Forgive us if we ever get a bit flowery in our musings about cacti. These plants are often noted for their spiny (not thorny) toughness, but — beyond cactus geeks — probably don’t receive their proper due for all the textures, shapes, and hues they possess. Their satiny, out-of-this-world flowers are some of the most fetching ones on the planet. Alluring reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, whites. Even purple. Some run small while many are certifiably ginormous. (The flowers of Hylocereus undatus — dragon fruit — can exceed 12 inches in length.) Many bloom after dark when other plants have closed up their displays for the night.
What cactus flowers lack in stamina, they make up for in depth of interest, whether it’s freakishly colorful petals, ridiculously profuse stamens, or crazy-large centers that kind of look like floral-style horn speakers. Even the stigmas of the flowers, the landing zone for pollinators, add their own distinct, complementary flair.
Admirers of echinopsis flowers can geek out endlessly on these intensely colorful but short-lived blooms by watching fabulously freakish time-lapse videos online. Photographer Greg Krehel runs the suitably named echinopsisfreak.com. There, he describes the flowers’ brevity as one of their “funky” aspects (good funky): “The fact these flowers last just a single day from opening until wilting and are at their best for an hour or two tops.”
Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia genus) are native to North America as well as South America. Prickly pears are distinguished in part by their pads, which look like oversized leaves but are in fact modified branches. The pads are bejeweled by both the flower buds and fruit (aka “tunas”), which along with the pads (or nopales) are edible.
Mammillaria mystax is a globular species native to Oaxaca, Mexico. Rings of reddish-violet flowers appear in April and May.
Golden torch cactus (Trichocereus spachiana) is a columnar species still commonly referred to by the genus name Trichocereus, which falls under the Echinopsis umbrella. It produces big, bold white flowers (8 inches across), at night, in spring/early summer and sometimes fall.
Trumpet flower cactus, a cross between the Trichocereus and Lobivia genera (the latter also grouped under Echinopsis), pairs huge flowers with brilliant colors and allows the night-blooming tricho to become a day-bloomer, from spring to fall.
The vibrantly unreal flowers of chin cacti are different from those of other cacti. They’re naked. Say what? Yup. Chin cacti make up the genus of Gymnocalycium, from the Greek words gymno, meaning “naked,” and kalyx, meaning “covering of a flower.” The flowers and flower buds of all genus members lack spines, wool, or bristles. Instead, they are smooth and scaled.
We’ll close with the exotic: the orchid cactus (Epiphyllum genus). Epiphyllums are commonly referred to as orchid cacti or jungle cacti because of their ridiculously saturated flowers, reminiscent of tropical orchids. Like they’re daring you to lay off the HDR setting on your camera. They’re native to tropical rain forests of Central and South America. Some produce fragrant white flowers that only bloom for one night. Sound familiar? Hybrids, though, create eye-popping flowers that may last days.