High Desert, Hardy Cactuses

Greater Prescott has a bit of a dual personality

Cactuses have a prickly beauty straight out of a frontier film and are wonders of arid adaptation that help save water for people and those ponderosas. The majority of them don’t fare well past freezing, but there are a few types that can persevere, either on their own or with just a little help from their friends. 

We’ve got those towering ponderosa-coated mountains and alpine lakes in the west, home to numerous recreation areas, campgrounds, cabins and meadows that draw hordes of people from the “real” desert down south during its very frequent hot spells.

But if you get very far east of downtown, land takes over the landscape and you get the wide-open Western vistas that have drawn so many people here. The farther east you go, the more cactuses you see, though nothing on the scale of a saguaro. 

Cactuses have a prickly beauty straight out of a frontier film and are wonders of arid adaptation that help save water for people and those ponderosas. The majority of them don’t fare well past freezing, but there are a few types that can persevere, either on their own or with just a little help from their friends. 

Opuntia — These are the prickly pears and similarly built species easily identifiable for growing as a series of paddle-shaped segments and vivid pink fruit sometimes turned into jellies, candies, salad dressings and other delights. It’s easy to find examples in our area, including some that thrive under snow. The deceptively named opuntia fragilis (brittle prickly pear) and tephrocactus articulatus papyracanthus (paper spines) can tolerate subzero temperatures. 

Cholla — These plants are composed of cylindrical sections that are prolific growers of spines, with one species known as the “jumping cholla” for how humans and animals tend to react after coming into contact. All those needles actually play a role in keeping the plants warmer in the frigid months. Tree chollas don’t grow as tall here as they can farther south, but once they’re carefully planted, they become stunners, especially in the glow of sunrise and sunset. 

Hedgehog — These look positively fuzzy with their abundance of whiskery white spines but aren’t any more huggable than other cactus species. These smallish plants produce vivid, disproportionately large flowers and many of these are fragrant. The claret cup and beehive cactus from this family both can survive
down to -10 degrees.