occur as widely-separated individuals, and the flowers are not self-fertile. The flowers are cross-pollinated by hawk moths (Sphingidae) which fly hundreds of yards between plants in their search for the nectar reward. The cactus fruit turns red when ripe, attracting birds that eat the pulp and disperse the seeds in their droppings. The root is used medicinally to treat diabetes and other maladies.”

According to the US. Forest Service, this cactus “is called ‘pain in the heart’ by the Death Valley Shoshones. This tribe presumably uses it in a manner similar to Native Americans of Nevada who ingest an infusion of the roots as a cardiac stimulant. Other Native Americans have used a decoction of the roots for diabetes, the seedpods mixed with deer fat as a salve for sores, and the cut slices of root as an externally applied cure for chest colds. The fruits, flowers, young stalks, and roots have been eaten for food. This use of the root may account for the common name ‘sweet potato cactus.’ Chewing the raw root has been reported to quench thirst.”

See more photos at ASDM digital library here.

Tohono Chul botanical garden in Tucson has a large collection of Cereus and hosts a “bloom night” every year.

For information on other desert plants see:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

New Book – The Corpse in the Cactus

Corpse in the Cactus cover proofThis article is a book promotion for a new murder mystery by Lonni Lees, my wife. The book is titled The Corpse in the Cactus.


Tucson police detective Maggie Reardon is back, in the sizzling sequel to The Mosaic Murder!

The murder that Detective Maggie Reardon just solved at a local Tucson art gallery has already created repercussions, complicating her life both legally and personally. Her new lover dropped to second place when a new man entered the picture. A dead man whose body had been found at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum lying under a bed of cactus. What at first appeared to be a tragic accident was quickly starting to smell like murder.

And dead things always smelled worse under the hot Arizona sun.

Losing wasn’t her game, but she’s been dealt a nameless victim with no witnesses, no suspect, and no apparent cause of death. As the evidence unfolds, Detective Reardon battles a hostile fellow cop, determined to see her lose her badge.

The mixture adds up to a scorching southwestern recipe guaranteed to sear your taste buds — but leave you begging for more!

The Corpse in the Cactus is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Independent Review

By Terry Butler on March 23, 2015
For this reader one of the great pleasures of reading P. I. or Police Procedural novels in series is the opportunity to move along with a good writer as she develops the character of her protagonist and those close to that person. That’s why I was so glad to see that up-and-comer Lonni Lees has continued to flesh out the intriguing character from 2012’s “The Mosaic Murder”–Detective Maggie Reardon of the Tucson P.D.
And this book is even more compelling than the first book in the series, because as Ms. Lees has deepened our attraction to a believable and likeable cop with a heart, she now provides Det. Reardon with a lightly drawn but troubling back story that promises a more complex psyche than is at first apparent. Something powerful happened to Maggie to form her toughened vulnerability somewhere along the line and I want to know what it was!
Lees has also pared down and sharpened her mystery this time, making it more puzzling–and ultimately more satisfying– than most of the tired tropes and standard plots we have to plow through while looking for a gem like this. This time we also have a few dark and somehow interconnected weirdos inhabiting a sort of parallel world in the darker corners of Tucson. Ms Lees brings to this underground some of the ways with horror stories that she displayed in earlier books like 2011’s “Deranged” and in some of the short stories she’s published online in magazines like Yellow Mama (where she also does illustration work) to add to the mystery in front of us.
There’s a bit of Jim Thompson here, some Stephen King too, but much more Lonni Lees than anyone else
When I got my copy from Amazon I was going to crack it and see where it would go in my book pile; on the table in my workroom or the nightstand next to the bed. I ended up in a comfy chair in the living room pleasurably ingesting the first three chapters before I had to get back to the real world. I finished the book in short order though, and it was a joy to read, reading in bed as a cap to my day. I like shorter books that get to the story right away, that don’t try to trick you or make you read lots of detail–books that fit Elmore Leonard’s parameters in his Ten Rules of Writing (Google it!)
This one is a good example of that kind of storytelling. I highly recommend it.

And check out Lonni’s other books as well as those of her sister Arlette Lees, a talented author and painter in her own right.

Besides The Mosaic Murder, linked above, Lonni’s first novel, Deranged, is about a serial killer who meets his match. This book won a first place award from PSWA a professional association of writers, forensic experts, police and firefighters. Lonni also has an anthology of her noir-style short stories in the book called Crawlspace. One of the stories in this collection, The Blue-eyed Bandit, also won an award from PSWA.

Lonni’s story “The Confessor” online at Shotgun Honey won First Place as well as Grand Prize from PSWA. Take a look at The Confessor for a short taste of noir.

If you are a fan of murder mysteries, give both The Mosaic Murder and The Corpse in the Cactus a try. If you like sheer horror and suspense, try Deranged.

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Red torch cactus (variously Echinopsis huascha or Trichocereus huascha) is native to northern Argentina. Many cultivars (hybrids) exist and are found in gardens elsewhere. You can see one variety at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the plaza by the Art Gallery. That is where I took the photos in this article.


The red torch cactus resembles our native hedge-hog cactus. The red torch grows one to three feet high and it branches spread up to three feet. It is a heat-loving cactus.


Flowers, two to four inches across bloom in the spring. The flowers are nocturnally blooming and exist for only about 18 hours, similar to saguaro flowers. Flower color ranges from deep red to orange and yellow depending on the cultivar.

This cactus can be asexually propagated by removal and rooting of stems segments. Allow stem segments to callus for several weeks before directly sticking into the soil according to Arizona State University.


The Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society has advice on growing these cacti (and some great photos) here. They claim that “The best cultivars will bloom massively every 10 days to two weeks over a span of three months.”

There is another Torch Cactus, Echinopsis peruviana or Peruvian Torch, which grows at high elevations in the Andes of Peru. This torch is as big as a saguaro cactus and has white flowers.

This cactus contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline as well as other alkaloids, a property which has been exploited for thousands of years.

The Peruvian torch cactus is relatively fast growing and can also be propagated from cuttings.

If you want to know when the torch cacti are next in bloom so you can take photos, follow the ASDM facebook page.

See also:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant Desert Ironwood with video Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – is it a real species?

The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum) is an alleged subspecies of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum). Usually when I write of birds, I seek information at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But in this case, search for “Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” or “Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” or “ferruginous owl” yielded no results. When I searched for “pygmy owl” I get an article on the “Northern Saw-whet Owl.” The Sibley Guide to Birds does have a brief article on the “Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” but nothing on the “cactus” variety. In a sense, the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is not a species distinct from the Ferruginous Pygmy owl. The same situation holds true for the alleged “southwestern” or “southwest” Willow Flycatcher.

Pygmy owl USFS

The U.S. Forest Service published a long article entitled “Ecology and Conservation

of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Arizona.” (Link to report)

They described the owl: “The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl is a small gray-brown or rufous-brown owl, approximately 16.5 to 18 cm [about 7 inches] long. Wingspan is about 12 inches. In comparison with G. b. brasilianum and G. b. ridgwayi, this subspecies exhibits shorter wings, a longer tail, and generally lighter coloration.” Female typically weigh 75g while males average 64g.

“The vocal repertoire of the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl comprises several calls, some of which appear to be specific to age or sex of the owl. The advertising call of the adult male is heard primarily at dawn and dusk but also during daylight and even moon rise, especially during the courtship period. It is ventriloquial and consists of a prolonged and monotonous series of clear, mellow, whistling notes… During the breeding season, females utter a rapid chitter, possibly a contact call with the male and juveniles and also for food begging.”

Habitat for the ferruginous pygmy owl is variable. ” Partly because of this species’ plasticity

and partly due to the lack of detailed habitat studies, the habitat requirements of cactorum remain poorly understood.”

“In the eastern part of the range, plant communities supporting the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl are coastal-plain oak associations, mesquite bosques, and Tamaulipan thornscrub in south Texas …, lowland thickets, thornscrub associations, riparian woodlands and second-growth forests in northeastern Mexico.”

“In western Mexico, the owl may occur in Sonoran desertscrub, Sinaloan thornscrub, Sinaloan deciduous forest, riverbottom woodlands, cactus forests, and thornforests…. In Arizona, the owl is historically associated with cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and mesquite (Prosopis velutina) riparian woodlands …and Sonoran desertscrub.”

Pygmy owls are fierce hunters and frequently attack birds larger than themselves including mourning doves and chickens. They also hunt spiny lizards and rats.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl was first described in the Tucson area in 1872 and naturalists described ” the subspecies as common or fairly common along some streams and rivers of central and southern Arizona.” Some authorities claims there was a sharp decline sometime before 1950, cause unknown, but it is speculated that the decline was due to changes in riparian areas. Some naturalists, however, noted expansion along irrigation canals. The story is also complicated by the fact that early naturalists lumped the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy owl in with the Northern pygmy owl.

However, according to an exhaustive review of the literature by Attorneys opposing a 2008 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the owl was, and is, only a sporadic and localized visitor in Arizona and its population has actually increased slightly over the past 136 years. The claim of a sharp decline in population is unsupported by any documentation. Furthermore, because there is no difference between owls in Arizona and those in Mexico, the establishment of a “distinct population segment” in Arizona is unwarranted.

The range maps below put some perspective on the significance of the Arizona population relative to the population as a whole. However, environmentalists are still trying to get the Arizona population of pygmy owls listed as an endangered species.

Cactus ferruginous owl range map

Ferrugious owl range map

See also:

Pygmy owls and property rights

Whatever happened to Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan?

The Flaws in the Endangered Species Act