Look at the spines on these cacti!

I pay a lot of attention when I visit other gardens. Interesting details jump out at me seemingly on their own. The same cannot always be said for our own garden. Maybe it's because I see the plants on a constant basis so I take their special characteristics for granted?

But taking the time to smell the roses look closer can reveal amazing things. This post is a great example. Take a look at the loooooong spines on these two cacti! Whether you're a fan of spiky plants or not, you've got to admit that these are impressive!

Some of the spines on this Ferocactus rectispinus are a full 6 inches long! That's more than 15 cm for all the metric folks out there.

Ferocactus rectispinus is what botanists call a “narrow endemic,” meaning it's found only in a small area, in this case in the central part of the Baja California peninsula near Bahía de la Concepción. A second population grows further inland on a mountain called Cerro Colorado. 

Some botanists consider Ferocactus rectispinus to be a subspecies of Ferocactus emoryi, others maintain it's a separate species. I have no idea who's right or wrong, and for our purpose it doesn't really matter.

Ferocactus rectispinus has the longest spines of any Ferocactus, as long as 10 inches (25 cm) on some specimen! The longest on mine are currently around 6 inches (15 cm), but it's still a juvenile plant with lots of growing to do. Mature plants, I should add, can be 6 feet (200 cm) tall!

The species name rectispinus means “straight spine,” and aside from an occasional slight curvature at tip, that's exactly what they are. Some plants have gray spines (I have small one like that), but to me, the red-spined form is the most beautiful. 

I bought the specimen you see in these photos from Jan Emming when I visited him at his 40-acre Destination:Forever Ranch in northwestern Arizona in December 2018. I recently planted it out in the larger of the two succulent mounds in the front yard, and I think it looks great next to Agave shrevei var. matapensis × guadalajarana.

The cactus with the second longest spines in our garden is planted on the other side of the same agave:

It's a Tephrocactus aoracanthus ssp. paediophilus, native to the Argentinian provinces of La Rioja and Mendoza. Its longest spines currently are 4 inches (10 cm). Some plants can have spines as long as 12 inches (30 cm)!

What makes these spines so special, aside from their lengths, is that in spite of their formidable look, they're actually not very sharp: In fact, they're papery, a bit like raffia. That is a hallmark of many Tephrocactus species—you might be familiar with Tephrocactus articulatus var. papyracanthus whose flat spines do feel like paper.

Tephrocactus consists of stem segments stacked on top of each other. These tend to break off easily and root wherever they land—here's a great example of Tephrocactus articulatus var. papyracanthus at a nursery outside of Palm Springs.

However, even with their fairly harmless spines, Tephrocactus are not to be trifled with. This genus is in the Opuntioideae subfamily, just like chollas and prickly pears. This means that all Tephrocactus have glochids. On a cholla or prickly pear you know they're there so you're automatically on your guard. On most Tephrocactus, the glochids are far less obvious, often sunken into the areoles. But if your finger lands in the wrong place, you will feel them—or, more likely, you will walk around with them for a while. (One member of this genus, Tephrocactus molinensis, has very prominent glochids, rivaling anything in the opuntias.)

My Tephrocactus aoracanthus ssp. paediophilus came from Jeff Moore/Arid Adaptations Nursery in Tucson, and I planted in a spot where I'm less likely to touch it. I exceeded my lifetime quota of glochids long ago and don't need any more embedded in my skin!

Interested in other cactus with really long spines? Here's a Google search to get you started.

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  1. Yikes! you do like to plant beautiful but dangerous plants. Short story: overbalanced while reaching for a plant in my greenhouse... desperately struggled to retain my balance as right beneath me was a large potted agave with very sharp 2 inch spines. Thankfully still here to tell the tale.

  2. Signs next to the rectispinus and Tephro. that say "We're glad you're here!" might be fun. ;^)

  3. Impressive indeed but I hope you never have to transplant them!

  4. I've grown Tephrocactus and found out about the glochids the hard way... I find that I enjoy touching the plants I grow, so no spikes to speak of in my garden. You on the other hand, live dangerously :-D

  5. I have also gotten cactus from Jan Emming and Jeff Moore/Arid Adaptations. They both are fantastic growers! I live in Phoenix so I often have them sent to me. Well worth it to get plants grown here in the desert areas as I live near Phoenix!
    Your plants are so fantastic where you have them situated.


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