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Flowering cacti drought's treat

6/21/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Finally, a silver lining to the ominous dark-but-rain-free cloud called drought.

It's an abundance of highly visible plains prickly pear cactus blossoms, the bright yellow blossoms showing up in pastures across the region.

The cactus, one of seven cacti in Kansas, isn't spreading rapidly, according to Mike Haddock, the author of a book on Kansas wildflowers.

"It's just more visible," he said, "because the grass isn't as tall."

In some cases, the grasses in pastures across drought-stricken northwest Kansas have struggled to green up, much less grow.

Already, farmers are talking about selling cattle after harvest because of the poor pasture conditions.

"It doesn't spread all over," said Haddock, who also serves as assistant dean in the research, education and engagement division of the Kansas State University library system.

Prickly pear cactus can be found throughout Kansas, according to Haddock's website, kswildflower.org, a treasure trove of Kansas wildflowers. The website has branched out into a book, "Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas -- a Field Guide."

There's even an app for that, for both iPhone and Android.

Haddock's also working on yet another book, a reference book on Kansas wildflowers and grasses.

"Obviously, since it's a cactus, it thrives when it's dry," Haddock said of the prickly pear, which also has an extensive root system. "These things do well under drought conditions and the grass does not compete as much.

They're built a bit different than most plants he said, as the pads are comparable to the stem on any other plant. The leaves are the spines, he said.

The spines easily can be more than an inch long and often have tiny spines at the base of the larger ones.

Other varieties of cacti have been flowering as well, but some are even smaller and more difficult to find.

They include the pincushion cactus, found in the western two-thirds of the state, and the nipple cactus, found in central Kansas.

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Some details about the prickly pear cactus.

Showy, broadly funnel-shaped, 2 to 3 inches wide, yellow to copper.

Found in dry rocky prairies, hillsides, and overgrazed pastures.

Prickly pear has been used in the past as an emergency livestock feed after the spines have been burned off.

In times of food shortage, Native Americans ate the raw or stewed fruit. Wildlife, such as deer, jackrabbits and turtles eat the fruits and help spread the seeds.