Oops, I was late to the party … and didn’t realize it until a week or so later. Here’s my story: Long time friend, Terri Dinesen, the DNR Park Manager for Upper Sioux Agency, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone Lake State Parks, posted a picture of a beautiful bloom of the rare ball cactus in the nearby outcrops. The blossom was expressively pink, billowing out in an expression of vivid color so common among cacti species, with a set of yellow stamens rising from the center with a small pinkish “hand” seemingly reaching out in greeting.
Finding any cacti blooming in the wild is a rare treat, and back in my “writing with willful whims” stage of my career for various magazines in the 1970s, a report came from various friends of a very rare cacti bloom across the Arizona desert around and north of Tuscon. It was termed a once in a lifetime event, so after calling my then girlfriend, I packed enough clothes for us both, picked her up at the rehabilitation center where she worked and off we went on overnight drive from Denver to reach the bloom the following morning. Yes, the desert was alive with color, and incredibly, that was my last cacti blooming party, and so far a “once in a lifetime” event. So having ball cacti in bloom right in the neighborhood was exciting and enticing.
Since I was near the secretive location awaiting cross-nation paddler, Madison Eklund, I stopped to see if I could find the little bloomers. Terri had given me a hint of the location, and about all I can say is that the cacti were in Big Stone NWR. Not much of a secret, for several websites and guide books will tell you as much. Then you must find them.
Barely as large as the clinched fist of a child, the extremely rare and fragile ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara) hangs on precariously within a small, two-county range that is growing progressively smaller. Experts claim the small cactus resides only in the exposed bedrock along the Minnesota River in Big Stone and Lac qui Parle Counties, and there aren’t so many outcrops remaining either. Rock mining is a major threat as are cactus hunters and prairie fires. Who can speak of the goats that the Refuge has been employing to eradicate unwanted invasive species such as buckthorn.
This rare and endangered species is one of only three native Minnesota cacti, with plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) and brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) being the others. Only a few inches in height, the brittle prickly pear seemingly surrounds the ball as miniature fortresses rimming the Refuge outcrops in goodly numbers. I’ve seen them on outcrops as far south as Vicksburg County Park in Renville County. Compared to the ball, the brittle prickly pear seems to be relatively thriving.
Records show that the ball was discovered in Minnesota in 1898 by Lycurgus Moyer, and the species was described as being rather abundant at favorable sites in the Minnesota River Valley within the two counties. Less than 80 years later the ball cactus was listed as “threatened”, and by 1996 the species was placed in the state’s “endangered” status. By then the only known surviving plants were in small remnants of the original population close to thin-soiled prairies being converted to agricultural use, or on outcrops being mined for gravel. Some were harvested with well intended but illegal collecting.
The remaining plants are now scattered infrequently among granite outcrops within a small, two to three mile area, and only a portion of the entire population lives within protected NWR public lands. The vast majority of the remaining population exists on adjacent private lands now apparently in the hands of a huge gravel quarrying company. The original plans for the mine would have destroyed more than an estimated 3,500 ball cactus along with another 14,000 specimens of another eight rare plants of this unique and fragile ecosystem existing only in cracks of the bedrock found on the site. Thankfully the DNR threw at least a temporary wrench into the works by not allowing a permit due to the amount of destruction of rare plants at the site, establishing a rare plant protection area to save the most threatened and diverse plant habitat on the property.
That said, this is a rare and rather mysterious ecosystem seemingly found only on the cracks and edges of the bedrock exposed 10,000 years ago by the Glacial River Warren, itself created with a break in the ice dam of the upper continent ice sheet of Lake Agassiz — bedrock exposed from the headwaters of the now Minnesota River in Ortonville downriver through to New Ulm.
Those small clumps of ball cactus appear on the flatter outcrops, structures often described as “shelves” rather than the massive exposed mound of gneiss or granite. Rarely will you find a singular ball, and like morels in the leafy woods, once you’ve found one your eyes will begin finding scattered clumps nearby.
Presently, though, those very brilliant red or purplish flowers I was seeking have now matured into fleshy fruit stems that are secured tightly and point upwards from the roundish plant. We’re now closing in on the scientific “species” part of its official Latin name, “vivipara.” This describes the process of those seeds within the fruit germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye.
Feel free to color me inexperienced or ignorant, or both, for I kept thinking those mysterious bulbs were the actual flowers just waiting to magically blossom out in all their splendor. For several days I drove down, sneaking through the grasses to “hide” my paths with hopes of catching and portraying the balls in bloom. Over those seven to ten days nothing changed. No blooms, no change. Just those tight, red-streaked elongated brownish bulbs poking skyward on many of the balls.
In the frustration of my research on the “life cycle” of the small cactus going nowhere, I sent Terri Dinesen an email with an attachment of two of the ball clumps complete with the red-streaked, brownish bulbs.
“You were too late,” she responded. “Those have already bloomed.”
Whoops! I had missed the party, although as a rebound of personal forgiveness I took solace in realizing that at least the trips to the Refuge weren’t as far as Tuscon!