Bakersfield Cactus Restoration

Bakersfield cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei) is endemic to Kern County in the southeastern corner of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Though at one time it covered extensive tracts (see historical photo), this species of beavertail cactus is listed as federally and state endangered as its habitat continues to be lost to agricultural and urban uses.

1913 photo by MacDougal in Britton and Rose (1920) The Cactaceae showing an extensive field of Bakersfield cactus.

Populations of Bakersfield cactus still occur sporadically throughout its historic range from just north of the Kern River near Bakersfield southward to the southern tip of the San Joaquin valley and into the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Surveys have found 27 naturally occurring populations of Bakersfield cactus, of which 11 contained more than 100 plants. Sand Ridge, which includes the Sand Ridge Wildflower Preserve National Natural Landmark, and Wind Wolves Preserve have the largest number of plants.

Bakersfield cactus differs from other varieties of beavertail cactus (O. basilaris) in that it has rigid spines. The presence of long spines in the areoles and geographic range help differentiate Bakersfield cactus from other California beavertail cacti. While some species of prickly-pear cacti have fleshy fruits, the fruit of Bakersfield cactus is dry.

Based on the declining number of extant populations and the declining number of plants within the remaining populations, Dr. Brian Cypher and his colleagues developed a program for growing and translocating Bakersfield cacti in cooperation with federal and state agencies in an attempt to preserve this unique species.

Cypher, his partner Dr. Ellen Cypher, and their team first identified the need for permanent conservation of the few remaining populations, increased protection of these populations from further impacts, how to manage vegetation–especially introduced grasses—within populations, how to expand the number of populations, and how to increase the number of plants within populations.

They subsequently developed a technique for establishing new populations of Bakersfield cactus by translocating cactus pads (stem segments) and clumps (intact plants) to two sites within their historic range. They found that translocated clumps were more successful than pads alone in terms of survival, growth, and flowering.

Strategies such as supplemental water during the hot and dry summer months, and propagation of pads into small plants prior to translocation were found to increase the success of pad growth. They concluded that these strategies could contribute significantly to the recovery of the Bakersfield cactus.

Beginning with material the Cyphers and colleagues collected from the Sand Ridge Preserve, they established small Bakersfield cactus populations in several locations within Bakersfield city limits. Thus, they confirmed that translocation of cactus pads and clumps were a viable strategy for restoring Bakersfield cactus to portions of its former range.

Their first site was Kern County’s Bena Landfill Conservation Area (BLCA) at the southwestern corner of the landfill property.

The second site was the Bakersfield Cactus Ecological Reserve adjoining Sand Ridge itself.

The third site was Wind Wolves Preserve near Maricopa. Independently, the staff at Wind Wolves had begun propagation of Bakersfield cactus following a catastrophic wild fire that had destroyed naturally occurring plants. Wind Wolves built a greenhouse and began propagation of hundreds of pads for translocation. They then partnered with the Cyphers and their colleagues as well as the Nature Conservancy for planting Bakersfield Cactus pads in its former range.

By this time the Cyphers and their colleagues had concluded translocating entire clumps rather than individual pads created more of an adverse impact on plant populations than removal of the pads alone. Subsequently, they began collecting pads and propagating them in a nursery into plants with established roots prior to translocating them.

Experimentation at Wind Wolves found that the pads could be cured and then translocated without growing roots in a greenhouse. This greatly simplifies restoration of the Bakersfield cactus. The success of Wind Wolves translocation can be seen in thriving clumps of Bakersfield cactus at the beginning of the wildflower loop trail near the entrance to the preserve.

The fourth location includes several sites on the Nature Conservancy’s Toll House Ranch properties near the rail siding of Caliente, and two nearby parcels on Tehachapi and Caliente Creeks.

The Cyphers and their colleagues’ research found that supplemental water was necessary at each experimental site. They also concluded that it was necessary to clear competing vegetation prior to planting and also during the first year after planting. When surrounding nonnative grasses were removed, the growth of Bakersfield cactus increased dramatically.

Subsequent to the Cyphers’ research, the Kern Chapter of CNPS has worked closely with The Nature Conservancy to transplant Bakersfield cactus onto the Toll House Ranch properties. We regularly volunteer to water and weed around the translocated plants. Using the techniques developed by the Cyphers and their colleagues, the translocation onto the Toll House Ranch has had a high rate of success.

You can help the Kern Chapter in this effort at preserving the Bakersfield cactus by volunteering on one of our regular work parties. Contact Lucy Clark or any local CNPS member for details.

Entrance sign to Wildflower Loop Trail on Wind Wolves Preserve, one of the locations for transplanted Bakerfield cactus.
Successful translocated Bakersfield cactus on the Wildflower Loop Trail at Wind Wolves Preserve near Maricopa, California. Note rebar cage to discourage cows and elk from trampling the pads when they’re young.
Bakersfield cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei) on the Sand Ridge Wildflower Preserve National Natural Landmark.
Bakersfield cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei) on the Sand Ridge Wildflower Preserve National Natural Landmark.
Ready to plant translocated Bakersfield cactus on Nature Conservancy property near Caliente.
Carefully lowering the transplanted Bakersfield cactus with supervision by Ellen Cypher.
Preparing the hole for transplantation of the Bakersfield cactus near Caliente, California.
Carefully placing a transplanted Bakersfield cactus in its new home.
Bakersfield cacus--handle with care.
Bakersfield cacus–handle with care. This is a prickly job both for the handlers and the cactus.
Ellen Cypher logging data on the location and condition of a transplanted Bakersfield cactus.
Ellen Cypher logging data on the location and condition of a transplanted Bakersfield cactus.

Articles & Papers on the Bakersfield Cactus

Much has been written about the Bakersfield cactus both in the popular press, in scientific journals, and in agency reports. Here are some, most by Ellen Cypher, who, with her husband Bryan, pioneered the reintroduction of the Bakersfield cactus into its former range.