July 2014 ● Indian Comb – Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum

Planting Roots in Mexico by Tommy Clarkson • July 2014

Indian Comb – 
Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum
Family: Pachycereus
Also known as: Aborigine’s Comb, Chik, Etcho, Hairbrush Cactus and Hecho.

Who says that cacti can't have character? (Photo by Nathan Peach)

Who says that cacti can’t have character? (Photo by Nathan Peach)

With limited space in Ola Brisa Gardens, we’ve made difficult decisions about what plants to showcase.  Early on we decided to have only a few (and those for accent) cacti.  Hence, this huge beauty – the Indian Comb – does not presently grow here.  But who knows, one might ultimately find a home in the expansion area across the street!

However, several presently grow about 100 meters from us, on our ridge overlooking the Santiago Bay.  Beyond those, in a landscaping project I have undertaken for a friend, I enjoy several older beauties on the steep slope below his home.  It is from these two locations that the pictures of these more mature specimens come …though many nurseries sell small ones.

My friend – Dr. Mark Earl Olson Zunica of the University of Mexico and a learned, experienced botanist – has kindly shared some of his extensive knowledge about the Indian Comb with me.  (Footnote: The subject cactus may or may not be of the sub-species tehuantepecanus and/or the large “Crested” form mentioned in www.cactuspedia.info.  The opinions of several sources seem to differ!  For sake of presumption, I will surmise that it is.)

The Encyclopedia of Cacti states that it’s “one of the most massive columnar, tree-like cactus in the world”, attaining heights varying from 23’ – 50’ (seven to fifteen meters).  Its trunk is short but it sports very large, closely set, five to ten-foot (one-half to three meters) long arms.  With ten to twelve acute ribs, these are five to seven inches (12 – 18 centimeters) in diameter and on which grow short spines.  This source notes that “This very spectacular species rivals the size and majesty of Carnegia gigantea (Sahuaro).”

How else might this cactus be identified?

The red fruit are slightly less than three inches (76 mm) in diameter split apart at maturity.  (Photo by Nathan Peach).

The red fruit are slightly less than three inches (76 mm) in diameter split apart at maturity. (Photo by Nathan Peach).

Its five to ten centimeters long flowers are white with a reddish brown exterior and showy with purplish outer petals, white tepals and one-half to four fifths of an inch (13 -20 millimeters) long floral bracts.  Each has a floral tube that is covered with dense brown velvety wool.

Its blooming season is different from all other columnar cacti in that it can flower at any time.  Its slightly less than three inches (76 mm) in diameter fruit are red and split apart at maturity.  Each of them is densely covered with about two-inch (5 cm) long, golden yellow spines that are, for all intents and purposes, harmless with pulp which is firm and, just barely, juicy.  As these fruits develop they seem to appear in large golden clusters on the plant’s arms providing that attractive look admired by many.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the Indian Comb grows in Mexico in Baja California Sur, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Colima, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Zacatecas.  Yep, here on the coast in the State of Colima – lo and behold – we find them majestically proliferating!

Now, according to theArizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “This is the most common columnar cactus in (the) lower tropical deciduous forest of southern Sonora.  (In that locale its) nocturnal flowers bloom in January to March and are an important food source for migrating lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris curasoae).”

This beauty stands behind my friend Doug’s home – Wow! (Photo by Doug Judson)

This beauty stands behind my friend Doug’s home – Wow! (Photo by Doug Judson)

Should your zeal to know more drive you to it, there is a somewhat scholarly abstract on the “Geographic differentiation in the pollination system of the columnar cactus Pachycereus pectenaboriginum1” which may be found on the American Journal of Botany site.  But, I gotta’ admit , my eyes glazed over a bit perusing it as I’m just an old  ”root around in the dirt” sort of plant guy!

Perhaps the most interesting nugget I found in that abstract was yet another confirmation that its flowers open only at night, closing early in the morning and inasmuch as the nectar is secreted only during these “dark hours” the flowers are exclusively pollinated by three species of nectar-feeding bats.”

Now for the “grocery store, check-out lane” Expose’ type info!  The book Plants of the Gods purports that the juice of the young branches of the Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum are used by the northern MexicoTarahumara Indians who live in the canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental to make the peyote substitute, narcotic hallucinogenic beverage “cawe” or “Wichowaka”.  This, rather appropriately, means insanity.

Rather drought-tolerant, the Indian Comb is obviously suitable for xeriscaping.  If you’ve got space and enjoy cacti, this would be a great one to have!

Tommy Clarkson

In Manzanillo, visit Ola Brisa Gardens, Tommy and Patty’s verdant, multi-terraced tropical paradise nestled on a hill overlooking the magnificent vista of Santiago Bay. Leisurely meander its curved, paved path, experiencing, first hand, a delicious array of palms, plants and flowers from all over the world. Or, e-mail questions to him at olabrisa@gmail.com For back issues of “Roots”, gardening tips, tropical plant book reviews and videos of numerous, highly unique eco/adventure/nature tours, as well as memorable “Ultimate Experiences” such a Tropical Garden Brunches and Spa Services, please visit: http://www.olabrisagardens.com

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