In the Baja California, Mexico desert, the first citizens are the giant cardon cactuses. Highly visible and almost ubiquitous, these plants are emphatic greeters beckoning from an exotic and unique landscape. Their presence proclaims the existence of a magical space. Their uplifted arms advertise a dramatic promise of more delights and wonders to come once you pass beneath their boughs and between their shadows. Indeed, we see dozens of different kinds of cactuses on our Baja California travel and the Sea of Cortez cruises, from the various tiny fish hook cactuses, to the massive barrel, to the many-armed organ pipe. But be careful! Each cactus is a fortress, with row after row of crenate ribs and rank upon rank of starburst spines guarding that most precious desert commodity – moisture.
And yet, most species also have their softer, almost fuzzy side; they show it during the warm days of late winter and early spring, when they become concerned with love, or at least enamored by reproduction.
While never simple for any creature, courting is a particularly difficult labor for plants. For example, cactuses can get all dressed up for “sparking,” that is, they can drape themselves with beautiful and even fragrant flowers, but a cactus can never really go anywhere. In fact, they usually cannot even get away from their 'brothers' and 'sisters.' Like other plants, most cactuses are hermaphroditic. Each flower contains many male 'parts' that surround many female 'parts.' (Does this sound close enough to a certain adolescent nightmare yet?) But fear not. It is still safe and prudent to relax in your garden or even stroll in the woods. Nature is both clever and conservative.
To reach out and touch that special someone, cactuses have made shrewd business arrangements with various members of the animal kingdom. Charity, at the very best, can be described as rare, or more probably, nonexistent in nature. This is particularly fortunate for us, because cactuses have had to make themselves attractive to animals, rather than to other cactuses. I shudder to think what a cactus would find attractive! More and deadlier spines? Nasty, obnoxious odors to better repel moisture-theiving animals? Thankfully this is not the case. Rather, on our Baja California expedition cruises, we are dazzled by rare colors, gorgeous shapes, and often experience pleasant scents from cactus flowers. These are 'animal pleasing' characteristics that many other plants also strive to achieve with their flowers. But cactuses are not just another plant with vulgar blossoms. Cactuses do things on the grandest of scales and with the greatest of panache.
It is only the smallest of the cactuses that appear to be satisfied with mere bees as pollinators. The larger cactuses engage the most demanding and exotic pollinators, such as bats and moth hawks. As one might expect of such sophisticates, these cactuses entertain mostly at night, a cooler, more humid time when less loss will occur of their precious moisture through “leaky” flowers. Big, powerful pollinators will travel great distances between plants, which helps to maximize genetic outcrossing. Moreover, well rewarded and satisfied pollinators will remain faithful to their hosts and minimize the amount of pollen cluttering up their flowers. To support these expensive pollinators, nectar and pollen rewards are spectacular, particularly for the bats.
Hence, it is no surprise that virtually all of the 'bums' who can fly or crawl to the top of the plant will visit the flowers looking for a handout. But these thieves are not pollinators, for they do not transfer the pollen from the flower on one plant to the female parts of a flower on another. No, the contract between cactus and pollinator remains unsullied by these riffraff: insects, some birds, and perhaps a mammal or two.
So how is it that a hermaphroditic cactus does not mate with itself? Most cactuses are essentially self aware, they know themselves. Their own pollen or that of a close relative is recognized by the female part of the flower. Rather than 'dishonor' their sister or cousin, the pollen 'accepts a suicide pill,' the cellular machinery becomes deactivated, and that pollen grain ceases to exist. In this way, all seeds will be formed with distant relatives, thus increasing the potential genetic variability of the offspring. Other cactuses, while producing flowers, rarely or never sexually reproduce; they just make clones of themselves. These include some of the chollas, who seem to have chosen personal immortality over the fickled fate of lesser-known progeny – a choice that is perhaps rather short-sighted, for variability enables the challenges of a changing world to best be met.
There are other strategies and many wonderful stories still to be told about cactuses, and perhaps one day soon you will hear more when you join us on a Baja California & the Sea of Cortez expedition cruise.
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