The Cactus Patch
Volume 1       January 1998      Number 1

Kern (Bakersfield) Cactus
Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei
by Gordon Sanford

Having voted at the June meeting to adopt the Kern Cactus, Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei as our Society's logo, it seems only fitting that it should be our first plant featured in The Cactus Patch.

North American cacti classified as being in the genus Opuntia are, of course, no stranger to our erudite group -- although the collectors among us do not tend to pot and display opuntias. Lyman Benson, in his tremendous work of 1982, The Cacti of the United States and Canada, listed fewer than 30 native (or introduced) species of Opuntia.

When General Charles Fremont traversed this part of California on his second trip in 1844, he was undoubtedly amazed by the vast acreage of an unclassified cactus growing in the sandy soils of our valley, east of what is now Arvin and contiguous to the well-known sand ridge which highway 58 cuts through before dropping down into the Caliente Creek flood plain. The General was here in approximately mid-April of that year and our Kern Cactus (as Lyman Benson calls it in his book) could very well have been in flower. Years later it was classified by (Coulter) Tourney as Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei.

Benson, in his description of the species basilaris, reports it as: "... a low growing prickly pear, the clumps usually 1-30 cm high, .3 - 2 m diameter. Spines none except in the var. treleasei, in that variety yellow to brownish, 1-5 per aerole ... In his key of the genus Opuntia, Benson attributes the species basilaris as: "plant spreading or prostrate, only 1-3 joints high, rising only 15 - 30 cm high ... petaloids cerise with betacyanin pigments." (ed. note: Webster describes the color cerise as being moderate to deep red) Benson's common name for the species, basilaris, is Beavertail Cactus.

Benson lists 5 varieties of basilaris as:
a. var. basilaris Engelmann & Bigelow, Beavertail Cactus
b. var. brachyclada ( Griffiths) Munz, Little Beavertail
c. var. longliareolata (Clover & Jotter) L. Benson, Grand Canyon Beavertail
d. var. aurea (Baxter) W.T. Marshall, Yellow Beavertail
e. var. treleasei (Coulter) Toumey, Kern Cactus.
Our treleasei has been found, according to Benson, "On sandy soils on sandy flats and low hills mostly in grassland at 120-300 m (400-1000 ft.) Pacific Grassland and Mojavean Desert. California in San Joaquin Valley (Kern Co. on plains and foothills NE, E, and SE of Bakersfield) and in Turtle Mts. in E. Mojave Desert in San Bernardino, County; NW Arizona near Colorado River ... This variety is the only cactus other than var. basilaris occurring west of the Sierra Nevada crest in central or northern California."

The extensive fields of the cactus which General Fremont observed 150 years ago, have long since disappeared (probably around 1920-1930) ... agriculture has obliterated them and continues to devour their remaining habitat.

One of our town's best kept secrets, however, (smile -- Ed.) is that a portion of the sand ridge located about 12 miles east of the city and containing remnant stands of the Kern Cactus, has been acquired (purchased) by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as a preserve. It now contains 275 acres and stretches over a mile long and one-half mile wide. Traversing the preserve is a self-guided nature trail dedicated to Jack Zaninovich ... outstanding amateur botanist in the San Joaquin Valley and supporter of the TNC.

The preserve, with it's Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei, is designated as a National Natural Landmark. The designation was bestowed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1984 " in recognition of the unique botanical values found" . . . including our Kern Cactus which is considered to be a threatened (if not endangered) species.

It is easy to understand why the charter members of our Society voted to use Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei (Kern Cactus) as our logo and will probably, at a future date, vote to support The Nature Conservancy in it's effort to protect the species.

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