Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Opportunistically epiphytic*

with 14 comments


The subjects of two recent successive posts—one from California and one from Texas—were epiphytes, organisms that grow on animate or inanimate objects for physical support but not for sustenance. Once in a while the seed of a plant that normally grows in the ground manages to take hold on something above the ground and survive, thus becoming an epiphyte. That was the case with the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) that I saw on November 8th in the cleft of a giant saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) in the eastern section of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona.

Given the huge size difference between the two types of cacti, you can’t see the prickly pear well in the photograph above, but you’re welcome to click the excerpt below to zoom in for a closer look.


* In spite of my hope that the phrase “opportunistically epiphytic” would be unique, an Internet search turned up one other example.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 21, 2016 at 4:00 AM

14 Responses

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  1. It must have been the height of ambition for the little prickly pear! I love the stately saguaros. I am reminded that one doesn’t need to photograph the entire plant to make a statement. You had quite the road trip.


    December 21, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    • I like your play on words: height of ambition. If we could attribute ambition to seeds, I’m afraid almost all would be doomed not to achieve their ambitions. The guide on this two-hour desert walk said that of the millions of seeds a saguaro produces, even just one managing to sprout and survive in the desert would have to be considered a success.

      As you’ve seen in this blog, especially the central Texas component that is the largest part of it, I often photograph parts of organisms to play up patterns and details.

      At about 6,000 miles, this was quite a road trip indeed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 21, 2016 at 9:18 AM

  2. What an interesting find, and good spotting by you. I have occasionally come across prairie plants growing in the fork of an oak.


    December 21, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    • I don’t know if I can take credit for spotting the prickly pear in the saguaro. When we arrived at the visitor center in Saguaro National Park that morning, a guide was just about to leave on a two-hour walk with a small group of people, whom we joined. It was the guide who pointed out the cactus in cactus. I’ve seen things like that in other places (including a cleft in one of the Ashe junipers on our front lawn), so who can say whether I’d have spotted it on my own anyhow. Probably we wouldn’t have known to walk along that route.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 21, 2016 at 9:26 AM

  3. Quite a few years ago I was in Phoenix and played a round of golf. Near the tee on a hole was a Saguaro about 20 ft away. Over the years many people had turned and driven a golf ball into the trunk of it. It was a sad site.

    Jim Ruebush

    December 21, 2016 at 9:49 AM

  4. Hey, looks like a kid on shoulder of his father. But the cacti are so amazing and I really love how they look.


    December 21, 2016 at 11:47 AM

    • You have a good familial imagination.
      Yes, the saguaros are great cacti, literally and figuratively. I was happy to spend time with them in the desert again after a two-year absence.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 21, 2016 at 3:28 PM

  5. it is amazing how little some plants need to grow ! great shot !


    December 21, 2016 at 4:28 PM

    • You’re certainly right about how little space some plants need to grow. (Sorry for my delayed reply: for some inexplicable reason your comment went into WordPress’s spam folder and I just noticed it.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 5, 2017 at 6:14 PM

      • you are not the first to say my comment went to the spam folder…..


        January 6, 2017 at 1:57 AM

        • Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It was someone else’s complaint about that that made me check my own spam folder.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 6, 2017 at 7:05 AM

  6. This isn’t the first time you’ve photographed an out-of-place prickly pear; those plants do seem to get around. I remembered this one, and this one. That tiny prickly pear pad would have been much harder to spot, though. I’m glad you have it to add to your collection.

    Your title reminded me of all the little epiphanies nature offers. I did some prowling, and it seems that the “epi” in “epiphyte” and “epiphany” does, in fact, connect them: however loosely.


    December 22, 2016 at 10:07 PM

    • You have such a good memory for peripatetic prickly pears. I’ve occasionally seen other plants do the same sort of thing.

      You’re right about the epi- in those two words of Greek origin and many others (episode, epicycle, epithet, epinephrine, …). The Latin cognate is ob- (object, obsess, obstacle, obtain, …) , but English apparently didn’t inherit any native descendants of the original Indo-European root.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2016 at 12:13 AM

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