Surprising Little Gems

Last week, I had a couple hours to do some reconnaissance at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I wanted to see how far along the flowering plant season was in preparation for some data collection efforts we hope to start soon.  It was a hot afternoon, and it was nice to be riding an ATV so I could create my own breeze.  At one point, I parked the ATV and took a short walk down into a valley filled with sumac.  When I came back, something caught my eye as I was swinging my leg onto the ATV.  When I checked out the small flash of magenta, I found this:

Pincushion cactus (Escobaria vivipara, aka Coryphantha vivipara)

Wow.  A gorgeous little plant!  I’d photographed the same species at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a dozen or more years ago, but hadn’t seen one since.  Since this was the second pincushion cactus I’d seen despite many many trips to the Preserve, I figured it must be a fairly uncommon plant.  I pulled out my diffuser (thin fabric stretched across a flexible frame) to soften the harsh mid afternoon sunlight and photographed it.  Then I drove away, feeling fortunate and happy.

…and then I saw another cactus about two minutes later.  This one had THREE flowers, so of course I had to photograph it!  What a lucky day – no pincushion cactus sightings for twelve years or more and now TWO in TWO minutes!  Despite the heat, I was in a great mood when I started driving again.

Then I saw another one.  And another.  During my two hour drive, I saw at least a dozen blooming cacti, all vibrant and spectacular.  They were like little sparkling jewels embedded in the prairie.  I even found a couple of them blooming within the portion of the big bison pasture that was burned in March this year.  The prickly pear cacti in that same burned area was shriveled from the fire and (based on previous experience) going to have to regrow from their bases.  I don’t know why the pincushion cactus seemed unaffected; maybe because it sits so low to the ground.  Or maybe I just found the lucky ones that ended up in less intense heat.

My dad has this species of pincushion cactus in his garden and says they only bloom for a few days each year.  I guess that’s why I’ve seen them so infrequently.  I’m sure I’ve walked past them many times without noticing them.  The cactus barrels I saw last week were the size of a tennis ball or smaller, and they sit right on the surface of the ground, so it’s easy to see how I’d miss them without the bright magenta spotlights shining at me.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time last week.

…I kind of feel like my career has been a long series of being in the right place at the right time.  I’m immensely grateful for every one of those opportunities.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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5 Responses to Surprising Little Gems

  1. Jim Pyrzynski says:

    Coryphantha missouriensis also occurs in Nebraska. I saw some years ago at Long Pine. Its flowers are not as showy – yellowish.

  2. Alina Oakleaf says:

    Really lovely, thank you for being there at the right time!

    On Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 6:10 AM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “Last week, I had a couple hours to do some > reconnaissance at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. I wanted to see how far > along the flowering plant season was in preparation for some data > collection efforts we hope to start soon. It was a hot afternoon, and it” >

  3. marknupen says:

    always amazing to see the color whether it be Arizona desert where I grew up or a prairie habitat or Pine Barrens of northwestern Wisconsin.

  4. Robert Cox says:

    That species are entrancing. Good job! And congratulations…you’d a great omen.

  5. Chris: great observations. Perhaps we all could be so fortunate as to be in the right place in the moment when we remain open to receive the gifts all around us. A book from the 1980’s “Celestine Prophesy” suggested that everyone we meet comes to us with a lesson we could learn, but only when we are open. If we miss it, the same message may not come to us again for a long while. Know that you inspire me with your observations, camera, and willingness to craft words to describe what you encounter. Keep up the excellent work,


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