April 2021 EcoQuest: Lookin' Sharp

Join the April EcoQuest: Lookin’ Sharp.
Find and map as many cactus (Family Cactaceae) as possible.

Which plants are associated with the desert more than cactus? These prickly icons can be found all over metro Phoenix, from parks to street medians. Observations from this EcoQuest can help provide an initial view into species distribution and occurrence, which can help inform an urban population genetic study and provide insight into cactus biodiversity.

Join the EcoQuest
Guide to Cactus of Metro Phoenix

This month’s EcoQuest is in collaboration with the Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent Society (CACSS) and research scientist Tania Hernandez at Desert Botanical Garden.

The Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent Society aims to teach others how to grow and study cacti, other succulents and associated xerophytes, promote interest in these plants and support conservation programs that protect them and their habitats. The Society holds public meetings for study and to provide the opportunity to exhibit plants.
Learn more about CACSS.

Tania Hernandez
New World Succulents Cactus Scientist
The work in my lab is motivated by an interest to understand how and when the succulent syndrome appeared and how succulent lineages diversified. Besides being beautiful, succulent plants exhibit an interesting array of evolutionary modifications that occurred at all organismal levels (morphological, anatomical, physiological, genetic, etc.). We still do not fully understand the adaptive significance of those modifications in the context of the particular abiotic, or non-living, conditions under which different succulent lineages evolved around the globe.
Read more about Tania’s research here.

Cactus have become increasingly popular, with their likeness found on anything from home goods and clothing to cell phone cases and toys. Demand for the plants themselves has also risen, with millions of plants sold every year. In 2019, Saguaro National Park saw over 1 million visitors for the first time in its history. How much do you know about these prickly wonders?

What makes a cactus a cactus? Almost all cactus are succulents, but not all succulents are cactus. Succulents are generally plants that have adapted to store water in thick, fleshy leaves or stems. Agaves, aloes and some euphorbias are a few examples of succulents that are often mistaken for cactus. The stem is the part that stores water in most cactus and they have very few, if any, leaves. Instead, most have spines, which are highly modified leaves. Spines originate from a structure that distinguishes the cactus family: areoles. Areoles are circular or oval-shaped and look like discs covered in small hair or spines. Another way to know you are looking at a cactus is by its flower. Cactus flowers have numerous tepals, stamens, and stigma lobes. Many cactus bloom around April, so be sure and take the time to see if you can identify these flower parts while making observations.

Tepal: a term for when petals cannot be easily distinguished between a petal or sepal
Stamen: the reproductive organ of a flower that produces pollen
Stigma lobe: the reproductive part of a flower that receives pollen on top of the style

In the same way that biodiversity supports healthy ecosystems, genetic diversity supports healthy populations. By having different genetic makeups, species are better suited to adapt and resist risks from pests, disease, stress and environmental conditions. Undesirable genetic traits can also be reduced over time. With so many cactus being grown, bought and sold, traded and planted, we want to know more about populations and their genetic diversity. This EcoQuest can help us decide which species of cactus are most numerous in urban areas and which species to possibly study. Questions we may be able to investigate include where cactus are being sourced, are most cactus in urban areas clones (and therefore do not support genetic diversity), and how do urban population genetics differ from wild populations? The results from this EcoQuest can provide information and data for a future urban population genetics study.

Because of their popularity, cactus have become a prime target for poachers with demand being driven by enthusiasts around the world. Below are some tips from @ ethicalcactus on Instagram for making educated cactus purchases.

To learn more about species that are considered “at risk,” visit the IUCN Red List or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) website.

You can also read more about cactus poaching and the illegal plant trade in this article from The Guardian, featuring Desert Botanical Garden’s own Steve Blackwell.

Just for fun: Love urban cactus? Check out this Central Phoenix cactus map and other works by local artist Steady Hand Maps. Their amazing hand-illustrated cactus cards and map show where different types of cactus can be found in Central Phoenix, and how they can transform urban and residential cityscapes. The cards also have blank spaces to fill in your own observations!

Observing cactus species in metro Phoenix can help us understand more about populations and provide information and data for a future urban population genetics study.

Any and all cactus in metro Phoenix. Be sure to take multiple photos and include as many details as possible for an observation because this helps with identification. This includes a photo of the overall cactus, paddles or stems, closeups of spines and areoles, and flowers if there are any.

Cactus can be very difficult to identify, especially because of hybridization, and at times can only be distinguished genetically. Don’t be discouraged if you cannot identify to a species level.

We’ve also created a guide with cactus that have been observed on iNaturalist in Metro Phoenix: Guide to Cactus of Metro Phoenix


Take extra caution when observing cactus! Be sure to watch your step and pay attention to where you put your hands and feet. When making observations up close, be mindful of longer spines and wear eye protection and gloves if necessary.

If you do find yourself in a prickly situation:
First, don’t grab the spines!
If the stem of the cactus is still attached, try to cut it loose with snips or scissors, leaving about a half inch of spine. Next, deal with the spines. Use tweezers or pliers to try and work or pull spines out. If pieces of spine stay behind in your skin, try a warm soak with Epsom salt to relieve pain and try to draw the spine out. For tiny, hair-like spines like glochids, try running them under warm water and carefully scrape across your skin with something that has a hard and sharp edge. Applying duct tape or letting glue dry on your skin, then removing can also be effective. If you notice any swelling or redness for more than a week or so after, it could be worth a trip to the doctor to make sure the site isn’t infected.

Read more from Raul Puente-Martinez from Desert Botanical Garden in this article.

Sources and more information:
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:
The Plant List
How to Remove Cactus Spines

EcoQuests are month-long challenges that are part of the larger Metro Phoenix EcoFlora project.
You can learn more and join the Metro Phoenix EcoFlora here:

Sign up for the newsletter at ecofloraphx@dbg.org.
Let's be social @ecofloraphx

PLEASE observe COVID-19 guidelines/recommendations.
This a great opportunity to get outdoors close to home as we all navigate the complications of COVID-19. However, it is imperative that you follow the guidelines/recommendations of your local governments and institutions (wear a mask, practice physical distancing and wash your hands). Do what’s best for you and your community.

Arizona Office of Tourism: Responsible Recreation in AZ

Please do not observe indoor houseplants or pets.
For your own safety and the protection of plants and wildlife, do not trespass when making observations. Please follow all posted rules and guidelines in parks/preserves and do not enter private property.
Do not remove or move natural materials (plants, animals, rocks).
Respect wildlife (do not touch, feed, or disturb animals and keep a safe distance)

Publicado por jenydavis jenydavis, 01 de abril de 2021


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