Mexico / Baja California  / Cacti
Thursday, March 23, 2017


Cristata eines Cardóns bei Cataviña
Cardon cactus cristata near Cataviña
Cardón in der Sierra San Francisco
Cardon in the Sierra San Francisco
Blühende Opuntia vor Loreto
Flowering Opuntia near Loreto

Baja California, the cactus garden of Mexico - Cardon, cholla, pitaya, cochal, senita – cacti of all forms and sizes accompany the tourist wherever he goes.

Whether columnar or spherical, whether having disk-like or cylindrical shoots, cacti dominate the vegetation, and those growing down to the coast form a unique, fascinating contrast with the azure of the sea. Cacti are common throughout the New World. They grow from Canada to Patagonia, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from sea level to 14,500 ft (4,500 m), in the jungle and the desert, on the ground or as epiphytes on other plants. The greatest diversity of species is, however, found in the Southwest of North America. In northern Mexico alone, there are 1,000 species, and in Baja California 120. A good half of them is endemic.

As they have adapted to dry zones, cacti are masters in saving and efficiently using water. All parts of the plant serve this purpose. The roots form a wide-spreading system near the surface, the stem consists of succulent, i.e. water-retaining tissue. Parallel ribs allow for an increase in volume similar to the principle used in accordions so that some cacti may double their weight by absorbing water! Up to 95% of the total volume can then be water! No leaves are visible. They were transformed into spines of different lengths, forms and hardness, photosynthesis is done in the green cortex of the stem. A dense covering with spines also protects the cacti against feeding damage and insulates them against heat and cold alike. Sclerenchyma, a waxy coat or cuticle and light-colored hairs reduce evaporation and reflect the radiation of the sun.

And the blossoms? Cacti mostly bloom only for some days in beautiful colors ranging from white to yellow and red to lilac.

Some cacti open their blossoms only at night. Unlike the day-blooming species – which are attractive for birds and butterflies –, these are pollinated by bats and night-flying insects.

In Baja California, cacti play an extremely important part in the ecosystem and provide food and the necessities of life for many animals. A good example of this is the cardón, the largest cactus in the world, which can be up to 60 ft (20 m) tall and about 15 ft (5 m) round. Such a colossus may weigh up to 12 tons and even twice that after copious rains. And as it grows very slowly, it may reach an age of much more than 200 years.

Cardons are especially important for birds, who use them as multi-story apartment houses to raise their young. Gila woodpeckers hammer new nest holes into the stems each spring. Apart from the woodpeckers, a good dozen other bird species uses the holes, e.g. owls, cowbirds and cactus wrens. Sometimes even an iguana lives in them. Other birds, e.g. white-winged doves or red-tailed hawks, use the axils for breeding or, like turkey vultures, sit on top of the cardon to have a look-out.

Cactus fruits are an important source of food in the dry environment, where water is scarce. The pulp contains nutritious seeds, which in cardons, for instance, number up to 2,000. The fruits are favorites of coyotes, wild boars, foxes, rodents, birds and insects.
And people, too, do not dislike them at all. The Indians have used them for a long time to prepare preserves, syrup and wine. In particular demand were the juicy and sweet fruits of the organ pipe cactus (Pitaya dulce), which reach the size of a tennis ball. The time when they were ripe, was a period of feasts and social events for the Pericú Indians in the Cape region. They adjusted their calendar to it and organized nothing short of fruit orgies. This was the so-called first harvest. After the Indians had excreted the seeds undigested at certain places and allowed them to lie there for some time, the fruits were recollected, ground and mashed to a dough, from which the rich pozole was prepared (second harvest).

Characteristic of Baja California are the bushy opuntias, including the prickly pears, Indian figs and chollas, of which several species exist.

18They grow in two different forms: with disk-like oval stems (prickly pears) or with cylindrical stems (chollas). The pulp of young opuntia shoots, the popular nopalitos, can be boiled and eaten like green asparagus. Opuntias are grown in fields for this purpose. The fruits (tunas) of some opuntia species are eaten raw or processed to obtain syrup or jelly.

But cacti are more than only food. Planted close to one another, some are suitable to make living fences, against unwanted animals or as an enclosure of pasture-grounds. The lignified ribs of the big species such as cardons or organ pipes were used by the early settlers as building material or fuel.

Spines were tools or fish-hooks, e.g. the particularly long and stable spines of barrel cacti. They are massive plants about as high as a man‘s leg. Some cacti are popular in the cosmetics industry, because they contain refreshing substances that have an invigorating effect on the skin. And they are appreciated by the medical science as well: mescaline, for instance, a substance used to raise the blood pressure, is obtained from the peyote.
Besides the big, conspicuous cacti of Baja, there are still many others in hidden places. The small spherical mammilarias, for instance, grow under shrubs. Or the Echinocereus engelmannii / strawberry hedgehog cactus, in spring one of the first species to bloom.

Something very particular among the cacti of Baja is the creeping devil cactus, which occurs only in the Magdalena plain. In the form of “wandering sprouts”, it slowly migrates over the desert ground and even climbs over obstacles. It migrates by growing at its top, taking root in the ground and dying at is end. After the parent plant has died, the offsets live on their own. Regrettably, the narrowing of its habitat because of irrigated cultivation has made the creeping devil cactus rare, just as many other cactus species that are a hindrance to agriculture. Their popularity as collector‘s items or for decoration likewise contributes to the great decline. All cacti are today mentioned in the list of endangered plants of the Washington Species Protection Convention and therefore may not be removed from the place where they grow even in Mexico.