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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prairie Spotlight: The Cacti

The Berry Prairie, and likewise the native prairie, is dominated by grasses.  In fact, there are nine species of grasses on the roof, and they account for ¾ (3,500 individuals) of the plants!  On the opposite end of the spectrum, cacti are the least represented category of Wyoming vegetation; 15 cacti individuals of two species were planted.  The prickly pear cacti are in bloom right now - come check it out!

The prairie around Laramie consists of short-statured plants – short grasses, short shrubs, short forbs, and ground-hugging mosses and lichens.  The consistent and strong winds, high elevation, the lack of precipitation (we receive average of 11 inches of precipitation per year; for comparison, a desert is classified as receiving 10 inches of rain per year or less), and constant sun makes life very difficult for any plant above 3 feet tall.  

Therefore, the cacti that grow in Laramie prairies – and the Berry Prairie – do not look like this:

Cacti in the Sonoran desert - in other words, not Wyoming!

Instead, they look like this:

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha) - currently in bloom on the Berry Prairie!
Photo by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center
The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha, shown above) is a common prairie cactus that grows from Washington to Missouri to Arizona and everywhere in between.  It has ferocious spines, making it a nuisance for ranchers, unobservant hikers and energetic pets.  However, if the spines are removed via fire, hand or machinery, the cactus pads are palatable treats for wildlife and livestock.  The prickly pear blooms in late spring and early summer, and has yellow, pink or coral colored flowers.  It's actually in bloom right now on the Berry Prairie - come take a look!

Pincushion or barrel cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)
Photo by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

The pincushion or barrel cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii, shown above) is another common prairie cactus found in most of the western United States.  It does notably better at higher elevations and cooler temperatures than many other cacti do.  This cactus is usually perfectly round, 6” or less tall, and can grow in a wide variety of habitats, from prairie to rocky outcrops to montane forests.  The magenta, pink or yellow flowers appear in late spring and early summer.  

A third cactus species native to the Laramie basin, but not planted on the green roof, is the hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus, shown below), found in the three southeastern counties in Wyoming.   It has small greenish-yellow flowers that possess a citrusy scent.
Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus)

Stop by the Berry Prairie to check out the cacti in action!   

The majority of the cacti are found to the east of the path, which is the driest watering zone on the green roof (more about watering zones soon).

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center, with assistance from Joy Handley, WYNDD

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