Sclerocactus papyracanthus - Cactus Club

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Sclerocactus papyracanthus

Plant of the Month > Species Q to S

by Bruce Brethauer

    Sclerocactus papyracanthus is a widespread species growing in the high plains of western New Mexico and eastern eastern Arizona. It typically grows in association with grama grass, and is therefore given its common name of "the Grama Grass Cactus". This is typically a very small plant growing to maybe 3 inches tall ( but it is frequently shorter) with club-shaped stems which may eventually produce clusters of several stems with age. This species is characterized by its flattened, paper-like spines which takes on the appearance of the dried blades of the grama grass, amongst which this plant frequently grows. The mimicry is so perfect that this cactus is virtually impossible to find when it is not in bloom as can be seem from this photo on Wikipedia.

      Over the years, accounts have varied concerning how rare or common this plant actually is, but the present view is that while it is seldom seen in great numbers in any single locality, this plant has a wide distribution, with many identified populations, many of which occur within protected forests and parks, so this species is regarded as non-threatened.

   Over the years, this species has been shuffled back and forth between several genera, and has been variously identified as Sclerocactus papyracanthus, Pediocactus papyracanthus, and Toumeya papyracanthus, and may still be found in the trade under any of these names to this day.

   About 10 years ago, I grew a plant from seed purchased from Mesa Garden. Plants in some portions of its range probably experience brief exposure to temperatures to as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit, so I decided to test it for its suitability in a winter hardy cactus garden in Ohio. My plant grew for several years in my unheated greenhouse in Central Ohio, where it tolerated winter temperatures approaching 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In its third year, it flowered, but despite attempts to pollinate its flowers, it did not set any fruit. My plant perished in a subsequent winter but I never actually tested it in my outdoor cactus bed, so I cannot really comment on its tolerance to our wet weather. I suspect that by grafting this species to a hardier rootstock that plants may be induced to survive somewhat wetter and colder conditions and may be a good candidate for winter hardy cactus gardens to warmer zone 6 regions and possibly cooler regions with some protection from wet winter conditions and some protection from temperature extremes.

   This is a reasonably easy species to grow and flower, but it really requires very bright light for best growth and development. It probably does best when grown outside through the warm months of spring through fall, but in cold climates, plants should be over-wintered indoors and kept cool (to nearly freezing) and dry. This may not be a good plant for warmer portions of the desert southwest, as some of its relatives grow best in regions where summer temperatures cool substantially at night - constant summer heat may induce this plant to go into dormancy until temperatures regularly fall to below 70 degrees at night.

   It is possible to grow this plant from seed, and some specialist nurseries may carry seeds of this plant from time to time. Scarification and cold stratification are probably necessary for best germination, and even then, germination is erratic and sporadic. Plants which are grown on grafts typically mature more rapidly and will typically produce more offsets than plants on their own roots.

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