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From the towering saguaro to the rounded prickly pear, the cactus in its many shapes and forms is an iconic symbol of deserts around the world. The spiny plant is a survivor, thriving in dry, arid climates and providing both texture and interest to these often-stark landscapes. While cacti are stereotypically prickly and threatening, there are many variations of this hardy plant that are beautiful and unique. Here are six curious-looking cacti around the globe that demonstrate just how diverse this plant can be.
Hatiora Salicornioides (Dancing Bones) in Brazil
Hailing from eastern Brazil, this cactus looks more like something you’d expect to find along the ocean floor. Also known as “dancing bones,” “drunkard’s dream,” and “spice cactus,” hatiora salicornioides sports bunches of coral-like stems that balloon into small, bottle-shaped segments ranging from 1.2 inches to two feet long. Adding to its unique appearance are the bright, yellow flowers that bloom at the end of each stem.
This species of cactus prefers rooting into tree trunks as opposed to the ground, making it even more of a spectacle. When situated in indirect sunlight and well-drained soil, however, the hatiora salicornioides also thrives in the ground. Check out these curious cacti at Parque Nacional de Itatiaia in the Mantiqueira Mountains of Brazil.
Carnegiea Gigantea (Saguaro) in Arizona and Mexico
There’s something undeniably curious about a cactus that grows up to five stories tall. Living up to its name, carnegiea gigantea is the largest species of cactus in the U.S. The cactus is a late bloomer, growing only a few inches during its first 10 years of life. But the heavyweights eventually reach a height of 60 feet and clock in at 4,800 pounds.
The saguaro cactus, as it’s more commonly known, grows a thick, tree-trunk-like stalk that sprouts up to 25 stems that curve up towards the sky like human arms. In the spring, these arms are adorned with white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Saguaros are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from southern Arizona to the Mexican state of Sonora. Visit Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona, to check out these giants in their natural habitat.
Discocactus Ferricola (Disco Ball Cactus) in Bolivia and Brazil
Discocactus ferricola grows abundantly along the border of Bolivia and Brazil, and the cities of Corumbá, Brazil; El Mutuń, Bolivia; and San Cirilio (Santa Cruz), Bolivia are the only three places in the world where you’ll find the globular, shrub-like cactus that resembles a disco ball. The species grows in flat, rocky outcrops where the soil is rich in iron and manganese ore. The biggest threat to the cactus’ existence is humans; the species is facing extinction since its preferred environment is often cleared for land development.
Aside from the plant’s unusual shape, the most interesting thing about the cactus is the intriguing flowering process that starts deep within its core. The bristly center of the cactus, known as the cephalium, eventually sprouts several stems that produce white, sweet-smelling, nocturnal blossoms on warm summer evenings.
Epiphyllum (Climbing Cactus) in Central and South America
When you think of a cactus, you likely picture a rigid, spiny plant growing straight up from the ground in an arid desert. Epiphyllum take on completely different characteristics and prefer the tropical rainforests of Central and South America to the dry, sandy conditions of a desert. With their flat, drooping stems , they look more like hanging house plants than cacti. The cactus produces large, white flowers with spindly petals that bloom only at night.
Also known as “climbing cacti” or orchid cacti, the plants can be spotted in rainy southwestern Costa Rica and the rainforests of Venezuela, Peru, and northern Brazil. The added bonus of domesticating this unique species is harvesting the edible fruit it produces, which is said to taste like passionfruit or dragonfruit.
Cephalocereus Senilis (Old Man Cactus) in Mexico
One look at this prickly plant wrapped up in a mane of snow-white hair and you’ll immediately understand how cephalocereus senilis earned its nickname “old man cactus.” Beneath the deceivingly soft exterior lies a myriad of yellow spines, so resist the urge to run your fingers through the old man’s hair. Cephalocereus senilis grows in straight columns and sprouts additional stems that can reach up to 50 feet tall.
When they’re young, old man cacti have thick, silvery-white hair, but they start to lose some of the hair as they age. The red, yellow, and white blossoms don’t make an appearance until the cactus is 10-20 years old. Old man cacti grow wild in the states of Hidalgo and Guanajuato in eastern Mexico, but you can also see them at the Chicago Botanic Garden or in Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Desert Pavilion.
Cylindropuntia Bigelovii (Teddy Bear Cholla) in California
Anything but cute and cuddly, the cylindropuntia bigelovii or teddy bear cholla cactus can pose a vicious threat if you get too close. From afar, the plant looks like multi-pronged coral covered in a soft, fuzzy golden coat. Further investigation uncovers that the inviting gold fur is actually clusters of thin, densely packed spines, which form an impenetrable defense for the cactus’ core.
Inadvertently brush up against the teddy bear cholla and you’ll need to use a pair of pliers to remove the spikes! Cylindropuntia bigelovii can grow to be about chest high, have a darker trunk with few lower branches, and produce small, yellow-green flowers in spring. The Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park is the place to go to gaze upon the teddy bear cactus from a safe distance.