Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
For plants, pollination is a matter of survival. Without help from pollinators, many species can’t produce seeds or fruits.
A number of helpers are available to cacti and succulents. These include moths and bats.
Night-flying pollinators pollinate some cacti and succulents. These flowers will be either white or light colors so the pollinators will be able to locate the flowers in dimly lit areas. In addition, the night bloomers often release very heavy fragrances to assist the pollinators in finding them.
Let’s start with the stapelias. Many plants may depend upon sweet scents to attract pollinators, but this one takes a dirty move. It gives off bad odors, resembling that of dying flesh to attract blowflies. The multicolored blooms with tinges of red, brown and yellow resemble rotting meat. Some even have hairs that mimic the mold one would see on rotting flesh.
Bats are one of the major pollinators for cacti and succulents. Experts consider bats to be major agents of pollination (and seed dispersal) in the tropics. Flowers for bats often smell foxy, fishy, or musty. More than likely, these will be dull colored. Bats are often guided by a keen sense of smell to sources of food, such as flower pollen and fruits.
To support the weight of the pollinating bats, these blooms must be strong and sturdy. These blooms may be solitary or in clusters. In any case, the blossoms entice the bats by offering them lots of nectar and pollen as food.
Bats visit flowers of the organpipe cactus. They also pollinate saguaro cactus and the century plants. The night flyers also pollinate agaves. For the complete story of bats and the role they play in the survival of cacti, check out the article in the June 1991 issue of National Geographic by the world-renowned expert Merlin D. Tuttle.
Certain kinds of cacti and succulents are dependent upon a specific species of pollinator. Yuccas depend upon special yucca moths for pollination. In return, the yucca provides a place for the yucca moth’s eggs. A moth only lives for a few days as an adult, and the female must look for yuccas where she can lay her 100 eggs or so. Once she finds a suitable yucca blossom, she injects around six or so eggs into the flower’s ovary. She also packs some pollen into the blossom for pollination.
For some kinds of cacti, moths assume the role of pollinators. The night-blooming cereus is pollinated by sphinx moths. These flowers are only open for one night. The night-flying moths only have a few hours to find the flower and carry out pollination.
There are various places to learn more about pollination. A great place to start is the Pollination Gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located near Tucson. These are especially designed to be attractive to special migratory pollinators. Among those are bats, yucca moths, milkweed moths, hummingbirds, butterflies, and various kinds of bees.