Pope’s Head Cactus

Photo Credit: © 2012 Henkjan Kievit — SHAPE/DCNA. The Pope's Head Cactus on the coast of St. MaartenOur spotlight moves to one of the Caribbean’s most personable succulents, the Pope’s Head Cactus (Melocactus intortus). Its genus name is Melocactus, meaning “melon cactus”, referring to its short, round, watermelon-like base. The most interesting part of this plant however, is the strange, red, bristly “cap” (called a cephalium), which grows out the top of the green base and can reach heights of up to 1 m (~3.3 ft)! Using your imagination, one can really see a green “head” topped with a tall, red, clergical “hat”.

This cactus can be found clinging to rocks in some of the drier, less hospitable climes throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. It’s quite a common sight while hiking in the scrublands of both the Windward and Leeward islands, though different species inhabit the northern and southern ranges. This particular specimen comes to us from St. Maarten.

As if its spiny hat was not enough, the pope’s head cactus also sprouts tiny, fuchsia flowers from its cephalium. These flowers give way to bright pink, waxy, cone-shaped fruits. The fruits are edible and have the seedy consistency of a crunchy kiwi, though their flavor is quite light. Lovely to look at and delightful to taste, but do remember to mind their sharp spines and leave enough fruit for the plants to procreate.

The next time you are having a wander through our starkly beautiful sub-tropical dry forests, don’t forget to look down and admire the quirky and stout pope’s head cactus.