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Cactus Flowers And Yucca Flowers

The stuff that childhood nightmares are made of can be found within cactus flowers and yucca flowers.  For me, there is a very vivid childhood memory of my little brother hollering and crying in fear and anger, as he lay across my grandmother’s knees — her wielding a pair of pliers, attempting to remove the prickly pear objects of his discomfort.  Then, there is another very memorable memory of the sight monster with wild and many arms waving at me in the blackness of night — that of course was a nightmare, born of camping at the Joshua Tree National Park.

Both of those memories, tell nothing of the beauty that anyone who has spent a lot of time in the desert knows when the desert is in bloom. Of the desert blooms, my memories are long and clear, no matter how many years it is between visits.

I am particularly fond of prickly pear cactus, ordinary yucca, Joshua Tree, and the Desert Mariposa Lily.  I no longer live anywhere near the desert, but I will always have a soft spot for each of these wonderful examples of nature. 

The Prickly Pear

The Cacti are really most at home in the desert, and are most numerous in the arid parts of the Southwest, here in the United States.

However two or three have ventured far to the north and are plentifully scattered over the plains, even into Montana and as far north as Saskatchewan.  They are curious plants in which the leaves are often completely absent and the leaf-work is done by the thick succulent stems.

Perhaps the most abundant variety is the Prickly Pear (Opuntia), with broad flat stems developed in joints that are about an inch across and two or three inches long.  

These joints, when young, have a few needle-shaped leaves, but they soon drop off. 

Stout spines are scattered over the stems in great abundance — spines so sharp and strong that they easily pierce through a leather shoe.

Water is stored in the stem, so that the plant is able to flower in the hot, dry summer.

The flowers are cup shaped, composed of many bright petals surrounding numerous long stamens. The most abundant prickly pear has bright yellow flowers tow inches across, but red and purple varieties may also be found. 

The fruit is pear-shaped, fleshy and edible, some of the larger ones from Mexico finding their way into fruit markets and grocery stores, very commonly seen in parts of the U.S.

The prickly balls of the Pincushion, or Ball Cactus are also found scattered in the short grass of the plains of the Midwest.

At times single spiny balls rather larger than an egg are found, and again dozens are heaped together in a prickly mass. 

Here, the flowers are composed of long lancelote purple petals. New Mexico and Arizona have each selected a cactus as their state flowers.

Yucca Flowers

In the same dry portions of the plains of the West and parts of the American Midwest, where cactus grows, also grows the Yucca. In bloom, it forms a rosette of dagger-like leaves, and from the center of the barricade sends up a great spike of creamy white flowers.

The leaves are often more than a foot long, and the stem rises to a height of two to six feet, with drooping bell-like flowers over an inch long.

So sharp are the leaves, that the name Spanish Bayonet is quite appropriately applied to the plant. 

Six white perianth leaves form from the drooping flower, while within are six stamens and a long style.

The pollen, which is quite sticky, is carried from the stamens to the stigma at the tip of the long style by a small white insect known that used to be known simply as the as the Pronumba moth.

 Today, it’s known that several moth species preform this task. One of them is the Tegeticula masculata. Another known pollinator of the Yucca is the Tegeticula yuccasella.

Pronumba mothSome of the other moths are of the species Prodoxus, but actually do not pollinate the flowers and they are known as bogus yucca moths.

During the evening, when the Yucca flowers are most widely open, the moth gathers a ball of pollen from one flower and flies at once to another.

Here she pierces the wall of the ovary and lays an egg. Then, going to the stigma, she forces the pollen ball between its lobes and her work is completed. The developing pollen fertilizes the ovules and they develop into seeds.

At the same time, the egg of the moth hatches, and the tiny worm, or larva, begins to feed on the developing seeds.  When full grown, the larva eats its way out of the pod that has now become upright, and drops to the earth.

It usually happens that the larva has left untasted enough ripe seeds to pay for the food that it has eaten.

Flowers not visited by the Pronumba remain unfertilized and produce no seeds, so the existence of the plant and the insect both depend upon the curious visits and labors of the Pronumba mother moth.

Known Uses For The Yucca Plant - Today and Yesterday

Yucca CasseroleThe Yucca has been long known to Native peoples as a food source, with the fruits, seeds, flowers, flowering stem, and occasionally the roots being used. Many people take the young tender flowers and eat them raw (sweet tasting). Others stuff them with vegetables, then steam of bake them.

Medicinally the plant is sometimes used as an anti-inflammatory for pets and for humans. It’s been used topically as a first aid suave.

Other Native uses have been:

  • Clothing
  • Shoes
  • Baskets
  • Blankets
  • Spice