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|While hiking the ridge at Hell's Gate in Death Valley, I came across several clumps of Cottontop Cactus growing amongst the rocky slopes of the Grapevine Mountains.|
Cottontop Cactus: (Echinocactus polycephalus) look like a cross between a Hedgehog Cactus and a Barrel Cactus. Individual stems look like barrel cactus, but they grow in clumps like hedgehogs. The stems grow to about 12-inches in diameter and about 15-inches tall, and they have ribs (flutes) running from bottom to top. The stems are loosely covered with relatively long, stout, flattened spines like those on barrel cactus. Flowers grow from the top of the stems, and the fruits are covered in soft, woolly spines. Clumps grow to about 3-ft in diameter and height.
Cottontop Cactus are generally uncommon, but they can be locally common components of a vegetation community. Cottontops occur in the Mojave Desert Scrub and Death Valley (Upper Sonoran Life Zone).
Family: Cactus (Cactaceae).
Other names: woolly cactus, woolly-headed cactus, many-headed barrel cactus.
Plant Form: Clumps of upright, short, globular stems that emerge from the ground. Stems ribbed, with spines growing from the top of the ridges.
Height: Stems 12-15-inches tall, 12-inches in diameter; clumps to 3-ft high and 3-ft wide.
Leaves: None (reduced to spines).
Flowers: Small, yellow; blooms in late spring to early summer.
Fruit: Oblong, 2.5-inches long, densely woolly.
Seeds: Black, 1/8-inch long.
Habitat: Rocky bajadas and outcrops.
Distribution: Found in southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and northwestern Arizona as well as Death Valley and Mojave Desert.
Elevation: 1,000 to 5,000 ft.
Comments: Desert birds use the cotton for nest-lining material.
This species can be told from California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) by the presence or absence of wool. Cottontop Cactus have some wool on the top of the stem and on the fruits, while California Barrel Cactus does not have wool. In addition, Cottontop Cactus form clumps, while barrel cactus tend to be solitary.
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