Opuntia fragilis

Kjell Persson takes a look at the world's most northernmost cactus.
Kjell Persson, Tullebo 1780, S-43063, Hindas, Sweden
Chamaerops No. 4, published online 23-11-2002

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In October 1983 my family and I went on holiday from Sweden to Valleyview, Alberta, Canada, to visit an elderly relative.

Valleyview is at 55 degrees north and is 450 kilometres north of Edmonton. This was the fourth time we had been there but before this trip I didn't realize that cacti were growing so far north. It was only on reading the book, "Cacti of the U.S. & Canada" which I had borrowed from the Botanic Library of Gothenburg, that I learned that there were at least three locations where Opuntia fragilis was growing, the first of which was in the Peace River town area, 150 km north of Valleyview itself.

We found them growing on dry, south-facing slopes among grasses. They were difficult to see and most of the local people were unaware of their existence. We then went to British Columbia through Dawson Creek, Prince George, Williams Lake, and Cache Creek where I collected some more specimens.

There, they were to be found on very dry ground, among sagebrush, in the company of Pinus ponderosa and Pseuostuga douglasii. The third location was Kamloops, further east.

The climate in Peace River is cold and dry. January -21c, April +2c, July +16c, October +3c. The coldest temperature recorded there is an incredible -50c and the warmest, up to over 30c. Precipitation is just 300mm a year.

Returning home to Sweden from Canada, I potted up the plants I had collected. This was 1983, and this year they began to flower for the first time. In 1989 I sent some young plants to friends in Ivalo, Finnish Lapland, at 69 degrees north. They are still alive although growing very slowly. The growing season is very short.

Next year we are going to try Yucca glauca in Ivalo, and Opuntia fragilis in Utsjoki, 70 degrees north. The climate is sub-artic: January -12c, April -2c, July ±14c and October Oc. The coldest temperature recorded there was a bone chilling -49c in 1966, and the midnight sun is to be seen from May to July.

There is deep snow cover from mid-October until mid May. Maybe they will flower some warm summer in the future.

That's if the polar bears don't get to them first!

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