Various cacti growing in red soil
Galapagos Islands,  Nature Photo Challenge,  Plants,  Themed galleries

Gallery: prickly wonders of the desert

A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet

Hope Jahren, American geochemist

Cacti are hard to ignore. They grow where little else will and if you happen to touch one you’ll probably find it even harder to ignore!

I enjoy photographing cacti mainly for their sculptural forms. The contrasts of light and dark, smooth and spiky, can create some interesting images.

Cacti also remind me of the open desert landscapes I love. They manage to survive in some of the harshest conditions and bring life to an otherwise barren landscape. They epitomise endurance and strength.

For Denzil’s Nature Photo challenge this week I’ve searched out some cacti from my archives. Many are from my travels but a couple are from much closer to home, Kew Gardens. In addition to a small gallery of photos of different cactus species, I’m also sharing some more detailed information about the opuntia or prickly pear cactus in the Galápagos Islands.

Spiky cactus in front of a clay wall

Aloe vera in the grounds of a hotel in Namibia, Eningu Lodge

My feature photo was taken in another Namibian hotel garden, in the Kalahari Desert

Tall slender cactus spikes

Another cactus from Namibia, also at Eningu Lodge

Globe shaped cactus with rows of sharp thorns

Golden Barrel Cactus, Praia, Santiago, Cape Verde

Globe shaped cactus with rows of sharp thorns

Another Golden Barrel Cactus, this one in Kew Gardens, London

Cactus with long fine spikes and a single pink flower

Mammillaria, Kew Gardens, London

Backlit cactus spikes

Echinopsis (I think), Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh

Bright yellow pot with a spiky cactus against a deep blue wall

An aloe in a vivid pot, Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh

Opuntia in the Galápagos

Like many stories from the Galápagos, this is a tale of adaptation and evolution. The land iguanas there have adapted to feed on the available vegetation and surprisingly perhaps, their favourite is the prickly pear cactus or opuntia. This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas, but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don’t need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season.

Iguana eating a think cactus leaf

Land iguana eating an opuntia, North Seymour, Galápagos

Opuntia on Santa Fe in the Galápagos Islands

Tree-like cactus by the sea

Tree-like cacti growing on red rocky cliffs

Opuntia on Rabida Island, Galápagos

Land iguanas can no longer be found on Rabida as they were extirpated following the introduction of goats and rats, but the adapted opuntia remain

Red cliff with tree-like cactus growing

More opuntia on Rabida Island, Galápagos

Cluster of cactus spikes on a rocky hillside

Lava cactus (Brachycereus) on Bartolomé Island, Galápagos

Land iguanas don’t live here but even if they did I suspect this one might be too spiny even for them!


Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!