Hidden In Plain Sight

Between Medina and Vanderpool, Texas

One of the prettiest drives in the Texas hill country, State Highway 337 offers scenery everyone can enjoy. Still, like many of these roads, it has more than a good view to offer. Highway cuts reveal layer upon layer of geological history, while cracks and crevices within the rock provide a home for plant life ranging from xeric ferns to blackfoot daisies.

Sometimes I’ll stop just to have a look, since much of the plant life isn’t obvious from the vantage point of a car, even at slower speeds. There’s always something to see, but now and then I get more than I bargained for.

When a friend and I stopped at one of the roadcuts in late March, a bit of red caught my attention. Across the road, at the top of the cliff, it led my eye to another bit of red, and then another. “What is that?” my friend asked. I didn’t know, but I attached a telephoto lens to my camera for a better look at what seemed to be clumps of flowers.

What I found astonished me. The cliffs were covered with cacti, all sporting bright red blooms. Apart from photos, I’d never seen such a thing.

Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) ~ Bandera County, Texas

Today, I’m fairly certain these are Echinocereus coccineus. A member of the family known familiarly as hedgehog cacti, this so-called claret cup is a variant of Echinocereus triglochidiatus. Characterized by sprawling clusters of stems that sometimes cover several square feet, both species can be distinguished from other hedgehog cacti by the rounded petals of their brilliant red or orange-red flowers.

Distinguishing E. coccineus and E. triglochidiatus in the field seems to be nearly impossible; the plants are similar enough that chromosomal analysis may be necessary for a firm identification.

On the other hand, location can provide a starting point, since their ranges are largely — though not completely — separate. In Lance Allred’s Enchanted Rock: A Natural and Human History, he identifies the claret cup found at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area as E. coccineus. Given Enchanted Rock’s relative proximity to the spot where these flowers were blooming — about a hundred miles — I suspect E. coccineus is the species I found.

Whichever species of Echinocereus these may be, their exuberant bloom proved once again that there’s no predicting what might be found on any given day. Beyond that, their discovery reminded me to always — but always — carry a telephoto lens. Even when hunting for pretty flowers, you never know when it might come in handy.


Comments always are welcome.


The Beauty of Bud Break

Last year’s tendril, this year’s growth

While vineyard owners worry and fuss, the wild grapes (Vitis spp.) twisted around old sheds and roadside fences begin their yearly cycle without assistance.

By early summer, their full-grown leaves will hide everything from windmill supports to trees. By late summer, their fruit — beloved of so many birds and other creatures — will have been simmered into jelly or crushed into wine for human consumption after the leaves have gone. 

The first sign of renewed growth, commonly known as bud break, is marvelous to behold. While not as obvious as spunky dandelions or vast fields of bluebonnets, the tiny buds emerging from their vine are equally delightful.


Comments always are welcome.


From Shrub To Salmon

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) sporting autumn colors among the Texas hills

Some months ago I received a gift of za’atar, a remarkably versatile Middle Eastern spice. Although I didn’t know it by name, the taste was familiar. First encountered at the table of Lebanese merchants in Liberia, I’d enjoyed the flavor at the home of friends, and in an assortment of restaurants featuring Levantine cuisine.

No single recipe exists for the spice, but certain ingredients are traditional: sesame seeds, salt, cumin, Mediterranean thyme, Greek oregano, marjoram, and — most surprising to me — sumac. On the back of the box I received, the ingredient list included oregano, roasted sesame seed, olive oil, Dead Sea salt, and sumac.

A common shrub in many areas of the world, sumac is characterized by deep red berries which can be dried and ground into coarse powder; I was surprised to find sumac available even in our local chain grocery stores. Often described as having a tart, cranberry-like flavor, sumac complements other spices used in za’atar, and helps to enhance any number of dishes from dips to desserts.

I first tried za’atar as a rub for salmon, and it became an immediate favorite. At the same time, the familiar metaphor — “a taste of fall” — took on new and piquant life. Quite remarkably, sumac tastes as good as it looks.


Comments always are welcome.