Austrocylindropuntia floccosa or huaraco / waraqu has several English common names, including polar bear cactus, wool cactus, and living snow.
Browse through Marijn van den Brnk’s photographs from southern Peru for some habitat shots that reveal the rationale for those names. This cactus species forms low-growing or mat-forming colonies in northern Peru and Bolivia at altitudes between 3500–4700m. When densely clustered together, the effect is visually striking due to the long woolly hairs. At these altitudes, plants also stand out from the surrounding vegetation (typically brown grasses), especially in the puna grasslands.
Austrocylindropuntia floccosa produces orange to yellow flowers. The fruit is known to have been consumed by humans, though records are difficult to find whether this traditional use persists. The species can be cultivated with some difficulty, due in part to difficulties in recreating the high altitude climatic regime in the wild (including alternating periods of hot and cold). It is sometimes grown to create a living fence, however.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified Austrocylindropuntia floccosa as least concern. In its range, the species is locally-abundant and widespread. At least one significant protected area secures its habitat, the Huascarán National Park, located in central Andean Peru. This national park is also home to South America’s only bear species, the spectacled bear.