Cactus Pollination

'Hermosas flores rojas de cactus' by Por Salvador

The tubular flowers of some cacti require specialised feeding techniques such as long tongues.

Cacti have evolved to reproduce in two different ways: asexually, where a portion of the cactus grows and then splits off to form a new yet identical cactus; and sexually, where genetic material from another cactus mixes with the genes of the host cactus, forming a new cactus that is different to both of its parents. Sexual reproduction in cacti occurs via pollination, just like many other plants. Although self-pollination is possible in some species of plant, in most cases it is insects and other creatures that will pollinate the cactus.

Insects are by far the most common pollinators of cacti, with a large variety of different insects responsible for pollinating different cacti depending on the area the cactus is growing in and the nearby insect population. Some species of cactus have evolved to specialize in feeding specific insects, such as Oxypetalum specializing in hawk moths. Others are pollinated by bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles.

Birds come closest to insects in terms of their importance to cactus pollination. The bright flowers produced by many cacti serve to attract birds to the plant and approximately 2000 species of bird are capable of feeding from a cactus safely; with hummingbirds being the most common. Like the hawk moth and the species of cactus-feeding vampire bat, the birds able to feed from cacti generally have long tongues that can lick the nectar from long filaments.

Some cacti, such as the Organ Pipe cactus and the Saguaro, produce large flowers with very strong scents caused by high quantities of both nectar and pollen. These flowers are often funnel-shaped and attract certain species of bat, especially the Glossophagidae genus and vampire bats. Pollen from the cactus catches on the bat as it clings to the flowers while it feeds. The bat then pollenates cacti it moves between during feeding.

Although humanity is a relative newcomer to cactus pollination, gardeners play an important role in breeding new varieties of cactus. Humans brush the pollen from the flowers of one cactus using a cotton bud or other implement and then transfer it manually to the next cactus by brushing the pollen-coated implement on the stigma.

Further Reading
For more information on what pollinates cacti, see

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