CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Sclerocactus mesae-verdae

Carol Dawson

Heading for profile page
CPC Home Join now
About CPC
CPC National Collection
Conservation Directory Resources
Invasive Plant Species Plant News
Plant Links Participating Institutions
Search CPC
Search    Alphabetical List    Reference Finder    CPC Home

CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Sclerocactus mesae-verdae

Common Names: 
Mesa Verde cactus, Mesa Verde fishhook cactus
(Boiss. & Davids.) L. Benson
Growth Habit: 
CPC Number: 


Profile Links
 Fish & WildLife

Sclerocactus mesae-verdaeenlarge
Photographer: Carol Dawson
Image Owner: Denver Botanic Gardens

Sclerocactus mesae-verdaeenlarge
Photographer: Carol Dawson
Image Owner: Denver Botanic Gardens

Sclerocactus mesae-verdae is Not Sponsored
Primary custodian for this plant in the CPC National Collection of Endangered Plants is: 
Michelle DePrenger-Levin contributed to this Plant Profile.

Sclerocactus mesae-verdae

Mesa Verde cactus is found only in Colorado and New Mexico in the Four Corners region. It must withstand temperature extremes from as high as 110 degrees F to as low as 18 degrees F and live with only around 6 inches of rainfall annually. (Spackman et al. 1997) These plants are threatened in the wild for a number of reasons, not the least of which is over-collection by cactus collectors. The wild-collection of these cacti not only depletes already low population numbers, but wild-collected specimen usually die in cultivation, making the collection pointless and eliminating potentially important genetic variation from the species as a whole. Because this species grows so slowly and have such a low reproductive success rate, the occasional loss of a few plants to collecting can deplete or even eliminate a population. (USFWS 1979, 1985)

In spite of its extreme habitat conditions, this cacti displays beautiful, pale yellow flowers on top of its globe-shaped stem in late April. Seeds appear to be spread by torrents after thunderstorms. The stems are pale green or gray-green with dark tipped spines. The plant is very small, with a maximum size of only 2 to 2.5 inches in height, 3 to 3.5 inches in diameter. (Spackman et al. 1997)

Distribution & Occurrence

State Range
New Mexico
State Range of  Sclerocactus mesae-verdae
  This species is most frequently found growing on the tops of hills or benches, slopes of hills, and very rarely on level ground between the hills or benches (Spackman et al. 1997). Soils are generally shallow and derived from Mancos and Fruitland formations (Cully et al. 1993). Surface soils range from gravelly to loamy, and subsoils, which are often exposed, range from sandy clay loams to light clays. The cacti are found on gently sloping, moderately steep hillsides (Spackman et al. 1997). A bilayer of predominately shrub and spare grass understory generally exists in this species' range. Suitable habitat for mesa-verde cacti is described as small "pockets" of suitable ecological conditions. The pockets are widely distributed and associated with many low hills and mesas. The presence of suitable habitat does not necessitate the occurrence of the cacti. Elev. 4000-5000 ft. (Benson 1982)

Associated with the sparsely distributed Atriplex (saltbush) species, grasses and weedy annuals (Cully et al. 1993)

  New Mexico and Colorado (Montezuma Co.) (Spackman et al. 1997).

Number Left
  One population in the southeastern corner of CO totaling ca. 1,000 plants Four populations in northwestern NM with ca. 4,000-10,000 plants (Tepedino1990, Cully 1993)


Global Rank:  
Guide to Global Ranks
Federal Status:  
Guide to Federal Status
Recovery Plan:  

State/Area Protection
  State/Area Rank Status Date  
  Colorado S2 5/1/1999  
  Navaho Nation 3 E 3/1/2001  
  New Mexico S2 8/29/2002  

Conservation, Ecology & Research

Ecological Relationships
  Pollinators found in the flower have included: pleasing fungus beetles, blister beetles as well as other Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. However, it is not know which are effective pollinators. (Cully et al. 993)
In further studies it appears that Mesa Verde Cactus requires insect pollination and the pollinators are native bees with small populations. (Tepedino 1990)

  After experiencing a dramatic decline in population numbers, this species was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on October 30, 1979. The decline was partly due to coal-fired power plants which degraded the surrounding habitat in New Mexico and partly due to collection by cactus collectors. Power line connecting power plants destroyed even more of the Mesa Verde Cactus population. (USFWS 1985).

Additional threats include:
coal mining and related activities
oil and gas exploration and production
commercial and residential expansion
off-road vehicle impact
commercial and private collectors
livestock trampling and utilization
highway and road building and maintenance
construction of new power and pipelines
pesticide use
natural threats, such as insects, frost, erosion and competition
restriction to narrow edaphic situation and limited habitat availability
(USFWS 1985)

Current Research Summary
  Permanent study plots were established in both Colorado and New Mexico in 1986 (Cully et al. 1993). These plots, and the tagged S. mesae-verdae plants within them, are monitored for growth and reproduction, vegetative cover, and soil seed bank in order to learn more about the natural history and ecological requirements of the species.

Current Management Summary
  There is no formal management plan.

Research Management Needs
  Continue to monitor permanent study plots, maintain protection of known populations from habitat degradation and illegal collection.

Ex Situ Needs


Books (Single Authors)

Benson, L. 1982. The Cacti of the United States and Canada. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1044p.

Boissevain, C.; Davidson, C. 1940. Colorado Cacti: An Illustrated Guide Describint all of the Native Colorado Cacti. Pasadena, California: Abbey Garden Press.

Kartesz, J.T. 1993. Species distribution data for vascular plants of 70 geographical areas, from unpublished data files at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Kartesz, J.T. 1996. Species distribution data at state and province level for vascular plant taxa of the United States, Canada, and Greenland (accepted records), from unpublished data files at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Sivinski, R.; Lightfoot, K. 1995. Inventory of rare and endangered plants of New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Forestry Division, New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Dept.

Spackman, S.; Jennings, B.; Coles, J.; Dawson, C.; Minton, M.; Kratz, A.; Spurrier, C.; Skadelandl, T. 1997. Colorado Rare Plant Field Guide. Fort Collins, CO: Prepared for the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.

Books (Sections)

Kartesz, J.T. 1999. A synonymized checklist of the vascular flora of the U.S., Canada, and Greenland. In: Kartesz, J.T.; Meacham, C.A., editors. Synthesis of the North American Flora, Version 1.0. North Carolina Botanical Garden. Chapel Hill, NC.

Tepedino, V.J. 2002. Section III. Environmental Monitoring. III.5 The Reproductive Biology of Rare Rangeland Plants and Their Vulnerability to Insecticides. Grasshoppers: Their biology, identification and management, User Handbook.

Conference Proceedings

Cully, A.; Knight, P.; Sivinski, R.; Olwell, M.; House, Donna; Lightfoot, K. Preliminary Results of a Long-term Monitoring Study of the Mesa Verde Cactus. Proceedings of the Southwestern Rare and Endangered Plant Conference; 30 March - 2 April; Santa Fe, NM. In: Sivinski, R.; Lightfoot, K., editors. 1992. New Mexico Forestry and Resources Conservation Division. p 108-120.

Sivinski, R.; Knight, P. Narrow Endemism in the New Mexico Flora. Gen. Tech. Rep. RM-GTR-283. Proceedings of the Southwestern Rare and Endangered Plant Conference; September 11-14; Flagstaff, AZ. In: Maschinski, J.; Hammond, H.D.; Holter, L., editors. 1996. USDA and US Forest Service. p 286-296.

Electronic Sources

(1999). New Mexico Rare Plants Information. New Mexico Rare Plant Technical Council: Albuquerque, NM. Version 15. http://nmrareplants.unm.edu/nmrptc/rarelist.htm. Accessed: 2002.

USFWS. (2002). U.S. Plant Profiles. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Affairs. http://international.fws.gov/animals/plantpro.html. Accessed: 2002.

Journal Articles

Benson, L. 1966. A revision of Sclerocactus. Cactus and Succulent Journal of America. 38: 54-55.

Clayton, P.W; Hubstenberger, J.F.; Phillips, G.C.; Butler-Nance, S.A. 1990. Micropropagation of Members of the Cactaceae Subtribe Cactinae. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. 115, 2: 337-343.

Naumann, T. 1988. Jewels of the Desert--Colorado's Barren Land Plants. The Green Thumb. 45: 8-15.

Tepedino, V.J. 1997. Wild Bees and Floral Jewels. Wings. 20, 1: 8-10.

Tepedino, V.J. 2000. Wild Bees and Floral Jewels. Castilleja: The Newsletter of the Wyoming Native Plant Society. 19, 4: 6-8.

USFWS. 1976. Proposed Endangered Status for 1700 U.S. Plants. Federal Register. 41: 24523-24572.

USFWS. 1979. Determination that Sclerocactus mesae-verdae is a Threatened Species. Federal Register. 44, 211: 62471-62475.

USFWS. 1979. Service Lists 32 Plants. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 4, 11: 1, 5-8.

USFWS. 1985. Recovery Plans for Four Southwest U.S. Cacti. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 10, 1: 1, 7-9.

USFWS. 1987. Regional News--Region 2. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 12, 8: 3, 9.


Brack, S. 1986. Germination Tips. Belen, NM: Mesa Garden. p.5.

Hevron, B. Window Rock, AZ: Navajo Natural Heritage Program.

Jennings, W.F. 1989. Final Report for Eustoma grandiflorum, Spiranthes diluvialis, Malaxdis brachypoda, Hypoxis hirsuta, Physaria belli, and Aletes humilis. Boulder, CO: The Nature Conservancy.

Jennings, W.F. 1990. Status Report on four plants considered rare in Colorado: Aletes humilis, Platanthera sparsiflora, Listera borealis, and Listera convallarioides. Unpublished report to the U.S. Forest Service.

Knight, P.J. 1981. Status report for Sclerocactus mesae-verdae. Santa Fe, New Mexico: New Mexico Department of Natural Resources Heritage Program.

O'Kane, S.L. 1987. Population Biology of Sclerocactus mesae-verdae: 1986-1987 Performance Report. Denver, CO: Colorado Natural Areas Program - Plant Conservation Program. (Project # SE-9-P-6). p.10.

Peterson, S.J. 1982. Threatened and endangered plants of Colorado. Denver, CO: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. p.35.

Tepedino, V.J. 1990. Mesa Verde Cactus, Sclerocatus mesae-verdae (Cactaceae) and Mancos Milkvetch, Astragalus humillimus (Leguminosae). Albuquerque, NM: Annual Report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

USFWS. 1984. Recovery plan for the Mesa Verde cactus, Sclerocactus mesae-verdae (Boissevain ex Hill & Salisbury) L. Benson. Albuquerque, N.M.: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 2. p.63.

  This profile was updated on 3/4/2010
New Mexico
North Dakota
South Dakota
South Carolina
North Carolina
West Virginia
New Jersey
Rhode Island
New Hampshire
New York
New York