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.


47 thoughts on “Hidden In Plain Sight

  1. Sweetheart flowers!
    I haven’t seen these in TX ( shy or hiding out of self preservation plants? Are they worried upon hearing the NPS is micro chipping their large cacti in the National Parks now due to poaching…)
    Glad you had that lens and decided to take a stop. (and, sigh, that opening image…perfect for the opening of spring travel time…)

    1. I don’t think they’re shy at all. They just aren’t designed for life in our area, any more than our spider lilies would make it in dry west Texas. “Bloom where you are planted” only goes so far — get plunked into the middle of the wrong conditions, and there’s not going to be any blooming going on.

      It makes sense to me that I’ve not seen these, since I’ve never gotten to the western edge of the hill country this early in the year. I read in one of my books that claret cup tends to be that area’s earliest blooming cactus, which explains why I’ve seen the lace cactus (a June bloomer) and not this one.

      As for local news, I traveled 146 down to 517 this afternoon and discovered that the land’s been stripped. That’s where some of the big stands of basketflowers were last year. I fear they may have fallen to the grim highway construction reaper.

  2. This is what I love about April…the cacti begin to bloom. Claret Cup are beautiful, and are also found here in Big Bend. A similar plant is Pitaya, which are have been blooming in my yard for over a week now. Also, prickly pear are just beginning to bloom now in Big Bend National Park. A beautiful time of year, and a guarantee that spring is here to stay.
    Thanks for the pic and for the informative post.

    1. Just today I saw a prickly pear with beautiful orange blossoms. I need to figure out how to get down to it to take photos: a ditch, some traffic, and a pile of road construction debris will have to be navigated first.

      I started thinking about your wildflowers when I saw this beauty — particularly that extraordinary bluebonnet species you have. The thought of a three foot tall bluebonnet just knocks me out. Combined with your other flowers, it must be quite a sight. This year, it wasn’t possible, but perhaps next spring I’ll head west. I’ve seen enough photos by now that I don’t doubt it would be worth it.

      One of my readers, who lives in Ecuador, has written about the Pitaya. You might enjoy seeing her photos.

    1. I mentioned to texasflashdude that I’d pondered making the trip this year, but I couldn’t find a way to do that and to head north for a visit with my only remaining aunt. She’s 93, healthy, and of sound mind, so this is the time to do it.

      Still, ‘enchantment’ is exactly the right word. I have a vague memory of crossing Nevada in the 1980s, seeing yellow and red stretching to the horizon. It must have been cactus, but I didn’t stop and barely looked. I do a lot more stopping and looking these days; Big Bend and environs would be a good place to do more of it.

  3. And what a red that is! Thanks for the informative post and your never-ending (but much-appreciated) curiosity. I learn so much from you!

    1. Isn’t it something? Red is such a powerful color. Seeing the cactus tucked high on the cliffs reminded me of the day I spotted the ladybug cruising her plant at the wildlife refuge. Had it not been for the color, I never would have seen either.

      I’m sure some of the people who passed by thought I was photographing birds. I must say, cacti make great subjects. They stay in one place, and don’t blow in the wind nearly as much as most flowers do!

      There’s no end to the learning, Tina. I offer up red cacti, you offer up blue bees — and both of us learn in the process. It really is great fun.

    1. Looking at them, I imagined pollinators coming from far and wide, ready to celebrate spring. That brilliant red has to be the plants’ equivalent of waving a flag, or issuing a hand-engraved invitation. If I were a bee, I’d certainly make a bee-line for them!

    1. It was more than a surprise, Kayti, it was a bit of a shock. Discovering something that I’ve seen only in books or online is such a delightful experience. Look at that, I think. They really do exist.

      I wished I could have gotten closer, but rock climbing’s not in my skill set. On the other hand, the plants at the very top of the cliff might be accessible from the back side, but I’m cautious about letting people know about the specific locations of plants like this. Plant rustling’s big business these days.

    1. It certainly is noticeable, GP. I’ve always tended to think of spring colors as pastels, but cacti put the lie to that. They’re as bold as they are beautiful. Today, I saw orange flowers on a prickly pear, so the show’s about to begin.

  4. It’s an amazing find. I read one of the comments made about poaching by the NPS and now understand how these beauties could actually become endangered. Some species take so many years to grow and flower. Older Cacti specimens are very valuable. I’ve seen very mature ones for over hundred dollars or more. So unfortunately, who knows if sights like these become less common in the future.

    1. I know several people with specialized interests in native plants who often will not post exact locations when they find one of their beloveds. Whether it’s endangered, or simply growing in an unexpected place, it’s better not to tempt people who might like to have it for their own. I can’t quite remember the details, but I think even iNaturalist has a protocol for reporting plants whose exact location you don’t want to disclose.

      I just dismembered my largest cactus, a Cereus peruvianus monstrose . Now, I have about 24 pieces that I’ll repot; some will go to a friend, and I’ll baby the others along. It’s such a slow grower I’ll probably never see it bloom again, but in the twenty years I had it, it only bloomed twice. The nice thing about cacti is that they can survive nicely out of pots. If I have to evacuate for a hurricane, I can pull them, wrap them, and take them along.

  5. Twas what I always loved about my grandparents ranch in south Texas. Wandering thru the brush and stumbling upon the scattered cactus flowers. There they were few and far between except for the prickly pear. Great shots.

    1. That’s what I love about cacti: their unexpectedness. Before finding these claret cups, the last cactus I found (apart from those prickly pear) was a lace cactus, blooming for all it was worth alongside a ranch road. No matter their color, they always seems unexpectedly vibrant among all the grasses and rock.

      On this same little jaunt, I did find a really large group of white lace cacti just beginning to bud. I hope to get back before they’ve bloomed and faded, but that will be a matter of luck. The books say June, but this year I’m sure it will be May.

  6. I adore this part of Texas. I’ve only been through one part of the Medina area and I wished that I lived there. The photos are simply gorgeous. It really is great to have a telephoto lens. Mine only goes to 200mm and before I die I hope to get a more powerful one.

    1. It’s a lovely area. The variety is part of what I find so appealing. Between the rivers that thread through the land, and the ‘mountains’ that are so exciting for a flatlander, there’s never a lack of things to see. And the seasons are far more distinct, too, which always makes my midwestern heart happy.

      I suppose everyone always wants more lens than they have, but yours might have done just fine in this situation. For a minute, I wished I had a 400mm lens rather than my 300mm, but then I considered the fact that additional weight might have made things harder. Holding the camera steady with that long lens, in a strong wind, while aiming at the top of a cliff, was a little challenging as it was.

  7. Those cacti flowers are proof of not only surviving between the rocks but also provide a perfect balance between aridness and lushness. Such beauty and for all of us to enjoy.

    1. That is much of the appeal of a cactus flower, isn’t it? The places cacti adapt to often are arid and apparently unremarkable, but when those blooms emerge, it’s a whole new world. In fact, I’m sure that I never would have seen these cacti were it not for the flowers. On thing’s certain: they’ve been there for a while. This isn’t the best photo, but it shows the largest group I found. Those plants have been hunkered down for a while.

  8. When you go out exploring, always be prepared to find something.cool. Those “Ooooh, look at that! Isn’t it great?” moments are what it’s all about. I love the stuff you find. Thanks for bringing it back to show the rest of us.

    1. That’s wisdom, right there: always be prepared to find something cool.

      It’s not a bad attitude for life in general. Just last week, I was leaving home to go back to work, and there in the middle of the parking lot was a bit of vibrant yellow. When I stopped to look at it, I discovered a perfect, undamaged, yellow wind-up chick about the size of a baseball. When I wound it up, it worked perfectly. I was greatly amused by the thought that the universe had decided to give me a new “pet’ to help fill the space left by Dixie Rose’s departure. Right? Right!

    1. Just as I was wondering if you had many (any?) cacti in Montana, I remembered your time in cactusland. Of course you had plenty of opportunity to observe them there, including some species I’ve yet to see, and hope to some day.

      I did find this nice article with some details about native species in your state. Of course prickly pear is one, but there are some others that are quite interesting.

      1. Thanks for the link. The only cactus I’ve seen here in northwestern Montana is prickly pear. And I remember sitting on one of those one time in an unexpected place.

  9. Those red flowers are stunning. What a lovely sight.

    Now you know why I’m always taking my heavy telephoto lens outdoors – you just never know when you’ll want it and in the case of a distant subject, one just can’t ignore it. There just has to be a photographic record to share LOL

    1. We have so many striking red flowers, but I’ve never associated them with cacti. They were one of the most delightful surprises I’ve had while out and about.

      I’ve not done enough extended hiking with my camera to invest in a backpack, but the day may be coming. I can handle two lenses with no problem at all, but that third lens adds just enough weight to make me conscious of it, and it’s complicated to keep track of them all. Of course, being able to go back to the car for a different lens helps, as it did here, but that’s an advantage you don’t have. You have to plot and plan your excursions even more carefully!

      1. I’ve recently discovered I can no longer push a wheeled trolley to carry my 3 cameras and 3 lenses, Linda. I’m seriously thinking of selling as much of my Canon DSLR & Lenses to completely swap over to my lightweight Sony a6000, but that would probably mean trying to raise the $2000 to buy the Sony 35mm f1.8 for flower photography & the new Sony 70-300mm for distant work. Never held or looked at the new 70-300mm but imagine it to be lighter than my Sigma 150-500mm. Decisions, decisions. On the other hand, maybe I should just save up for more lower spine surgery :) if that’s an option to my crippling nerve pain (as the CT scan shows). There’s always a hefty out-of-pocket cost despite me having top private health insurance.

  10. “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen” is here proved wrong by you and your telephoto lens!
    What a beautiful and informative post! You said it, Linda…you never know what might be found on a given day. Claret cup, what an apt name for the vibrant flowers! Thank you for the lovely post and photos.

    1. I love the name ‘claret cup.’ We have a different plant that’s called a winecup, and it’s equally lovely. I’ll be sharing photos of it in the future.

      I wondered if anyone would mention the old expression about being “in one’s cups.” It’s another way of describing someone who’s imbibed a bit too much, and is intoxicated. I’d say this was an intoxicating sight; perhaps Nature was in her cups.

  11. What can I say, that hasn’t already been said?! Except to agree wholeheartedly, and to add, that my first plant collection, (before I was ten) was cacti. And some succulents, but mostly cacti, as I adore them. Did then, and still do.
    Your comment about realising they actually DO exist, reminded me of when I was travelling the Lakes District in England, back when I was 20yo, and seeing first hand the red and white spotted fungi. I’d until then thought they only existed in fairytales! As they say, Truth can be stranger than Fiction!

    1. Cacti never interested me much when I was younger, but of course I’d only seen those on offer at the grocery and plant stores. Most of those, I now know, were constructed as much as grown: a lot of them were dyed. I found that still takes place; it’s a particularly unfortunate way of “gilding the lily” as far as I’m concerned.

      Some of the fungi, algae, and mosses I’ve seen — particularly when offered as a macro view — are nearly unbelievable. It’s entirely possible to see them as fairy forests, or strange, otherworldly little galaxies. There’s so much to see, and so little time!

  12. I, too, am delighted you had your telephoto lens, Linda! You’ve given me a great idea — not only to keep my eyes and ears open for sudden delights but to pack something to catalog them with. I’ve never seen cacti like these — they’re gorgeous! And their name is perfect!

    1. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said to myself, “Oh, good grief. Why didn’t I bring my camera along?” On the other hand, there are times when I have the camera close by, but choose not to use it. Not everything in the world needs to be photographed. Sometimes, it’s enough simply to look.

      These are some of the prettiest cacti I’ve seen, although I have a beautiful yellow bloomer that looks like it may put on a show this year. The nice thing about it is that it blooms continually. As soon as one set of flowers has faded, more begin to develop. I’m quite fond of it. When I first got it, the thing was perhaps five inches tall. Now, it’s 24″ tall and needs repotting again so it doesn’t tip over.

  13. When people question my choice of taking a bus instead of driving, I explain that being much higher allows me to see things I would usually not see, and many times those ‘things’ are flowers much like these. Riding a bus also allows me to take my eyes off the road and enjoy the views…. I did wonder, however, how you managed to take that first image – most likely the same way that I do… that’s an art in itself!

    1. A photo like that first one’s easy. Just pull over, park, and stand in the middle of the road — like I did to get the photos of the claret cups. If I stood at the base of the rocks they were growing on, I was too close, with a bad angle. If I went to the other side of the road, the angle was perfect, but I’d added some distance. So — the middle of the road it was. There’s so little traffic out there that it’s easy enough to hear a truck or a herd of motorcycles coming, and get out of the way.

      I’ve got terrific peripheral vision, and I often pick up color as I’m driving. The routine doesn’t vary much if my wildflower loving friend is with me. I slam on the brakes, and she says, “What did you see?” Then, we get out and look. She’s getting better at spotting things, too. She’ll blurt out, “Pink!” and I slam on the brakes. We have a system developing.

  14. Love how you and your friend slam on! A good system that! I loved the road view and those cactus even more, WOW! That’s something you’ll never see in the wild here.xxx

    1. I enjoy traveling by myself, since I can dawdle with the camera as long as I want, but there is an advantage to having two people in the car. It’s hard for one to keep an eye on both sides of the road. Even with two people looking, we never saw the cacti until we stopped and started looking around. Sometimes, it’s almost a little spooky. I’ll get a sense that I should stop right here! — and lo and behold, I find a treasure.

      You have wonderful plants in your part of the world, but you certainly don’t have areas that would be natural homes to cacti. On the other hand, while browsing about, I found the site of the British Cactus and Succulent Society. Their website’s quite wonderful. Don’t I remember you have some succulents in your garden? You may already know about the site.

  15. What joy to be cruising along a beautiful road as it is and then discover something even more beautiful! I love it — so glad you had sharp eyes, a good zoom and a place to pull over!

    1. It can be frustrating when there’s nowhere to stop, but that’s not a common occurrence. If needed, I just find a place to pull over and then hike back to whatever’s caught my eye. Of course, in this case, we were browsing, stopping only to have a look at whatever was around, and the “whatever” turned out to be pretty darned special. It’s wonderful when that happens.

    1. We certainly did stand around and stare for a while. There were so many, it was a little hard to believe. When I’m next in the neighborhood, I’m going to see how visible they are without their blooms. I suspect the answer is, “Not very.” That’s part of what’s allowed them to thrive, I’m sure. The cactus hunters don’t notice them on their cliffs.

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