Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Cottontop cactus

with 33 comments


When I got out of my car for the first time in California’s Joshua Tree National Park on November 5th last year and walked into the desert a short distance, I soon caught sight of this red cactus, the likes of which I’d never seen. Neil Frakes, Vegetation Branch Chief at the park, later identified it as Echinocactus polycephalus, known as the cottontop cactus. Even if there was no cotton at this stage, the red was rich reward enough.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 15, 2017 at 4:57 AM

33 Responses

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  1. Interesting. I think I’ve never seen this plant before.


    January 15, 2017 at 6:30 AM

  2. What a beauty. It reminds me of Gulf Muhly: albeit a stiffer and more prickly version. When I saw all those red stems, I wondered what color its flowers were. We have so many red-stemmed, yellow-flowered combinations, I had a hunch this might be another. Sure enough, it does have yellow flowers, although several articles I read pointed out that few people see them because they tend to arrive in the hottest part of the year when the desert can be extremely unpleasant.


    January 15, 2017 at 6:32 AM

    • One reason Joshua Tree National Park was so crowded at the beginning of November was that the heat of the long desert summer had finally abated. If I lived there I’d have to go out photographing in the hottest part of the summer, just as I do in Austin, to find the flowers that thrive in the heat. At least there’s much lower humidity in the California desert than there is in Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2017 at 10:19 AM

  3. The name and the visual effect of those orbs both make me smile!

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    January 15, 2017 at 8:37 AM

    • Then happy double sonrisas to you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2017 at 10:33 AM

      • I tried hitting ‘like’ twice but ended up unliking your reply!

        There’s a new ‘Spanish’ mystery to lob in your direction.. For lunch, it’s very normal for Ecuadorians to have a meat or fish, rice and ‘minestra,’ which for a long time I thought meant lentils, but it applies to any bean served with the meal… Today it was a red-colored bean they called “Panamita”.. I mentioned to my Colombian friends that I’d never heard beans referred to as “Minestra” – until Ecuador…

        He said they don’t use that word in Colombia either and wondered if it evolved here via Italians….

        Have you ever heard of other countries using ‘minestra’ in place of beans/frijoles?

        Playamart - Zeebra Designs

        January 16, 2017 at 2:12 PM

      • or maybe it’s spelled, ‘menestra?

        Playamart - Zeebra Designs

        January 16, 2017 at 2:15 PM

  4. I am one who loves cactus. Interesting how this hunkered in the sand and became so compact. Lovely color. Polycephalus! I’d love to see its bloom color. I’d guess it grew from seed. It might be fairly old!


    January 15, 2017 at 8:41 AM

    • Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any of the flowers but I did get to see the many (poly) heads (cephalus), or at least the three apparent in this clump. Above all it was the color that grabbed my attention, even from a distance.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2017 at 10:37 AM

  5. That’s just gorgeous. My tween daughter looking over my shoulder called it ‘butt cheeks.’ Perspective is everything I guess!


    January 15, 2017 at 8:42 AM

  6. “Cottontop”? Even when it has cotton on top, I’d not like to lie down on it. 😉
    Have a great Sunday,


    January 15, 2017 at 9:44 AM

  7. it’s so beautiful.
    I want one ❤


    January 15, 2017 at 8:58 PM

  8. It’s hard to imagine ‘soft cotton’ as part of a ‘cactus but I read that birds like the woolly part of the cactus for nests.


    January 17, 2017 at 9:29 PM

    • I’ve noticed that birds can often perch on a cactus without harm, probably because they weigh so little. There are even birds that make nests in cacti, as I’ll show in a forthcoming post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2017 at 10:02 PM

  9. I’ve never seen the likes of it either~what a surprise it is. I wonder if it is quite rare.


    January 29, 2017 at 10:58 AM

  10. A striking plant indeed, your image immediately put me in mind of sea urchins stranded on a beach.


    February 4, 2017 at 9:00 AM

    • An interesting association, given that the desert is the opposite sort of environment from the one where you’d find sea urchins.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2017 at 1:17 PM

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