CPC Plant Profile: San Rafael Cactus
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Plant Profile

San Rafael Cactus (Pediocactus despainii)

Flowering Pediocactus despainii Photo Credit: Dorde Woodruff
  • Global Rank: G2 - Imperiled
  • Legal Status: Federally Endangered
  • Family: Cactaceae
  • State: UT
  • Nature Serve ID: 147621
  • Date Inducted in National Collection: 02/10/1987

This is the most recently described species in this genus after only being discovered in 1978 by graduate student Kim Despain. It is no surprise that this species was overlooked for so long; it is easy to miss due to its small stature and peculiar habit of receding underground for several months a year during dry or cold seasons. It is only noticeably visible for a short time in spring when it flowers. The San Rafael Swell region, where this cactus resides, is the most floristically diverse community in Utah and is host to 50% of Utahs rare/endemic species (120 species). This cactus is considered endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and listed in Appendix I of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This designation protects P. despainii from being traded internationally for commercial purposes (USFWS 2008). This small solitary barrel-type cactus is subglobose ovoid in shape and sends out a yello bronze to peach colored blossom between April and May, depending on moisture and temperature.

Participating Institutions
Nature Serve Biotics
  • 05/02/2017

Known from about 21 occurrences. Off-road vehicles and livestock trampling are serious threats. In addition, about half of this species' small range is covered by leases for oil and gas exploration and mining claims for gypsum and other minerals.

Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010

The small, restricted populations of P. despainii make it particularly vulnerable to human disturbances. It is a target for illegal collecting, and incidental damage from off-road vehicle use, human and livestock trampling. Its habitat is threatened by

Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010

Three small populations totaling ~20,000 individuals (USFWS 1995).

Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010


Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010

About half of the population area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with the remainder managed by the National Park Service, Capital Reef National Park. The collection of plant material is prohibited by both federal agencies.

Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010

Inventory suitable habitat Conduct population viability studies Determine the biological factors controlling species distribution and abundance Control activities, such as mining, which affect these populations and their habitat Develop successful propagation techniques Prevent illegal collecting by promoting commercial trade of legal specimens.

Rita Dodge
  • 01/01/2010

Continues seed banking Develop propagation protocol in greenhouse from collected seed Learn how to achieve successful pollination and seed production in the greenhouse Evaluate the phylogenic relationshipd between P. despainii and P. winkleri and cogeneric species


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Taxon Pediocactus despainii
Authority Welsh & Goodrich
Family Cactaceae
CPC Number 3129
ITIS 195361
Common Names San Rafael Cactus | Despain's pincushion cactus
Associated Scientific Names Pediocactus despainii | Pediocactus bradyi ssp. despainii | Pediocactus simpsonii var. despainii | Pediocactella bradyi var. despainii | Pediocactus bradyi var. despainii
Distribution Emery County, Utah in the San Rafael Swell region
State Rank
State State Rank
Utah S2

This cactus occurs in the Great Basin Grassland in habitat characterized by scattered junipers, pinyon pines, low shrubs, and annual and perennial herbs. It grows on the calcium rich, fine textured soils derived from the Carmel Formation and the Sinbar Member of the Moenkopi Formation. It occurs on benches, hill-tops and gentle slopes between 1450 2800 meters.

Ecological Relationships

P. despainii is one of the few taxa restricted to the limestone and siltstone outcrops which form the hills and benches in the San Rafael Swell region. It is often found growing among Sclerocactus whipplei, though there is little evidence of competition between this cacti and other perennials for space and light. Specific pollinators are unknown, but are believed to be bees of the Halictidae family.

Common Name Name in Text Association Type Source InteractionID
Sweat bees Halictid bees Suspected Pollinator Floral Link

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