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Growing in the Desert Column

(List of Growing in the Desert columns)

Echinocereus pentalophus – Common but Extraordinary

by Mark Dimmitt

Photos by Mark Dimmitt unless noted

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

Figure 1. The flower of Echinocereus pentalophus is over three inches across, opening flat to reveal concentric circles of bright color

Figure 2. Alicoche flowers are often borne several to a stem.

Echinocereus pentalophus (alicoche, lady finger cactus), has been in cultivation for a long time, but it is one of the finest cacti available. It is easy and vigorous, completely hardy in southern Arizona deserts, and has one of the most beautiful flowers in the cactus family (Figure 1, Figure 2). The species ranges from extreme southern Texas well into northeastern Mexico. The plants are rather variable in stem form. They range from about a half-inch to over an inch thick, with four to eight ribs. The thin-stemmed forms creep horizontally across the ground, while some with thicker stems will grow erect for almost a foot before drooping. Plants will burn in full desert sun. Grow them in filtered sun beneath desert trees or shrubs (or under 30-50% shade cloth), either in the ground or in pots. The stems root as they creep, and some clones are stoloniferous. Therefore the best specimens will develop in wide, shallow pots or flats. Stems that grow beyond the pot will hang down for two feet or more (Figure 3). Once the plants sprawl over the pot, they become difficult to repot. The easiest solution is simply to start over with a few cuttings in a new pot. They are so vigorous that a new specimen will develop in just two or three years. Flowers bloom for about two weeks in April, with mass bloom occurring only a few days. The season is short, but a big plant with dozens of flowers is memorable, and you’ll eagerly await the next year’s spectacle (Figure 3, Figure 4). So don’t neglect this wonderful species just because it’s an oldie.

Figure 3 and Figure 4. For a few days a year alicoche plants will bear a dozen or more open flowers at once, creating a dazzling display.

List of Growing in the Desert columns