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Plant of the Week: Dad's Cactus

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Dad's Cactus
Latin: Coryphantha missouriensis

Picture of cactus plant.
Dad's cactus produces a good show of yellow-green flowers each May.

Last evening, I spent on the front porch making a glorious mess, surrounded by an assortment of various sized bits of screen wire, spaghetti strainers and seeds. As usual, it was a rush to get the seeds in to the North American Rock Garden Society for their annual seed exchange.

My fondness for collecting seeds is not unique amongst gardeners, for growing plants from seed is one of the most rewarding aspects of the hobby. The seed exchange simply brings together like-minded people and builds a structure for the exchange of the seeds they harvest.

Rock gardeners tend to really be into saving seeds – because the best kinds of rock garden plants are not offered in the seed trade – so the seedlist they produce each January is an intimidating list of over 6,500 species from throughout the world. It's into this maelstrom that I throw my dozen packets.

One of the plants I submitted is Coryphantha missouriensis , a plant without a common name so I simply call it Dad's Cactus. This is a special plant to me for my father took great care to preserve it once I pointed it out to him on the shallow, rocky soil of his central Oklahoma pasture.

Dad's cactus is a wee thing growing only 4 inches tall but producing a profusion of small, ping-pong ball sized branches that are crowded with succulent tubercles that make up the body of this winter-hardy cactus. The stems crowd together and make a rosette 8 to 10 inches across.

The succulent tubercles radiate in eight to 13 spirals around the stem. Each tubercle is tipped with 10 to 20 grayish, eighth-inch long spines that radiate outward. While it is a cactus, it is more in the vein of a cuddly type than the armed and dangerous kind. If you know Mammillaria cacti, you get the general idea of what the plant looks like.

In late spring, Dad's cactus flowers, producing multi-petaled, inch-long yellow-green blooms. The following spring the peanut-sized red berries develop which contain a number of black seeds.

As a child, I tromped every square inch of our 80 acres, and most of our neighbor's land too looking for boyhood adventure. But I never spotted the cactus. About 15 years ago and still tromping the farm, but now looking for new and interesting plants, I spied the first plant growing in an area where a thin veneer of soil overlays a massive red sandstone rock near the spring.

Dad was into progressive farming practices so early each summer he would spray the pasture "weeds" – a practice I argued against for many of the weeds he killed were the wildflowers that attracted me. But, his was an economic decision and mine was an aesthetic one, so the spraying continued. But, he developed a method to protect the cactus.

His protection scheme was simple. I had located two plants so he simply placed a five-gallon plastic bucket over the plants and left them covered for a couple days. This worked fine, but after a few years he developed an attachment to the cacti and relocated them to the flowerbed by the house. There, they flourished.

With Dad's passing in 2000, I've started a propagation campaign with this little sentimental favorite, sharing divisions with all my siblings for their own gardens. I've even relocated some divisions in some rough terrain near their original home, but out of reach of any spray booms.

Now Dad's cactus is ready for the world stage. There is no telling where the seeds will end up, but I know they'll find a good home. About 20 years ago, I collected seeds of a wild portulaca from the farm. The following year a gardener in England offered seeds of that plant in the seed list, so they do get around.

This species is native in the central Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas , but is nowhere common. While it is quite winter hardy, I've grown mine as a pot plant where I can watch it more carefully and protect it from the extra rainfall we have in Arkansas . During the winter it goes in the garage to keep the roots from freezing.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - October 29, 2004


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.